Born on August 22, 1912, Bob Amyx was raised in Exeter, California, a small town a few miles southeast of Visalia, near where the San Joaquin Valley brushes the edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills. As a young man Amyx moved to the town of Niles, now part of Fremont, where his father worked at the California Nursery Company and his mother played piano for the silent movies.
The entire Amyx family was musical. Bob’s father was a self-taught violinist who had also mastered half a dozen other instruments. The three boys—Leon, Darrell, and Bob—played horns and percussion. In summer, the whole family would travel to the Sierra Nevada mountains to play for weekend dances in various parks and pavilions.
Amyx, who in 1957 became the first director of the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation, graduated from San Jose State University, where he played baseball as one of the youngest members of the varsity team. Amyx also played college football, where he was one of the team’s smallest players but also one of the strongest, having trained by shoving fruit-laden carts around his family’s farm.
Amyx got his master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California, taught school in Salinas, and served as a medical assistant in the Army Air Corps in Africa during World War II.
After the war, Amyx heard about a job opening for director of recreation in the Salinas Park and Recreation Department. He applied for the position and was hired in 1946. In May, 1950, he became the department’s director. Amyx was serving in that capacity in Salinas when he learned of the new parks and recreation position created in Santa Clara County.
Don Amyx, Bob’s son, was 9 years old when his dad was hired as Santa Clara County’s first director of parks and recreation. “We lived a Leave It To Beaver kind of life,” Don said. “Dad came home from work, read the newspaper, played golf, and helped me a little bit with Little League. We had a putting green in the backyard, and so we’d putt there and barbeque and things.”
Don said that during the written exam to be Santa Clara County’s parks and recreation director, his father finished the test, turned around, and realized everyone else was “still writing like crazy.” Amyx naturally thought he had missed something. “So he went back and looked at it again, dotted a few Is and crossed a few Ts, but everyone was still working,” Don said. “So he turned it in and apparently he did very well. He was a smart guy.”
His father wrote well and spoke well, Don said, with a command of all the facts needed to bolster his arguments. “He gave very good speeches,” Don said. His dad’s park philosophy was simple: you’ve got to buy the land now. Lots of it, because “they wouldn’t have a chance to get it later on. That was his big push.”
“When he got a job, he did his job, and he did it well,” Don said, noting that his father was under the direction of the county board of supervisors. “When they said go out and build a park system, he went out and built a park system. And they were his boss, and they’d check in with him and vice versa. I could remember he’d do a yearly review and give them a speech, and they’d say, ‘Well done. Continue to march.’ And, of course, he’d take them on a tour of all the parks once a year, so they could see what he’d done. They’d be happy with his work.”
Asked about his father’s relationship with county executive Howard Campen, Don said he thinks they had a very good working relationship that evolved into a friendship built, in part, around their mutual love for golf. “They’d play golf every now and then—a working golf round at one of the courses and have a chance to discuss the parks and things.”
Robert Sorensen came to work in 1956 as a management analyst in the county executive’s office and served during Amyx’s directorship. From this vantage point, he was able to observe Amyx negotiate the difficult maze he had chosen to run.
“Bob was opinionated,” said Sorensen. “I think he was right most of the time.” But he did rub some people the wrong way. “He would bug the board members openly, whether they were directing the parks operation correctly. We were dependent on the supervisors for policy and the department heads to carry out that policy. He was very good at carrying it out. He really established the parks department in this county. There was nothing before that.”
Sorensen credits the relationship between Amyx and Campen as the key to their joint success. “He and Howard got along very well. One, their love of golf, and two, they had a similar approach to what government should do and not do—although Howard was far better at handling the board of supervisors than Bob was.”
Sorensen’s coworker Paul Yarborough started with the county in 1950 as a map draftsman and, after holding a number of increasingly elevated positions, eventually was named by Campen as the head of the county’s environmental management agency. This agency had oversight responsibilities for a number of county departments, including parks and recreation.
“Bob was the director under my agency. He didn’t like it, I might add, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it,” Yarborough said. “Bob was a hard-driving guy and used forceful tactics in getting his way, I would say, pushing through development and so forth. Bob had a lot of community support, though. He was highly respected. I didn’t always get along with him on everyday problems, but all in all, he was very effective. He was totally dedicated to his job and didn’t give up”
According to Yarborough, Amyx considered Vasona County Park his crowning achievement. The creekside park chains were more popular with the county planners than they were with the director of parks and recreation. “Bob was more interested in developing independently sited regional parks than he was in getting a series of park chains that might have bike trails and things like that,” he said.
Yarborough stressed the difference between regional parks and city parks. “We didn’t have organized recreation programs. We figured that was a city function. Our job was to come up with big regional places where you could have picnics and play golf or whatever. But organized recreation programs, like teaching kids to swim, that type of stuff, we considered that to be a city function. So Bob was really more interested in developing Santa Teresa golf course and Ed R. Levin Park, which had the golf course in it, and developing Vasona Park, with all of the stuff it has.”
When Amyx hired Dale Jones in August 1957 as a maintenance worker, there were only three other staffers working in the department’s administration office, located in the basement of the Old Court House on St. James Street in downtown San Jose. Jones remembers Amyx a being well suited to his new job, which he had acquired only a few months earlier that year.
According to Jones, Amyx wanted to create “one of the best park systems in the state,” an ambitious undertaking at the time when funding for parks was “low on the totem pole, budget wise.” Nevertheless, Amyx went to the county board of supervisors with a budget and a master plan. “He had great ideas of how a parks department should be laid out. He was very instrumental in the master plan for the parks department.”
Jones also noted that Amyx was also instrumental in securing funding for parks, including passage in 1972 of the Parks Charter Fund amendment, which stabilized funding by reserving a percentage of each county property-tax dollar for parkland acquisition and development. “The times were just right for purchasing properties, because there weren’t big cities and big developments going on at the time,” Jones said. “Bob Amyx had this vision. He said, ‘Buy the property now, and we can develop it later.’”
In 1973, Jones was promoted to supervising ranger at Vasona County Park, which happened to be Amyx’s favorite and is adjacent to the department’s current headquarters.
