Local Heroes 2013
Five community members to be thankful for
Each year, around Thanksgiving time, the CN&R editors select a handful of individuals who have shown to be exemplary when it comes to giving back to the community without expecting anything in return.
Butte County certainly has a lot of people to be thankful for, so it wasn’t easy narrowing the cast of worthy nominees into this year’s picks for Local Heroes. But the result is a diverse group of honorees who have devoted countless hours, sometimes under great pressure, to make a difference in the community.
This year, the heroes range from people who have made headlines, including a local pastor whose longstanding work with the needy came under fire, to folks whose behind-the-scenes contributions have flown under the community’s radar, such as the longtime volunteer coordinator at the Chico Art Center.
These heroes all have different causes to promote and protect: the arts, the environment, the down-and-out, social justice, student athletics. What they have in common is that they all give freely of themselves to make the community a better place. Without further ado, here are our honorees for 2013.
Providing for the needy
Pastor Jim Culp was recently, and reluctantly, drawn into the local political spotlight. For the past five years, Culp’s Orchard Church has offered free meals to the needy every Sunday evening at City Plaza. When the issue of increasing homelessness and transiency hit the community’s radar, so did the church’s handouts as well as the pastor himself.
The 41-year-old Culp was born in Chico, attended Gridley High School, Butte College and Sacramento State, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in government and international relations. He joined the Air Force in 1995, serving for seven years as an intelligence officer while concurrently attending Liberty University in Virginia, where he received a master of arts in religious studies. He then attended Southwest Bible Seminary in Texas, where he earned his doctorate in ministry.
His draw to religion, he said, was a desire to serve humanity.
“I really had a strong desire to come back to California and serve people, and help them through a second chance in life,” he said.
Culp and his wife, Annie, a substitute teacher and occasional food columnist for the Chico Enterprise-Record, were married in 1993. They have three children.
During a recent meal giveaway, the down-to-earth Culp was dressed in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He led the gathered in prayer prior to the handout and then offered a sort of pep talk before the eating began. The weekly Sunday offering was nearly derailed when a downtown hotel owner objected to its presence. As a compromise, the church will now meet across the street at the Chico Municipal Center.
What’s the motivation for the meal program?
“For us, clearly it’s an exercise of our faith,” he said, diverting the personal response to the collective of the church. “We believe this is what the church should be doing. It should be out here among people, helping them see that restoration is possible, that broken lives can be rebuilt.”
Chico State professor Mark Stemen, who recently stepped in to help out with the meal giveaway, has a lot of respect for Culp.
“I’ve always, in some sense, been concerned about issues of social justice and homelessness, but I was really drawn to this by him more than any concern for the issue itself,” Stemen said. “I was really struck by his sincerity, his purity and his purpose. It wasn’t just the homeless who have benefited from this; I think there are a lot of people better off, myself included, just by hanging around him and learning what he’s doing downtown and learning what he’s doing for the community.”
Former Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney has also helped with the handouts.
“Jim is a great guy who has done more for this city than people will ever know,” Maloney said. “He does it because he truly cares. The reason people don’t hear about what he does is because it’s all on the down-low. He doesn’t do it for recognition.”
Fighting for equality
In August of 1963, 13-year-old Irma Jordan boarded a bus in her hometown of Jacksonville, Miss., bound for Washington D.C., to attend The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a historic moment in the civil-rights movement during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Last August, in her capacity as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Butte County Unit 1029, Jordan attended the event’s 50th anniversary.
“It was a wonderful event—just so massive,” she said of returning to the capital, joking that this time she wasn’t running around barefoot, and got to sleep in a hotel instead of on a bus.
The 1963 March is just one of Jordan’s memories of those turbulent times. A studious child, she remembered finding key pages of textbooks torn out, or racist messages penciled in the handed-down books too battered or outdated for white students to use. One day, as her family pondered the late arrival of one of her brothers, they saw him getting “body-slammed against a paddy wagon by the police, then tied feet to ankles and flung in the back” on live television. Her most painful memories, she said, are of her mother being picked every day to work dawn until dusk for white families for $15 a week.
Despite hardships, Jordan placed 17th in her high-school class of 800 students, earning a scholarship to UC Berkeley, where she arrived in 1967 to the first mixed community she’d ever lived in.
