I don’t remember much about my first day of kindergarten except that Webster Elementary School was a huge, sprawling complex filled with strangers all bigger than I. All 25 of us sat on green indoor-outdoor carpet in three or four rows. We took naps on little mats. Although I aspired to be a row leader, I don’t believe I ever made it. I don’t remember the principal’s name, but I do recall several teary visits to her office.
I once came home from school, proud of a note Mrs. Noonan had pinned to my sweater. I announced to my befuddled mom, “I’m the only one who got one!”
Webster was built in 1956 on the eastern frontier of San Diego City, just north of where 47th Street crosses Highway 94. Coca-Cola Bottling has a plant there, next to KGTV (then KOGO) studios. The school cost $300,000 to build and was designed for 400 students, many to come from Chollas Elementary’s burgeoning attendance area.
Edie Noonan, who would teach kindergarten for 30 years, lived in Lemon Grove. She gave us a hug every day when we came to school. She had a morning and an afternoon class, each with 25 kids. Of the 50 kids in the Class of 1964, only 2 were black. Two were Asian. Several looked Hispanic, but the majority were white.
Within six years, that demographic profile would reverse. Only a handful of kids in 1970’s sixth-grade class were white. I would not be among them, as my parents moved us to La Mesa in 1967.
White families moved out of the Webster area (then called Imig Park) as fast as black families were moving in. The neighborhood remains predominantly black as well as impoverished. Last year, Webster was named one of San Diego Unified’s lowest-performing schools, in danger of possible closure and complete restaffing.
I ended up at Spring Valley Elementary. After two years at Spring Valley Junior High, I attended Mount Miguel High School and went on to get a degree in journalism. My best friend from kindergarten moved to Spring Valley in 1973, graduated from Monte Vista High, and now owns a small business in the San Diego State area.
In fact, the Class of 1964 has done pretty well. It seems everybody I need to know I met in kindergarten.
Jeff Ousley, Flower Man
Jeff Ousley lived on the opposite end of the Webster boundaries from my house, on the corner of 49th and Federal. Ridgeview Drive is at the top of the hill where Fairmount Drive cascades down into the Chollas Creek gully and collides with 47th Street.
Jeff now owns Aztec Flower Market on El Cajon Boulevard, three and a half miles from Webster.
Going to Jeff s house was a perilous journey down the dirt path from Webster, through a storm drain culvert under Chollas Parkway and up a steep Fairmount without sidewalks.
Jeff went to Webster through sixth grade and then on to Horace Mann Junior High, near the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and 54th Street. Although the demographics of the neighborhood were changing, Jeff, like most little kids, didn’t really take note of race until he hit seventh grade.
“I remember going to Horace Mann and the white kids telling me I needed a new wardrobe,” he says. “I guess the way I talked and dressed were black. Most of my friends from Webster were black.”
There was a stabbing in the bathroom at Horace Mann in the late ’60s that was taken to be race-related. Tension built as high school kids from Lincoln and Crawford came down to 54th Street for a show of force.
Jeff’s parents seemed to feel the tremors, both from racial tension and the construction of Interstate 805, which was ploughing up the backyard for the Home Avenue offramp.
In 1973, the Ousleys moved to Casa de Oro.
“My parents are not racists, but they probably didn’t want to be a minority,” Jeff says. “They were probably concerned about their property value. When the freeway came, it was, like, ‘We’re out of here.’ ”
Jeff went to high school at Monte Vista, where racial tension was light by comparison but got more media play. Jeff made the track team, the swim team, and played water polo. He heard the word “nigger” being used with frequency for the first time at Monte Vista.
The kid next door had a black-bottomed pool and played guitar. Across the street, another kid played flute and was heavily into one of Jeff s idols, Jethro Tull. They immediately formed a band.
Eventually named Blue Wind, Jeffs band made KGB’s Homegrown 5 album with a song called “Earthquake.” They played San Diego State and opened for some national acts at Montezuma Hall.
Jeff went to Grossmont College but figured his future lay on the Billboard charts.
