Reflecting on a Friend
by Dan Songster
It is early morning and the rain begins to fall in earnest. The dark skies have been dripping of an on during the night but now there is lightning and thunder and I am near the Garden watching the rain drop, making the plants shine and knocking leaves from the sycamore tree that Rod and I planted. Rod loved this sort of day, the english blood (or whatever it was) would stir and he would be especially cheerful with umbrella out and open. “Let’s go get a cup of coffee.” So we would often head over to the cafeteria, get a cup and talk of wide ranging subjects. What a pleasure. Rod Wallbank was my workmate on the Grounds Crew at Golden West College and Co-Director at the GWC Native Garden for well over two decades. He was also a husband, mathematician, philosopher, adventurer/investigator of life, and a friend to many. Rod unexpectedly passed away October 2, 2010.
Rod was involved in exploring many aspects of life and with Rod there was no dabbling. If he invested his time in learning something-he did it well and he enjoyed the ride however long that process would take. So varied were his interests that no consideration of Rod’s life would be complete. It’s not every day you run into a guy who has spent decades in fruitful study of philosophy and mathematics, hitchhiked the Trans Canadian highway, surfed Ray’s Bay near Seal Beach back in the day, lived in a commune in Oregon, and did not own a television but instead read out loud with his wife Sarah at night. “Have you ever read the history of the Nile? Right now we are starting a two book set…”
But for myself and others I know, it was his love of a useful and imaginative landscape and California native plants that was our main connection, although philosophy and math and everything else interesting to either of us made it seamlessly into the conversations. Happily, what started out as a discussion about the dimensions of the not yet constructed Garden amphitheater would somehow find its way to the Parthenon in Athens, and mention of the hefty tome, Munz’s Flora of California might lead to talk of the unrivaled library in ancient Alexandria.
When Rod came onto the GWC Grounds Crew in the mid eighties he had questions about the partially developed garden near the Math/Science Building. I explained about how I had started a native garden for the Science Department in 1975 but for various reasons its progress had stalled. The idea of California native plants being put together for an outdoor lab for our science classes, a Garden that could provide a sense of place, provide better habitat for our local birds and butterflies, and take less water and other resources made complete sense to him. There was no need to talk Rod into this-it made sense and he became enthused and excited. Rod jumped into the Garden with both feet and I had a partner.
Together, we went to early symposia on native plants, took the GWC grounds crew to various campuses all over California (Rod drove), visited nurseries and gardens specializing in natives, and talked to people who designed native gardens and who grew native plants. Generally we had a blast. We joined organizations like the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboretums, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the California Native Plant Society, and others. In a short time we accumulated a greater understanding of designing a native garden and of actually growing natives, compiled an extensive list of native experts and contacts throughout the state, and obtained an excellent library on natives and on horticulture in general.
He and I (and many volunteers over the years) basically built the Native Garden here at Golden West College on a shoestring. The Garden was and is an oddity on campus, overseen partially by both the Grounds Department and the Science Department and it is unfunded other than contributions. With almost no budget it was often Rod’s “can do” attitude that got us through. Every need and challenge was met with a deliberate and thought out plan mixed with a bit of Rod’s charisma, humor, arm twisting, hard work, and extreme resourcefulness.
When we needed rock and boulders to use in our natural style landscapes, Rod found someone who worked in a quarry in Irwindale. He borrowed a district dump truck every Thursday and filled it up (usually by hand) and returned to the campus dumping one load each week, week after week. When he discovered the City of Huntington Beach had a surplus of its beautiful old 1904 cast iron street lights he arranged (with the help of Peter Green) to buy them for the Garden for $1 each. Sandblasting and powder-coating were arranged as a tax write-off for a local company and those lights now stand on each side of the Garden amphitheater and back by the Astronomy pad. We needed a lath house, so when a court referred worker revealed he was a carpenter Rod put him to work and in days we had our lath house. Extending the Garden? Rod received permission from then President Judith Valles, and arranged for a Birkenstock wearing, excavation and grading contractor named Bud Greenleaf to donate hundreds of cubic yards of soil and the grading equipment to create the topography existing today-Rod even got to drive a piece of the monster equipment, a story he would tell with a smile. There is almost no feature in the Garden that Rod did not have a hand in.
