Julia Brown-Bernstein

August 27, 2022, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the permanent closure of the General Motors Van Nuys plant. Local periodicals observed the date by profiling the last Chevrolet Camaro to roll off the Van Nuys assembly line. Signed by over 2000 auto plant workers, the red interior and black laced Camaro symbolized “a vanished era of labor” that had defined the San Fernando Valley during the latter twentieth century. Industrial hubs like the General Motors auto plant (Van Nuys) the Rocketdyne aero jet facility (Canoga Park), and the Lockheed-Martin Vega factory (Burbank) had transformed the bucolic flatlands of the San Fernando Valley into a locus of post-World War II defense and automobile manufacturing. But by August 1992, those days were decidedly over. The Valley’s industrial crown jewel—the GM auto plant—is now “The Plant,” a diffuse shopping center of box stores.

For the thousands of auto plant workers who lost their jobs on August 27th, 1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the plant’s closure is especially poignant. Many had worked to meet their ‘30 years and out’ retirement plans when GM shuttered its Van Nuys doors. Now, those same workers would have to contend with what ‘thirty years out’ had meant for them, their families, and their friends. What was it like to work at GM Van Nuys on the eve of closure? How did plant closure alter workers’ realities and communities? Studying how former auto workers forged a sense of belonging in the face of imminent plant closure and in its aftermath enhances our understanding of deindustrialization and its varied legacies, particularly in Southern California. It offers insights into how late twentieth-century economic restructuring, especially the decline of US auto manufacturing, produced liminal identities and new forms of social membership.

The entrance to the General Motors Van Nuys Auto Plant c1947 when it opened. Courtesy of the UAW 645 Local Facebook page.

Unlike other deindustrializing cities in the Northeast and Midwest, little has been written of the 2,600 employees who either lost their jobs when the Van Nuys plant shut its doors or parted ways in anticipation of its closure. But “rust” also came to the Sunbelt. Plant closure catapulted workers into a state of limbo. A considerable number became transplants and quickly relocated to extant plants in the Midwest. Others stayed put in the San Fernando Valley. A sizeable number of these former employees took the company buyout and retired without full pensions. Others collected unemployment while they waited for their local chapter, United Auto Workers 645, to broker a longer-term, potentially more comprehensive deal with management. Still others traded industrial labor for the service sector after training at regional community colleges. The economic phenomenon of deindustrialization had arrived in Southern California.

The “Plant” located on the 100-acre lot that once served as the GM Auto Plant Van Nuys. Photo by Wendy Cheng, 2008.

In the aftermath of plant closure, auto workers faced the formidable task of forging a new sense of belonging. The Van Nuys plant had granted workers earning power to purchase homes and support their families. But it had also been a site of solidarity, friendship, and chosen family. As many labor historians have observed, closed shops like the GM auto plant built not just industrial commodities but also communities. Out of exacting manual labor came kinship networks. Writing about auto workers in the industrial Midwest, historian Steven High notes that “memories of factory work tended to be framed around the metaphor of home and family. Working in the mill or factory was invariably described in interviews in familiar terms: ‘a home atmosphere,’ ‘a second home,’ or a ‘family affair.’” When the Van Nuys plant closed, those workplace families would change and members would have to find ways to reconstitute their attachment to each other and the place they called home.

General Motors opened the Van Nuys plant in 1947. Initially the plant offered one shift for over one thousand workers. Line workers built Chevrolet trucks and shells for GM’s Fisher Body Division. By the early 1970s, the plant had a second shift and nearly 3000 employees. In 1977, assembly transitioned to the sexy but inefficient Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds. At the height of the plant’s production two years later, just over 5000 unionized workers reported daily for work. With thousands of employees spread across five divisions and divided into two shifts, employees developed simple but effective means of establishing community.

As Alex Gomez, a thirty-eight-year GM veteran notes, a sense of belonging among workers began the day he arrived at the job: “[Management] gives you three days to learn a job, and if you didn’t learn the job, they’d try you on another job. And if you can’t get that one, then you’re out the door.”[1] The pressure workers faced while being “hired in” created a sense of vulnerability that more seasoned workers met with care and compassion. “When I started in the final line, in the bumper pit, they told me to go in the pit and I had to tighten the front, the front driver’s side bumpers, while the guys were literally back-to-back on a real narrow pit. The people with me were a tall Black guy named Key and then the one above me was another Black guy named Willie. You know they’d tell me ‘Hey kid, let us know if you have any problems, we’ll try to fix it before we have to stop the line.’”[2] Alex was hired in on August 13, 1973, in large part thanks to his buddies in the pit.

