As I mounted the few steps to Tom and Jane Gawronski’s front porch of their house on Coronado the other day, I wondered who of the two had the green thumb – as the modest front yard was sprinkled with succulents, small palms and other drought-resistant plants and landscaping .
I was also wondering just which questions to ask them, as they both had agreed to be interviewed before they left for their hiking trek later this month – an incredible trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. My god, they’re both in their 70′s, I thought, as I was hobbling up the walkway and steps due to a swollen left foot.
Jane Gawronski is the current chair of the Ocean Beach Planning Board, holds a PhD and is a retired educator – yet we had to schedule the interview around her busy schedule as she still sits on some non-profits and charter school boards, plus both she and Tom are on the OB Historical Society board. They also do the Donation Cans for the OBTC Toy and Food Drive and the Donation Cans for the OBMS Fireworks as well.
Tom is also on the Planning Board and has actually been on it longer than Jane; he for 10 years – she for 8 years. Together – these two are my new heroes – so active and aware and involved.
Their comfortable one-story house on Coronado a few blocks from the cliffs was adorned with antiques, and an obvious effort to create a “Southwestern” motif has been made, accented by beautifully colored tapestry type rugs on the floors. Many of the rugs and antiques have been collected over the years by Tom and Jane scouring local yard sales, estate sales and sales of businesses going out of business.
We sat down at a round table in their large family room – a room with a massive fireplace in one corner, a computer in another, and a glass-door that empties out to the back patio. There’s an apartment over a garage in the back, off the alley.
First off, I congratulated Jane on her recent letter from new Mayor Bob Filner – a letter he had sent the Planning Board in response to the Board’s call for a moratorium on variances being granted by the City. Mayor Filner appears to be throwing his support behind the Board’s opposition to what it views as improper variances by the Developmental Services Department to property owners along the 5100 block of West Pt Loma Blvd.
This issue has been on-going, and Tom and Jane have been in the thick of it.
Some applicants for the variances who own property along the western side of that block have been granted them, which allows them to circumvent certain requirements set out by OB’s development blueprint, the OB Precise Plan.
Two applicants have proceeded with construction, which included demolishing duplexes and building large, 3-story single-family residences – one was completed a while ago, and the second is in its final stages. Meanwhile, a third applicant for the same variances was denied at last week’s meeting. If allowed to proceed, property owners on that block could construct a wall of 3-story mansions – out of character for the area, but also blocking public and private coastal views.
Both of them have been actively leading the planners in their stance on the variance issue – Jane as the chair – it was her letter to the Mayor that precipitated his response - presented at last week’s Board meeting – and Tom, as the representative of the district where this front line in OB’s battle with gentrification is occurring.
Following this battle of the Board, I wanted to crack the veneer of this dynamic duo who was in the trenches, find out just exactly what made them tick, as I really had no knowledge of their backgrounds.
Jane has a Boston accent, which you can catch every now and then. She’s Irish and grew up in Dorchester, a community in south Boston – a neighborhood that just got hammered by the recent northeaster storm. Her dad was a postal carrier – the family name was Donnolly – and his family hailed from the County of Tyrone in Ireland. Her mom took care of her and her five siblings – which by the way, are all living and scattered in Boston or Florida.
Tom, meanwhile, grew up in Minneapolis – 3 of his grandparents were born in Poland – near Lublin. He remembers being told by one of them, “It’s a bad place. Don’t go there.” One of his grandfathers, in order to get out of the Russian army – this was before World War I – split the country and walked all the way to Bremenhaven, Germany, ending up in America.
Tom’s father was a mold maker in a foundry, in a small shop that made metal castings for the military during WWII. He’d also worked at a tire shop before the war, but when the war came, “there was no gas,” Tom said, “and the tire shop work collapsed.” Tom has one sibling, a sister, who lives in Phoenix.
Apparently, a science geek, Tom won a National Merit Scholarship to MIT in Boston. And that’s where their lives crossed, of course. This was in 1958 – Ike was President, and Tom had his head buried in his studies.