The years flew by and Rod retired, but even then he stayed on part-time to make sure the Garden kept advancing. It was only after was confident the Garden was being taken care by our community volunteer core that he really retired-but would still come by and check on what was blooming and chat with appreciative Garden volunteers.
In 2009, the GWC Native Garden hosted a symposium on growing native plants. This was something Rod and I had planned for years but had just never got around to until then. With help from the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society we hosted the “At Home with Natives” Symposium at Golden West College. It was at this sold out event that Rod was presented with the Garden’s first Oak Award for “for outstanding service to the Golden West College Native Garden and hence to the College itself.” Rod had during his career won awards for classified staff of the month and of the year, been featured in magazine and newspaper articles, and honored for his academic efforts but I hope that the Oak Award from the GWC Native Garden that he helped create was one of his favorite honors. Here is some of the text from the Award:
“This award is presented to an individual of engaging character, contagious humor, and inspiring leadership who, for over last two decades has been responsible for making the Golden West College Native Garden a truly unique place on the Golden West College campus. Rod’s accomplishments as Co-Director of the Garden are far too numerous to list. His hard work, imagination, and vision are seen throughout the Garden.”
It continues, “Although he has retired it is hoped he will remain an ambassador of the Garden and continue to inspire faculty, staff, and all Garden visitors. His regular presence in the Garden will be missed but we remember him each time we stroll the pathways he laid out, use the amphitheater he built, or admire the grove of Engelmann Oaks he planted.”
Those Oaks will grow, reaching towards the sun as the “Rod Wallbank Grove” and the Garden will be there for those who are curious and who want a place to learn, to paint, stroll, inhale, ask questions, or have a cup of coffee and tell a story.
Thanks for everything, Rod
A bit more: With his large store of knowledge and personal experience it is important to note that Rod deliberately became a mentor to many grateful students throughout the years. If only I had a quarter for every time I heard him ask a student what their major was, or what they were studying, or where they thought that would take them. Then he make some very practical suggestions regarding paths for study, what books would lead them to a more complete understanding, what teachers, what counselors, what universities might be a good fit for them. Later I would see him talking to the same students in an encouraging way, always promoting education and learning and personal progress and adventure.
Whether as a student, a college, or friend, whenever you spent time with Rod you always knew there would be fun, investigation, a pushing of the envelope, understanding, humor, attempts at accents, food, drink, and stories. Always a story. Stories that would start with Rod saying “Did I ever tell you about a guy I used to know?” and off you would go into a commune in Oregon, or a chum in La Mirada High School, the sands and surf of Seal Beach, or a bookstore in Santa Monica. If he found out you enjoyed a drink now and then he would ask, “Do you know who makes the best martini?” After your response he would go into a pretty good tale of who does make a very good martini, who he heard this from, the Maxfield Parrish art on the walls, what the bartenders are like, the name of the bartender who served him, the history of the establishment (and it did have to have history) and any other details that would make you wish you were in San Francisco at that moment sipping a martini at the Pied Piper Bar of the Sheraton Palace Hotel even if you really prefer beer. I remember him saying when he knew I was going to Boston, “Do you like oysters?” and off he went on a story about the Union Oyster House near Faneuil Hall in Boston where Daniel Webster sat eating oysters back in the day at the very heavy wooden bar that is still there today. “Get a pint of ale and a dozen oysters-You can’t go wrong.” Of course he was correct.
Talks of the 9th century Islamic world’s role in algebra, old movies like "Gunga Din" or “The Four Feathers”, equally old British mysteries like Lord Peter Wimsey or Sherlock Holmes, grounds crew exploits, explanations for algebra that made sense (even to me), who the best Volkswagen mechanic was (Han’s), the best bookstore in Berkeley (Moe’s), quotes of particular merit (“The Gods have coffee-stained teeth”), and spirited morning greetings are sprinkled through the years like good deli’s on the highway of life.
Sometimes we forget what a wonderful world this is, but Rod helped remind us.
Garden Contact: Dan Songster at firstname.lastname@example.org