For other workers on the line, it was not gate loading, spot welding, or soft trimming that fused social bonds. For example, the plant was too loud. As one former auto worker elaborated, “We can have a conversation with the operator next to us, but in intervals because the plant floor is loud, we can’t hear. There are bells, and buzzers, and the clink of the chain and the voices of hundreds of people.”[3] Instead, workers shared leisure moments at nearby “satellite areas.” UAW records bear clues of how workers bonded in these satellite areas. For instance, on December 30th, 1970, representatives of the UAW Local 645 lobbied management for heartier vending machine food: “The Union stated that the meat in the sandwiches in the vending machines is very meager, particularly in the barbeque beef sandwiches. Furthermore, some food dated 12/22 was vended on 12/29 in the final repair area.” One can imagine what repair area workers had to say to each other and to their union about those measly and expired barbeque beef sandwiches. Management refused to put televisions in the plant’s cafeteria or other satellite areas so coworkers exchanged words in those spaces. At times those words were acrimonious. Most times, though, they helped forge lifelong friendships. Ernie Combs, a veteran worker of thirty years, reflected that “I had a lot of friends. I had a lot, you know, and that many years, you, you get kind of dependent, you’re dependent on the place for your livelihood.”[4]

Satellite areas were one place that workers established community. The most popular spaces, however, were local businesses where workers decompressed on their lunch breaks or after their shifts.  There was Mike’s Pizza and Carl’s Jr. But it was the three nearby dive bars that best fostered community among workers. As Roger Hammon reflected, “As for nearby outside activities, the bars across the street were the closest places to go during lunch breaks and after work, and I can remember two of them: The Trophy Room and Chevy Ho.” Ernie Combs also remembered sharing pints at Chevy Ho’s with his coworkers: “Most everybody liked to drink beer.”[5] If it wasn’t Chevy Ho or the Trophy Room, it was Opie’s, a watering hole owned by Flower Ny, a woman of Vietnamese descent.

Besides beer and conversation, the bars offered workers a seat to rest their weary bones. As one auto worker recalled about the body shop, “The line starts and we move sideways, continuously as we work, we can’t stand still because the line will move away from us. The floor is concrete, and if we are lucky we’ll have a decent mat beneath our feet. If not, we better have on good shoes, and then it really doesn’t matter…our feet are going to hurt. We will be on our feet all day, eight hours, nine hours, ten hours, eleven hours.” One can viscerally feel the relief of an open bar stool.

At Chevy Ho’s or Opie’s, it’s likely that workers discussed their shifts, gossiped about friction between union and management, or shared news of their families. It’s also likely that they planned their next camping or fishing trip. A beloved pastime of Ernie Combs and his four closest plant buddies, fishing, became one of the ways plant workers shared their time off: “My best friends were Mexican guys, and a couple Black guys. We liked to fish and we’d go down to Yuma [Arizona]. And we enjoyed each other’s company all the time. Yeah. We’d go fishing every chance we got, take vacations and go fishing down to Yuma…we would go down there sometimes and spend a week and a half on the canal, fishing for catfish, and have a good time.”

Ernie Combs’ fishing crew symbolized how plant work fostered friendships across racial lines. Indeed, multiracialism was a defining feature of the GM auto plant in Van Nuys and belied monolithic representations of the San Fernando Valley as the wellspring of white “homeowner populism” and the antibusing movement. As one Los Angeles Times reporter put it, “Inside the plant, Grandy, a white Minnesota native, worked alongside an African American from Louisiana, a Mexican immigrant and an Asian American from San Francisco. All were lured to the factory by high wages that promised a better life. Despite their different backgrounds, many workers say they formed lasting kinships, a bond that made the hard labor bearable.” If plant work did not necessarily build friendships across the color line, it at least put individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in close proximity. As Mark Masaoka, an electrician and unit chairman of Local 645 explained it, “[the work] was a valuable way for people of various races to get socialized. You may not eat lunch with black workers, but you work next to them and talk to them and learn about their communities, their lives.” In a city marred by residential discrimination, the plant helped dismantle spatial segregation and racial biases.

Throughout the early 1970s, workers at the Van Nuys plant weathered general strikes and temporary layoffs. The temporary layoffs cautioned workers about what they stood to lose if the plant closed. Alex Gomez recalled the eighteen-month layoff he and his buddies faced from 1974 to 1976: “I was getting tired of partying and there was nothing to do, I was wondering if I was gonna have a job later.” Initially, workers relished the free time and late nights. Soon, they languished in abeyance and longed to be back at the plant. The work provided purpose and structure. It was where they communed with friends. And the money was not bad either. In the mid-1970s workers’ hourly wages averaged $6 or $7, over $30 today.

Then came the closures.

For decades, California had the most reliable and profitable market for automobile production and sales. But by the late 1970s, a perfect storm of international competition, oil crises, and stagflation led the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors) to fundamentally restructure domestic manufacturing, especially in California. Rather than absorb shipping and labor expenses for a nationwide production system, executives chose to centralize auto production in the Midwest or across the border in Canada.

Between 1980 and 1983, six of California’s auto plants closed. The closure of the General Motors plant in South Gate was deeply felt by Van Nuys workers. As the historian Becky Nicolaides explains, “South Gate lay directly in the line of fire, losing more than 12,500 jobs by the mid-1980s.” When the GM plant in South Gate closed in 1983, hundreds of African American workers who resided in South Los Angeles became transplants at the Van Nuys plant. In the late 1980s, Eric Mann, a long-term civil rights and labor activist, and leader of the campaign to keep the Van Nuys plant reflected on the South Gate closure: “With closure of the GM Southgate plant, many workers transferred to Van Nuys, of whom approximately 50 percent were Black. Many of the Southgate workers live in the South Central Los Angeles area, the heart of L.A.’s Black community, in cities like Lynwood, Maywood, Inglewood, and Compton.”