“I had this sociology professor at Grossmont saying four out of five people in our class would live within ten miles of their birthplace doing some kind of work similar to their parents,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Not me!’ I was going to be a rock star and get out of Dodge.”
Although he made trips to Seattle, the Midwest, and Europe, Jeff stayed in East County. His best friends remained the kids from Horace Mann, and he married his high school sweetheart, a former homecoming queen at Crawford High.
Bonnie Newman was a floral designer, and the couple operated Bonnie’s Bouquets from 1983 until their divorce in 1991. Jeff kept the flower stand on El Cajon Boulevard and 63rd Street. When he isn’t delivering bouquets, a job not completely unlike his father’s frozen-food distributorship, Jeff still writes songs and performs with a band.
If I had known where Jeff was when I got married (also in 1983), I would have had him do my flowers and music. I’ll certainly have him do my funeral.
Kenny Quon, Civil Engineer
Kenny Quon is the only kid in my kindergarten picture wearing a tie. Suspenders and a bow tie. I did not know it at the time, but Kenny is Chinese. Formal dress would certainly be the requirement for picture day at school.
For the past 11 years, Kenny has been a civil engineer with the city of Carlsbad. His job is to scrutinize developers bearing subdivision plans.
Kenny lived over on the eastern end of the Webster district, on Westover Place. His parents, now in their 70s, still live there. For years, the family operated Quon’s Market on Imperial Avenue in Encanto. Although they’ve added locks to their doors and bars to their windows, Kenny’s parents have never thought of moving.
“Education is stressed — it was a given that I was going to college,” Kenny says. “My parents owned a grocery store, and it was clear I was going to do something better.”
Kenny’s father came to the U.S. from Mainland China in the 1920s. He was a child accompanying his father, who had left wife and extended family for a better life. It was common for Chinese men to do this, and the two never returned.
Kenny’s parents met in the 1940s, when his mom-to-be fled the Communist Revolution in China. The Quons would not speak Chinese to their children, and Kenny grew up learning only English.
In kindergarten, he did not ponder much on being Chinese unless Mrs. Noonan happened to ask the class to share about what they had for dinner.
“We had rice and soup every night, and sometimes other Chinese dishes,” Kenny says. “I was embarrassed some-times when asked what we were eating. We ate with chopsticks and never had kids over.”
Kenny’s inclinations toward math and drawing flourished at Horace Mann Junior High. He enjoyed drafting classes and shop and dreamed about being an architect. The Webster neighborhood was becoming predominantly black, but this didn't matter much to Kenny until he got to Crawford.
At Crawford, suddenly, there were kids from other communities looking down their noses at Webster kids.
“My dad told me that blacks were moving in because they couldn’t go anywhere else,” Kenny recalls. “But he told me they were just like us. We all seemed to get along.”
Kenny would often help out at the family market, which local Spanish-speakers had dubbed “Chino’s.” Encanto was okay. His dad told him they didn’t get a lot of trouble in Encanto because Chinese were looked upon as just another minority group. Whites would have had a much harder time.
Kenny graduated from Crawford in 1976 and enrolled at SDSU. Feeling more technical than artistic, he majored in engineering. SDSU had no architecture program anyway. He married Cynthia Linn in 1985, hired on at Carlsbad, and now lives in Carmel Mountain Ranch.
The Quons retired and lease the store to another grocer. Kenny can often be found in the Webster neighborhood, visiting his parents and occasionally driving down the streets where he once walked to school.
The next time I need a building permit, I’ll make sure I’m living in Carlsbad.
Winnie Dobbs, Pharmacy Supervisor
When I tried to recall names from my kindergarten class, I could only remember boys. Jeff Ousley remembered boys. Kenny Quon and Carey Pico remembered boys. But what about girls, I asked.
They all remembered Winnie Dobbs.
Winnie only went to Webster one year, Mrs. Noonan’s kindergarten class, but she made a lasting impression.
Maybe it was the fact that she was suddenly off, going to a Catholic school way on the other side of Euclid. Maybe it was because her family lived on Ridgeview Drive for years, and she came back to the school scene at Horace Mann. Maybe it was her green-blue eyes.
She doesn’t remember it, but Jeff says Winnie is the first girl he ever kissed.
