A Garden Grew Here

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

WE Garden Plot in Winter, Capitol Park
It's not much to look at right now -- in the dead of winter -- but at one time a great garden bloomed in this very spot to your right.

This is the site of the "WE Garden" effort in Capitol Park east of the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento. Former First Lady Maria Shriver borrowed the idea from First Lady Michelle Obama, who started her own garden outside the White House.

Children came to this very spot in May, 2009. They planted seeds. Tomato starter plants went into this ground by the dozen. The children returned in May, 2010 to plant anew. Although the "inside" joke at the time was that the First Lady's gardening efforts kept the squirrels and homeless well fed -- I must admit -- I was quite envious of the patches of basil that grew around the outside of this circle.

It was perfect for Heirloom Tomato Martinis you understand.

I'm not sure if the children will return in 2011. The Schwarzeneggers have officially departed Sacramento. A new team is in charge. The photos of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver that once dotted State Capitol hallways have been removed. The only reminder that "Arnold" (as the children called him) was here was the bear that sits outside the Governor's Office. It's still there.

State Capitol Bear
But the garden? That was Maria Shriver's effort. That was her contribution. I'm not sure if the new First Lady will continue with gardening tradtion -- but then again -- spring is still a few months away.

A lot has been written about Governor Schwarznegger and his legacy -- written by reporters that I know, work with and respect very much. Some of the stories they've written touched on the Governor's legislative agenda, which was filled with equal parts success and failure. They've also touched on his work with the budget.

The general consensus of these reports is that "Arnold" didn't leave much of a legacy.

I still can't believe how many of them missed the target so completely. Schwarzenegger left a tremendous legacy that is awfully hard to measure -- and will probably never be matched. Perhaps you had to work inside the State Capitol day in and day out to realize the impact he had -- and still has to this day. He was larger than life -- bigger than the Governor himself -- even though he was the Governor.

Sign at the We Garden Plot at Capitol Park
If you want to know the Governor's true legacy -- his true impact on California -- ask the children. Ask the schoolchildren who visit the State Capitol nearly every single day of the year. Ask the children who planted seeds and starter plants (and a fruit tree or two) in the WE Garden plot.

They'll tell you about the Schwarzenegger Legacy. But first, you have to listen. Secondly, you have to understand.

To truly understand Arnold Schwarzenegger's impact on Sacramento and the larger-than-life legacy he leaves behind -- you must first take a trip back in time to what I call "BA." That's "Before Arnold." This is long before anyone ever envisioned The Terminator in the Goveror's Office. He was still a major Hollywood star. The thought of him in Sacramento simply hadn't crossed anyone's mind.

Field trips to the State Capitol during this time -- for most children -- registered below zero on an excitement scale of 1-10. They were as dull as used dishwater. Oh sure -- looking at the restored Capitol Rotunda brought some interest. But after 30-seconds of staring up at the top of the Capitol Dome -- the fifth graders were asking teacher, "when's lunch?"

Field trips to the dentist provided more excitement.

School children in the State Capitol Rotunda
The only time any child or teenager got excited about a field trip to the State Capitol is when a group of overanxious 15-and-a-half year old teenagers came to the building looking to tar and feather anyone who supported any legislative effort to raise the legal driving age from age 16 to age 18.

Other than that? The kids were bored to TEARS. You could see it in their eyes. You could see it as they moved from aisle to aisle, wondering why any of this was important and asking the tired question of, "will this be on a test?" The usual retort from an annoyed teacher was a loud "YES!" That got their attention -- for a little while at least.

But that changed overnight when the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped through the doors of the Governor's Office following the recall of Governor Gray Davis. Suddenly -- field trips to the State Capitol were COOL. Not just cool -- but WAY COOL. Arnold was there. Kids sat up and took notice.

Tens of thousands of children -- classrooms from all over the world -- visited the State Capitol during this period. It was tough to move through the main hallways on the first floor of the restored section of the State Capitol on many days simply because there were so many visitors -- so many children.

They had come to visit their star. They had come to see Arnold. They didn't come to see the Governor. You see -- "Arnold" was bigger than the Governor. They came to see Arnold. And they came by the thousands. Day after day -- year after year -- visitors from every corner of the globe came to walk the same halls that Arnold walked. They posed for pictures by the bear in front of his office. They asked the CHP officer posted outside if "Arnold was inside." The response was "maybe, I don't know." That was inevitably followed by the question, "can we go inside and look?"

On those rare occassions when Governor Schwarzenegger actually came out of his office? If you were a lowly staffer like me -- you got caught up in a maelstrom. If you were lucky -- you could back out of the throng of children and other visitors who were quickly assembling. If not? You were stuck in one place until the Governor passed.

That was life in the State Capitol. Day after day. Year after year.

Field trips to the State Capitol were suddenly -- overnight -- the hottest ticket in town. If you've ever done any sort of time in a legislative office, you've normally drawn the assignment of meeting with a group of students from a school that is located in the district that a particular legislator represents.