South Gate transplants who landed at the Van Nuys plant joined a greater diaspora of auto workers that had grown considerably by 1983. As High observed, auto plant closures, especially those in and around Detroit, produced a growing population of displaced workers. “I-75 Gypsies,” as they self-identified, traveled from plant to plant, often without their families, in the hopes of accruing enough work to retire with a full pension. As one of High’s interlocutors reflected, “We are the people who shut down plants up and down I-75. We have no home plants. We are very hardened people. We are very thick-skinned but we were also very good people because we’ve been at all the battles in the war called the automotive industry.”

Like the I-75 gypsies, South Gate transplants existed in a liminal space between their former lives at the South Gate plant and their new posts in Van Nuys. As Mann notes, writing in the late 1980s, “[South Gate workers] drive over forty miles each way to work, since they do not want to give up their homes, and, after having lived through one plant closing, they certainly won’t uproot themselves based on the tenuous long-term future at Van Nuys.” Even though most South Gate transplants were able to keep their homes, plant closure meant adjusting to lengthy commutes, and a new workplace culture. Although it took time for South Gate transplants to acclimate to the culture of the Van Nuys plant, it was, ironically, company threats of closure that would help transplants find a sense of belonging at their new location.

By 1981, GM’s plans to reduce production in California were common knowledge. A small group of Van Nuys workers, led by Pete Beltran, UAW 645 President, and Mann, then a recent transplant from the GM Milpitas plant, began quietly mobilizing to resist plant closure. Mann and Beltran harnessed their experience as veterans in the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian/Pacific, civil rights, and antiwar movements to strategize a successful movement far in advance of any announcements made by management.  They spent the next two years building a multiracial coalition of auto workers. They framed their campaign in a larger, more transnational struggle against U.S. imperialism and white supremacy.

Mann and Beltran understood that auto workers experienced differential racialization and, as organizers, they would have to address those differences with sensitivity. For instance, although the majority of Van Nuys auto workers were Latinx, they experienced racial discrimination distinctly. Campaign organizers noted that Chicano workers, often with higher levels of seniority in the plant, and bearing the scars of linguistic discrimination, did not necessarily want the campaign to be bilingual. Whereas more recent Mexican immigrant workers felt strongly that all materials be translated into Spanish and all meetings be held in both English and Spanish. More to the point, many monolingual Mexican workers felt that the translation provided at organizing meetings was insufficient. The solution they proposed was to purchase United Nations-style headphones and hire skilled interpreters for larger organizational meetings.

As a transplant himself, Mann was aware that seniority could hinder unity among home plant and transplant auto workers at Van Nuys. Indeed in 1983, when the campaign was on the verge of going public, GM had only recently closed its plant in South Gate. At first Van Nuys workers looked upon South Gate transplants with suspicion. If former South Gate workers came with seniority, they could bump a Van Nuys worker from his or her position or shift. On the other hand, South Gate workers could easily become resentful of Van Nuys workers who had better jobs but far less time than them in the company. Mann knew he would have to convince these workers of their mutual dependence and what they all risked losing if the Van Nuys plant closed for good.

Mann, Beltran, and the campaign’s other leaders maintained that the campaign’s success hinged on the involvement of the city’s Black and Latinx communities. [6] Because the Van Nuys plant had been so profitable—and that it was one of the last auto plants in Los Angeles—it attracted workers not just from the San Fernando Valley but across Los Angeles county. As Mann noted, “GM Van Nuys had its tentacles, you could say, in so many parts of the city.”[7] Considering that the Van Nuys workforce was predominantly Latinx, it was less challenging for campaign leaders to amass support from the city’s most prominent Latinx civil rights and labor leaders. Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, of California State University, Northridge, was one of the first to lend his support. The renowned Father Luis Olivares soon joined and became a highly vocal supporter. The campaign even got Cesar Chávez to speak at their inaugural rally on May 15, 1983.

Leaders within the Black community, however, had their own concerns. When campaign leaders attended the Baptist Ministers Conference, it became clear that Black clergymen were understandably apprehensive about supporting a campaign “up in the Valley”—a place infamous for its opposition to school desegregation. Mann assured the audience that campaign leaders were trenchant antiracists, and, in fact, many were veterans of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The most compelling argument, though, was the presence of hundreds of Black transplants who needed the Black community’s support to prevent GM from displacing them once again. In a recent interview, Mann insisted that the campaign’s success “took the Black community. See, the unique thing I was able to do is to be in an overwhelmingly Latino plant and go into South Central, and convince the Black community cause they did not see Van Nuys as friendly. They thought it was white. They said, ‘Wait a minute, you want me to go up and save a plant from a bunch of fucking racists? I said, wait, wait, hold on. I hate those people [referring to the supporters of Busstop, the campaign to stop school integration]. No, this plant is mostly Latino. And I worked at South Gate, and there’s over 500 Black workers over there and you don’t have South Gate, all you got is Van Nuys and even though Van Nuys doesn’t emotionally ring your bell, it should, you should come over there because those Black workers need you.’”[8]

May 15, 1983, Local 645 President Pete Beltran (right), Cesar Chavez and Maxine Waters (center), join picketers at the Rally to Keep GM Van Nuys Open.  Courtesy of the California State Northridge University Special Collections Digital Archive.

