Rep. Herger lives behind the closed gates in Canyon Oaks. Who knew?
There was a buzz in my Canyon Oaks neighborhood when Wally Herger bought a house in our gated community.
“Hey, I hear Wally Herger’s moving in up the street,” one of my parents’ friends said at happy hour at the Canyon Oaks Country Club, across the street from my house, two years ago.
“I heard he’s a good guy,” somebody said.
“Really?” another woman said. “I hear he’s an ass.”
Nobody at the table of five or six knew anything about the congressman firsthand. They didn’t know where he had been living for the past 16 years or whether he had any kids or how many years he had been our representative in Washington—just that he had been the congressman for as long as they could remember and that they couldn’t remember a single important thing that he had done for the district.
It all seemed to fit, though, that the low-profile congressman would move into this subdivision, where welcome wagons and garage sales don’t exist and most residents couldn’t pick out the neighbor kids in a lineup.
For the last two years the seemingly low-profile congressman and his family have been hiding out in a neighborhood fit for the reclusive: Canyon Oaks, above California Park in southeast Chico.
The neighborhood has itched for personal details about the Hergers, but just as Wally Herger will never be voted out of office, a Canyon Oaks resident will never approach his neighbor to get to know him better.
So, when I got an assignment in one of my journalism classes at Chico State University to do an in-depth article about something (or someone) people know little about but are interested in, I immediately drove up the street, determined to get the scoop on the congressman whose life story has managed to go largely untold for 18 years.
On a Monday afternoon in April, I stared at two houses attached to a steep hill that leads down to the back nine of the Canyon Oaks Golf Course.
One house had a minivan parked in the driveway; the other had a wicker elephant the size of a cocker spaniel sitting near the front door.
“He’s too old to be driving kids to soccer practice,” I reasoned to myself, “and elephants are the Republican mascot. Must be it.”
I climbed the steep driveway, stood next to the elephant and rang the doorbell.
I was greeted with a sweetness and normality I didn’t expect to receive after coming to the congressman’s house uninvited here in this gated community I call home.
Wally Herger’s 21-year-old daughter, Jamie, stood in the doorway, wearing an oversized T-shirt. Standing next to her was her 58-year-old mom, Pam, who looks too young to be married to the 60-year-old Herger.
Surprisingly, they agreed to be interviewed by me, a 19-year-old Chico State journalism student working on a class assignment about the Hergers’ personal lives.
In our interview the following Sunday, Wally Herger sat in an upholstered armchair in his living room, which is decorated in golden yellows and painted sage and khaki. He had spent the day at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on East Avenue, across from the Safeway.
During the course of the interview, Herger painfully contemplated the political questions, putting his hand on his forehead and staring blankly. But he responded like an attention-deprived child to questions about his personal life and his family, leaning forward, talking loudly and displaying a luminous smile as recalled becoming a congressman and the subsequent successful life he now attributes to goals, hard work and faith in God.
Herger is a man for whom diligence is his engine and faith his steering wheel. As a result, he says, he has achieved the goals he set as a father, a husband and the 18-year congressman of the 2nd District of California.
Through interviews with his wife, kids and co-workers the story of the Wally Herger who exists outside the House of Representatives and town hall meetings was pieced together.
Wally Herger, single dad, asked a favor of God on New Year’s Eve 1974.
He and his two kids prayed from their Sacramento home for God to help him find a “neat lady” before he turned 30, because, he said, it seemed that all the neat ones were “taken up.”
He made it his New Year’s resolution to be sealed in the Mormon Temple by the next year with a good wife and mother for his children. Mormons believe that “till death do us part” is too short—being sealed in the temple means being married for eternity.
At age 29, 12 years before he was a Republican congressman, Herger was a businessman, father, divorcà and converted Mormon who had set himself the goal of finding the perfect wife.
He had a bachelor of business degree from Sacramento State University and, along with his father, Walter Sr., owned Herger Gas, a propane company in the Sutter County town of Rio Oso, where Herger was born and raised, about 25 minutes south of Marysville.