“He was very picky about Vasona. He thought if he was coming to work and he saw something bad, you can guess who he called—me! He would go out on the back porch of the office building there at Vasona. If he saw something wrong on the lower level, which he could overlook, he would call me. Over the years, until he retired in 1977, I had had many, talks with him. I never would argue with Bob Amyx. No. I’ve stood in front of his desk at attention many times. But as far as arguments, no.”
Red Bell, who started his career with the county parks department in the late 1950s as a maintenance worker at Stevens Creek County Park, remembers Bob Amyx as one of the department’s better directors. “He went by figures,” Bell said. “In other words, if you wanted to have something done, show me the figures why we need to do it. What’s it going to benefit the parks? You had to come up with some figures of why you wanted to do this.”
He also said Amyx was a soft-spoken guy with a great personality. “He was the type of person, you could actually go into his office and talk to him. And you didn’t have to worry, as long as you were right, that’s fine. You could argue your case. If you screwed up, he was going to tell you. His door was always open, you could always say ‘Hi’ to him, you could always walk into his office, sit down, and shoot the bull for a while about how things were going.”
As for Amyx’s vision of the park system he was helping to build, Bell said the goal was to provide something for the people of the county to enjoy. “The taxpayers paid for this park, they should be able to use it—that was his philosophy.”
As a member of the county board of supervisors from 1963 to 1979, Sig Sanchez had many opportunities to see Amyx in action.
“He engineered the parks system in Santa Clara County,” Sanchez said. “He was the father of the parks business in Santa Clara County.” According to Sanchez, part of Amyx’s success was due to his relationship with county executive Campen. “They worked well together. Bob was kind of a low-key person, but very committed to his work. I wouldn’t say he was dynamic. He was a doer, but not one of those go, go, go guys. The board held the purse strings and Howard led the charges.”
In 1968, Dominic Cortese became the youngest person ever elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. He was 35 years old, filed his election papers five minutes before closing time on the last day of eligibility, and ended up defeating Sam Della Maggiore in a surprise upset. Cortese credits his election to the political changes brought about by the county’s transition from a largely rural to a more urban power base.
As a county supervisor, Cortese was Amyx’s boss. “He was a muscular, broad-shouldered guy who was 100-percent business. If you got a smile out of him, you really had a funny story to tell,” Cortese said. “If you met him for the first time—depending on how he was dressed—you wouldn’t know whether he was there to repair the air-conditioning system or if he was delivering Alhambra water jugs.”
Cortese and Amyx had their differences, specifically after Cortese was appointed to the Santa Clara County Fish and Game Commission. The commission was casting the idea of creating a county-run recreational fishing pond along U.S. 101 adjacent to Hellyer County Park, but Amyx wasn’t biting.
“Amyx didn’t like that idea,” Cortese said. “He wasn’t an urban-park operations guy who had any tolerance as far as the logistics of running an urban park,” Cortese said. Eventually Parkway Lake was created, with operations handled by a private concessionaire.
Lake Cunningham Park, which is in San Jose near the Eastridge shopping mall, presented a similar challenge for Amyx: too urban, too many facilities to take care of. “The thing that brought that acquisition to fruition was the fact that we entered into a cooperative financing arrangement with the City of San Jose and agreed ultimately that the city would operate it.” Cortese said he now believes Amyx was right. “We had no business running an urban park.”
Assemblyman Jim Beall, who currently represents the 24th District in the California State Assembly, campaigned with Amyx for the 1972 Parks Charter Fund ballot measure. He remembers Amyx as a passionate believer in parks. “I believe a part of the success of the whole ballot measure was that people respected him,” Beall said. “There was a lot of confidence in the ability of the department at the time to really do what they said they were going to do with the taxpayers money.”
Two years after passage of the Parks Charter Fund amendment, Felice Errico started work as a parks and recreation department planner. He remembers Amyx as a chain smoker who suffered from migraine headaches, but also as someone who knew his business.
“He had in his mind what he wanted to do, and he worked very hard with the board of supervisors when it came to certain acquisitions,” Errico said. “And one in particular, that was the Grant Ranch, because he wanted to get that done. And it was complicated, because it was not a one-person owner. It was a trust that they had to deal with.” The Grant Ranch was purchased in 1975.
Kathryn Berry first met Amyx, who had by then retired, when she was deputy county counsel for the County of Santa Clara. At that time the county was under a clean-up order by the State of California related to mining waste—specifically mercury—leaching from Almaden Quicksilver County Park into creeks that flow into San Francisco Bay.
Berry said that although the county never operated the mines within the park, it was handed a $42 million bill to clean up the mess. Amyx was required to give a deposition in the case. Berry went to his home, which was at the foot of the park in question. “He looked like a typical county director, with a white shirt, short sleeves, black glasses—the typical way people dressed in those days,” she said. “He was absolutely unique. He’s one of those individuals who was a visionary, and in his quiet way he could see that there was this incredible opportunity to make Santa Clara County different.”
Patience was another virtue that Amyx possessed, said Berry. “When someone donates 10 acres over here, you don’t leap at it. It has to fit into your plan, because you have to be able to manage and maintain it, and in some cases maybe do some infrastructure. And so, what he laid out became a plan that you enlarge and expand those parks, make them bigger. You can’t buy everything. You can’t take on everything. So you start talking to everybody who owns property around the main park, and you start looking long-term for how you connect them. The park planners think about this all day long, but it has been fascinating to me as a lawyer because eventually the transaction will come our way, and they’ve actually achieved what they set out to do, and they just did it in a really quiet way. It’s kind of amazing, but not without a lot of hard work. Bob Amyx set that all up.”
After retiring, Amyx had a house built in Webb Canyon near the Almaden County Club. He also taught park management part time at West Valley Community College, did some consulting work on golf courses, traveled, tended his vegetable garden, and played bridge. Bob Amyx died on August 24, 2004. He was 92 years old.
Howard W. Campen served as Santa Clara County executive from 1957 to 1976, the only person to have held the position for that long. He was born on September 14, 1914, in San Jose, and was a graduate of San Jose State College. His family were long-time San Jose residents. His father operated the Studebaker franchise in town.