On May 15, 1983, the campaign officially launched at a rally held right outside the plant. With high-profile speakers such as Ed Asner, Representative Howard Berman, Cesar Chavez, Maxine Waters, and Bishop Juan Arzube (the highest-ranking Latino official in the Catholic Archdiocese), it was clear that the campaign posed a veritable threat to management. Yet beyond the threat to boycott GM products, the May 15th rally demonstrated that plant closure was about far more than job loss. It was about what closure would spell for the community of workers and businesses of Van Nuys. It was about the friendships forged at Opie’s Bar. It was about Opie’s owner, Flower Ny, who risked losing her livelihood and sense of belonging as a recent immigrant from Vietnam. Bishop Arzube stirred the crowd with a deeply resonant appeal: “La cuestión realmente en juego es esta. ¿General Motors tiene una responsibilidad con esta comunidad que los apoyó y los ha apoyado durante 37 años?/The question is this: Does General Motors have a responsibility to this community that supports and has supported them for thirty-seven years?”

Van Nuys Auto Workers in the Campaign to Keep Van Nuys Open. Rally held on May 15, 1983, in front of the GM Auto Plant on Van Nuys Blvd. Courtesy of the California State Northridge University Special Collections Digital Archive.

The Van Nuys plant lasted another nine years. In this way, the campaign was triumphant. It not only forestalled closure but also helped fortify a community of auto workers from across Los Angeles. Ironically, it was the specter of closure that more deeply united workers and solidified their sense of belonging to each other and to the Van Nuys community. As Mann later reflected, the “campaign did not take place in the revolutionary ‘Sixties’ but the counter-revolutionary times of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Not in the period of great labor upheaval of the 1930s and Black-led workers struggles of the 1960s and 1970s but in a period of union defensiveness in the brutal age of plant closings.” But feel-good history this is not. Not even the campaign’s success could parry the inevitable. The rust also came to the Sunbelt. Deindustrialization hit Van Nuys just as it had so many other manufacturing communities of the Midwest and Northeast. As it happened there, plant closures and deindustrialization thrust many Van Nuys employees into the diaspora of auto workers who would crisscross the country in search of continued work. Nonetheless, revisiting how Van Nuys workers built deeper attachments to each other and an even stronger claim to their community complicates our understanding of this recent history and its lingering impact on Southern California today.

United Auto Workers, c1990s. Robin Dunitz mural painted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Auto Workers. Located on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Blythe Street, near the Local 645 headquarters.

Julia Brown-Bernstein is a PhD candidate in the department of History. Her research examines the relationship between neoliberalism, citizenship, and belonging in the post-World War II era. Her dissertation is a history of the central San Fernando Valley as it underwent demographic shifts and economic restructuring from the 1970s to the early 2000s. It examines how immigrants not only made the region a transnational crossroads, linking communities from the Southern Cone to South Korea, but also how they shaped US political life and culture. Her work sheds light on how neoliberal policies of the latter twentieth century altered who belongs and what it means to be a citizen in a privatizing world. 

[1] Julia Brown-Bernstein interview with Alex Gomez, Los Angeles, California, September 27, 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Facebook message correspondence with Roger Hammon, September 20, 2022.

[4] Interview with Ernie Combs.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interview with Alex Gomez,

[7] Julia Brown-Bernstein interview with Eric Mann, Los Angeles, California, March 2, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

We have found restoration in the Tetons. Just weeks ago, ICW brought staff, a group of Ph.D. students, and carefully chosen guests to Grand Teton National Park for a four-day retreat. We spend as much time within sight of the Tetons; their sheer grandeur lifts all spirits. We take in the sounds and scents of the surroundings with daily group hikes and, when we pause at the edge of a mountain lake for lunch, we hear from one another about history, writing, and teaching. At night, we stargaze together, and then make our way to tiny cabins interspersed in aspens, black hawthorns, and evergreens, some of them fluorescent by day in autumn colors of yellow, golden, and red.

Photo by USC Postdoctoral Fellow Naomi Sussman.

Our students, ourselves, and our guests come away renewed. Doctoral students breathe more deeply as they learn about professional opportunities from guests, and the guests encourage our students to think broadly about career goals. In our recent trip, we brought along the Chief Historian of the U.S. Forest Service, a scholar of the overland trail experience in the 19th century, and a senior public historian from The Smithsonian.

Julia Brown-Bernstein – historian of Southern CA suburban identity/race – recalled that both mornings, “the Tetons were shrouded in a thick cloud cover. We knew they loomed behind the granite sky but we couldn’t fully discern their majestic shape. [From Phelps Lake to Lake Taggart, never] had I seen so many shades of grey. As we walked, often single file or in pairs, we discussed our work’s many challenges and satisfactions…Our conversations were silenced by Elk calls. Lakeside, we ate boxed lunches and kept daring chipmunks at bay. By the time we arrived back…each day, the clouds had parted. Sun rays radiated through the Aspens. The Aspens in the sere and yellow leaf.” She continued, “After two years of isolation, from each other and, at least for myself, the natural world’s many wonders, our visit…renewed my belief in life’s many possibilities. Like our hikes to the lakes, many of us graduate students have ventured forth unsure of what lies ahead. We can make out the contours of our future professional lives, but their…meaning, remains elusive to us. [We] listened to [those] who have found their work’s meaning…Their stories resonated deeply with me and restored my faith in this degree as an instrument for the public good. It may be trite to put it this way, but as the clouds had parted to reveal the mountain peaks, so did [this place] uncover the many professional trails that lie ahead.”

