Three remarkable lives, rooted in memory through Redwood City parks

in Community/Featured/Headline

It’s meant to recognize people whose lives without a shadow of a doubt mattered, individuals who made such a mark on Redwood City that anyone would understand about a park being named in their honor. Morris Stulsaft, the developer who reshaped a large area of Redwood City after World War II. Dove Beeger, a woman determined to get a hospital built. And George Garrett Jr., a narcotics cop who was heading out for lunch with his team one day but died instead in the line of duty.

Who were they? Today, not particularly informative signposts mark the entrances of the namesake parks: Stulsaft Park in the Farm Hills area, Dove Beeger Park across from Sequoia Hospital, and Garrett’s memorial park off Canyon Road. A laminated write-up about Sgt. Garrett tacked onto the sign attempts to tell his story, which visitors may pause to read on the way to the playground and the picnic tables.

Ten Redwood City parks bear the names of notable people, though parks aren’t cemeteries or shrines. Still, looking back is instructive, not just for shedding light on the lives of three singular individuals who mattered once. The unavoidable takeaway from these quite different stories is that decades after their lives ended, their impact—with sometimes surprising offshoots—has never ceased. They continue to matter.

This story was originally published in the April edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

Morris Stulsaft

A 1963 Redwood City Tribune profile of “Prime Movers” is worth quoting in full.

“Everybody knew Simon Monserrat Mezes,” it begins. “He practically created Redwood City. And he wanted everybody to know it, hopefully naming the place Mezesville.

“Today, Mezes is all but forgotten.

“Hardly anybody knows Morris Stulsaft. He practically created the Redwood City we see around us. And his name is borne only by Stulsaft Park.

“Today Stulsaft, still known only by a few, is becoming a legend in spite of himself.”

The story by Tribune writer Michael J. Kiernan went on to list what a man known only vaguely as a developer had done with the 1,000 acres he developed in Redwood City. Homes for 15,000 on former ranches in the western part of the city; the Woodside and Roosevelt Plaza shopping areas; two Broadway markets and two bowling alleys; the start-up Ampex Corp.’s first big building; land for a chemical company; Kaiser Permanente’s first clinic; and the 107-acre Redwood Industrial Tract. Sometimes he sold; sometimes he built.

A native of Warsaw and the son of a shoemaker, Stulsaft stopped school in the fifth grade. He apprenticed as a plumber and in the space of a few years built up the largest plumbing supply firm in the West. That business led him into building and construction in San Francisco and beyond. President of Land Development and Investment Co., Stulsaft did residential, industrial and business development all around California. Other projects included a 45-acre shopping center in San Jose, 2,000 acres around Lake Tahoe, and sites from San Francisco and Oakland to Santa Cruz, according to Kiernan.

Stulsaft had come to Redwood City in 1944 to buy some former ranchland in the undeveloped westside of the city plus a former airport property on Broadway and land that fronts on lower Broadway. He subdivided the residential tract, provided at cost the sites for three schools and sold off parts to several residential developers, among them Andres Oddstad.

“The land cost him $400 an acre,” the 1963 story noted. “Average price today: $10,000 an acre. Today the area, between Woodside Road and Alameda de las Pulgas and the two shopping centers, is a regular little city, with churches and schools. Stulsaft first developed the Redwood Terrace No. 1 duplexes, as well as a 25-home stretch on Adams Street and 45 homes north of Fifth Avenue.”

Stulsaft told writer Kiernan that he had been attracted to Redwood City initially because it had a good labor pool and a harbor that someday would prove to be real asset.

A planning commissioner interviewed for the story said the city had at first demanded that Stulsaft donate a two-acre parcel around Massachusetts Avenue and Sussex Way for a park as a condition of development. He offered as a trade 30-plus acres of canyon area west of Alameda that became today’s 42-acre Stulsaft Park, the city’s biggest park. Oddstad Homes, developers of the Farm Hill subdivision, later added acreage.

Childrens’ Benefactor

The story says Stulsaft was married but divorced. He had no children, but Nat Landes, an engineer who worked on many of his projects, said Stulsaft was always giving money away quietly to youth-related activities and children’s homes. Landes, who in later years was a mayor of Woodside, attributed Stulsaft’s success to his ability to pick good people to work with. He gave them full trust and authority, but if they failed to deliver, Stulsaft “ceases to do business with you,” Landes said. “That’s it. No recourse.”

Stulsaft had been in poor health for several years before he died in 1965 at the age of 82 after a fall from the window of his apartment in San Francisco. Five months before he died, he and a 55-year-old former secretary got married in his hospital room.

