Gifts that keep on giving

The CN&R celebrates selfless citizens who continually enhance our community

Barbara and John Copeland

Barbara and John Copeland

Photo By Brittni Zacher

Each year, when the Chico News & Review asks readers what’s best about our city, a few answers continually resurface. First, almost always, is Bidwell Park. The trees usually rank second or third, and right up there with ’em are the people.

That’s why we never have trouble finding honorees for our Local Heroes issue, an annual tradition for the week of Thanksgiving. We had so many nominees this time that we did a tandem profile (to use a bicycling term apropos to the duo), and a profile on a husband wouldn’t have been complete without the wife.

Chico is blessed to have so many individuals who give of themselves freely to make the community a better place. We’re proud to salute fiv… si … seven of them here.

Following the Bidwells’ model
John and Barbara Copeland

John and Barbara Copeland are a perfect example of the kind of civic engagement that has characterized Chico’s leading married couples since John and Annie Bidwell set the template. Both have devoted countless hours to bettering the community, and in honoring them as a couple, the CN&R also honors the shared values that clearly are a central part of their marriage.

He is a pediatrician, retired now, who was in private practice for 25 years, from the early 1950s until the late 1970s, when he took a job as a physician at the university’s Student Health Center. The change freed up his time, and he became very active, serving eight years on the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission. He would have stayed on longer, he said, but he and Barbara moved into a house on Bidwell Avenue, outside city limits, and he was no longer eligible.

He also served 12 years on the board of the Bidwell Mansion Association and for many years as a leader in the California Native Plant Society. A lover of the outdoors, he is also a member of Friends of Bidwell Park.

For years Copeland has coordinated the Native Plant Society’s effort to eradicate the invasive, non-native Spanish broom from Upper Park. He doesn’t do much of the actual work now, but he keeps some of the important tools at his California Park home.

Barbara Copeland was an elected Chico Unified School District board member for eight years. She’s a long-time member of the League of Women Voters (for years she’s written the league’s digest of ballot propositions) and is currently secretary of the board of the Boys and Girls Club. She is also a volunteer at the Patrick Ranch, south of town, where she is the gardener in charge of the grounds—a big job, as anyone who has visited the historic site knows.

Professionally, she was a teacher who got her credential while serving on the School Board and after her tenure there taught at Chico High School, where for many years she was the adviser to the student newspaper, the Red & Gold.

The Copelands have five adult children, four of whom are teachers.

—Robert Speer

Jack Rawlins

Photo By Thomas Del Brase

Sustainability incarnate
Jack Rawlins

Even in his retirement years, Jack Rawlins is a get-it-done kind of guy. He’s 92 now, yet sharp as a tack and driven as ever.

If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because over the past decade Rawlins has become synonymous with Chico State University. In many ways, he’s the momentum behind the university’s aggressive environmental initiative. His behind-the-scenes work has spurred substantial changes campus-wide that have led to widespread recognition.

He isn’t an educator, and up until fairly recently had no formal affiliation with the university, though his adult son is a retired Chico State English professor. Yet eight years ago, Rawlins set up a generous endowment at the university. Established through the College of Natural Sciences, it funds several student environmental awards as well as a professorship in environmental literacy.

Jim Pushnik, who’s served as the Rawlins professor for five years, teaches two courses and is charged with integrating sustainability components throughout the campus curriculum. At last count, he’s made that happen in 147 classes. Pushnik credits Rawlins for many things, including his drive and vision to reach out to young people—future policy leaders and businesspeople.

“Jack is truly a hero of mine,” he said. “He’s someone who is firmly committed to what he’s trying to do.”

Rawlins’ interest in sustainability is self-taught, developed over his lifetime.

His story, the abridged version, begins nearby in Butte City. He moved to Chico when he was 6—when only two city streets were paved and the sidewalks were wooden planks. He went to Chico State and then to UC Berkeley, where he earned an undergraduate business degree.

After spending many years in the insurance industry in San Francisco, Rawlins resigned and moved back to Chico, intent on raising his children in a safer environment. His entrepreneurial spirit soon took him from insurance agent to owner of several businesses, including a liquid fertilizer manufacturing company he later sold to Chevron.

That venture spurred his interest in farming. Rawlins prided himself on being able to operate every piece of equipment he owned. He spent more than 30 years in agriculture but never made a profit from the farming itself. Instead, he took undeveloped parcels, turned them into prime farmland, sold the farms and bought bigger properties on which to start the process over again.

When his four children reached adulthood, regular hunting and fishing trips in places like Alaska and Canada gave way to the wilds of Africa. He and his late wife traveled extensively throughout many African countries, for several weeks at a time. The trips resulted in three record-book trophy antelope, which Rawlins eventually gifted to Chico State. (The donation more than a decade ago led him to the conclusion the university needed a proper museum, so he helped establish the Natural History Museum Advisory Board.)