Julia Brown-Bernstein and Tahireh Hicks. Photo by Naomi Sussman.

Will Cowan – historian of climate change/weather – wrote that “the first thing I did was go down to the shore of the Snake [River]. Staring nearly into the sun, I listened to the river rush along, and I took the deepest breath I’d had in ages…We witnessed…the magic of the land- and waterscapes, and the charisma of the plants and fellow creatures of the Tetons. One of the most healing aspects for me was gazing up at that shock of stars strewn across the predawn sky. The Muries…were with us throughout. I heard the Gray Owls each early morning. And perhaps nothing was more reaffirming, more reassuring, more reinvigorating than reflecting on their love for each other and the networks of living and nonliving beings they fought so hard to protect.”

Abby Gibson plans to write her doctoral dissertation on “everyday acts of spiritual renewal.” “This weekend…could not have arrived at a better time for me as a learning scholar. During the weeks leading up to the trip as I worked on the prospectus for my dissertation, I felt intimidated by the enormous prospect of producing fresh and original scholarship…But under the looming shadow of the Grand Tetons and with the company of wonderful friends and mentors…, my energy and excitement for this next stage in my PhD journey has reignited. Being together in such a magnificent and mysterious place…reminded me just how important it is for our work as historians to be collaborative, and that we should never presume to conduct our work in isolation from both the places we study and the people who inspire us.”

Graduate student Stanley Fonseca echoed his peers as to the soul-replenishing trip. “Amidst the incredible beauty of the Tetons in fall, the weekend was a beautiful combination of lively camaraderie and quiet contemplation…We all came away enriched by the connections both renewed and forged anew. I can imagine no better place, and no better way, to foster a sense of scholarly community and find new inspiration as I move towards the end of the PhD and into the job market!”

We came out of the mountains healed.

Bill Deverell

Last day on the family farm. Finally heaved myself out of bed early for a walk. My cousin sent me out across the harvested cornfield, down near a creek (roaring, as we had a big storm in the night). It was beautiful, and birds flew alongside me for minutes at a time. I did wonder about the story behind this homemade ladder, though there are apple and crabapple trees all around, so maybe it was an impromptu harvest. I had the entire landscape to myself as the sun came up. 

My mom and I said goodbye to my cousins, whose generous hospitality touched our hearts. On our way out of town, the two of us stopped to see my mom’s cousin, Jimmy, who is just ten days shy of 90. He greeted us warmly, had us in to his home, and the two cousins reminisced about this and that, reaching back eighty years and more. They shared a tender goodbye.

We made our way through a howling rainstorm towards Albany. Stopped at Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, and had lunch at a cute place just off the shoreline. On to Saratoga Springs – horse country, to be sure – and now settled in for the night in a BnB farmhouse, once again from the mid-19th century. Our innkeeper is a friendly young woman who bought the place a year ago and seems, to my eyes at least, to be making a go of it.  She noted that the farmhouse had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and knowing just a bit about the proximity to Rochester, and Canada, I bet she’s right.

She recommended a charming pub and teahouse (such a combination!) to us for dinner. We drove the few miles there, and once we parked, I felt the college town vibe. “There’s a school here,” I said to my mom, “I can feel it. But I can’t for the life of me remember which one.”  Skidmore College! My great aunt, an artist, went here (class of sometime in the late 1920s). She went off to New Mexico and, alongside dozens or more like-minded men and women, painted in the company of (or at least near to) Georgia O’Keeffe.

To Boston tomorrow, leisurely and easy. Flying west to Denver Saturday, and I return to Southern California on Sunday. I am excited to see my wife and kids (and three curs), and I look forward to being in class with my students mid-week.

Bill Deverell

Up early today; walked through the back of some of my cousin’s corn. The field had been recently harvested, so it was all stover, about two feet high. I was on a slightly-rutted part of the field where, I think, the tractors had laid the grass down flat. The dew soaked through my shoes. The faint trail turned into a dirt road, and that spit me out onto an empty country road. I walked up towards where it intersects with another lane. It was here, in the middle of the intersection, that my grandfather, driving some kind of early truck, hit a motorcyclist in about 1914. My granddad would have been 16 or 17 then. The crash broke the motorcyclist’s leg. “I think that fellow was a bank robber,” my granddad told me about seventy years later. “He had all his safecracking tools spread out on the road.” As I remember him telling me, both medical and law enforcement personnel responded to the scene.

