No room for a Pepper in today's SR

Helen Rudee handed me a couple of packets of history a week or so ago. She was passing on, for the archive and posterity, her family's collection of letters from Pepper. It was a vivid reminder of a colorful chapter of Santa Rosa's past.

About half of you readers will know what I mean. The rest of you -- well, bear with me. Explaining Pepper to people who had not "experienced" her is difficult. They don't understand. And there is no one on the present scene to compare.

Let's just say that San Francisco had Emperor Norton. Santa Rosa had Pepper.

Pepper Garcia Dardon, whose given name was perhaps Florence or maybe Linda, depending on what day you asked, was Santa Rosa's undisputed town character for 50 years.

PEPPER'S JOB -- and she was diligent -- was to patrol the downtown, hollering at jaywalkers, whistling on street corners, yodeling in banks or into the microphones at market check stands, offering candy to small children who were generally too overawed by her appearance to accept, tagging after pedestrians to tell them they'd dropped their footsteps.

Tongue-in-cheek, "officially," she was the "town marshal." The badge she flashed was given to her in the early '60s when a promotional "shootout" between representatives of downtown and Montgomery Village was canceled.

She was a sight to behold -- built like a fireplug, heavy on the makeup, including glitter and those gold stick-um stars the teacher puts on very good tests; heavier yet on the perfume, which she applied from test bottles on the counters at Rosenberg's and the several drugstores on Fourth Street.

She wore shorts or, in later years, bright-colored muumuus, with plastic flowers in her hair. You get the picture?

HELEN RUDEE, best known for her three terms as a county supervisor, is the widow of Bill Rudee, a family practice physician who answered an emergency call one night in the late 1940s or early '50s and acquired Pepper as a patient. She was devoted to him and to his family and flooded them with cards and letters, including her "Lies," which is what she called the stories she wrote, longhand on legal pads, about her cat Spunky and Spunky's seven children who had many great adventures, including visits to the Nixon White House, dinner with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and, prophetically, a job picking grapes on Fred MacMurray's ranch.

IN TERMS of her downtown activity, there's no question she got away with a lot. She was a kind of mascot to our smaller-town Police Department. The officers treated her like a pet.

When she'd had a bad day -- pounding pavement in her moccasins, hollering "Hey, Girl!" at long-haired male teenagers, calling businessmen "Jungle Boy" and "Lizard," bringing coffee to secretaries tied to the telephone, running any errand a merchant asked her to run or, on appropriate days, selling literally hundreds of dollars worth of white canes for the Lions' blind fund or tickets to the Kiwanis pancake feed -- she would pop in at the Police Department and beg a ride home in a patrol car. In exchange, she kept pedestrians in line; helped Watt Maxwell direct traffic at Fourth and Mendocino before there was a stoplight there and sometimes ordered pizzas delivered to the station -- which she never paid for.

THESE MEMORIES of Pepper raise an interesting question about growth and change and the cultural and political climate of a community. Could someone like Pepper exist in Santa Rosa today? I suspect the answer is a negative.

We've outgrown Pepper. In truth, we had outgrown her even before she died. More and more often, people took offense at her bold approach. In her last years -- she died in 1992 -- she complained often that Santa Rosans weren't as nice as they once were.

An interesting phenomenon. We now live in a town -- a city -- that is too big for a town character.

We'll have 175,000 people one day soon, and 15-story buildings, and we'll pass measures to stop people from talking about their rides in spaceships at City Council meetings. And we'll never have another significant town character.

PEPPER was born in the Salinas Valley and came to Santa Rosa, by way of Sonoma State Hospital, I believe, in 1942 when a number of high-functioning wards of the state were deemed capable of looking after themselves.

She lived for a time in a household where she cared for children and did housework. In 1953, she married Paul Dardon, a big, amiable guy who worked as a janitor at the Occidental Hotel. You'd see them walking hand in hand to their apartment on College Avenue when Paul's workday ended.

They made a pair. Pepper was perhaps 4-foot-10 in her shoes. Paul was a loose-limbed 6 feet tall and dressed exclusively in bib overalls. While Paul was on the job, Pepper was around town, at her life's work, which was assisting the police in keeping law and order and annoying those who found her annoying.

Some of us, I admit, may have encouraged her. We saw no malice in her. She was a regular on Jim Grady's morning show, playing her harmonica and singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" on St. Patrick's Day.

When Paul died in 1969, Pepper was devastated as well as being without resources. Bob Bishop, the Ford dealer whose agency was on Fifth Street, joined Dr. Rudee and me in a small fund-raising effort that kept her rent paid until Bishop, who had some political clout, was able to arrange for her to be tested and certified as "unemployable handicapped," which brought her a state pension.

When her landlord sold the apartment building where she later lived, on Humboldt Street, her neighbors came forth to testify what a good housekeeper she was and what a good friend and neighbor she had been.

I remember the last time I saw her. I had visited her in the Petaluma care home where she'd been for two years. I took her a flowering plant. As I was leaving, going down the hall, she yelled "Hey, Lizard!" and I went back.

"Do you ever make those things with marshmallows and Rice Krispies?" she asked me.

I admitted that I had done that, when my children were young.

She waved a dismissive hand at the potted plant. "Well," she said, "next time, bring those instead."

WHEN SHE DIED, at age 78, Santa Rosans -- led by the late Stan Lance -- stepped in to see that she both had a proper funeral and that she came home to Santa Rosa to be buried. There was a respectable crowd at her services. Most of the mourners knew it was the end of an era.

Santa Rosa had been a farm market town of about 13,000 when she arrived. When she hit her stride, in the '60s, the population was approaching 50,000. When she had a fall and was seen no more on her rounds, there were 113,000 people here. She was missed by many, but many more didn't know what they'd missed.

If another Pepper were to emerge today, we'd undoubtedly pass a law making her illegal. Certainly we'd have to crack down on her shoplifting penny candy to give to kids. Or we'd have to arrest her for collecting (and pocketing) 50-cent fines for jaywalking.

And how long do you think she'd last, out there directing traffic on Mendocino Avenue?

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