Each time he returned to Africa, though, he noticed environmental changes, such as dwindling forests and increases in poaching by villagers who were struggling to stay alive. During visits to Iceland, Europe and South America, he realized the destruction went beyond Africa.

“I thought if something isn’t done, there isn’t going to be an Earth in another 100 years, or at least there isn’t going to be any life on it,” he said.

Rawlins is not shy about wanting results. He meets monthly with a committee to learn of challenges and progress made at Chico State. While he’s pleased when he reads about Chico’s successes, such as ranking No. 8 among the world’s top 15 green colleges and universities, his work is nowhere near being finished.

With a wry smile, he said, “I’m a pretty hard guy to satisfy.”

—Melissa Daugherty

Joe Person Sr.

Photo By Mark Lore

Monumental achiever
Joe Person Sr.

There’s a sticker on the back of Joe Person Sr.'s vehicle with the words “Fulfill the Dream” next to a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The message is rather fitting considering that the idea of honoring the slain civil rights leader by renaming a major street in Chico seemed close to impossible three years ago.

A lot has happened in that time. After city officials decided that changing the name of Warner Street would, among other things, be too costly to residents and businesses that occupy the street, Person stepped in to help shift focus to installing a monument in Community Park and changing the name of Whitman Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

Both happened this year.

It’s taken the effort of many, but Person, who chairs the Chico Community Coalition, is the one who really pushed to get the dream realized.

“I nearly burned myself out, being an old man and all,” Person said recently.

He was only partly joking. Person admitted he was still recovering from the Nov. 11 celebration at the Dorothy Johnson Center in the Chapman neighborhood he’s championed for years. At the event, he was presented with a framed photo, the white matting signed by community members congratulating him on a job well done.

Person doesn’t look his age—he has nary a wrinkle, and sports a fashionable, thin salt-and-pepper goatee. In fact, his gray hair might be the only giveaway. His dogged involvement as a community activist belies his 78 years.

Chico is quite a different place from the Deep South of his upbringing. Person grew up during the Depression in Birmingham, Ala. His father worked in one of the largest steel mills in the South. Times were tough, but Person went on to receive his high school diploma before he was drafted by the Army in 1951 and served in Korea for 16 months.

Soon after his discharge, Person met Pearl, his wife. They had two sons (Joe Jr. and Johnny Floyd) and one daughter (Deborah). He worked in a steel mill for eight years and ran his first restaurant and nightclub for five years in East Chicago, Ind.

After hearing about a small town in California called Oroville, Person came out with a suitcase and $600 in May 1964, just months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Person was drawn to Chico; he found work, and the family soon followed.

Over the past 43 years, Joe and Pearl have planted their roots firmly in Chico. Pearl is a retired teacher, and though Joe has retired from the restaurant business, he’s still active in the Chico Community Coalition (called the Economic Opportunity Council when he joined it a year after coming to town).

Person says he’s witnessed all kinds of discrimination in his lifetime, no matter where he’s lived—from “cowboy” cops in the South who called out blacks for not doffing their hats, to homeowners in Chico who refused to rent to them.

The reasons for creating a memorial for Dr. King are obvious. Without any explanation, he pointed out a quote etched into the marble base of the statue: “We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”

And while the culmination of the past three years has been satisfying, he’s not resting on his laurels. He remains adamant about problems plaguing black communities across the nation, especially drugs.

“I don’t have that many years left,” he said, “but the rest of my life is going to be dedicated to saving the black community.”

—Mark Lore

Steve O’Bryan (left) and Kirk Monfort

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Shifting into a new gear
Steve O’Bryan and Kirk Monfort

Planning commissioners may have the most thankless posts in Chico. They must wade through mounds of documents for every new development proposed in the city. They must weigh an array of complex factors, using the general plan—with all its maddening inconsistencies—as their guide. Then, invariably, they make someone mad with the decisions they’ve made, and they wind up scrutinized and criticized in the media and the blogosphere. Oh, and after all that, an approval or denial can be summarily overturned.

Their reward: a new line for the résumé, which probably matters only to the ones crazy enough to run for City Council.

Why would any normal person—say, a bike-shop owner or a college instructor—volunteer for this ordeal?

Good question. For Steve O’Bryan and Kirk Monfort, it doesn’t have an easy answer.

“You’re not getting anything but some perverse level of satisfaction,” O’Bryan said. “Kirk and I will be riding [bicycles] and talking about stuff, and to some degree our agendas or some emotional part is being met.

“I couldn’t tell you what part of me leads me to this stuff—I don’t know. On a certain level, though, it does get empowering when people rely on you to make decisions or don’t want to pay the price to go do it.”

Part of that price is fatigue. Both O’Bryan and Monfort stepped down from the Planning Commission this fall—O’Bryan in the midst of his first term, Monfort after nearly two decades, minus a few months off here and there. The politicized coverage of their departure obscured the extent of their involvement at the highest level of civic volunteerism.