Not far from here, a tiny burial ground sits amidst big trees. There can’t be more than about thirty or forty gravestones. Some are broken, some are in the brambles under the trees. But most are in pretty good shape, and the town tends the site well. About four or five families are well represented here, most of whom I’ve heard about from my mother, as she would have grown up with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who are buried here. Many small stones marking the grave of a child, including this broken one that memorializes a child of 13 months. One surname – Weed – was unfamiliar to my cousins and my mother, but these are the oldest in the cemetery: there are Weeds buried here as early as 1819. The Weeds died out or moved on, sometime before the Civil War.

Avon burial ground.

My mother and I went to the big cemetery in town so that we could pay respects to family. My grandmother and grandfather, great aunts and a great uncle, my mother’s brother. Here was my great great grandfather, the melodiously-named Horace Publius Virgilius Bogue (known to the family as “Alphabet Bogue”).

Midday was spent with my cousins over a lovely lunch at the main farmhouse. My mother and I visited the new barn, the one lifted up by Mennonite laborers. Here’s a picture of the barn and its tenants.

The new barn.

This evening we go into Rochester to see Fringe Fest; tomorrow we depart, making our way a bit slowly back to Boston over a few days. It’s colder here now, the skies are threatening, and I think this is likely to bring out a bit more fall color as we head southeast at week’s end.

Bill Deverell

We left “The Castle” in Amsterdam mid-morning today. We headed northwest to a small (really small) farming town outside Rochester, about three hours away. Our drive was uneventful, and I loved that we paralleled the Erie Canal a good chunk of the way. I’ve recently taught a little of that canal’s history (and have an Irish émigré ancestor who apparently worked digging it out). What a thrill it must have been to have that waterway open up so many opportunities for travel, commerce, different perspectives on time and space. My students and I just talked about a small collection of letters I have from a young man writing to his sweetheart in the early 1830s. He’s in one upstate New York town, she’s in another. But, he tells her in one breathless letter, he can travel to her in record time, thanks to the “new canal.” The canal had its heyday, but it (and that of others built at the same time) faded pretty quickly once the “Rail Road” arrived. And there it was, also parallel to the canal. Canal, railroad, the New York Thruway – about two hundred years of transit history side by side by side.

Our journey today had echoes of the violent colonial past. This or that name, that battlefield, that town where I knew a massacre of Indigenous people had taken place. And we were, after all, on the Mohawk Trail most all the day yesterday. Today it was more subtle – Indigenous names on, of all things, Thruway rest stops. Or a river. A bridge. Enduring, yes – I guess so. But faint. Although: we did stop for gas at a service station that had two entry doors. One to the convenience store and cashier, one to the “Over 18 Only” slot machines, and I could see the nearby high-rise casino (one of a great many Native casinos up and down the Thruway corridor).

By early afternoon, we had arrived in my mother’s hometown. We both knew our way around – she better than me, to be sure – and it wasn’t hard to drive to the center of this little village. My mom pointed out where she had a job as a cook when she was a teenager. We passed the cemetery where her parents and her brother are buried. We saw the site where her granddad had a mill long ago. On the outskirts of town, we drove by the home she grew up in (it had been a wedding gift to her parents from her grandfather). That home is now owned by a man who works for my cousin. My cousin, a salt of the earth man and farmer, is the fourth generation to own the family farm, and the men all have the same name: there was I, then II, then III, and now IV, my cousin.

Out at the farm, we are staying in an early 19th century farmhouse, which has been lovingly redone as a rental property. This is the view from my room on the second floor, looking out to the home where my cousin lives. He’s just put up a new milking barn for his Holsteins. It is a big, beautiful structure. Jim contracted with men from a nearby (or sort of nearby) Mennonite community to do the labor in putting the barn up.  The work took about two weeks, once the pieces of the barn had been brought to the site. Jim told me that the work site was silent save for construction noises – no music, no loud talking – just labor. The crew took a 10:00 a.m. break every day, and they knocked off at exactly the same time each day.

Dinner up the hill where my other cousin lives. Lots of family talk, lots of love expended in my mom’s direction. I knew this farm and these woods as a boy – I used to wonder what I’d find if I went into those woods.

Tomorrow we’ll visit other kin, see the high school, and, lest you think this is all bucolic reverie, head to Rochester for “Fringe Fest,” a beloved, unconventional arts festival.

Bill Deverell

My mother and I drove into western Massachusetts and eastern central New York today and, in doing so, motored right into the pages of a Richard Russo novel. We deliberately chose state roads, this and that numbered route (there are a lot of them) and, as we traveled, the trees and scrub turned more yellow, some already tinged with orange and red.

Every town, it seemed, had a bigger or smaller river gorge. Every town, it seemed, had hulking brick mills that dated back at least to the early 19th century. I don’t know about “Satanic.” But they were almost all dark. Beautiful, in their own way, like shipwrecks up against each river and millpond. The towns, save for just a few that we drove through, are struggling – there’s only so many breweries that can start up in an old mill, I think, and make a go of it. The roads are pocked and scarred by the hard winters, and the road crews we saw looked to be doing their best to prep them for the coming snow and sleet. It was never hard to find the wealth or once-wealth in these towns: top of the hills, big and stately homes, many with Ionic or Doric (I confess I have forgotten the difference) columns out front. Some cared for, most not. The landscape is hilly, smaller Berkshires pointing to bigger ones as we got closer to the Massachusetts/Vermont/New York borders.

