Local Heroes 2004

Five people we can all be grateful for this Thanksgiving

Susan Mason

Susan Mason

Photo By Tom Angel

Many threads go into creating the fabric of a community, but none are more important to its welfare—or more beautiful to behold—than those woven by volunteers, enlightened citizens who give their time and energy to helping others and building a better world.

We who live in Chico are so blessed. Even with its problems, this is a wonderful place to be, a vital and attractive community large enough to offer a banquet of cultural and recreational activities and small enough to be friendly and to fit into nature, not dominate her. It’s also a town with a rich history of volunteerism and civic-mindedness dating back to its founders, John and Annie Bidwell.

Each year at this time the Chico News & Review selects several people to honor as Local Heroes. These are folks with big hearts and unselfish souls who give of themselves because they love people and they love Chico and they want to make life better for all of us. We’re grateful for them and all the others like them.

Pal of the park
Susan Mason brings work gloves and energy to keeping Bidwell Park healthy

Thanksgiving weekend. In so many ways, it’s even better than Thanksgiving itself. No more guests, no more cooking and no more dishes. Just leftovers and a warm couch to sink into, while the hours float away. But if the warmth of hearth and the trytophan keep you down too long (giving you time to add up the obscene number of calories you’ve ingested), you might want to get outside.

To get your blood moving, make your way down to South Park Drive, where Fourth Street enters Bidwell Park, pull on a pair of work gloves and start your Saturday morning with a vigorous workout pulling up invasive privet with Susan Mason and the rest of the Friends of Bidwell Park volunteers.

“After Thanksgiving dinner, [they can] come down and work it off,” Mason suggests, only half-joking.

As president of the organization since its inception a year and a half ago, Mason has spearheaded the advocacy group’s volunteer efforts, adding 100 volunteer hours per month toward the removal of invasive plants, trail maintenance and trash removal throughout Bidwell Park.

In garden gloves and floppy hat, Mason is in the park most days of the week, yanking out aggressive patches of such invasive plants as Japanese privet and bladder senna, usually with a handful of helpers.

“Last year we took out about a quarter-million bladder senna from 60 sites,” Mason said.

Mason moved to Chico from Santa Rosa five years ago and cites the allure of the park as one of the big draws for her. Initially a trail maintenance volunteer, Mason and others organized Friends of Bidwell Park to increase community awareness of and involvement in issues that affected the park.

“A lot of people say they love the park here,” Mason pointed out, but for whatever reason that love doesn’t translate into knowledge of the many issues that affect the park’s health.

“We’ve put in 1,700 volunteer hours in the park,” she said in reference to the 100 hours per month that just a handful of volunteers have given since Friends began its efforts, adding that, with just a few more regulars, “It would just as easy to have 200 hours per month.”

With the 100-year anniversary of Chico’s “crown jewel” fast approaching, Mason and the Friends are making plans to take advantage of the increased visibility. In addition to continuing to encourage “widespread public participation” in the current restructuring of the park’s Master Management Plan, the group has been polishing up the Annie’s Glen recreation area, removing non-native plants and re-introducing pre-European native plants in their place.

Laurel Blankenship

Photo By Tom Angel

Friends of Bidwell Park is also organizing a series of Bidwell Park Centennial weekly activities to begin in January and continue into summer. Led by various parks and environmental groups—Friends of Bidwell Park, Chico Creek Nature Center, Sierra Club, the city Parks Department, etc.—the weekly activities will include volunteer programs and seminars as well as an extensive selection of educational walks on such topics as: “Who Built It? History of Park Projects” or “Maidu Medicine Walk.”

For information on upcoming volunteer programs and other Friends of Bidwell Park activities, check out www.friendsofbidwellpark.org or contact Susan Mason at 892-1666 or info@friendsofbidwellpark.org.
—Jason Cassidy

A voice for the voiceless
Laurel Blankinship goes above and beyond to help those less fortunate

When I called Laurel Blankinship at her office, she was in the middle of dealing with what she called a crisis involving an increase in premiums that would affect her coworkers’ health insurance while at the same time fielding calls from clients.

