Local Heroes 2010

Six people we can all be thankful for

Every year at this time Chico News & Review editors select a small number of people to honor as Local Heroes for their exemplary spirit of giving back to the community.

It’s not a competition, though we do solicit nominations. Our main criterion is that the honorees have shown an exceptional willingness to devote their time and energy as volunteers, without seeking recognition or remuneration in any form.

We try to come up with a diverse group. Volunteerism takes many forms. When you read about the six people selected this year, you’ll see that they range from the chairman of the Enloe Medical Center Board of Trustees and a retired general contractor who oversees home construction for Habitat for Humanity to a young woman who believes deeply in the mission of the Stonewall Alliance and is working to improve services for its members.

It’s no exaggeration to say that volunteerism is the heart of the community. Chico is a great place to live in part because so many of its residents value it and wish to work to make it even better. These Local Heroes awards are our way of giving them thanks.

Dan Braz

Dan’s the man

Dan Braz

On a recent morning, Dan Braz was on the roof of one of the three houses currently under construction by Habitat for Humanity of Butte County on East 16th Street.

The spry 72-year-old has kind eyes that twinkle beneath the floppy brim of his hat.

Braz, a retired general contractor nominated by several CN&R readers as a local hero, has been a Habitat for Humanity volunteer for 16 years, since before his retirement. He has overseen and participated in the construction of 30 Habitat homes for low-income families.

“I’m considered the construction manager,” Braz offered, before declining to toot his own horn. (“What am I supposed to say?” he asked, visibly shy about the publicity.)

Dan Bequette—another volunteer, who was busy laying kitchen-floor tile—chimed in enthusiastically: “He’s the biggest physical contributor [to the building of Habitat homes]. He does more work than anybody.”

Bequette didn’t stop there.

“He’s one of the nicest guys I know,” Bequette said. “He never blows his own horn. You get people working on these things that don’t ever know which end of the hammer to hit the nail with. Dan never gets upset. He makes sure all the supplies are here for each job, and he trains everybody.”

Bequette’s praise echoed the comments made by those nominating him for the honor.

“He is simply amazing,” said one e-mail. “The time, expertise, care and gentle nature that Dan gives all make these volunteer-built Habitat homes possible.”

“He is a humble man of faith and is devoting his retired years to building affordable homes for the needy,” another e-mail said. “He is truly an inspiration to all who have the good fortune to work with him.”

On any given Saturday (the “prime workday” for Habitat projects, though Braz is at it six days a week), Braz teaches, supervises and works alongside 50-70 volunteer workers.

“If I had a mission statement,” Braz finally said, “I’d say it’d be that it’s so humbling to see all those folks who come out to help, who want to give back to the community. That’s what’s so motivating to me—the folks from Butte County are very giving.”

“Dan takes time to teach anyone the various aspects and techniques of home building,” Bequette said later, by phone, explaining that he “didn’t want to embarrass Dan” by saying any more in front of him. “Additionally, Dan shows you how to be a better human being. I’m proud to have Dan Braz as a friend.”

—Christine G.K. LaPado

Matthews D. Jackson Sr.

Putting down deep roots

Matthews D. Jackson Sr.

Matt Jackson grew up as a self-described “Army brat,” which means that as a kid he moved a lot, never attending the same school two years in a row all the way through high school. So when he came to Chico in the late 1960s to attend college—after a stint in the Army that took him to Vietnam—and saw what a great town it was, he decided he was done moving.

He got a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s in public administration, met and married his wife, Billie, who was from Oroville, and in 1974 took a job at Butte College teaching English and coordinating student activities. He rose through the administrative ranks, and when he retired in 2006 he was assistant superintendent and vice president for education and student programs and services. For her part, Billie Jackson had a long and distinguished career as an administrator at Chico State University.

The Jacksons have two children. Matt Jr. is a planning manager for the city of Bellevue, Wash., and Joy is a vice president with The Associated Press.

Along the way, Jackson Sr. became an important leader in the community. He served on the boards of directors of the Chico Chamber of Commerce and the Butte County United Way. He was on the city of Chico Alcohol and Drug Abuse Committee and was vice president of the Butte County Economic Development Corp. He was president of the Chico Rotary Club and founding president of the Boys and Girls Club of Chico. He also helped to create the Leadership Chico and Butte Pioneers programs.

These days, he’s focused mainly on his work as a member of the university’s Advisory Board and, most of all, his role as chairman of the Enloe Medical Center Board of Trustees. He says he and the other trustees are confident in the leadership of Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood and have established good relations with all the employee groups, something that didn’t exist when he joined the board in 2007.

Jackson wants people to know that he doesn’t do all this volunteer work out of a sense of altruism. “It’s selfish on my part,” he insists. “I enjoy it. It makes me happy.”

Now 64, he says he “can’t stand being idle.” When he isn’t attending a meeting or a fundraising dinner, he’s playing golf or walking around his California Park neighborhood, enjoying the town he calls home.