Campen attended Stanford Law School and in 1940 received his license to practice law. World War II took him to the South Pacific, where he commanded a destroyer escort. Returning home to San Jose, Campen took a job in 1946 as a deputy district attorney for the county.
He held a number of positions with the county, including county counsel. In 1955, Campen traded his public paycheck for a two-year stint in private practice. But on March 1, 1957, the board of supervisors hired the 42-year-old lawyer back as county executive, a post he held for the next 19 years.
Paul Yarborough, who started work with Santa Clara County in 1950 as draftsman in the planning department, eventually became one of three executive assistants working for Campen while he was county executive. Campen put Yarborough in charge of the Environmental Management Agency, which included the new parks and recreation department. By the time he retired in January 1982, Yarborough was a deputy county executive.
“Campen was the head lawyer for the county and a highly respected guy,” Yarborough said. “He came from a local patrician family and was a graduate of Stanford Law School. He was a big, tall, impressive guy physically and very smart. He had all the connections—he was a friend of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, you know, people like that.”
At the time Campen was county counsel, the board of supervisors was long accustomed to being the dominant political force in the county, Yarborough said. That soon changed with the shift to a charter form of government, in which the county executive would play an enlarged role.
“The board wasn’t used to having somebody else with authority in the loop,” Yarborough said. “The county executive system was something that was imposed on the board in the county charter, and I think Howard Campen had a lot to do with the writing of the county charter.”
After his few years in private practice, Campen was “lured” back by the board as county executive, as Yarborough put it. “I think he probably had a real understanding with them that if he came back, he was going to do a lot of things. They brought him back anyway under those circumstances, and he did start doing an awful lot of things. Transformed the county, as a matter of fact.”
Campen soon found allies on the board, most notably Wesley L. “Bud” Hubbard, who served from 1957 through 1961; Sig Sanchez, who served from 1963 through 1979; and Dominic L. Cortese, who served from 1969 through 1981.
Campen was the right person at the right time, according to Yarborough. “The county was growing, and it was his plan to modernize it. Bring it forward in the 20th century. Howard was a doer and a thinker. He could read the most complex things and quickly understand them and explain them.”
Campen set Yarborough to work developing a capital-improvements plan, with parks and recreation as one of the elements. “We came up with a bond election to finance all sorts of things with the county—new buildings, new courthouses, and among other things, a park system. That’s one of the elements.”
Around this time, in 1957, Bob Amyx was hired as the county’s first parks and recreation director. “Bob was a hard-driving guy, and he took those plans and pushed the acquisition of land and also the development aspects. All with Howard Campen’s blessing and leadership.”
According to Yarborough, parks were just one of many county facilities Campen tried to improve, along with schools, hospitals, courthouses, and juvenile centers.
Getting all his ducks in a row, including lining up community support for whatever issue was at hand, was a priority for Campen. Once he was satisfied the planning had been done to his specifications, Campen set about raising the money to implement whatever goals had been set forth in the plans.
“He didn’t just walk into the board with it,” Yarborough said. “He walked in with a lot of people that were pushing it. And the board, you know, they’re conservative, but all of a sudden there’s this man saying we need this multibillion dollar set of acquisitions and improvements and so on and the best way to get the money is with the general obligation bond issue.”
Calling him an overall manager rather than a micromanager, Yarborough said Campen’s management style “was to get competent people and basically expect them to come up with what was needed and to back them. If they weren’t competent, then they didn’t last.” If you produced what Campen wanted, when he wanted it, then he was your hero, Yarborough said. “He was among the most effective public managers, I think, in the business.”
The county executive, appointed by the board of supervisors, is the main administrative manager of the county government, similar to a city manager or a corporate CEO. “He’s head of all the departments,” Yarborough said. “He appoints all the department directors. He puts together an annual budget that goes before the board, and he gets it through the board.”
A typical Campen workday started at 8 a.m. and was filled with meetings, Yarborough said. “He attended all of the board meetings. He would be meeting with department heads, getting reports, meeting with the financial people, meeting with community people, meeting with the newspapers.”
Shortly before Campen started work as county executive, Robert Sorensen was hired as a management analyst by Campen’s predecessor, Frank Thill. Sorensen became the county’s first budget director and then an executive assistant to the board of supervisors with responsibility for the Santa Clara County General Services Agency. He served during Campen’s entire time as county executive.
Sorensen called Campen a “very fine lawyer” and said he had “enormous influence” in both the county and in San Jose. In fact, Sorensen credits Campen with transforming county politics by shifting power away from agricultural interests, represented in large part by the board of supervisors, through the creation of a charter form of government for Santa Clara County.
Leading the opposition to the charter form of government was supervisor Sam Della Maggiore. “He was a political power, and he did not like the idea of even having a county executive,” Sorensen said. “He wanted to control things himself. Howard did not agree with that at all. That was the power struggle between the old-time land owners and the county executive. They didn’t like it and did not agree with the concept.”
Campen solidified his power base, partly by winning the support of board members such as Ed R. Levin and Bud Hubbard, and partly by using connections he made as a member of the San Jose County Club.
“He had a very loyal staff,” Sorensen said. “It was a very good organization and one that was the envy of many communities in California. I think many of the county managers and chief administrative officers around the state had great admiration for Howard Campen because he was able to pull all of this together in an area of very strong individuals.”
Campen worked well with parks and recreation director Bob Amyx because they both agreed that acquiring parklands was important to ensure the county’s future livability. Sorensen called Campen “a visionary” who realized the importance of buying land in the 1950s and 60s, when it was still available and affordable. Sorensen also said that Campen was able to work well with the county supervisors, something Amyx was not good at.
“Bob was very good at operating within that system,” Sorensen said. “And with the board making policy that was friendly towards parks, he was very good at carrying out the policy.” In addition to parks, golf was another interest the county executive and his parks director shared. Campen belonged to the San Jose Country Club, and Amyx belonged to the Almaden Country Club. So there was a friendly rivalry between the two.