Since the mid-'80s, O’Bryan has served on the Parking Place Commission, the Downtown Chico Business Association board, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, the 1994 General Plan Task Force, the Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Chico school board. All the while he’s run Pullins Cyclery, a Chico institution.

Monfort, on the faculty at Chico State, first got appointed to the Planning Commission in 1990. He joined O’Bryan on the General Plan Task Force as an alternate, and just this month the City Council selected him for the General Plan Advisory Committee involved with the new update.

Both have been fixtures with the Chico Velo bike club—O’Bryan since ‘72, Monfort since the early ‘80s. Oh, and for the past 10 years, O’Bryan has hosted a program on community radio station KZFR.

And, again, the compensation for all this work? Zero. Maybe even less than zero.

“I wonder how much my big mouth has cost me over the years,” O’Bryan said. “I can guarantee it’s tens of thousands of dollars, because people get pissed and they hold onto it for a long time. In private business, you just get hammered when you make hard decisions—people boycott you. You can be doing a lot of good things for the community, but all they remember is that one thing they didn’t like you doing.

“But ultimately, someone has to make those decisions … and nowadays, because of my public service, I feel like I’m capable of a lot of things that at one time I wasn’t capable of doing. It’s fun to be involved.”

That’s why he hasn’t stopped cold turkey. Behind the scenes, he’s been working with the Butte County Association of Governments to secure a Safe Paths to Schools grant from Caltrans. Fittingly, those paths are for bicycles.

Monfort, meanwhile, has made a two-year commitment to aggregate public comment and voice public concerns about the general plan.

“I think it’s one’s duty to do something for your community, rather than take advantage or complain,” Monfort said. “I never felt like I need this job; I think I can do it, and if nobody else wants to do it, I’ll do it.”

So he might be back on the Planning Commission when the GPAC adjourns? “Maybe, but my wife is thinking, after 20-some years, she’d like a little time.”

—Evan Tuchinsky

Planting roses in Chico
Marilyn Warrens

Marilyn Warrens

Photo By Robert Speer

Ask Marilyn Warrens about her contributions to Chico, and instead of a list you’ll get a story … or several stories. Like about the time she organized the Bicentennial Fourth of July fireworks display—that would be in 1976, of course—at the Chico airport.

“The Bicentennial Committee wanted a big show,” she said. “So we raised about $3,000, which was a lot of money in those days. Well, the night of the Fourth, the line of cars going out to the airport was unbelievable. There were so many people. At one point all I could do was pray, ‘Oh, please God, let this be spectacular!’ “

She laughed at the memory, adding that, yes, the fireworks were wonderful.

Or there was the time when she got the idea that Chico should celebrate the 100th anniversary, in 1968, of Annie Bidwell’s taking up residence in Bidwell Mansion.

“The Bidwell Mansion Association had been trying to get money from the state to redo the mansion, and this was a perfect opportunity to focus on that,” she explained. So she organized the first Fiesta Rancho Chico, in the process establishing Las Señoras, a group that continues to this day to represent the city as hostesses at events. She got schoolkids involved via a children’s parade, brought in the antique car club, and arranged for booths to be set up in Children’s Playground.

It’s been an October tradition ever since.

In the mid-1970s, when the university wanted to refurbish the seats and rugs in Laxson Auditorium, it turned to Warrens to lead the effort. She and the group she organized raised more than $100,000, a huge sum at the time, to turn Chico’s most important artistic venue into a world-class auditorium.

When former university President Manuel Esteban decided he didn’t want to live in the President’s Mansion, nobody quite knew what to do with the historic building designed by renowned California architect Julia Morgan, of San Simeon fame. Finally, not long after her husband died, in 1995, Warrens stepped in, offering to put up the money to refurbish it. Today it is the Albert E. Warrens Reception Center, where the university holds social gatherings.

Warrens is 82 now and slowing down, she says, but you wouldn’t know it watching her talk. She’s a lively, expressive woman with a ready laugh who clearly delights in life.

She’s been in love with Chico ever since she and her doctor husband arrived here in 1961, and she has shown that affection through community service in so many ways that she has become one of the most honored women in the town’s history. And, because she’s an unpretentious, small-town Texas girl at heart, she’s made a multitude of friends along the way.

You may have read lately that she’d donated $100,000 for a community rose garden. She loves roses, and they’ve been a theme in her life. She once owned a clothing boutique called La Bella Rosa, for example. The rose garden is just the most recent of so many contributions we can’t list them all here. And being named a CN&R Local Hero is merely the latest in a long list of recognitions, including the Chamber of Commerce’s J. Pat Lappin Award for community service (1981), the Mayor’s Arts Award (2006) and the CEPCO Excellence in Community Service Award (2007).

But Marilyn Warrens isn’t in it for awards. She in it for the love. As she puts it, “I just feel so lucky being here. … I have been so blessed to be able to do things that benefit the community.”

—Robert Speer