After the multimillionaire financier’s death, an estate battle ensued. According to newspaper accounts, his widow claimed that his relatives had attempted to stop the marriage and during his illness exerted undue influence over his will. Her attorney said she’d first been bequeathed $200,000 but it was cut to $50,000 shortly before his death. Fighting to uphold the will were Stulsaft’s three sisters, other relatives and friends and the Morris Stulsaft Foundation. About four months later, another purported will surfaced which left the widow the sole heir.

According to a 1968 Tribune story, a settlement was reached among the disputing parties giving the widow $3 million, with the remaining heirs, including the charitable organization, receiving the remaining $8 million.

Established in 1953, the Morris Stulsaft Foundation has continued to exist and awards grants in keeping with its mission directed at the well-being of Bay Area children and youth in need. From 1995 to 2015 alone, some 2,450 grants totaling nearly $25 million have been made to youth-serving organizations, according to the foundation’s website. Representatives there did not respond to requests for an interview.

Planning the Park

Although Stulsaft Park had been donated to the city in 1952, the kind of park it would be took years to decide. The Lions Club proposed that it should be a “children’s fairyland” with space for 500 cars. That idea fizzled. Ultimately, in 1957 a master plan for a “natural” park more in keeping with the wilderness contours was chosen, allowing for scenic hiking and picnicking. Carl Britschgi, a city councilman who later became a state assemblyman, led the fight on the council to maintain it as close to possible in its natural state. Amenities were added incrementally over the years.

Stulsaft is unique among city parks in being more like an open space preserve than a neighborhood park. Secluded and obscure, it became a management problem in the 1980s and neighbors complained about rowdies drinking and vandalizing the park at night. The solution then was to close an entrance gate.

The park which Stulsaft donated almost 70 years ago doesn’t have the gang problems it once did, and allowing dogs off-leash in certain areas may be part of the reason why, says Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Chris Beth. With its playground, picnic area, extensive hiking trails, and youth summer camp program, Stulsaft Park, Beth says, “is certainly I would say a very active park.” A contract ranger who provides “extra eyes” four days a week helps ensure that the rules are being followed.

Stulsaft would likely be pleased about a program called Grass Roots Ecology, which engages and educates the public to restore local ecosystems and organizes events at the park, including a recent volunteer day in partnership with Park Champions that brought out 50 people. These events, says Christina Blebea of Grass Roots Ecology, run the gamut of “bioblitzes,” hikes, field trips, water quality monitoring and habitat restoration. High schoolers can also participate as “Stulsaft Stewards,” showing up once a week for 10 weeks each semester to learn about the environment and restore habitat. Another program lets high school classes test the water quality of the creek by looking at macroinvertebrates.

As for future improvements, Beth would like to focus on restoration of creek banks, repairing old rock retaining walls and removing crumbling rocks around former cinnabar mines at the park. His staff is also looking at providing better creek crossings and adding a greater variety of nature walks. “We are encouraging ways to show the unique ecology of the park,” he says, “which is pretty cool.”

Dove Beeger

Dove Beeger’s name claims a small, half-moon-shaped park on Whipple Avenue, but she and her husband would have been justified seeking naming rights to the hospital across the street.

No one was more responsible than Dove Beeger for spearheading the drive during the 1930s and ‘40s to get the community on board behind the need for Sequoia Hospital. When the vacant 12 acres where it was to be built was under contract for housing development, Dove and her husband, Henry, stepped in. The newly formed Sequoia Hospital District didn’t have enough money, so the Beegers bought the site, held onto it and then turned it over to the hospital for the same price they paid for it.

“It was purely that they found there was a need,” says granddaughter Cynthia Beeger of Menlo Park. “They wanted to hold that as a place saver.” They just had “a genuine interest in their community,” she adds. “They were good people.”

The Beegers were a prominent pioneer family when Dove Hart married into it in 1923. Her future husband’s father, Henry Beeger, was a German immigrant who bought a small Redwood City tannery in 1880 and in just 10 years, expanded it from three employees to 20. Generous and warm-hearted, Beeger’s sudden passing in 1898 not only shocked the community, it left his widow, Mary, with six children to feed and Beeger Tannery to run. Henry Beeger Jr. was just seven years old when his German-born mother took charge of the tannery, which was located off El Camino Real, where Towne Ford is today.

A gifted athlete, Henry Beeger Jr. played baseball and football at Sequoia High School and is listed in Stanford University’s Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1918, he met his future wife, who grew up on a ranch in the Salinas area, at a street dance for servicemen in Redwood City. The first person from San Ardo to go to college, Dove Hart had already graduated from the University of California/Berkeley with a degree in bacteriology and was working at Mills Hospital in San Mateo as a laboratory technician.