Creating the county’s network of parks was a joint effort, according to Sorensen. “I think it was primarily Campen’s idea of parks as a public recreation. He brought in Amyx, who was of like mind, and the two of them really established the parks system in this county.”
Lockheed, Intel, IBM, and other large corporations were attracting thousands of new residents to Santa Clara County each year. Developers were rushing to keep pace with the need for more housing by converting agricultural land to subdivisions. “If you wanted to develop county parks, you needed an expanse of land, and the developers of neighborhoods and housing were adamantly opposed to that, since they wanted it for themselves,” Sorensen said.
Enter Campen, a master of political infighting. “I think politicking with the supervisors and attempting to get them to see the value of acquiring parkland was really a forte of Howard Campen. He worked on the political side of it better than Amyx. Between the two of them, they really established the parks and recreation system here.”
Campen was “a great guy,” according to Sig Sanchez, a former mayor of Gilroy who was elected to the county board of supervisors and served from 1963 through 1979.
“The thing that I always said about Howard was that he played it straight down the middle. If there was information that the board should have—he didn’t play any games where information was given to one individual Board member. Whatever information was available, he shared it with everybody. He just did a good job. He was a good administrator and highly respected by his colleagues and co-workers.”
Sanchez said Campen was instrumental in getting the board to fund the purchase of parklands so the people of the county would have places for recreation.
As a newly hired 21-year-old clerical worker in the Campen’s office, Phyllis Perez was not aware of the county executive’s widespread reputation and standing in the community. Perez, who retired in October 2008 after 43 years with the county, said she was perhaps a bit in the dark when she invited Campen and his wife to a house warming.
“It was a little tiny cracker-box house,” she said. “I don’t know what made me do it, but I invited Mr. Campen to come to my house for this little party. Here’s the county executive for the County of Santa Clara, and he and his wife came. And he sat in the living room and entertained and talked to people and everything. I had no idea of the level of man I was really working with at that time. I was very naïve. He came to the house, and he stayed with the party and visited with people. And people couldn’t believe he was there. ‘God, is that Howard Campen? He came to the party?’ So it was really a phenomenon to most people that he was there, but to me, I didn’t realize what it was.”
The year 1968 is often mentioned as a worldwide historical tipping point, and that certainly proved true in Santa Clara County, where one of the incumbent supervisors, Sam Della Maggiore, or “Big Sam” as he was known in the halls of power, was ousted by Dominic L. Cortese, a 35-year-old newcomer to politics. Cortese served from 1969 through 1980, and said he had an “ideal” working relationship with county executive Campen.
Cortese described Campen as tall, thin, and physically fit, with a businesslike attitude. “His demeanor was very deliberate in terms of his voice, his conversation, and his presentation to the board,” Cortese said. “He wasn’t a practical joker. Didn’t tell funny stories, except on a rare occasion. He didn’t burst out laughing, and he wasn’t a back slapper. If you saw him walking down the hall, you saw a business guy with some files under his arm or a briefcase and he’d say hello very politely. He was very respectful toward the board, to the individuals.”
In 1972, Assemblyman Jim Beall was a political science student at San Jose State University and a member of the Park Charter Fund campaign steering committee. Beall said he remembers Campen as being very enthusiastic about the Parks Charter Fund ballot measure.
“He’d come down to the campaign office and make sure that we were all campaigning hard for the measure,” Beall said. “He was very excited about the measure getting passed, because he knew that was a pivot point for the county. It would really create something new and exciting for the county to have a parks system for the people of Santa Clara County.”
After he retired, Campen played golf, traveled, and did volunteer work on behalf of the Masons, including a $3 million fund-raising effort to build a clinic to help children with language disorders. He and his wife Betty Jane raised three children: Stephen, Gary, Jeffrey, and Gayle. Betty Jane died in 1999. Campen died on March 31, 2005. He was 90 years old.
Early Department Staff Members
Dale Jones, 1957
Dale Jones was hired in August 1957 as a parks maintenance man, a few months after Bob Amyx started work as the county’s first director of parks and recreation. Jones grew up on the east edge of the San Joaquin Valley, about halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno.
Fresh out of college and with a two-year hitch as a military policeman under his belt, Jones was visiting relatives in San Jose when he heard Santa Clara County was looking for employees. Jones saw postings for two positions that interested him, park ranger and maintenance man.
“I applied for both of them,” he said. “I qualified for the maintenance position, but they felt that I didn’t have enough background for the ranger position. So I was allowed to take the exam for the maintenance position. I was number one on the list, and I was hired.”
In 1960, Jones fulfilled his goal of becoming a park ranger, making senior park ranger and then supervising park ranger in 1973. In 1981, Jones was promoted to park manager, with oversight responsibility for parks within a specified geographic area.
His first area extended from Sunnyvale Baylands to Joseph D. Grant County Park. Later, he was given responsibility for the county parks extending toward Los Altos and Skyline Boulevard. Jones, who retired in 1994, said his favorite county park is Vasona, where he lived for a time in the ranger residence.
“We would, as most rangers do nowadays, meet with the general public and offer any help that was needed—finding picnic areas, answering questions about the park system,” Jones said. “We gave nature hikes, we’d give talks to groups, and we would perform law enforcement.”
Some parks were relatively easy for rangers to patrol on foot, but others, such as Joseph D. Grant, required the use of a vehicle. For most of the park and recreation department’s history, the rangers and the maintenance crews worked together on projects, but since Jones retired, that has changed.
In the early days, according to Jones, law enforcement “wasn’t very structured,” and the rangers were without the power to write citations, make arrests, or carry firearms. “Eventually it became a more law enforcement structure,” Jones said, noting that a law passed in the late 1980s by the California state legislature made park rangers peace officers. “Most of the old timers went through the police academy, and we were armed for a period of time—until a county executive decided she didn’t want her rangers armed, and they took the weapons away from the rangers.”
Rangers working in California’s state parks attended the ranger academy at Asilomar. Jones said he favored sending all the county park rangers there for the same training. Unfortunately, the state balked at this plan, according to Jones, so arrangements were made to send the county park rangers to an academy that trained young police officers.