We got to The Clark, which I’ve always wanted to see. Closed on Mondays.  But it was still worth it to see it and how it sits in its space against the hills about to erupt in autumn colors. It poured for a long while, the rain and wind yanking yellowing leaves into the air.

Marne at the Clark

By dusk, our day-in-the-novel took, well, a novel turn. I’ve wanted our lodging to be different, quaint if we could find it, but no chains, no motels. Last night’s BnB in Fitchburg was lovely, and innkeepers Ryan and Sarah (along with giant dogs Dexter and Winston) were warm and generous hosts. But tonight is something on its own terms. We are at the Amsterdam Castle, a colossal pile atop this village’s biggest hill. Turreted, red stone: it is a castle! But it didn’t start out that way – it’s this town’s late 19th-century armory. The Amsterdam burghers must have been sorely anxious about their town’s peace and probity to build something this big. It is remarkable inside, not least because there are many photographs of the late Queen of England, complete with God Save the King on the piped-in music and suits of armor standing sentry in the vast main hall. If it wasn’t all so interesting and fun, all the messages and symbols and metaphors would make my head hurt.

Amsterdam Castle

Bill Deverell

We had a wonderful meeting of LASA, our high school program, this weekend!  Met at the Los Angeles Public Library – thank you, colleagues! – and learned from Teenscape Librarian Amanda Charles all about the ways in which our public libraries have leapt heroically into the social service provision breach. Then we had the great privilege to spend time with public health professionals, Dr. Cindy Willard and Dr. Kristen Choi. Not only were they inspiring, our LASA students proved once again to be on the ball, deeply interested in contemporary issues and problems, and utterly engaged with our speakers and with each other.  A great day.

Flew that afternoon to Denver, spent the night at my sister’s place with she and my mom. First thing today, my sister drove us to the airport (thanks, sis!), and my mom and I headed off on our “leaf peeping” trip.  From Boston to our first night at a lovely BnB in the western Massachusetts woods. But!  Had to stop at Walden Pond on the way, especially since my terrific USC students are slogging through Walden this week! Knowing that we were close enough to detour there, my mom and I went into the woods deliberately. 

Will be sending occasional notes while on the road with my dear mom.  Tomorrow we hope to see the Clark Museum, which has long been on my list. As for tonight, will soon crash, thinking about Thoreau in that tiny cabin, trying to get to life at its essence, trying to puzzle it all out.

Bill Deverell

I grew up watching Steve Prefontaine run. A remarkable middle- and long-distance runner, “Pre” grew up in Oregon and attended the U of O in the early 1970s. He stood out on the track, with his bushy mustache and long hair. He undoubtedly helped kick off the running craze of the 1970s (which swept up both my parents, who became avid runners for the entire second half of their lives). There’s no telling what Prefontaine might have accomplished at the 1976 Olympics. But all that was tragically cut short when he was killed in a car wreck in Eugene in the spring of 1975. He was only 24 years old.

Prefontaine is a running legend, and the University of Oregon will never forget him. He’s kind of everywhere here, and it is touching. When he ran, fans wore shirts that said “Go Pre.”  Jokesters made up T-shirts that said “Stop Pre.”  You can buy either variety in the University’s “Duck Store.” It’s all cross fertilized with Nike these days; that mega sports empire began here, as it benefitted from, and helped support, the running mania. The U of O is the beneficiary of something like $1 billion dollars from Nike’s Phil Knight, and it shows. The campus architecture is very impressive. Beautiful, sleek and modern glass and steel buildings share the leafy environs with stately old-time collegiate buildings, the kind likely to have AGRICULTURE or MATHEMATICS chiseled up top.

We walked by one older building, and I said to John, “this looks like a history department.” Sure enough, and I got the chance to have a nice twenty-minute visit with a friend.

There is a major world sports competition going on here. Track and field athletes from across the world have converged on the campus for several days of events. We wandered amidst the athletes as we toured campus and, along with our just gawking at their size and athleticism, were struck by the camaraderie and joy they all displayed. It made us hopeful in these dark days.

We are both sorry to see our adventure come to an end. It has been so fun, so interesting, and who knows what seeds have been planted in my son’s head and heart? Nothing may come of this trip in terms of John’s eventual choices around college, but that’s not the point of our visit. It was time spent together in new places, asking questions, having fun, just enjoying a beautiful week in beautiful places.

Bill Deverell

We drove the back way to Salem yesterday from Corvallis.  We did not have a room for the night, so we just scouted around and found a nice hotel right near campus. Willamette is sandwiched between the state capitol, with all its associated office buildings, and a major health facility, with hospital and research operations.  We found a nearby climbing gym, and we had dinner in downtown Salem. Salem is small, pretty, and built around several parks and many mighty trees.

Up early (at least me), wandering about our hotel, chatting with locals. Town gown relations are strong, and Willamette gets a lot of praise for its support of the capitol (80% of the interns working there are Willamette students) and the goodwill established with the city. You could feel it. John and I walked over around 8:30. The campus is being extensively worked on: new turf and sod, paint and plaster, a few new buildings. I reminded John that summertime is fix-up time on campuses, and that a campus that can get cracking in that way is one that has the funds to do it.