In 1958, Jane was attending U of Mass in Boston and she had a friend who arranged a blind date with a Catholic boy who was attending MIT, also of course in Boston. It turned out to be Tom. They must have hit it off, as they’ve been together ever since. An Irish girl and a Polish boy. Jane and Tom just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year in June (and Hodad’s catered it – how OB!). And they still attend church every Sunday.
They both graduated college in 1962 – JFK was President then - Jane with a bachelor in Math Education, and Tom with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. They both wanted to go on and earn higher degrees. Tom wanted to get into a masters program in food science, and Jane wanted to further her education in math education.
Tom had a roommate at MIT from Pullman, Washington, and it just so happened that Washington State University in Pullman had a terrific program in food science. And Jane could go to the University of Idaho for her masters program. “What?” I winced sympathetically for them facing a long-distance relationship, “how did you manage that?”
Jane assured me, that even though the colleges were in different states, “they were only 8 miles apart.” They both chuckled. “Plus,” Jane added, “the University of Idaho was only $5 a credit.”
“We had no money,” Tom said. Yet, by the end of two years, Tom had his Masters in Food Science & Technology, and Jane got her Masters in Secondary Education. It was 1964.
“What did you do then?” I asked innocently.
“Well, we both wanted our doctorates,” Jane said. “First Tom, then me,” she said. Once again, Tom obtained a type of scholarship, this time it was a National Institute of Health Fellowship and this time it was at Dartmouth. It’s medical school offered a PhD program in molecular biology, Tom’s area. He went for it. Meanwhile, Jane started teaching – this was in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
“Jane taught just 2 blocks from the house,” Tom said, and more chuckles. In 1968, Tom got his PhD in molecular biology, and now it was Jane’s turn. She wanted to go to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis because primarily there was a big-time math prof on the faculty who she believed would be wonderful to study with. And in 1971, Jane got her PhD in Math Education.
Meanwhile, Tom was doing post-doc work in the Chemistry Department at the university, and had a series of temporary assistant professor positions over the next few years.
Then one day – it was in 1974 as Jane remembers it clearly – “Tom came home,” she said, “and he said ‘it’s too cold here. I got a job for you in San Diego. It would be nice to live there.’ “ He had found her a job with the San Diego County Office of Education. She still had to apply – and she did – and she got it. She was to be the curriculum coordinator for the office.
Tom had become familiar with San Diego over the years – by attending conferences here – particularly those memorable periodonology conferences. They both came out in February so she could do her application. She had never been here.
“Minneapolis was black and white,” Jane explained referring to their barren, winter landscape. “When we came to San Diego and saw all this color, I told Tom, ‘we went from black and white to Technicolor.’ ” They chuckled.
“We looked around San Diego, it was clear that we wanted to live at the beach. Tom grew up in lake country and I grew up close to the ocean.”
So, Tom found them a little house in Ocean Beach. What was the community like? she asked him. He explained OB this way:
“It looks like where old VW vans go to die.”
I chuckled this time. The new place was perfect. They moved into the house – Tom still recalls the address – 5061 Cape May.
That summer, Tom learned to surf – this was 1974 – the Summer that Richard Nixon resigned; Tom was doing the cooking and house cleaning, Jane was working, and their daughter Stacia was 2. Reality must have set in as in September, Jane finally suggested that he get a job.
So, Tom started looking around town, and he did get a job. It was with Beckman Instruments up north in Carlsbad. They make medical and diagnostic equipment. Tom jumped into their R&D department, and stuck. He stayed with Beckman for 29 years – all total.
In 1977 they found out that Tom’s dad was coming out for a stay for a couple of months. This pushed the couple into leaving the beach; they had bought their very first house on Muir. Selling it enabled them to buy something larger up in the Fleetridge neighborhood of Point Loma. Which they did. Tom’s dad and mom arrived around Halloween and stayed until Easter. They both chuckled. “Tom’s dad did that for 22 years,” Jane said. “He would come at Halloween and stay to Easter.”
Career-wise, Jane was moving up. She had been director of Planning, Research and Education, but decided she wanted to be a superintendent of schools in California, somewhere. “But in order to be a superintendent,” Jane said,”I needed to be an assistant superintendent.” Tom had told her he could move anywhere that Beckman had facilities.