The interesting part is that Blankinship was on vacation—or, as her co-workers call it, a “Laurel vacation”

“My work is done only if I leave town for a few days,” Blankinship joked.

Blankinship has been a paralegal at Legal Services of Northern California since 1986, the same year she moved to Chico. She works with people whose welfare benefits have been cut or denied. She also serves as union president for the company.

She also is active with the Esplanade League, a liberal local political-action group, and volunteers at the Peace and Justice Center, as well as hosting The Peace and Justice Hour on KZFR Community Radio every other week.

In conversations with the many people who have worked with Blankinship, comments like, “She’s my heroine” and “I’m a huge fan,” always pepper the discussion.

City Councilman Andy Holcombe, who was staff attorney at LSNC when Blankinship started, said she brings a lot of infectious energy to everything she does. Her “inner child” hasn’t quite grown up yet, he added.

“She’s always a good party guest,” Holcombe said. “She carries a kazoo with her at all times.”

Blankinship is a true hero because she is passionate without being egotistical. She simply refers to herself as the conduit between the person needing public assistance and the person who holds the key. She said there’s always a sense of urgency with her job because it can literally mean the difference between a child eating or going hungry.

“Many times I’ll have people on the phone crying who have no food, and I can hear a child in the background,” she said. “And I can feel the outrage crawl up my arm and into my heart.”

In 1996, Blankinship created an emergency food closet at her office, where a stockpile of non-perishable food items is stored, because she said the reality is that some people are not eligible for services such as the Food Stamp Program and CalWORKs.

“If she sees something that needs to be fixed, she doesn’t wait around for other people to decide,” said Beau Grosscup, who alternates weeks with her hosting the Peace and Justice Hour.

Wes Dempsey

Photo By Tom Angel

Blankinship was offered the radio job in 1995, after she made a guest appearance on an episode about former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who was proposing drastic cuts to food programs.

Shelly Mariposa, who is the underwriting coordinator at KZFR, called Blankinship “humble and articulate.”

Mariposa remembered a particular episode that Blankinship hosted last summer about the strictness of welfare fraud prosecution. Blankinship asked District Attorney Mike Ramsey if he felt a kinship with Javert, the relentless detective from Les Misérables who couldn’t see past Jean Valjean’s petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread.

Blankinship said the Victor Hugo novel plays a large role in her desire to give “a voice to the voiceless.”

“I can’t imagine we’ve gotten to a place where helping poor people is looked down on,” she said. “Morality is feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and championing those who are powerless.”
—Mark Lore

Nature’s advocate
Wes Dempsey has devoted his life to teaching us about the natural world

When I searched Wes Dempsey’s name on the CN&R’s online archives, which go back only four years, I got 96 hits, most of them calendar listings. By the time you read this, the number will be up to 97.

That’s because next weekend Dempsey will lead yet another of his nature hikes, something he’s been doing on almost a weekly basis, at no charge, for more than 40 years now. Tens of thousands of people have joined him on these tours and learned from and been inspired by him.

When it comes to local plant and tree life, it’s safe to say that Wes Dempsey is one of the most important local figures since, well, John Bidwell himself. He’s a teacher, not a land conservationist or a political activist, but his contribution to our awareness of and knowledge about the natural world we live in is unequalled.

At 78, Dempsey is still very active. He’s slender and robust and rides his bicycle everywhere. If it weren’t for some hearing loss, he’d be as fit as a 50-year-old. He grew up in Massachusetts, where his dad was a professor of horticulture. “Dad often was a judge at county fairs,” he said in a recent interview, “and I’d go along with him, so I grew up with plants, you might say.”

