Another Day of Sun

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sam Aanestad and I at Frank's Pizza in Grass Valley
To be brutally honest, I should be working right now. I should be hard at work at the moment looking at the Help Wanted sections of Capitol Morning Report, Senate Daybook, the State of California employment website and so many others. That unemployment clock continues to tick despite my best efforts to slow it down. I should be doing so many things at the moment.

But I can't. I just can't. Not at the moment anyway. Today my thoughts are consumed by the memory of a boss, a leader, a father figure and, most of all, a friend. I can't help it. There are only so many special people that you run into during this game called life that you can count them with the fingers of one hand. He was one of them.

I last saw Sam Aanestad about this time last year at the legendary Frank's Pizza restaurant in Grass Valley. I had just finished up with an interview with the Nevada County Fairgrounds (I didn't get that job), and Sam texted to inform me that he was "waiting for me to arrive."

Sam and Susan Aanestad
"Uh oh," I thought at the time. Making a State Senator wait -- even a former State Senator like Sam -- is never a good idea. Although I'd spoken with my former boss on occasion, I hadn't actually had the opportunity to see Sam in person for quite a long time. I had the fortune for working for him in his Senate office for six years, but when his term ended in 2010 we parted ways. That's life with term limits in the California State Legislature. By the time you really get to know someone, it's time to say goodbye.

Sam passed away just yesterday. I find that line a little hard to write. To be honest, I wasn't expecting to write it. Sam was just 71-years old. The last time I would see him -- at Frank's -- he seemed to be in the picture of health. He was also in great spirits and as he and his wife, Susan, would soon depart for their summer home in Sam's home state of Wisconsin.

I remember that vacation home with a great deal of fondness as I would be reminded of it daily during Sam Aanestad's term in the State Senate. I remember when I interviewed for the position of Communications Director in his office early in 2005, following an all-to-brief term in the Office of Senator Rico Oller. "You're not going to have as much fun in this office as you had with Rico," Sam would warn me sternly during that first interview.

Sam with Talk Show Host Tom Sullivan
He was right. I had more fun.

It was in this office where I would learn more about medical issues that I would ever want to know thanks to his background as an Oral Surgeon. As for his political leanings? Strictly conservative and without apologies, sir. Sam put the "C" in conservative thought, which fit his largely rural and very conservative Northern California Senate District to the perfect "T."

New taxes and fees were the enemy that must be fought at all costs in the Aanestad office. "Unless," he explained to me once, "an organization had voted to raise its own membership fees." It was then, and only then I might add, would he allow himself to punch that "yes" button covered with dust on his State Senate desk.

But to describe the man as a conservative politician would be grossly unfair. Sam was far more than that. He was a family man first, speaking with pride often about his children and grandchildren. He was a physician second, relating story after story about his Grass Valley and Nevada City practice, as well as his time as Vice Chief of Surgery at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. But, most of all, Sam Aanestad cared deeply about people. This was especially true about the people he had the honor of serving in the 4th Senate District.

CA State Senate Floor
Sam never let his care for children and families get in the way of his conservative political beliefs. I would come to learn this the hard way after Sam had been appointed to the highly coveted position of Vice Chair of the Senate Rules Committee. Serving in a committee such as this has its perks. It also makes you a bigger target.

In the business of politics, communications people are often the "last people to know." This may be an unwritten rule. I would find out in the stairwell of the California State Capitol where I was approached by a long-time friend, who proceeded to inform me that Sam "had just voted" for a bill that would allow more women to receive testing for signs of cervical cancer in his Senate District.

"That sounds like something Sam would do," I reasoned at the time, knowing Sam's medical background. "No, you don't understand," came the response. The careful explanation revealed that the conservative, pro-life Senator I worked for voted to approve a measure that provided additional funding for medical clinics to provide these screenings.

I still didn't "get it." Until I learned that many of the facilities that provided this kind of testing in the Northern California district Senator Aanestad represented were clinics run by Planned Parenthood. It was, about this time, that big, dark light bulb above my head suddenly flickered to life. Planned Parenthood clinics offer numerous services, some of which conservative, pro-life activists detest.

People in the business of communications, such as myself, do not involve themselves in policy decisions. However, they do ask for guidance on responding to media and constituent requests following a vote that could prove to be possibly contentious. Perhaps "contentious" isn't the right term to use. Earth shaking might be better.

Sam knew that his vote on this particular item would inflame many people in his district, many of whom had voted to put him into office. But it didn't matter -- not in this case as he would carefully explain to me from a physician's point of view. "The best way to defeat cervical cancer in women is to catch it early," he patiently explained. "Early detection is key. The earlier it's detected, the better chance at survival."

Sam never wavered from this belief, despite the thousands of phone calls that poured into his Senate office from constituents outraged by his vote. He knew that his vote to provide funding for additional cervical cancer screenings would save lives. His care for children and families outweighed even his most strongest of political convictions: the rights of the unborn.

It still didn't stop the protest phone calls, which rolled in like waves on an ocean. There were some days where it seemed like that phone never stopped ringing. I would imagine there are some activists who still haven't forgiven him for that vote.

Yet -- his support only went so far. When a commemorative plaque from Planned Parenthood arrived in the mail one day, thanking him for his vote, he handed it to me with careful instructions to place it behind my desk and to keep it well hidden from the light of day. It may still be buried behind that desk in that Senate Rules Committee office, covered with the dust of State Capitol history.

Sam Aanestad
Although I have many countless memories of Sam Aanestad, it's this particular one that came to mind when I learned over the weekend that he was not doing well. The health problems that claimed his life started soon after the last time I saw him at Frank's in Grass Valley. I had been kept blissfully unaware, but that was the way Sam Aanestad operated.

Sam Aanestad was probably the only politician I ever had the honor of working for who steered clear of any attention placed on himself. His focus was always on the people around him, whether it be family, friends, former employees or his constituents. His first and foremost wish was another day of sun for all of those who surrounded him.

And, although the sun shines today, for me at least, it's not as bright as it should be.


reatta stafford said...

Beautifully written, makes me wish I'd known him too. Sending prayers for comfort and peace Mr. Bird.

Jenn's Cooking Garden! said...

Very lovely. Sending prayers and love. He seemed like an,amazing man and friend!