A charismatic outdoorsman who was successful in several businesses and owned property downtown, Henry was the youngest person ever elected to the City Council, serving from 1922 to 1934. When neither of his sons was interested in the family tanning business, he decided to close it in 1948. There was no point for a man to continue a business until the day he dies, Beeger liked to tell people, because “you can’t take it with you and it interfered with my hunting and fishing.” His wife used to join him at their duck shack in Fremont, regularly bagging the limit. Both were expert trap shooters.

After Dove and Henry married, she built a laboratory in her home so she could continue her work as San Mateo County’s milk inspector while being a homemaker and raising sons Bill and Jack. Her interest in health convinced her that another hospital was needed between the ones in San Mateo and Palo Alto, and she worked first with a group of women in 1938 who shared that conviction. In the 1940s, she chaired a Chamber of Commerce committee that really got the ball rolling and eventually led to the creation of the Sequoia Hospital District, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1946.

Saving the Site

The site chosen for the hospital had already been purchased by contractor David Holder for subdivision. He and his wife agreed to sell it to the district at no profit but set an April 1, 1947, deadline. The hospital couldn’t come up with the necessary $50,000, so the Beegers put up the money anonymously, holding the property in trust until a hospital bond issue passed. Dove Beeger, who went on to serve as hospital vice president among more than a dozen volunteer activities, was named Redwood City’s Outstanding Citizen in 1946. She died of a heart attack in 1964 at the age of 72; her husband 11 years later at age 84.

Her grandchildren remember her as a strong, stern figure who made them behave. “The impression she made on me as a 10-year-old boy is in my DNA,” says grandson Jim Beeger, a former planning commissioner who now lives in Oregon. “Years later I still hold what my grandmother told me to heart.” Whatever she might say, “I knew there’s a lesson there somewhere.”

The hospital, which opened in 1950, is a source of pride for the Beeger family. Granddaughters Cynthia Beeger and Barbara Beeger-Kanner of San Carlos were candy stripers; Barbara retired last year after 36 years as a Sequoia Hospital nurse. Fifteen Beeger descendants have been born at Sequoia, the most recent one of Dove’s great-granddaughters.

Cynthia, Barbara and youngest sister, Diana Kadash of Redwood City, were little girls in fancy dresses and gloves in attendance the day Dove Beeger Park was dedicated in 1963. Four families donated portions of their lots to make the park space more uniform. Renovated about six years ago, the neighborhood park is a place where kids can play, but hospital employees and other visitors can also spend quiet time.

“My son was very sick and he was at Sequoia a couple of years ago as a patient,” Kadash recalls. “And I got such peace just going over there and walking and sitting. So I think of it more that way. I didn’t really go to it when I was younger, but I really found it a source of comfort when he was a patient.”

George L. Garrett Jr.

It was payday, a Friday, and the four officers in Redwood City’s vice, intelligence and narcotics unit who had gathered back at the police station were heading out for lunch. “George said it had been a good week and everybody had been working hard, so he would buy lunch,” Ron Brooks recalls of that May day in 1981. A young cop, he looked up to George Garrett Jr., a well-liked, brash and fearless sergeant who headed the unit. “He was kind of larger than life to me. He was like the kind of cop I wanted to be.”

Then came the broadcast of a robbery at the Bank of America branch on El Camino Real, in the area where the Yumi Yogurt building is today. False alarms at banks were common, but Garrett said, “Hey, it’s right around the corner. Let’s go.” That, Brooks says, “was typical of George. Work always came first. Mission always came first.”

The tragedy that unfolded 39 years ago was a wrenching event, not just for those like Brooks who followed the sergeant into the bank, but for the police department and the whole community. The bank robber, a career criminal named Raleigh Porche, 36, a denizen of the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, had already amassed $150,000 in two previous bank jobs to further his goal of bankrolling a return to the marijuana smuggling business, according to Brooks.

Garrett and the undercover narcotics officers entered the bank through two different doors. Garrett walked up to a bank official’s desk, unaware that the well-dressed man sitting next to her was the bank robber. Garrett identified himself and Porche reached for his gun. Garrett pushed the bank manager aside but in the ensuing fight with Porche, Garrett was shot in the head and in the chest. Det. Dale Switzer, who was right behind him, immediately opened fire, killing Porche. Another undercover cop, Bob Peelle, burst through the doors of the bank going for help. In the rapidly unfolding action, he was mistaken for the bank robber, was wounded by “friendly fire” but recovered.