“Town and Gown” on the Willamette campus.

At the admissions office, we heard an hour-long presentation from an admissions’ officer – one of the best I’ve ever heard. Clear, concise, nicely illustrated with crisp images. Our speaker knew her stuff, knew her campus. It was impressive. Willamette has dropped their tuition nearly 20%, as a step towards transparency in regard to actual fees. The curriculum is well thought out, well executed. Students have a lot of choice, the liberal arts model works well. Classes are small, residential education seems to be running smoothly. John, who’s not always sure he wants to sit through such presentations, was attentive and interested.

Our tour of campus went well. A young woman from San Jose led us around. The campus dates to 1842 (it started as a missionary school for Indigenous youth), and while there aren’t any buildings that date to that era, the campus is an interesting mix of old and new. I was taken by the “hearth” concept. In academic units or departments, there is a central space (surrounded by faculty offices) with a long table. Students can just drop by, set up study space, and the faculty members are encouraged to drop in and chat with the students. Apparently, it works well. It’s more casual than an office hour visit, and the students get the added advantage of access to more than a single faculty member.

John on the Willamette campus.

The campus flies banners in honor of student, alumni, and faculty accomplishment. I was struck when I saw one honoring Jim Cuno, class of 1973. He recently retired from his post atop The Getty in L.A.  Our Willamette visit gave John another data point. We’ve lined up four very different campuses in our Oregon swing, mostly by accident.  An urban campus, a big state school in the countryside, a liberal arts school tucked into a beautiful setting, and the great big flagship public university in Eugene.

That big one, the U of O, is our next, and last, stop on this adventure.

Bill Deverell

Up early in downtown Corvallis. Walked fifty paces to breakfast at our now-favorite diner. Saw the locals: farmers, a women’s seniors tennis team, retirees, some cyclists riding through. Off to Oregon State – ten or twelve blocks away.  It seems even bigger today. The sports facilities are amazing, as OSU is a major D-1 school in the former-Pac-12-now-Pac-10-maybe-less. We killed a little time in the bookstore. Big and friendly. Almost got a few trinkets and then thought better of it.

Gathered just before ten for the tour and, for a moment, I was transported back several years to when daughter Helen and I did the same thing at a whole different set of schools. There’s a tableau pattern to this. Kids from all over, some nervous, some not. With a parent or two, sometimes a grandmother. A few siblings, always younger, along for the ride whether they like it or not.

Still Life with Teenager, Salem

We had two terrific guides. A young woman from Los Banos in the Central Valley (“at the crossroads of California”), and a young guy from an Oregon town of 600 people – high school graduating class of 12.  He was the only one of his class to go off to college. I don’t know anything of his hometown except that it is on the banks of the Columbia River.

Oregon State is that classic mix of old collegiate architecture (nary a window) and gleaming steel and window buildings. Big quads. More than one shiny new athletic stadiums (stadia?).  We had an excellent tour from these two.  Anticipated nearly every question, nicely paced between big overhangs of shade provided by giant trees. John loved it. The research record of the campus speaks for itself – lots of federal funds. Really strong in vet science, forestry, and a whole lot more. 15,000 acres of surrounding forest that is brought into the research and teaching mission of the campus as much as possible.

My good friend, Steve Hackel, used to teach here. Now he lives less than a mile from us in Pasadena and commutes to Riverside. Steve is, among other academic accomplishments, the biographer of Father Serra, and he knows more about mission-era California than anyone I know. He also knows about the Gathering Together Farm in nearby Philomath (on Grange Hall Road, no less). We zipped out there to have lunch in their beautiful little dining room in the midst of a big farm. Sorry: I have to use a California analogy. It was like a downhome, much smaller, on the farm, every bit as good, Chez Panisse (something tells me they know one another). My squash soup had been squash in the ground hours earlier, I bet. The cheese on our cheese pizza had been cow’s milk not that long ago or, at least, had become cheese in what seemed only minutes before we ate it. Great tip, Professor Hackel! Met a very friendly ag scientist while there; she’d done her undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc work at OSU (“I loved it”), and is now a research scientist with the Dept of Agriculture at their nearby research installation. If we could have bought and brought home the tomatoes, onions, bread, and berries from the farm store, we would have. As it was, we were content (very) with lunch, plus a chocolate chip cookie and a potato old fashioned donut glazed with chocolate.

Dusk, Salem

Now we are in Salem, state capitol. I cycled through her decades ago, and I remember it pretty well.  I don’t think it has changed much. It is a beautiful little city. Willamette University is in the middle of it all; it looks like the state government and the university make a seam right in downtown. We are staying within walking distance at the big hotel. “Oh,” said our kind desk clerk, “you’re here for Willamette?  You get the discount.” Which was one-quarter off our nightly stay.

Touring campus tomorrow a.m. Then off to Eugene and the U of O. More great talk with John today about the mysteries of college, of majors, of careers. More about the dance between planning and serendipity. When we met the ag scientist at lunch, she zeroed in on John (which I appreciated), asking him questions, drawing him out. My heart swelled as I watched him talk with her about what he was excited about, what he was thinking.

One step at a time.