“We had several different groups to go to the police academy.” Jones said. “I was in the second group. The first group went through. They were allowed to carry a weapon after they got out of the academy.” Jones carried a weapon while on duty, he said, but that lasted only a short while. Jones said he believes rangers should be allowed to have a gun, both for self-defense and as an instrument of law enforcement. “A weapon is a deterrent. It’s a tool,” he said. “It’s not something that you’re going to use—probably never will use in all the time that you’re employed.”
Jones said park rangers enforced 12 different codes based on county ordinances. “If somebody was hacking down a tree we would cite them for it.” he said. “If somebody brought a weapon into the park without letting us know—if they were traveling and had weapons, they could let us know about it. We would fill out a form and make sure the weapon was unloaded and put away. But if they come in firing weapons—and we’ve had them shooting in parks—we would cite them and confiscate the weapons.”
Other offences included drinking in unauthorized areas and minors with alcohol. Making arrests was also part of the rangers’ law-enforcement duties. “We’d find people with bench warrants,” Jones said. “We’d make arrests and have the sheriff’s office or the local police department come in after the suspects. We did that many times.” During the time rangers were armed, they would also book their own prisoners and take them to jail. “Hook them up with handcuffs. Put them in your vehicle all the way down to the San Jose to the jail and book them into the jail.”
Jones said he drew his weapon twice during his career as a county park ranger. The first time was in the early 1980s, in a parking lot adjacent to a picnic area at Lexington Reservoir. A county ordinance stipulated alcoholic beverages could be consumed only in the picnic area and nowhere else. “So I pulled into the parking lot, and there were two individuals with beer in their hands,” Jones said. “I stopped them, got their IDs, and was going to cite them for consuming alcoholic beverages in the parking lot. Then I put them in the computer through county radio.”
While he was running the background check, a third individual walked up, beer in hand. Jones took his ID and did another radio check. This time, the dispatcher told him that “suspect number three” had two outstanding warrants, one from Riverside County and the other possible one from Santa Clara County.
“So I cut the first two guys loose and told the fellow that had the bench warrant to turn around and put his hands on his head and interlace his fingers,” Jones said. “He was under arrest. So I started to handcuff him, and he started walking away from me. His hands went from the top of his head to his coat pocket, which was in front of me. I couldn’t see his hand. I had just got out of the police academy, and they had trained us to make sure you watch somebody’s hands. I pulled my weapon and told the guy to freeze. I put him on his knees. I didn’t find anything, but I did cuff him and put him in the vehicle. He had a $10,000 bench warrant for him.”
A few days after booking his bench-warrant scofflaw, Jones was again on patrol at Lexington Reservoir when he met up with a California Highway Patrol officer responding to a report of somebody walking around the reservoir with a sawed-off shotgun. Having a sawed-off shotgun is a felony. “Where is he?” Jones asked. “I don’t know,” the officer replied. “I’ve been all the way around the lake.”
After driving most of the way around the reservoir, Jones noticed a man standing at one of the overlooks, gazing out at the water. “I pulled past him, turned around, and opened my door. I wasn’t going to walk up to him, not with that shotgun,” Jones said. “I pulled my weapon and told the guy to lay his shotgun down and get down on his knees. In the interim, I had called for a back-up. The radio got hold of the CHP officer. He showed up. He went over to where the guy was, put the shotgun farther away from him. We took the guy into custody.” The reason for the shotgun? “I was hunting,” the man said.
In addition to dealing with law-enforcement issues and occasional boating and swimming accidents, rangers also search for lost or injured park visitors. Several such incidents took place at Uvas Canyon County Park.
“We had one boy who was lost on our trail—he was lost overnight,” Jones said. “We had to bring in the sheriff’s office and dogs. We eventually found the boy. He was headed down the hill when we found him.” The boy, who Jones said was about 9 years old, was on a summer camping trip with his parents when he became lost and had to spend the night out by himself.
In the same park, Jones said, a teenage girl was reported missing for more than eight hours. The girl was said to be wearing shorts and a top. “We ran across her top,” Jones said. “We found the shirt but we didn’t find the girl.”
The girl was eventually found deep in the park’s backcountry, Jones said. “I took my uniform shirt off and made her put it on until we got her down to where she was camping with her friends.” As to why the girl doffed her top, Jones said he thinks the girl’s disrobing perhaps was spurred by that age-old force that makes the world go round. “She had had some kind of a bad relationship with a boy, or something like that, and she was a little disturbed.”
A ranger’s duties apparently include a bit of psychology and also literally giving someone the shirt off your back.
Red Bell, 1961
Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1938, Red Bell ran away from home when he was 13 years old, walking all the way to Roseburg, a distance of some 180 miles. Bell later came to California, did four years in the navy during the 1950s, and wound up in Gilroy as an assistant manager of the Regal Petroleum stations.
Tired of pumping gas, he applied for a position with the fledgling Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. He was accepted in 1961 as a maintenance man at Stevens Creek County Park. At the time, there were only three county parks in operation: Mount Madonna, Uvas Canyon, and Stevens Creek.
Park staff consisted of a handful of rangers and maintenance workers. Stevens Creek “was basically a Girl Scout camp to start with that the road department set up and then it expanded from there,” Bell said. His work at the park included putting in picnic areas and laying new water lines.
In 1966, Bell was promoted to park ranger. He moved to Vasona County Park, where he made senior ranger. “We were still involved with some of the maintenance there,” said Bell. “I was in charge of some of the projects that were going on at Vasona.”
Some of the department’s first rangers were Dale Jones, Milan Wasick, and Raleigh Young. Jones was in charge of Uvas Canyon County Park, and Wasick, who worked at Mount Madonna County Park, was one of the first senior rangers, whose job was to oversee all operations at his park.
The Park Charter Fund amendment was passed by county voters in 1972. It provided a stable source of funding for parkland acquisition and development. “That’s when we really started to expand,” Bell said. During these boom times, the department developed its parks for public use, Bell said. The philosophy was “Let’s get the property. Let’s get the parks opened where people have got something to go to.”