“I didn’t graduate, but I did meet my husband of 45 years, Henry,” she said, “and I’d take him over a degree, anyway.”
The Jordans lived in the Bay Area for several decades, where she worked for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. During this time, her humanitarian activities focused on fostering and adopting children, efforts for which she was recognized several times. The Jordans have six children, two of whom Irma gave birth to, and one stepson; the rest were adopted, and she noted all are involved in social-justice issues.
After retiring and moving to South Oroville five years ago, Jordan decided to rededicate herself to racial issues and joined the local NAACP; she is now in her second term as chapter president.
Though she said things are much better since her childhood, there’s still much to accomplish. Just this year, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of gunman George Zimmerman have brought racial issues to the forefront. In recent days, Jordan and her group have been looking at allegations of racism within the Chico Police Department (“and Lord knows we’ve got some of that down here in Oroville, too,” she said).
“Racism is still very much alive, or else I wouldn’t be out here fighting it,” Jordan said. “It’s almost like having a black president has made it acceptable for everyone to show their racist little ways. Jim Crow may be dead, but James Crow Sr.’s still out there dancing all over the place.”
All things Wildcat
Tom Wigton is clearly in his element while walking the halls of Chico State’s Athletics Department. Everywhere Wigton went during a recent interview, whether it was the equipment room or a coach’s office, he was met with “Hey, Tom!” or “Hey, Tommy!” A passing student even greeted him as “T-Dub.” In making his daily rounds—which has been his routine for the past 26 years that he’s been volunteering as a manager for the men’s basketball and baseball teams—he was quick to clap his hand on shoulders and share deep belly laughs with the people who have become like family to him.
As a highly recognizable local figure—often seen riding his bike around town decked out in colorful sports gear, or on the sidelines of practically every Chico State sports event—the 63-year-old Wigton has made an impression on countless student athletes, both at Chico State and Chico High School, where he also volunteers for the football team.
“He builds great relationships with all the coaches up and down these halls, but also with the student athletes he works with,” said Greg Clink, head coach of the Chico State men’s basketball team, who first met Wigton during his own time as a Chico State basketball player during the 1990s. “I know the guys who have come through the last five years love him. As former athletes come back, Tom is included in a lot of those memories [they share].”
Wigton, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man, acknowledged that his time at the university, and the friendships he’s forged since first volunteering in 1987, have had a tremendously positive influence on his life.
“We’re all in this together,” Wigton said of the athletics department. “It’s like a second home. I enjoy what I do, the people [I’m with]. I get a lot of respect—we couldn’t do what we do without respecting each other. I love it.”
As Luke Reid, Chico State’s sports-information director, will readily attest, the feeling is mutual.
“Tommy’s somebody who makes these hallways a better place to be in,” Reid said. “He’s easy to laugh with; we tend to do a lot of chuckling together. He’s very social and quick to put a hand on your shoulder if he thinks you might be down, to tell you you did a great job, to congratulate you. He loves to celebrate people’s accomplishments.”
The athletics department repaid the favor on Oct. 12, when Wigton was inducted as an honorary member into the Chico State Athletic Hall of Fame. Reid, who wrote the nomination, highlighted Wigton’s loyalty to all things Wildcat: “By conservative estimates, Wigton’s been on the bench or sidelines for more than 1,000 Chico State victories.”
Looking forward, Wigton intends to be present for many more.
“As long as I have my health, as long as I’m [physically able] to do it, I’ll be here,” he said.
“We need to have more tree advocates show up for these meetings,” said Charles Withuhn, speaking of the twice-monthly meetings of the city’s Architectural Review & Historic Preservation Board (go to www.tinyurl.com/nnhv53u for info). “We need more citizen involvement.”
Withuhn’s concern is well-placed: The outcome of a recent ARHPB meeting was that the huge valley oak tree growing in the vacant lot at West Eighth and Salem streets is now slated for removal to make way for a pair of duplexes. The beautiful historic tree is precisely the sort of tree that Withuhn would like to see spared from the chainsaw. (Since selling his sign-making business earlier this year, the longtime sign-maker and activist has more time to devote to environmental and social-justice causes.)