In 1982, Jane got her assistant supe job – in the Walnut Valley Unified School District, next to Pomona, where she stayed for 5 years. The district had about 8000 students. And Tom began working at Beckman’s place in Brea.
Next on her path was the West Covina Unified, which had 7,000 kids. Jane got her first superintendent position there in 1987. “It was a tough job being superintendent,” Jane mused. She remained there for 3 years.
Not too much later, daughter Stacia graduated high school early – she was only 15; “she’s very smart, didn’t like high school,” Jane said. In 1989 she went to UC Berkeley – but just for one semester. Fast forward to today, Stacie lives in Norfolk, Virginia, and is a Lt Commander in the Navy, in the JAG Corps, and about to be promoted to full Commander. Her hubby is also in the military.
Stacie’s parents, Tom and Jane, moved back to the San Diego area in 1990 when Jane got the job of Superintendent of the Escondido High School District that year. They bought a house on 3 acres in Valley Center with 50 macadamia nut trees. “The best thing,” Tom said, “was we raised our own beef. We had a steer in our front yard. We fed ‘em all year, and a guy would come over and give ‘em a pop.”
The not so good things about their North County residence was that it was so far from everything, chimed in Jane, and there was so much work to do on the property, said Tom.
When Jane retired from her job in Escondido in 1998, she told Tom, “‘we don’t have to live in Valley Center.’ We wanted to move back to the beach,” Jane said. She had a new position in SDSU’s Center for Research In Mathematics and Scientific Education (CRIMSE) and Tom was working as a director of technical operations, manufacturing and engineering with Beckman.
But where to move? Which beach to move to? There weren’t a lot of places for sale at the different beaches, Jane remembered.
Then working with realtor Priscilla McCoy, they found a 2 bedroom, 2 bath on the last block of Cape May Avenue in OB. It was 5113 Cape May – and it turned out to be the exact same place as the old “Red House” – an activist-packed house in the 1970′s that was coincidentally painted red, the same color as much of the activists’ alleged politics.
The Gawronskis bought Red House – which was not red then in 1998 – for $275,000 and moved in. They lived there for 5 years. In 2002 the house was designated an Historic Cottage, part of OB’s Historic Cottage District, that realtor McCoy was instrumental in forming. Today, there’s a plaque on the front of the house – and the house is once again painted red. The Gawronskis were rather proud in telling me this.
“Did you know,” I asked them, “that for a while, the OB Rag had an office in a shed in the backyard [at Red House]?” Oh yes, they told me. They were quiet aware they assured me of all that old history.
I wonder. Ah, I remember long nights in that shed in the back yard, once a surfboard making space, in an old-converted garage, doing the lay-up and paste-up of the old OB Rag, the alternative newspaper and namesake of our current website. The entire staff of volunteers would work all night, putting the newspaper to bed. And then a select team of staff members would show up with a van to drive it up to Riverside to have it printed. The rest of us would collapse in exhaustion. This is circa 1974. The same year that Tom and Jane first moved into OB.
The old shed has since been torn down, and in fact, the original property was divided, and now 2-story condos sit where Red House used to have its grand grassy side yard. The Gawronskis built another unit in their back yard.
Our conversation drifted back to the Planning Board. Between the duo of them, they’ve served a total of 18 years on OB’s Planning Board. I asked Tom how he got involved.
“Priscilla McCoy talked me into it,” Tom said in explaining why he first ran for the planning committee. “I wanted to learn the process. I was trying to get a permit to build an addition. It took me 4 years to get the permit.” There was no frustration in his voice, as there had been a lot of water under the bridge since. But that experience motivated him to get involved with the Board. He ran and won a seat on the 14-member advisory board.
On the issue of the Planning Board itself, Tom said:
The local planning board is a terrific idea. The issue I have these days is there’s very few people in the community who understand what it is and what it does.
I have issues with the community. No one bothers to come to find out what the issues are. Looks to some like we are 14 busy bodies. It’s getting worse – the lack of interest is getting worse. The interest level decreases every year. The only people who come to meetings are supporters of projects.