In 1974, Bell transferred to Sanborn County Park, which had been open to the public on a limited basis since 1962. The park had only one other ranger. Bell transferred there because, he said, “I had a chance to take over a piece of property that we decided to just start developing.” In 1977, more land was acquired and the 1,653-acre park became fully operational.
Except for limited use of a horse patrol in some parks and boats on the reservoirs, Bell said early rangers patrolled the park trails mostly on foot. “We had a lot of trails. It would be an all-day trip for a ranger to walk the trails. He would ride up to the top with a truck, and he’d be dropped off at the top and then he would walk it down, which was the easiest way to go, actually.”
“The interaction with the people was actually really good,” Bell said. “You were giving information, you were helping them find campsites. You stopped by and talked to the kids. You talked to all the people—you’d go around the picnic grounds, and you’d stop and talk to picnickers.” And that’s where your presence came in, and I would hope that they don’t lose that.”
For personal equipment, the ranger carried a radio and first-aid equipment. The trucks were outfitted with first-aid equipment, flares, oxygen, and fire-fighting equipment, including 100 gallons of water and a pump. At the parks with reservoirs, rangers had to learn boating skills, including how to right sailboats that had tipped and take the sails and rigging off for towing back to the dock. Everyone once in a while there would be an accident, Bell said, including several drownings at Vasona.
Search and rescue was also an important part of a ranger’s job. At Sanborn County Park, several high vantage points—including Indian Rock and Summit Rock—provided settings for some dramatic incidents.
“These were beautiful lookouts, Bell said. “But what happened, we’d get people up there that either would be drinking alcohol or on drugs, and then wind up falling off.” Rescues might involve lowering the unfortunate accident victims by ropes over steep terrain, carrying them on a litter, or even riding them out on horseback. People would also be reported as lost, Bell said, but most of the time would eventually find their way to a nearby road, often via a deer trail.
Among the most common conflicts at Sanborn, Bell said, were conflicts involving dogs and mountain bikes.
“Dogs are allowed, but not on the trails. We had an RV campground. You could have your dogs, and then they have to be on a leash. If you weren’t there, the dog had to be in the trailer. We did not allow mountain bikes in Sanborn. That was one of the big issues we had, because they used to tear up the trails. We did cite a lot of bikers for that.”
How a ranger handled the situation largely determined the outcome. “My approach was always to start with, ‘This is what you have to do, and this is the reason why we have it,’” Bell said. “In some cases, we would have disruptive people in campground at night after 10 o’clock. It was a point that, ‘Hey, you know what? We can give you another place to camp, which is the county jail. Which one do you want?’ I never had to physically take somebody down. I was always able to talk around it. Maybe I was just lucky.”
Some violations of park rules resulted in automatic citations, whereas others were left to the discretion of the individual ranger. “Well, automatic would be if you’re tearing up something, such as you’re carving on a picnic table,” Bell said. If a person had a dog off leash. You went over and talked to him. You told him to put his dog on a leash. If he kept it on a leash ever after, fine. The problem is solved. You didn’t have to cite everybody.”
The goal was to solve the problem by having the people stop the offensive behavior. Bell’s approach favored compliance over confrontation, because most park goers just wanted to enjoy their visit. “As long as you can get somebody to go along with the program, then you’ve won the case. I think everybody is happier. They are going to come back and enjoy it,” he said.
“We had kids that used to come up and drink. You’d get six and eight kids up there, and they’ve got a six-pack of beer. It’s illegal for them to drink. I’d go up and talk to them and say ‘Hey, guys. You know, we can do two things. We can either cite you for this, or you guys can dump out the beer and enjoy the rest of the day.’ And I’ve had kids that come back and said, ‘Hey, you know. We really appreciate what you did.’”
During the 1970s, Tom Smith, who was the cofounder and coordinator of the park management program at West Valley College, would bring his students up to Sanborn County Park for some hands-on learning.
“They’d build trails, they would work with the chainsaws and stuff like that, and we helped teach the classes,” Bell said. “It was a good program. A lot of those students would go off to work at other parks in their careers.” Bell called Smith “a great teacher.” Smith had a passion for parks and communicated it to his students. “He really concerned himself about each and every student,” Bell said.
One of the effects of rapid expansion on the parks department was the decision, made in 1997, to separate the rangers and the maintenance workers into separate categories. Maintenance workers would be in charge of the park’s physical infrastructure, whereas the rangers would interact with the public in an interpretive and law-enforcement capacity.
Bell was not in favor of this decision. “It changed to the point that the park ranger then was only in charge of the public when they came in,” he said. “We were no longer in charge of how the park looked, because we now had a maintenance supervisor and everything went through him. So some of the rangers said in effect, ‘Hey, we’re no longer responsible for how the park looks.’ I couldn’t feel that way. That was my main reason for leaving Sanborn park. You’re not in charge of anything anymore, as far as the park goes.”
Bell said that at Sanborn County Park, the rangers and the maintenance workers together, along with help from county prisoners, laid out campgrounds, constructed picnic areas, and built the trail system. “The two worked together. You get to leave a little mark,” he said, something to show your kids and grandkids.
Rich Flores, 1968
Rich Flores has been a long-time resident of San Jose. He said he remembers Santa Clara County in the 1950s as being full of fruit and nut orchards. “As kids we were free to run all over the place,” Flores said. “We walked downtown and stayed out late and didn’t fear anything. It was very quiet and wasn’t as crowded. Now I have my grandkids. I don’t let them out of my sight. There’s a big difference.”
Flores started work for the county’s general services agency as a janitor. Then he watched the job postings for all the different departments. After applying a few times at the parks and recreation department, Flores was hired in 1968 and assigned to the Santa Theresa Golf Course, where he worked for seven years. His duties included construction and maintenance.
In 1975, Flores transferred to Almaden Quicksilver County Park, which had been acquired in 1973 and was just being opened to the public. “I went to a mountain park, Almaden Quicksilver, and learned a lot. Learned about equipment operations and stuff like that.” When the county purchased Almaden Quicksilver, site of a large cinnabar mine, there was still some mining activity going on. “They would work a couple days below ground, and then they’d come up and they’d extract the mercury out of cinnabar,” Flores said.