A Shared Grief

Garrett died on the way to Sequoia Hospital, the first Redwood City police officer to lose his life in the line of duty since Herman Fleishman died in 1939 after a hot pursuit. The shock radiated out from Garrett’s family and friends to the whole city. He and his wife, Kathy, were eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Four nights before, the dad-to-be—an imposing broad-shouldered man with a big personality—had joined his wife at a coed baby shower, wearing a baby bonnet on his bushy hair.

Officers rallied around the sudden widow. Lacking an official chaplain or even a procedure for in-the-line-of-death funerals, Sgt. Richard Morton, a former Marine, says Chief George Bold assigned him the task. Marines are big on ceremonies, Morton, 85, says. “I guess I just kind of fell back on that.” Some 2,000 people attended the standing-room-only memorial service at St. Pius Catholic Church, which was piped outside. Other sergeants managed traffic —including more than 100 motorcycle cops and a horse guard from the San Francisco Police Department—and myriad other tasks.

A graveside service followed. “The fire department and their wives volunteered to take on the reception,” Morton says, “and we fed 3,000 people at Red Morton Park.” Store owners called to donate food. “Everybody wanted to help. It was a beautiful thing for this city.” Within months, the community contributed nearly $57,000 to a fund for Garrett’s family. Fellow cops and sheriffs’ deputies organized a donkey baseball fundraiser.

The City Council wanted to do more and, as had been done for Officer Fleishman, elected to dedicate a park in the fallen officer’s honor. The 6.9-acre Canyon Park, at the end of Glenwood Avenue, was renamed George L. Garrett Memorial Park in July 1981. (Beth, the parks department head, says Garrett Park is due for refurbishment; he hopes to begin soliciting neighborhood input by the end of the year.)

Nineteen days after her husband’s death, Kathy Garrett gave birth to baby Nicole at Sequoia Hospital.

Being a police widow was “not something she really dwelled on,” says Nicole Garrett Burg, now 38 and the mother of 6- and 4-year-old sons. “She told me multiple times that she was so thankful that she had a baby…because it forced her to get up every day and put her shoes on and just do life. She really didn’t have the option of falling apart.”

Helping Other Widows

After a few years, Kathy remarried and had a second daughter, and the family relocated to Folsom. She got into leadership positions with the Northern California chapter of an organization that wasn’t around when she lost George, Concerns of Police Survivors, or C.O.P.S. In 1998, when Millbrae Police Officer David Chetcuti was fatally shot on U.S. 101 aiding another officer, Kathy reached out to his widow, Gail. The two women became close friends, united in their work supporting families of slain officers. Both women died of cancer a few months apart in 2004.

“My mom had that relationship with a lot of local widows,” Burg says. “… She was very positive and fun and allowed them to kind of be okay with their feelings but also see that life goes forward and things will be okay.” Kathy never took for granted the support she received from Redwood City and law enforcement friends. Says Burg: “That’s not always how it is other places, and she knew that.”

Though she teaches high school English, Burg remains connected to law enforcement. She also got involved in C.O.P.S. and served on its national board. Burg met her future brother-in-law, whose dad had also been killed in the line of duty, at a C.O.P.S summer camp and introduced him to her sister. Today he’s a K-9 officer in Roseville. Nicole’s husband, Matt Burg, is a Department of Homeland Security special agent whose work will soon relocate the family from Nebraska to Washington, D.C.

Brooks, who credits Garrett with influencing him to devote his 38-year career to drug enforcement, had lost touch with Kathy and Nicole but ran into them years ago at a C.O.P.S. conference. Nicole was a student at Santa Clara University and wanted to go to the nation’s capital. Brooks helped her get an internship with a congressional committee on criminal justice and drug policy. “When I got to know Nicole as a young woman, it finally dawned on me that even though she never knew her dad,” Brooks says, “the loss was nonetheless the same. In fact, it might have been worse because it was always (a question of) ‘What would it have been like to have grown up with my dad, to have him as a mentor figure in my life?’”

Several years ago, then-Police Chief JR Gamez began a tradition of honoring fallen officers annually on the anniversary of their deaths. In 2015, Burg and her family were flown out to receive a posthumous medal of valor. The fact that officers pause to remember her dad every year and that there’s a park named for him, “those are things that make me feel proud to share with my own children.”

Burg has often thought how easily May 8, 1981, could have been different. George and his team were supposed to be at lunch. Kathy had a medical appointment that day and she told him not to come. George’s death was right before Mother’s Day, and Burg still has the card that he’d bought, which was in a paper bag in his car.

“I’m married to a law enforcement officer,” she says. “It can happen anytime.” Although her husband works at a desk, “he still encounters situations that are very dangerous. It’s part of that life and I think every police wife and family somehow compartmentalizes that, and then it’s the thing that you hope never happens. “

This story was originally published in the April edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click here.