To combat the declining interest, the Board for this upcoming annual election in March has authorized propositions to be on the ballot. The hope is that this will draw more voters. Propositions had been utilized in the early days of this century, but were banned after a few controversial propositions passed. A ban on corporate franchises on Newport Avenue was voted in. Even if a proposition wins, it is still only a recommendation, as the Planning Board, again, is an advisory body only. Yet, its voice holds a lot of credibility.
Musing on some of the good things the Board has accomplished, Tom commented, “What we did on Abbott and Saratoga – we went to Coastal,” referring to the California Coastal Commission appeal over the fight on the proposed development for the southwest corner of Saratoga and Abbott. The Board had fought the proposal for a large 12-unit, 3 story condo project, and was able to scale it down, and straighten out some wrinkles. The Commission had ordered the parties – the developer and the community through its planning board – to resolve differences by compromise.
In negotiations with the developer, the Board was able to “shrink the level of the wall, and had it decreased from12 units to 10, with semi-hid parking,” Tom added.
It was Jane’s turn. Jane is the current Chair of the Board and she will be leaving all of it in March as she is termed out.
The Planning Board is a mechanism for being the voice of the community – so it can be heard at City Hall. Without a planning board, there is no way the City Council and the Planning Commission would hear it.
Tom and Jane both brought up another issue they have with the City – specifically with Development Services, today’s equivalent of what is left of the Planning Department. Tom said:
Development Services is rewriting the new Precise Plan, and they’re rewriting it in whatever fashion they want. The new Precise Plan is toothless.
We all agreed that the “new” Precise Plan hasn’t been passed and accepted yet. The OB Precise Plan is the blueprint for development in Ocean Beach, and the Board upholds it.
“One of the issues – it is impossible to get a draft of the new, yet-to-be accepted Precise Plan from the City.”
I then blurted out: “We were rewriting the Precise Plan when I was chair – ten years ago.” They both nodded understandingly. Tom said that there must have been 50 to 100 meetings organized by the City on rewriting the new blueprint.
On the letter from Mayor Filner, Jane told me:
I’m very pleased with the response from Mayor Filner.
Then Jane specifically thanked Councilmember Kevin Faulconer for his support of the Planning Board over the current issue of variances that generated the letter from Mayor Filner.
I asked the dynamic planning couple of what we could expect over the Douma residence, the property that was recently denied an application for a variance, that included the size of the living space.
Tom replied, “We’ll get more buildings but they’ll be 1300 square feet, not 1700 square feet,” which was the size of the Douma residence.
Tom warned: “They can still build a wall of buildings,” along West Pt Loma on the 5100 block.
We wound up our interview with me taking a few photos. I had asked them at the very end how many properties they owned in OB. They have 5 units on 2 plots on Lotus, just bought a place on the 4900 block of Saratoga, and own 3 on Abbott close to the Abbott Street Grocery. Clearly, they are very committed to the community, as they’ve invested in it with their dollars, but much more than that – their time, their years.
Next Thursday – February 14th, this duo is heading out for Africa – yes, they plan to trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Months and months ago, Jane was reading that a safari tour took people with Parkinson disease to the top, and she turned to Tom and said, “We can do that.”
Ever since, and that was 8 months ago, they’ve been trying to get ready, going on “roughing-it” trips, raftings, hikes at Mission Trails Park. It’s a 6 and half day trek up the mountain in Africa, they told me, and a day and half down. “You start at 7500 feet, and the top is 19,500,” Jane said. My jaw must have been dropping, as Jane quickly added, “Porters carry our equipment!” The weather change itself is amazing. They will begin in rainforests in 80 degrees and climb to 20 degrees below at the top.
I thanked them after the photos, and quickly took the steps to my car. It was spitting rain and I didn’t want to get wet. But what an inspirational couple, I thought, driving away. The Tom and Jane Show, I should call it, already planning my writing.
I’m not religious, but I want to thank the stars that brought this duo to our shores. Oh, … it’s Tom who has the green thumb.