–—Robert Speer

Jackey Humphrey-Straub

Speaking up, loud and proud

Jackey Humphrey-Straub

Jackey Humphrey-Straub can be found in downtown Chico on any given day, on her lunch break from her job at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, marching for women’s rights in the streets, or scurrying to a special event related to activism. She’s a busy woman, but stays motivated by her desire to correct the injustices in the world she can’t ignore.

“It really comes from being a conscious person,” said the recent Chico State graduate. “Something pisses me off, and instantly there’s something inside me that says, ‘Do something about this!’”

At 25 years old, Humphrey-Straub has made more of a difference in Chico than some do in a lifetime. She describes herself as a feminist, queer lesbian, activist and “bleeding-heart liberal,” but manages to use those characteristics to draw in—as opposed to ostracize—nearly everyone she meets.

Beyond her paid job as client services advocate at Catalyst, Humphrey-Straub lives, eats and breathes her activism. She’s the youngest member on the Stonewall Alliance Center’s board of directors, a volunteer position that gives her a chance to reach out to the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community on a large scale. Since she joined, she’s helped increase the center’s visibility by planning events such as Coming Out for Art, a show that celebrated National Coming Out Day in October and drew more than 400 attendees.

Humphrey-Straub has been bringing Chicoans together for good causes since she moved to Chico in 2006. The Redding native spent her time at Chico State involved with the Social Work Club and the Associated Students Women’s Center, where she put in thousands of hours planning women-centered events such as Breaking the Silence, Women’s Bodies Week, The Vagina Monologues and a forum based on The Rent Tent.

Most notably, she helped spearhead the first-ever Queer Week on the Chico State campus, a weeklong celebration of the LGBT community that’s packed full of lectures, workshops and social events, and concludes with an LGBT conference. The third annual Queer Week and conference were held this September.

She’s also spent time lobbying for women’s and gay rights by visiting the Capitol, writing letters to politicians and organizing rallies and protests.

“These people are often overlooked, and sometimes it can be so exhausting to help them,” she said, referring to her activism and work at Catalyst. “There are times when you feel like it’s one little person against the world, even though you have so many people behind you. But it’s worth it.”

Aside from big things, Humphrey-Straub does little things, too. She’s a big sister to a 16-year-old through Big Brothers Big Sisters. She’s also conscious of where her clothing and food come from, as well as the people she chooses to surround herself with.

“I love Chico and I want to live here forever, because the work that I do and the work that people around me do have such a large impact,” she said. “I really feel like we get shit done.”

—Stacey Kennelly

Armeda Ferrini

Bringing comfort to creatures

Armeda Ferrini

Armeda Ferrini thought she was a dog lover when she started volunteering at the Butte Humane Society a couple of years ago after retiring. Fearing she’d get too attached, she purposely decided to work with cats, thinking she wouldn’t take any of them home.

She was wrong. Turns out Ferrini, a petite and energetic former Chico State professor, is simply an animal person. She loves cats, too, which was evidenced during a recent visit to her nicely appointed north Chico home, where this reporter was greeted by nine beautiful felines.

Ferrini says she intends to find homes for some of them—all rescues from BHS—but it’s hard to imagine her giving them up after watching her tender interactions with the creatures. She has a sense of humor about the situation, insisting she’s not a “crazy cat lady.”

“I think you have to have at least a dozen to be called that,” she said, wryly.

All joking aside, Ferrini, who sits on the BHS Board of Directors, is serious about seeing that abandoned and surrendered cats receive the best possible treatment. In fact, she is part of a group of volunteers dubbed the “cat militia” during a particularly strained period in the shelter’s history. The name was a dig, but Ferrini embraces it.

After volunteering in the shelter and seeing its notoriously inadequate facilities, she helped craft a proposal for an off-site spay-and-neuter facility with an adoption center to house the cats, which are more sensitive than dogs to illness and were languishing in the poor conditions.

Ferrini has extensive managerial experience—she spent 26 years as the chair of Chico State’s Department of Health and Community Services. She credits many others for helping the vision for a clinic come to pass late this past summer, but those around her at the new site are quick to praise her efforts. In addition to being instrumental in the plan, she also scouted for a new facility and then rolled up her sleeves to get the building, a former mortuary, remodeled and open for business on Country Drive.

“She was the mover and shaker of getting this place going,” said BHS volunteer Barbara Smith, who along with volunteer Judy Alberico rounds out the cat militia.

Smith noted how Ferrini spent much of her own money to make it happen. When pressed, Ferrini hesitantly admitted she’d donated a whopping $14,000. The money paid for many of the finishing touches inside the facility, including laminated counters in the catteries for the animals to sit on and windows into the rooms.

Before, BHS was spending $100,000 at out-of-town vet clinics to fix its adoptable animals. Now, all of the shelter’s animals are altered in-house, and the clinic offers low-cost services to the public to help offset the cost.

Ferrini isn’t resting on her laurels now that the clinic is open. She keeps busy helping the place run smoothly, doing everything from cleaning cages to conducting adoptions. She admitted she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas of what she could do to help the animals.

“It’s my life,” she said.