With a Ph.D. in plant genetics from UC Davis, he came to Chico 50 years ago to teach in the newly formed Agriculture Department, moving a decade later to Biological Sciences, where he taught botany and genetics until he retired in 1992.

“I’ve taught 33 different courses,” he said. “That’s more than any human being can know, honestly.” He laughed at the idea.

In the early 1960s he helped found the local chapter of the Sierra Club and also started—and for many years led—its program of nature hikes, which still offer dozens of hikes each year to hundreds of people. He also leads edible-plant tours through the Chico Creek Nature Center and field trips sponsored by the California Native Plant Society, and 10 times a year he leads a tour of the Arboretum, or tree collection, on the Chico State University campus. He estimates that he’s led more than 1,000 field trips so far.

Dempsey also frequently lectures at local garden clubs, state parks seminars and other such gatherings, and he writes about nature, too, publishing articles in teachers’ bulletins and other campus journals. He’s also developed pamphlet map guides for both the Yahi Trail in Bidwell Park and the campus Arboretum and serves on the campus Arboretum Committee, which makes recommendations on tree plantings.

“I’m a teacher,” he said simply, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.

Chris Nelson

Photo By Tom Angel

Patricia Edelman, who chairs the Department of Biological Sciences at the university and has known and worked with Dempsey for decades, agrees wholeheartedly. “He’s a person who’s not stopped teaching, even though he’s retired,” she said. “He just loves to teach, and he has so much to offer people.”
—Robert Speer

Quiet determination
Chris Nelson may be the hardest-working activist in Chico

On an overcast Veterans Day, Chris Nelson had organized a demonstration outside Rep. Wally Herger’s office. The day before she’d sent out about a half-dozen e-mails. Even on such short notice, people had responded.

Gathered this gray day on the redbrick sidewalk fronting the Chico-based congressman’s Philadelphia Square office were 15 people holding the signs they had fashioned overnight, each protesting the Iraq war, yet each conveying a thoughtful and positive message.

We’re fortunate that Nelson has such people around her, because like a true local hero, she is uncomfortable talking about herself. When we contacted her and told her what we were up to, she said simply, “Oh my,” and then proceeded to talk not about herself, but rather the people around her and those she helps.

Nelson is a family planning nurse practitioner who’s been providing reproductive health care services in local family planning clinics for 20 years. She is currently working for the Butte County Juvenile Health Services.

Whether she’s organizing peaceful protests, raising money for the chronically struggling Chico Peace and Justice Center, teaching women’s health classes or making yearly trips to Guatemala, as she’s done since 1994, bringing health care to the poverty-stricken women there, Nelson doesn’t do it for the recognition. She draws very little attention to herself but is nearly a constant presence in local progressive causes.

Nelson was born in Minnesota and has lived in Newark, N.J., as a VISTA volunteer, St. Louis, Arcata, Los Gatos and Santa Barbara. She came to Chico in 1978 to get a master’s degree in nursing but never did. She’s interested, she said, in empowering women by teaching them to understand their bodies and take control of their health.

“I’m not the smartest or most articulate person,” she said. “but I have a good truth sense.”

To really get Nelson’s story you have to talk to those who know her, who not by coincidence are people with a strong activist streak themselves.

Tom Haithcock, director of the Chico Creek Nature Center and former director of the Peace & Justice Center, has known Nelson for 14 years and, like a lot of her acquaintances and friends, speaks with a certain reverence.

“She’s been tireless in her efforts and hasn’t budged an inch,” Haithcock said. “When I was the coordinator of the Peace and Justice Center, Chris was the most active volunteer we had.

“Her dedication to the cause over time has been what she’s most left with me—somehow staying optimistic over the countless defeats for the cause.”

Cindy Carlson, volunteer coordinator with the Peace & Justice Center, said she first met Nelson sometime in the late 1970s. “I’d just graduated from Chico State, and she was very involved with the Chico Feminist Women’s Health Center,” Carlson said. “She was teaching classes on women’s health issues. I just remember what a strong presence she was then. … She’s a woman who is totally willing to stand up for what she believes in, and it’s admirable to see her still at it after all these years.”