A typical class visit to the Office of Senator X (no disrespect intended here, because this happened in every office, both Republican and Democrat) went like this: The teacher would lead a group of 20-30 students into the Office of Senator X. She would explain that Senator X represents them in the State Legislature -- and do they (the students) have any questions for Senator X's assistant (that would be me on those unlucky days).

Almost immediately -- 20 hands shot up in the air like they were fired from some sort of air gun. It was my job to pick someone -- so I would do my best to pick the first hand that went up. "Yes," I said, "what's your question?

Legislative Aide Sandra Trevino meets with students
Student: "Do you know Arnold?"

Me: "No, I don't know Arnold." That was the truth actually. I'd spoken to the man on occassion -- but so had thousands of others and I'm sure he didn't know me from Jack. "Next question," I said.

Another Student: "Have you ever seen Arnold?"

Me: "Yes, I have. Quite often actually." That answer was true. I did see him from time to time -- usually pressed against a wall by his security unit as "Arnold" moved from one hallway to another.

That answer -- by the way -- earned kudos with the kids -- who exchanged knowing glances. I had actually SEEN Arnold. Therefore -- I was in the VERY COOL category. Another round of hands suddenly shot out of an airgun into the air.

Student: "What's Arnold like?"

Me: "He's like the Arnold you see in The Terminator," I replied, which was also true. Hey -- it was ARNOLD. He sort of lit up a room anytime he walked in.

Student: "Where's Arnold now?"

Me: "Well -- I don't know really. He might be in his smoking tent which is located outside (pointing) this window, three stories down."

THAT -- was a BIG mistake. Suddenly, without warning, 30 sets of hands and 30 noses were scrunched against the glass as children peered down at the Governor's smoking tent below (I was fortunate enough to work in a Capitol Office that offered a view of the famous "smoking tent," and yes, you could plainly smell it when the Governor was holding court below).

"Is the Arnold down there," asked one excited student. "Can we go down there," another student positively screamed. Other students stood guard near Senator X's couch, ready to rip the fabric to shreds that would serve as a rope to climb down to the tent below.

"No, you can't go down there," was my usual response. And -- it was usually at this point when the teacher leading this class would intervene.

"Class," she said impatiently as the children moved away from the window. "You're in the Office of Senator X," she said with emphasis. "Don't you have any questions about Senator X?"

The children were silent for the most part. But then, finally, a girl in the corner bravely raised her hand with a question about the Senator I worked for. "Yes," I answered. "What's your question?"

Student: "How well does the Senator know Arnold?"

This was a scene repeated time and time again during the years that Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California. Not a day went by when children lined up for photos in front of the bear that adorned the outside of his office. Not a day went by when packs of schoolchildren wandered the halls, hoping to catch just a glimpse of their hero.

Governor Schwarzenegger ignited a passionate fire in the minds of schoolchildren from one end of the state to another -- from one end of the country to another. He was bigger than Disneyland and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk combined. He was Arnold. And nobody was bigger than Arnold.

Just as President John F. Kennedy once ignited a divided generation when he proclaimed "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," there is no doubt that Governor Schwarzenegger planted the seeds of public service and serving others in the minds of tens of thousands of children.

Some of those children will most certainly return in the future to serve -- as I have been fortunate enough to serve -- in the office of a State Legislator. Others may seek higher office themselves -- looking to return to the building that generated the excitement and wonder they felt as children.

It's a legacy that cannot be measured in words or numbers. But it's a legacy that cannot be ignored.


Fred Hoffman said...

I give the same rant about Nixon.

Don Shor said...

What a great tribute! Arnold certainly had a presence and a buoyant personality. I guess it might be too much to hope that Jerry or Anne Gust Brown might garden.

Steve said...

What a nice Post - Thanks for overlooking politics and instead looking at what will no doubt be another chapter in California History.

dave said...

So is Senator X taller or shorter than Arnold?

Bill Bird said...

Ha! That's hilarious Dave!

Laura P said...

This is epically great, Bill. "Does the Senator know Arnold?" Ahh-hahahaha. Dan got that a lot too, from non-professionals.

LauraBee said...

Sooooo ... what do we have to do to get something going (or ensure that the Powers That Be will) in that garden patch ? I'd hate to see it go back to dull-as-dirt annuals again. I work across from the park, can even see the Dome if I lean just so with my nose pressed against the Boss' window ... would be willing to spend lunch (or take a day off to spend )over there planting or helping kids plant. How do we find out if anybody's doing anything with it ?

Bill Bird said...


An organization called Agriculture in the Classroom is responsible for the WeGarden effort. In fact, I linked to them on the blog. But the last update on the page was from the fruit tree planting project, which took place around the same time as the May, 2010 garden planting. There have been no other updates to the web page since then. But the WeGarden plot is their baby. You may want to try to contact them, provided they have any sort of email contact listed on the webpage (you would think that they would, but this is government).