That’s why he formed the Chico Heritage Tree Committee—recently renamed Chico Tree Advocates—in August of this year, at around the same time as he was waging a campaign, with several others, to save the 75-foot-tall claro-walnut trees at Third and Chestnut streets. Withuhn had tied large, yellow ribbons he had printed with such words as “SAVE ME! The City says I’m being cut down. I was planted by a friend of Annie Bidwell” around four of them.
The trees ended up being cut down, after the city of Chico turned down an offer by local arborist Scot Wineland to do free root protection and maintenance pruning.
Withuhn is concerned that the city’s Urban Forest Management Plan is still in draft form, as a result of budget tightening that is affecting tree-related issues—the city currently has no tree crew or urban forester on staff, for instance. Giving credit to a number of people in the local tree movement—such as Wineland, Friends of Bidwell Park’s Susan Mason, Bidwell Park and Playground Commission member Mark Herrera, and Alan and Francine Gair—Withuhn stressed that their longtime work on behalf of tree preservation should pay off in the form of an enforceable document. “They got it off the ground, and now we need to get some teeth in it,” he said of the plan.
Chico Tree Advocates, according to its brochure, is working on the establishment of “a new volunteer certified-citizen and certified-arborist committee to monitor the urban forest, to ensure the quality of contract tree-work, and for a more thorough deliberation before the removal of significant trees.” The brochure reiterates the obvious: “Our trees improve our air quality by capturing large amounts of pollution”—they “create energy savings,” “improve property values,” reduce street noise, and provide shade and beauty.
“I have lately seen healthy trees cut down [in Chico],” Withuhn said. “I don’t see why there can’t be a defense for big, healthy trees.
“If we just get 30 people to show up at every architectural-review meeting—and every meeting of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, and a few City Council meetings—so the trees have a voice, we might be on a better road to protecting our urban forest than we are now.”
—Christine G.K. LaPado-Breglia
Center of the arts
“I just retired as of a week ago.”
Those were nearly the first words out of Sadie Card’s mouth as we sat down recently at a table inside the Chico Art Center to talk about her volunteer work at the long-standing community gallery and arts-instruction center. Despite having recently given up her 10-year post as volunteer coordinator for the art center (for health reasons), one could hardly call the enthusiastic Card “retired” from the volunteer game. She admitted that she would continue to help the gallery with membership and archives, and that she is even willing to take “a year” to help train her successor, and that she hopes to soon volunteer providing art instruction to the developmentally disabled. “I’m not going away,” she said.
That will come as a relief to those running the art center, especially director Darah Votaw, who encouraged the CN&R to feature Card as a local hero. “These days it is very difficult to find people so dedicated and willing to donate his/her time and energy to one place, let alone the arts organizations. There are few of us who take on the abundance of workload for the whole of the art community in order to help it survive, and Sadie is one of those rare few,” said Votaw in an email. “Because of her dedication, the Chico Art Center is able to be open seven days a week for the public to enjoy.”
Card has been in charge of all the volunteer scheduling—from ensuring the reception desk/store was manned during all open hours, to wrangling workers for all of the art center’s activities: show installations, receptions, community events, etc.
She is also an artist, specializing in papier mâché (her whimsical hunter-with-deer-horns piece took first place in the gallery’s juried All Media 2013 exhibit in August). In fact, she recently joined forces with fellow papier artists to start the Northern California Papier Artists to help promote their medium as a fine art.
Card has actually been a member of and a volunteer docent at the Chico Art Center for 19 years, having joined up shortly after moving to Chico in 1993 from Humboldt County, where she worked for 36 years as a hairdresser before retiring. A widow and mother of four sons, Card came to the area to help care for her ailing sister-in-law, and after seeing a notice in the paper, hooked up with the art center.
“Every place I’ve ever lived I’ve watched the papers to see places that need volunteers,” she said.
Before coming to Chico, Card gave her time to various agencies in Humboldt County, including the parks department, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“You have to be convinced that you make a difference,” Card said about volunteering, adding that her experience at the art center has in return made a difference in her life. “Oh, I love the art center!” she said. “People who are involved in the arts are really happy people; they are involved in lots of community activities,” and the people she’s met along the way broadened her community experience in Chico.