—Melissa Daugherty

The Latimer family (from left): Dylan, Denny, Mary Ann, Lizzy and Denver

First family of theater

The Latimers

“I always have felt you could do anything you want to in this town,” said Mary Ann Latimer. Sitting at her dining room table in her home near downtown Chico with eldest son Denver, she was reflecting on her family’s time in Chico and with the Blue Room, the community theater that her family and friends started more than 16 years ago in the old Masonic Hall above Collier Hardware.

“The community itself has been so receptive that I never had any doubt it would succeed.”

What’s driven that success, though, has been the dynamic Latimer family. With their commitment and individual contributions—Denver and brother Dylan’s creative inspiration and direction; sister Lizzy taking turns with her brothers on the stage; Mary Ann’s fundraising; and dad Denny’s production of a giant feast each year for the annual Fall Ball fundraiser—the Blue Room has grown from being a backyard project to being an ever-evolving home for creativity in Chico.

Initially called the Cosmic Travel Agency, the Blue Room evolved from the irreverent Butcher Shop productions that sons Denver and Dylan and their likeminded friends put on in their parents’ back yard in the early ’90s. Not satisfied with the performance landscape in Chico at the time, the boys started what was at first their own downtown club house. “[We figured] if we did really good avant garde theater, then people would come,” Denver said, smiling.

The theater’s success, of course, depended on more than a vanguard spirit; it needed money (“It’s constantly been teetering on the edge of financial insolvability,” said Denver), and having the heads of the family be a prominent local defense lawyer (Denny) and a Chico State English teacher (Mary Ann) helped connect the theater to an established support base. Mary Ann gives a lot of credit to local merchants (“The downtown people are so nice and so generous”), her patient neighbors, the supportive faculty at Chico State and those who help with the big Fall Ball fundraiser.

Mary Ann and Denver are both currently on the Blue Room board, but they and the rest of their family give their time outside of theater as well. Denver and Lizzy followed dad into law—Denver working at this dad’s Chico office and Lizzy as a public defender in Brooklyn. Dylan lives in New York as well, and works for Build It Green! NYC, a nonprofit salvage and surplus building materials company. Denver is also on the board of the new Inspire School of Arts & Sciences; Mary Ann (now retired from Chico State) continues to serve on the board of the school’s Peace Institute (which she helped co-found in the aftermath of 9/11); and Denny serves on the board of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust.

Friend of the family and former Blue Room board member (and CN&R contributor) Steve Metzger offered probably the best summary of the family’s impact: “The Latimer family reflect and define all that is wonderful about our community, not only in their self-less contributions to the arts, education, and the environment, but in the clear and infectious way they show both their love for Chico and the way they value and respect all of us who choose to call it home.”

—-Jason Cassidy

Ernie Dalton and friends

Planting a legacy

Ernie Dalton

Any given weekday, Ernie Dalton is in school. He’s 71, but he spends most days in first grade doing math problems or working in the garden at Nord Country School.

“It’s the greatest,” said Dalton, who volunteers as a math tutor four days a week. “I love those little 6-year-olds.”

Upon retirement after working 35 years in the chemical-fertilizer industry as a sales manager, Dalton was handed four grants and a project to plant gardens at schools. When the former Nord School principal asked Dalton to plant a crop of potatoes in 1991, Dalton found his niche. “It grew from there,” Dalton said.

Known to some as the master gardener, or “Farmer Ernie,” he maintains Nord School’s prolific garden. “My main hobby was gardening, and it’s 10 times more fun to do with kids,” he said.

Along with several rose bushes from the Butte Rose Society, of which he serves as the donation/education liaison, the garden now has fruit trees, broccoli, tomatoes and more. He helps students learn to eat and harvest healthy, garden-grown snacks.

When the Chico Unified School District announced it would close Nord School several years ago, Dalton and others stepped up to turn around a charter in an unheard-of four months. He went to meetings three to four nights a week trying to save the school, said Junell Lawrence, Nord’s office manager. Since then, the school has grown alongside the garden, and Dalton remains active on the school’s board.

Dalton is a well-known presence at other schools, too. When Chico Country Day School moved to its current location off Park Avenue, Dalton stepped in to help replant its garden. He still spends Friday mornings at the Chico Country Day garden. Then, Friday afternoons, he heads out to Shasta Elementary School and helps out in a first-grade classroom.

As if that weren’t enough, he also gives time to the after-school clubs at Nord. He was instrumental in getting the running club started, said Kathy Dahlgren, the school’s principal. Dalton, a UC Berkeley graduate, has always been a runner. He still runs, although a little slower these days, he said.

He also helps out with chess club and brought in a national champion to work with the children, Lawrence said.

“He’s our adopted grandpa, really,” she said.

Dalton and his wife, Donna, have lived in Chico 41 years, and have three children and six grandchildren.

By coincidence, Dalton’s birthday, Feb. 12, falls on the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s. So every year, he dresses up as “Erniham Lincoln” and quizzes the kids about Lincoln. “He’s just a pretty amazing guy,” Dahlgren said. “He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

—-Andrea LaVoy Wagner