The family owned a 250-acre dairy farm that Herger’s grandparents, Joseph and Mary Herger, purchased soon after their arrival here from Switzerland in 1907.
But all the cows, Herger recalled during our interview, died in a flood soon after the family had decided to concentrate on the propane business.
Herger said he used his business skills and work ethic to scout for a wife the way an employer would scout out an employee. He was no longer dating for fun. He was “dating to marry,” he said frankly.
Instead of fasting one Sunday a month, as some Mormons do, Herger fasted one Sunday a week. Instead of showing up at a date hoping for the best, Herger showed up with an agenda that included a list of questions he asked his dates.
No. 1: “What is your religious faith?”
No. 2: “Do you want a large family?”
No. 3: “What is your political philosophy?”
He never turned down a date but rarely dated the same woman twice. He would arrange a second date only if the woman was Mormon, wanted a large family and was politically and socially conservative.
“I wanted to find the right gal,” he explained.
No one, apparently, fit the lofty expectations—until he met Pamela Sargent.
It was like he had drawn a picture of “the right gal” and Pam had popped off the paper and came to life to answer his prayers.
Pam had a child and was a divorcàe and a converted Mormon, just like Wally. She was a nurse on the heart team at Mercy General Hospital in Redding, was independent, conservative, one year younger than Wally and wanted to have “many” children.
Mutual friends set Pam and Wally up on a blind date in May 1975. They went to a prime-rib house in Old Sacramento.
Pam said Wally was “nice looking, well dressed and had ideals.” And Wally knew Pam was the “neat lady” he had been looking for.
Pamela Sargent and Wally Herger were sealed in the Mormon Temple on Nov. 15, 1975, eight months after Wally had asked his favor of God, six months after they had met and after more than 30 consecutive Sundays without food.
“It paid off,” Wally said, louder than necessary, while Pam stood in the kitchen within earshot. “My wife is probably the most outstanding person I have ever met.” He loves her more today, after almost 30 years of marriage, than he did when they met, he said.
After getting married, Wally, Pam and their three kids from previous marriages moved to Rio Oso and started to build on their new family. They would have nine children altogether, one of whom died of a stroke at age 2, leaving them with eight.
Finding Pam and having kids together was the most important goal hard work and faith in God had brought Wally, he said. But it wouldn’t be the last. He was still destined to be a congressman.
It was the late-’70s, the Village People were singing “YMCA,” John Travolta was playing Danny in Grease, Jerry Brown was governor of California and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Herger, a man who believed in personal accountability and conservative values, thought democracy was at stake.
“It seemed like we were losing so much of our freedom,” said Herger. “There was a lack of direction.”
He wanted to get involved.
In 1976 Herger was the Sutter County Republican Central Committee chairman. He helped Rex Hime run for Congress and learned how to handle a campaign. And he got his first real taste of politics.
Four years later Gene Chappie left the state Assembly to run for Congress, leaving an open seat in the state Legislature. Herger ran, won and was an assemblyman for the next six years.
In 1986 Chappie retired from Congress and again left an open seat. Just as he had done with the Assembly, Herger ran for Chappie’s open seat and won. Eighteen years later he is still representing the 2nd District.
The family, Pam said, believes “God just opened up doors for him.”
“I wasn’t smarter or better looking,” Wally said. “I believe I just outworked everyone else.”
On Dec. 18, 1986, Wally, Pam and their eight kids, ages 1 through 15, crammed into their 1970s Suburban and Gran Torino, waved goodbye to Rio Oso and set out in a two-car caravan for their new home in Virginia, where they could be closer to his job in the Capitol Building.
Pam piloted the Suburban with seven of the kids and Wally rode shotgun in the Gran Torino while Robin, Pam’s daughter from her first marriage, learned to drive. Pam said when they reached Virginia everyone was exhausted. In fact, she seemed almost out of breath recounting the trip they had taken almost 20 years earlier.
For the next 16 years the Hergers were like a one-parent family. The pipes in the basement of their Springfield, Va., house broke twice, both times while Wally was in California visiting his district. Pam had to take care of the mini-disasters by herself.