Laurie Niles works at Planned Parenthood and has known Nelson for about 20 years.

Norman Corwin

Photo By Tom Angel

“She epitomizes taking her energy in the direction of her passions, whether her cause is health care, peace or equality,” Niles said. “I’ve seen her go from high-energy-end protest to a woman of wisdom who can bring in younger women and mentor them. This is one of her outstanding qualities. She is a very nurturing person.

“I listen to her sometimes when she’s filling in on one of the KZFR shows like The Point, and I have trouble leaving my house. She is so good with callers. Her counseling skills just flow; she’s really gotten to that calm space in her life.”

Michael Pike and Nelson have been married for two years. “Her compassion covers such a wide range of interests, things that she cares strongly and passionately about,” Pike said. “She feels you have a personal responsibility for what your county or your city does.

“She will not pay for war, and she backs up what she feels. She’s lobbied Congress to create a peace tax. And she goes to Guatemala every year.”

Pike said he was burned out—and a bit defeated—by the recent elections, but not Nelson. “I went skiing,” he said. “Chris organized the Wally Herger protest. She’s willing to do the work. She doesn’t just talk about it.”
—Tom Gascoyne

Nursery man
Norman Corwin puts his skills to work at the Little Red Hen

Walking through the rows of plants at the Little Red Hen garden center, a nonprofit nursery at the corner of Eighth and Wall streets whose earnings go to help disabled people, Norman Corwin stopped to touch a whip of a maple tree that had shed most of its leaves. He gently touched the pencil-thin trunk and leaned in to take a closer look. The buds were healthy, and he was sure it was going to make it through the winter.

A voice from behind him exclaimed, “Norman!” Out of the plants came a young woman with hands covered in soil who was obviously happy to see him. She wrapped her arms around Corwin, they shared a warm embrace, and then just as quickly she disappeared back into the plants. Corwin wore a great smile from the exchange.

Corwin, who is 77 and says he’s “enjoying every year of it,” came to Chico 52 years ago, attended art school and went into the clothing business. He’s officially retired from the family business, Corwin Bridal and Tuxedo, but he still spends time fixing things in the downtown store. He currently has plans to paint the ceiling. “I painted the ceiling 20 years ago,” he said with a laugh, so it is time to paint it again.

Teresa Wolk, executive director at the Little Red Hen, said Corwin has been volunteering for the nursery since they started up and is always stopping in and asking what they need. “Everyone really likes him,” she said, “He’s really a gentle soul and eloquent man.”

A tour of the facilities of Little Red Hen is a tour of Corwin’s handiwork. Near the entrance are some plant displays that he built; farther along is the prefab garden shed that he helped to insulate; and in the office is a great stainless-steel-topped desk that Corwin built.

Corwin tends to downplay the idea that he was doing anything out of the ordinary and often points out that he doesn’t work alone. “A lot of other people help,” he said. “They don’t put their name on it, they just do it.”

Working in the clothing business is what got him started building displays years ago. He’d see a display in a catalog for $500 or $1,000 and think to himself, “I can build that for less.”

Speaking matter-of-factly about constructing the plant displays at the Little Red Hen, he said, “My business was really display, promotion and merchandising, so I built some fixtures that I thought would help them sell plants.”

Dora Corwin bubbled with enthusiasm while talking about her father-in-law. She was quick to point out what a skilled builder he is and how he’s done so much for the community. She brought up the story of the Hmong strawberry stand that was burned down by arsonists in 2002. Norman was instrumental in organizing his Jewish congregation to rebuild the structure.

As for his motivation, he said he does it “because it’s the right thing.” He sees a need and is glad to be able to help. “It is good to not just think of yourself, and actually it is satisfying for me,” he went on. “It is a good way to meet people and do a good thing.”
—Carla Resnick