Winnie currently supervises the Rite-Aid store in Tierrasanta.
She was born fourth in a family of six girls and three boys. All nine Dobbs children have the same parents. The house had three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the girls, and one for the boys. Holy Spirit Catholic Church didn’t have a kindergarten, so the kids began at Webster and then transferred to parochial school.
As much as she is remembered, Winnie has only vague memories of kindergarten.
She made the trek down Fair-mount with the Ridgeview contingent, past the trailer park in the bottom of the gully. She knows the neighborhood was changing, but this did not seem to alarm her parents.
She graduated from Crawford in 1975, a year ahead of her age group, pressed by her parents to take summer school and amass credits early. Her father, a barber, was killed in a freak accident in 1979, and Winnie left San Diego.
“I moved because I wanted to get away from my family,” Winnie says. “I came back because I missed them.”
Even so, Winnie took flight to Portland, Oregon, because her sister, Rose, lived there. Rose was a disc jockey at a radio station, and Winnie worked the front desk at hotels. She had time to dream of working on a cruise liner or becoming a cosmetologist like her sister, Barbara.
She returned to San Diego and earned her cosmetology license but did not go on to cut hair. Barbara’s money had been impressive, but the work was not for Winnie.
She fell into retail and watched Payless Drugs merge with Thrifty and then get bought out by Rite-Aid. Ice cream went from a nickel a scoop to 89 cents. Winnie lives in Kearny Mesa with her mom, who rents the old Ridgeview house to sister Rose, an engineer at KGTV.
Winnie never married and has no children.
The next time I need decongestant, I’m going to visit Winnie.
Phillip Bell, Fireman
The Bells went to the same church as my family. Our Redeemer Lutheran Church sat opposite the top of the Euclid offramp from Highway 94, across from where the Rancho Drive-In once stood.
In 1964, it was a little white church in a little white neighborhood. Now it’s a bigger brown church in a bigger brown neighborhood. White Lutherans leaving Imig Park would commute from as far as Lakeside and Alpine for services.
We drove in every Sunday from La Mesa. The Bells, who moved to Jamul in 1968, commuted as well. Because of Our Redeemer, I would run into Phillip Bell all the way through our high school years.
Phillip walked to Webster by himself, a couple of blocks south on Brookline Street. His older brother always had other things to do and was on his own schedule. It was 1964, and parents didn’t worry about kids walking to and from school.
Phillip remembers when the first black family moved within playing distance. We had a black kid named Kenneth Williams in our class, hut he lived across the canyon near Ridgeview, This family was just around the corner on Date Street.
“I remember hearing comments along the line of ‘There goes the neighborhood,’ ” says Phillip, now a captain in the Vista Fire Department. “But I didn’t really know what they meant. The new neighbors were the nicest people.”
Phillip’s mother was an immigrant, a Russian with a thick accent and assertive temperament. Her family fled to Mongolia during the Soviet revolution. She met Leslie Bell in Shanghai while he was on tour with the Navy prior to World War II. He didn’t speak Russian and she didn’t speak English, but the sign language must have been fabulous.
The Bells were in their early 40s when they adopted Phillip and Leslie Jr., two biological brothers abandoned by their natural mother. Phillip noticed that mom had no problem getting involved with the PTA and school functions, although she had a good 20 years on most of the other grade-school mothers.
The move to Jamul didn’t seem to have anything to do with race.
“Dad always wanted a place in the country,” Phillip says. "We drove a half-hour to church every Sunday.”
Phillip attended Jamul Las Flores through eighth grade. He entered Monte Vista High School the year his dad died.
Although he was in the same grade as Jeff Ousley, their paths never crossed at Monte Vista. For reasons he can’t remember today, Phillip transferred to Valhalla High for his senior year. He had always planned on being a doctor and was happy to take the Ohio Vocation Interest Survey, a battery test given seniors to determine their occupational interests. He answered every question with visions of medical school dancing before him.
Near the end of the test, he was asked to write down three jobs he might see himself doing in five years. He could only think of two, doctor and physical therapist. Glancing over at a neighbor’s test, he copied down “firefighter” for the third choice.