The hardest thing about being married to a man who travels a lot, she said, is being in charge of the family when he’s gone and then suddenly dealing with him coming home and taking charge like he was there all along.
The second-hardest thing, she said, is not being able to take family vacations. The Hergers did get to travel together, but always to county fairs or political picnics to shake hands with the people of the district.
Daughter Jamie, who lives at home and is studying at Butte College to become an early-childhood educator, said during a later phone interview that her best memory of her dad from her childhood was going to a Christian retreat where Wally “wasn’t the main thing” and they got to engage in activities like canoeing together as a family.
Jamie said her friends say her dad is “really cool,” but she wonders if they just think he’s cool because he’s a congressman.
“I think he’s corny,” Jamie said. “My little sister just thinks he’s hilarious.”
Fran Peace, who has worked for Herger for the last 20 years—as his district director for 18—said her boss is “hysterical.”
“Oh my goodness,” she said, gearing up to divulge all the quirks Herger wouldn’t want her to tell.
Things like how Herger loves Costco hotdogs. He buys two hotdogs and three chicken Caesar salads and saves them on the seat of his car to eat the next day.
Peace tells him the chicken and milk-based dressing are going to go bad and make him sick, but the questionable snack never does, she said.
“Wally, you’re like putting socks on an octopus,” Peace said she often tells him as the 5-foot-tall, slender Japanese-American woman runs to keep up with the “ball of energy.”
He hates it, she said, when she uses the octopus analogy.
When he comes into their Chico office, located, coincidentally, in the Capitol Building in Philadelphia Square on The Esplanade, he bangs on the reception desk bell.
“Bang, bang, bang, bang,” Peace exclaimed, using arm movements to mimic the congressman.
“You know he’s here because the energy level just rises,” she said. “You can’t be tired because you know you’re just going to be going.”
The office has a collection of round buttons that read, “Hi, I can’t remember your name either.”
It’s an inside joke acknowledging Herger’s sometime inability to remember names, including Peace’s, or that he’s been known to call his daughter Jamie by her sister Julie’s name, Peace explained.
Herger’s humor is in his everyday mannerisms, she said. “Walking out to his car could be a source of laughter.”
Herger’s car itself is a source of laughter for Peace. “His car is full of things,” she said. “Papers, newspapers, half-eaten Fuji apples.”
A few years ago Herger went on an apple juice, celery and carrot diet and would consistently ask Peace how many calories were in foods before he ate them.
She said he would buy celery by the bushel and then leave it in his Ford Expedition, parked in economy parking at the Sacramento airport, for four 100-degree days while he was back in Washington, D.C.
When he drove the Expedition back to Chico, Peace would find the celery stalks “liquefied,” “black” and with “nothing left but the strings.”
Peace said she always cleans up Herger’s car because he’s “just a good, decent human being” who is always trying to do what’s right.
She is like his sidekick at times, taking care of all the little things so he can focus on the big, and at other times more like a mother hen fussing over her chick and chasing after him to offer her protection.
Then she speaks of him like he’s a prophet, making excuses for his shortcomings and eager to tell of his strengths.
“Sometimes it’s harder for people to see the softer side of Wally Herger, because he’s tough in town hall meetings,” Peace reasoned.
Peace said that after two decades working with him, she knows every side of Wally Herger and that he’s like a family member to her.
“You would think that after all these years politics would change him,” she said. “It hasn’t. He never had that aura that surrounds many politicians. He always emerges the same person.
“He talks to you like a neighbor. He stops by like somebody on a bike coming to say, ‘Hello.’ “
And, she warned, the unwary had best beware of Herger’s strong handshake and mean bear hug that he calls the “Rio Oso Pincher Hold.”
In contrast to his liveliness, Peace said, Herger has a way of putting the dying at ease. A few years ago the friends of a woman named Linda, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and confined to a wheelchair, asked Herger to pay her a visit.
Peace said she didn’t know how to prepare him for the trip. Linda communicated with Herger by moving a stick with her mouth, which signaled a computer to spell words because she could no longer speak.