Flores said he and the park’s maintenance supervisor, Henry Gillmeister, explored some of the mine shafts and tunnels, once walking all the way from the San Cristobal Mine entrance on Mine Hill to the San Francisco vent, near the Hacienda Reduction Works.
“It’s a long ways in. We had to go down a couple levels,” Flores said. “We were able to get through some of those big rooms. They have these pillars holding them up. Real interesting.” Gillmeister knew the history of the area and took a special interest in the Mine Hill School, part of which was still standing. The school, one of three associated with the mine, was built around 1860, abandoned in 1910, and renovated as a mess hall by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
“Part of the school was still standing,” Flores said. “In fact, Henry Gillmeister, our boss, was a heck of a craftsman. He started shoring up the foundation on the corner of that school. He wanted to restore it. He didn’t get much budget support, so he never finished with it. The school was kind of standing—had three walls and a roof.
When the county acquires property for a new park, often there is a lot of work to be done readying it for public access. Depending on the property’s state when the county acquires it, there may be many tasks for the maintenance workers.
“At Quicksilver, when we first got there, it was just kind of closing it up. There were a lot of entrances where people used to walk in, drive in,” Flores said. “We put gates up and fences, repaired fences that were cut, posted signs and patched roads. A lot of the tailings from the mining area, we’d load up in dump trucks. They didn’t do very much there for awhile, it was just kind of hold down the fort for a couple of years.”
Almaden Quicksilver is more of a wilderness park, a paradise for hikers and equestrians. Flores had a hand in building many of the park’s trails. “In our time we did our own trail work,” he said. “Some of the trails had been abandoned, so we reopened them. Most all of the trails are old mining roads.”
During his time at Almaden Quicksilver, Flores encountered a variety of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, and a goat whose smell would signal his presence nearby.
After 10 years at Almaden Quicksilver, Flores became a lead maintenance worker at Mount Madonna County Park, working for Milan Wasick, the park’s supervising ranger. Wasick was a big man who loved hunting and fishing. Flores said he could be a little intimidating to people who did not know him. He called Wasick “a great teacher” and said the park was beautifully developed and maintained. “I like to pay a lot of attention to detail, so it was a perfect fit for me.”
Flores remembers the smell of bacon and eggs frying on the campfires, and being so hungry by the 10 a.m. break that he had to wolf down his lunch. Flores said working in the park’s magnificent redwood groves was inspirational. At Mount Madonna, there was a long history of fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. “Milan set a standard, and we followed it and maintained it.”
Tom Smith, 1970
Tom Smith has worked as both a seasonal ranger in the county parks and, for five “very educational months” in 1981, the department’s acting director. As cofounder and coordinator of the park management program at West Valley College, Smith helped train many of the department’s staff. He has known every parks and recreation director since the county first hired Bob Amyx in 1957. At the time of this writing, Smith continues to work with the department as, in his words, an “unofficial consultant,” writing resource management plans.
Smith, who was born in 1931, grew up in Indiana. He moved to California in 1961 to take a job as track coach at San Jose City College. He also trained at the National Park Service’s Horace M. Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon and worked as a seasonal park ranger in Yosemite. “My background has always been the outdoors,” Smith said. “In fact, when I got my master’s at Indiana University, I debated a long time about whether to get it in parks and recreation or in physical education.”
The program Smith helped develop at West Valley College provided two years of training for would-be park rangers, covering everything from interpretation, maintenance, and resource management to law enforcement. Training for park rangers has changed over the years and not necessarily for the better, in Smith’s opinion.
“When I began, and when most of the people began in the county or with the National Park Service, you were a generalist. You could relocate a bear. You could know what that flower was. You could tell people where to go to fish. You could know all those kinds of things and yet take a drunk off a road and protect people from people.” In those days, county park rangers could drive a tractor and know “what end of a shovel to hold on to,” Smith said.
This generalist type of training began to change after a July 4, 1970, riot in Yosemite during which counterculture youths, gathered in Stoneman Meadows, clashed with park rangers. Smith called the event “a very black eye” in National Park Service history, one which led directly to a change in the type of training rangers received. “The decision was made that rangers could not cope with modern-day society with degrees in parks and recreation,” Smith said. As a result, national park rangers were sent to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for law-enforcement training.
State and county parks soon followed suit. “The park department became very specialized. The National Park Service rangers no longer relocated bears. We became highway patrolmen, became armed.” State parks began stressing just law-enforcement training.
“One state park ranger, a 30-year veteran, told me that when he first came on, probably nine out of 10 rangers knew what was in their parks, in the ecological sense. Now it’s one out of ten. Even Santa Clara County—I’d like to say you could pretty well tell the park rangers in this county who went to West Valley and who didn’t, because of their generalist attitudes. But the park rangers, the evolution of them in the county, basically it was almost the same as the National Park Service, in a way.”
Smith told of working on a resource management plan at Uvas Canyon County Park and meeting a park ranger there who couldn’t identify a bay tree, one of the park’s most common species. “’Good Lord,’ I said, ‘how can you not know what a bay tree is?’ He says, ‘Well, I’ve only been here two years.’ So anyway, that’s kind of what the county’s dealing with now.”
The pendulum is starting to swing back. Smith said he believes the county sheriff’s department will ultimately take over responsibility for most law enforcement in the county parks, leaving the rangers once again free to be land managers.
“I don’t necessarily think that taking the law-enforcement responsibility away from the park rangers is a bad idea,” Smith said. “I’d much rather that they had the same generalist responsibilities. I just don’t think right now that the expertise is there among the rangers to be the land managers. So we’re kind of a catch-22 there. Like the guy who didn’t know what a bay tree was—he’s going to manage a park full of bay trees? So, it has a way to go.”
After 1978, when Proposition 13 decimated government budgets throughout California, Smith found a way to enter into a win-win arrangement with the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department, then headed by David Christy. Smith used West Valley College students to help run Sanborn County Park.