The test results gave him highest marks for being a firefighter.
“I always thought it was a job for people who were stupid or couldn’t do anything else,” Phillip recalls. “It turns out the smartest guy I ever met was a fire captain.”
Phillip graduated and the summer before enrolling at Grossmont College, he worked as a seasonal firefighter for the California State Department of Forestry. Members of that summer crew included Bob Pfohl, now chief of the Santee Fire Department, and Ken Kremensky, a chief in Lakeside.
Phillip trained as a fire-fighter-paramedic and hired on to the Vista Fire Department. He moved to Escondido and married Cathy Willis in 1986. After 14 years and six back surgeries, Phillip moved out of fire suppression into administration and disaster preparedness.
Like his father before him, Phillip moved to the country. He lives with his wife and two boys 12 miles from Vista in Valley Center.
“My father-in-law is a rancher out this way,” he says. “He’s the last real cowboy, out riding the range and fixing fences.”
In the heat of summer, it’s nice to know Phillip’s prepared.
Carey Pico, Scientist
Carey Pico may have inherited his surname from California’s last Mexican governor, Pio Pico, but he was not considered Mexican. He was a tow-head with blue eyes and freckles.
If anything, he was Jewish. This was made clear to Jeff Ousley one day when report cards were given out. Jeff may have been bigger and more gregarious, but Carey brought home the grades. Carey’s mom was driving them home to Ridgeview Drive when Jeff made a crack about Carey always getting better grades.
Jeff says that Mrs. Pico turned toward the backseat and told him that Carey was Jewish and would always be smarter than he.
Carey’s mom was Jewish and his dad Hispanic, although neither parent brought much ethnic tradition to the mixed marriage. They divorced after Carey started school, and Carey felt far more stigmatized by having no dad than by anything related to race.
Trudy Pico struggled to support her three kids and even went on welfare a while before landing a job with the state unemployment office. Carey got high marks in school but failed in behavior. He did not think much about going to college.
Carey liked math. He remembers counting past 100 on the swing set at Webster. In fifth grade, he was picked to learn the slide rule, the hand-held calculator of the 1960s.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when Carey was in fourth grade. He says Jeff cried and wrote a song about King and the Kennedys, “What Fun Is a Gun?” Horace Mann Junior High was awakening to race, as groups and cliques formed to pass judgment on others.
The counselors at Crawford High pointed Carey toward college, and soon he was gone from the Webster neighborhood for good. He majored in physics and math at UC San Diego and went on to UC Santa Barbara for a master’s degree in physics.
“I finally took advantage of my ‘minority status,’ ” he says. “I got an internship with Bell Labs in New Jersey. They rivaled the best schools and produced Nobel-prize winners.”
Carey loved research and development and went for his Fh.D. at the University of Wisconsin. There he met his wife, an Argentinean of Jewish descent studying plant pathology. They lived in Dallas, Berkeley, and finally Portland, doing post-doctoral research at various universities and working for high-tech firms.
Five years ago, Carey was hired to develop laser-soldering for the U.S. government. He was hot on the trail of welding hitherto unmer-gable metals when the Cold War petered out and the contract ended.
Until new work comes along, Carey is content to take care of his two little girls on his and his wife’s one-acre spread in the woods outside Portland. He visits the old neighborhood now and then but doesn’t figure he’ll ever move south of Silicon Valley.
“Sometimes I suggest my wife find a job in San Diego. I like the beach,” he says. “But nothing’s rundown in Portland — there are no bad neighborhoods here I’ve lived in a lot of cities, but this is a nice place to end up.”
I really don’t need anything soldered by laser, but if Carey ever shows up in East County, maybe he can show me the best way to hang a hammock.
Steve Thomas, Writer
I was born in La Mesa, not in East San Diego. We lived in La Mesa and Santee before I went to kindergarten and left the Webster neighborhood in the middle of my second-grade year.
My dad, an accountant, worked in the Los Angeles area for less than a year, and we returned to San Diego in 1967. My parents never mentioned race and, like all the other parents around Webster, never seemed prejudiced as they quietly left the neighborhood for the suburbs.