Because of Herger’s upbringing and spiritual awareness, Peace said, “he was able to communicate with her, say all the right things to make her feel loved.”
“He said, ‘You can’t do anything about the body, but you can communicate with the soul.’
“It’s amazing. I can’t do that,” Peace said as she began to cry, walking to her desk to grab a tissue.
Peace said that while she and Herger were in the car together recently, driving through his district, Herger told her, “I’ve got so much. I’ve got to make things better for other people.”
On their drives from town to town, she said, Herger tells Peace stories, including that of Henry Ford.
Herger tells her Ford wasn’t an overly intelligent man, but that he was successful because of his ability to choose smart people, Peace said.
"'I’m not a scholar, I’m not a smart man, I’m average,'” Peace said Herger has told her. And he prides himself on his ability to find the right people, calling himself “the coach.”
Peace doesn’t call him “Wally,” “Mr. Herger,” or “coach.” She most often calls him “the boss.”
After Herger’s dad died last October the family decided to start offering a scholarship at the congressman’s alma mater, East Nicolaus High School, in Sutter County. Herger said the student who receives it doesn’t have to be a straight-A student or an athlete but simply one who demonstrates a good work ethic and who “has the spirit to go on in any situation,” Peace said.
Herger gave a commencement address to the graduating Chico State University students at the commencement ceremony Sunday, May 22, two days after his 60th birthday.
“I urge you to set your goals high,” he said to the graduates as they tossed beach balls and one student held up a Bush-Cheney sign.
“There isn’t anything that you decide you want to do, if you’re willing to go out and work hard and be honest and have integrity, that you can’t achieve.”
Herger, Peace said, has raised his kids “expressing to them what hard work means.”
Daughter Jamie said her dad is always trying to do what’s right and trying to improve on small aspects of his life to make himself a better person. He apologizes to his kids if he thinks he has done something wrong.
But it’s annoying, she added, when her dad worries that his kids will do something wrong that might get back to the district and cause him to lose an election.
“It’s like, ‘OK, Dad, we’re adults,'” she said she tells him.
Jamie considers herself a conservative, but not as conservative as her father. She said she thinks it’s amusing when he comments that someone is an “extreme conservative,” because she thinks he’s an extreme conservative.
Wally’s oldest son Greg, from his first marriage to high-school sweetheart Deborah Dianna Burke, works at a movie theater in Burbank and plays small parts in horror films, Jaime said. And he is the only one of Herger’s eight kids who is liberal.
Political arguments aren’t the same if your dad is a congressman. His point of view isn’t just another opinion; it’s a vote that helps determine the fate of the nation and sometimes the world.
There was “a little friction” when Greg first started to voice his opinions, his father said. But things have gotten better as Herger has aged and become more accepting.
“You really get to where you can like people and not agree with them,” Herger said.
When the Hergers moved to Chico two years ago, some of Wally’s first welcomes were from people who approached him and said, “Hi Wally, I didn’t vote for you.”
This didn’t bother him, he said, because he thinks they meant they could like him without voting for him.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Herger has spent more time with his family. He sees his five grandchildren as a second chance to get what he missed while his children were growing up because he was working, often coming close to missing graduations, Peace said.
Step-daughter Robin, who learned to drive on their trip to Virginia, had Hergers’ fifth grandchild right after he gave his speech at Chico State May 22.
“The world is evolving around the birth of his grandchild,” Peace said.
Although he has become more family oriented since Sept. 11, Herger won’t retire until people stop electing him, Pam said. Last year, Pam went back to work as a nurse at St. Elizabeth Community Hospital in Red Bluff. The couple plans to work many more years, she said.
“He really isn’t old,” she said.
Every year Herger writes a New Year’s resolution, none as hopeful or as important as the resolution he made in 1974 that led him to Pam. He has a special place for his resolutions in his handheld Blackberry computer schedule and doesn’t like to share them with others. They are usually about improving his relationship with his family or working harder in his job, he said.
Wally likes his system. He sets the goals. He works hard. And, in his mind, God helps him out.