“We jumped in on the opportunity to use the facility as an operating lab,” Smith said. “My educational philosophy is that education doesn’t take place until you apply it. Instead of saying ‘This is a chainsaw, and here’s a film, and this is how it works,’ we had 12 chain saws, and we said ‘Here, we’re going to remove this Christmas tree farm.’ That facility was priceless. College students helped patrol the trails. They put people in the park to do all kinds of different things after Prop 13, when they were talking about closing the park up. So we had the start of this cooperative agreement—they’d give us a facility; we train, we do work for them. And it’s been going on a long time.”
Calling the county parks “a sleeping giant,” Smith said interpretive programs could make these outdoor arenas “the college or the university of the local environment.”
Smith credits Paul Romero, who served as Santa Clara County’s parks and recreation director from 1995 to 2002, with stimulating the department’s interpretive awareness.
“To most all the directors prior to Paul, resources meant people in houses,” Smith said. “For Paul, resources meant natural resources. So he started a natural-resource management program, which I’m part of with my resource management plans. It was many years until we began to understand and realize the interpretive value of parks in the county. If you’re going to put showers in a place like Mount Madonna, a campground, then we ought to have solar heat. We need to show the public something environmental. And rangers should be tooling around in propane cars instead of three-quarter-ton four-wheel drives. You know, I am absolutely sold on that.”
Santa Clara County Planning Department and Karl J. Belser
In 1955, the county planning department, headed by Karl J. Belser, issued the “Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Survey.” This farsighted survey is all the more remarkable when you consider that, at the time, the county operated only two parks—Mount Madonna and Stevens Creek—and owned a third, Coe Memorial Park, that was closed to the public.
After pointing out that Santa Clara County was part of “a rapidly expanding metropolitan complex,” with 2,500 new residents per month adding to the 1955 population of 403,900, the survey predicted a doubling of population in 20 years and stated that, along with agricultural greenbelts “parks and recreation areas will become increasingly important in providing open space as urbanization proceeds.”
Before the parks and recreation department hired its own planners in the 1970s, planning for parks was handled by the county planning department. In February 1959, that department, still under Belser’s leadership, issued “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space” as an element of the county’s general plan. The plan recognized that the essential nature of Santa Clara County was changing: “There will be three homes, three subdivisions, three schools, and three shopping centers for every one we see today.”
The purpose of the document was “to present a plan for the preservation and best use of our open space resources for ourselves and for succeeding generations.”
The plan proposed an increase in county parklands from 20,000 to 60,000 acres over 25 years. Included in this increase would be 280 miles of hiking and riding trails, 30 miles of bicycle trails, 340 miles of recreation roads, and 140 miles of landscaped freeway.
In 1962, the planning department issued a revised version of “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space,” which took into account the five county parks that had opened to the public since 1959— Sanborn, Santa Teresa, Uvas Canyon, Vasona Lake, and Villa Montalvo.
Karl J. Belser served as the county’s planning director from 1952 through 1966. In the summer 1967 issue of Cry California, the journal of the nonprofit group California Tomorrow, Belser wrote an article titled “The Planning Fiasco in California.” He followed that with a much longer piece in the journal’s fall 1970 issue, titled “The Making of Slurban America.”
In both of these thoughtful articles, Belser blasted the political pressures that worked to obliterate progressive ideas generated by modern urban planners. Using the San Francisco Bay Area as his example, Belser said the troublesome issue was not a lack of planning but rather the power of private interests, or what he called “the economic elite,” to speak with a loud voice.
The Bay Area, he wrote, had plenty of planning at the federal, state, and local level—planning for air quality, bridges, ports, transit, water resources, etc. “But in spite of all this planning for conservation and orderly development, the bay is being filled in, air and water are being polluted, hillsides are being mutilated and prime cropland is being paved over,” Belser wrote. “Public and private efforts to halt this kind of defacement of the natural environment are to no avail.”
In his 1970 article, Belser turned his attention to Santa Clara County and what he called its “flagrant ruination.” Painting a picture of paradise, Belser described the county in 1940 and called it “a textbook example” of a successful agricultural community: “It was beautiful, it was a wholesome place to live, and it was one of the 15 most productive agricultural counties in the United States.”
Things began to change during World War II, when Moffett Field became a busy naval air station, and Stanford University became a center for the development of military technology, particularly electronics.
At the same time, the city of San Jose, under the leadership of its new city manager, A.P. “Dutch” Hamann, was determined to transform itself into another Los Angeles through rapacious expansion. Other cities in the county resisted, and the so-called annexation wars began, spurred in part by the adoption in 1954 of an amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance allowing for land to be classified exclusively for agriculture. “As a reaction, the cities began to annex property wherever they could, be any means available to them,” Belser wrote.
The result was uncontrolled development, or “pandemonium,” according to Belser. “Wild urban growth attacked the valley much as cancer attacks the human body,” he wrote. People flooded the area, and with the population explosion came a flurry of construction for new homes, schools, shopping centers, freeways, and factories.
The result was a wild rise in property values that put intense pressure on the valley’s farmers and orchardists. “Landowners sold out under the pressure of rising taxes and the great opportunity to make large gains on the value of the land,” Belser wrote. The wholesome agricultural community that existed prior to World War II was fast becoming “an urban anthill.”
In 1955, the California legislature passed the “Agricultural Exclusion Act,” a further attempt to protect agricultural land by making annexation by cities more difficult. According to Belser, the 90 days between the end of the legislative session and the effective date of the new law saw cities “wildly extending their boundaries.” Soon, the smaller communities in Santa Clara County began to defend themselves through incorporation, leading to the creation of seven new cities added to the nine already in existence in 1950.
Summing up his 1970 article, Belser saw the future as bleak. “Projections of growth indicate that the entire area will be completely urbanized within the next 20 years,” he wrote. “It will have been given over to uncontrolled, wasteful urban growth with all its attendant miseries.” Fortunately, the work Belser began with the county planning department in the 1950s, combined with a rising tide of environmentalism, helped provide the basis for a county parks system that today protects nearly 45,000 acres in Santa Clara County.