Helen Pedotti 1916-2010
It was the oddest sight. We were gathering cattle. As I rode along, suddenly a boot came sailing high through the air. And I mean high. I spurred my horse in that direction, and there was Helen sitting on the ground, her horse jumping around in circles, covered by wasps. We caught the horse, swatted the insects, and recovered her boot. It was not the first time she had been attacked by wasps. Helen later told me she finally solved the problem by not using perfume on roundup days.
That was in the 1970s. Since 1948, Helen and her husband, Pida, owned Rancho Arbolado, near Gaviota. They had met in Pida’s native Switzerland, where Helen was studying, and after they married, Pida attended Harvard Business School and had a successful financial career in New York before moving to Santa Barbara County to raise cattle. I was a neighbor, and knew them as fellow ranchers and friends.
Many ranchers were Republicans, but that was not the rule in southwestern Santa Barbara County. Helen was a life-long Democrat, and so were the Coopers of Rancho la Viña on Santa Rosa Road, as were Helen’s sister, Katie, and her husband, artist Channing Peake, of Rancho el Jabalí. Senator Jim Hollister, a neighbor, was an old-time New Deal Democrat. Many of the ranch hands were Democrats. Once, Helen came to my seventh-grade class at the school in Gaviota in support of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Echoing a Republican mailer I had seen, I asked her, “Isn’t Kennedy too young to be president?” She quickly set me straight.
I loved to hear Helen talk about politics, and eventually became a “Pedotti” Democrat. Even now, I owe much of my political awareness to Helen. Her passions, values, and politics were integrated fully into a powerful force, and she was utterly fearless in her beliefs. She was the first female chairperson of the Santa Barbara County Democrats in the 1960s, serving for 10 years. At the Democratic Convention when Kennedy was nominated, she served on the Rules Committee. She was a Eugene McCarthy delegate at the 1968 Democratic Convention and a friend of governors Pat Brown and Jerry Brown. Helen supported Democratic candidates throughout the years, such as Wesley Clark, Lois Capps, Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, and Barack Obama. She also donated to the DNC and the Bill Clinton Library. She went well beyond just financial support. After fasting in support of the farmworkers union, César Chávez spent time recovering at Rancho Arbolado. One of my brothers had been at the Pedottis’ house the night of a bruising Democratic defeat. He said Helen looked devastated. She took her politics seriously. She knew they mattered. I was saddened as I watched President Obama’s first State of the Union address. Helen would have been proud to be an American on that night for many reasons.
Helen had a wonderful business sense. One of her ventures was to own the CBS television affiliate, KCOY, in Santa Maria, with Emili Acquistapace, Stan Hatch, and Burns Rick. Helen’s daughter, Holly Baer explained, “Helen came to run the station accidentally. The money came from Pida when a ranch that he and Channing Peake owned was sold. The station was nearly defunct and was available, but the FCC said that Pida, who was not an American citizen, could not own it, so Helen fearlessly said that she would do it.” I often saw Helen’s BMW pulling out of Rancho Arbolado and heading north, much faster than I, to take care of business. Holly told me that, prior to buying the station, “The Pedottis never had TV. There was no reception in Las Cruces, and no one was very interested.” After they bought the station, their eldest son, Jon, had to climb through the worst brush on the ranch to put up an aerial. They also owned a Livermore-based FM station, KKIQ. Helen was very involved with these projects. Once, at a branding, she quizzed me about what I thought of a recently hired newscaster. She wanted specific reasons for my observations. Tina Pedotti, another of Helen’s daughters, also operated her own business, In Stitches, for many years in Santa Barbara.
These ventures alone, or her involvement with politics, would have been sufficient to exhaust the time and energy of any normal person, but Helen always found more to do.
Helen and Pida had a townhouse in Santa Barbara, a tile-roofed compound with a well-hidden garden on Canon Perdido Street. For many years, there was a tradition of a Pedotti Old Spanish Days Fiesta party. “Mother carried on the tradition,” explained Holly, “begun by our grandmother, Alice Schott. Mother sewed wonderful Fiesta costumes for all of us, and we went every year to Oma’s Fiesta party.” Later on, my family went to the party: It was part of Fiesta, just like the rodeo and the parade on State Street.
Helen knew everybody in town and was involved with numerous civic organizations. Her father, Max Schott, a German immigrant who amassed a fortune in Colorado mining, brought the family to Santa Barbara, where Helen graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1934. Her mother donated the original Continuing Education Center, which grew to become a model institution, one emulated worldwide. Mrs. Schott named the campus’s theater Alhecama, incorporating the first two letters of her children’s names: Alice, Helen, Catharine, and Marylou. Helen served on the Arts Fund and was honored with its Lifetime Achievement Award. She earned the title of Honorary Life Trustee for the Presidio Restoration Project, and served as a general partner with De la Guerra Investments. She, along with her sister Katie, was honored as one of The Independent’s first Local Heroes. When Pida was unable to run the ranch, they moved to Garden Street, near the Old Mission. I’m certain that she loved the ranch, and enjoyed raising her children—Holly, Tina, Jon, and Chico—there (as well as some of their cousins), but she and Pida saw that it was time to turn over Rancho Arbolado to the next generation and move to Santa Barbara, a place that, in many ways, she had never really left.
Helen joined the SBCC Foundation and became involved in raising money for City College. The college honored her accomplishments by naming the courtyard of the MacDougall Center after her. She also funded a multimedia classroom at the County Jail. Inmates now can take classes in the computerized Helen Pedotti Inmate Learning Center, completing high school diplomas, learning English, and getting counseling for life after prison. Helen was radically current, always tuned in to the changing needs of her community and world—up-to-date, informed, progressive, and positive.
Helen’s public life can be seen as one devoted to causes and organizations. But her grandson, Jose Baer, told a story of a less public Helen. When Jose graduated from Midland School, he and a classmate spent the summer working on the ranch. Jose was going to Berkeley, but his friend could not afford college. When Helen discovered this, she took him aside and told him that she would pay his way. And she did. Jose learned of this years later. No matter how wild or rowdy Jose and his friends became, Helen kept serving them those little, elegant sandwiches, the ones with the crusts neatly trimmed off. Helen would never lose faith in you, and she just knew, deep down, that you would eventually become a good citizen. You could sense her optimism and faith in you and your potential, whatever it might be or however deeply you might have buried it.
“We had wonderful parents,” said Holly. “All through high school and college, our friends were welcomed. Helen and Pida actually thought it was fun to have them. There was always a big meal and space at the table for spur-of-the-moment visits from friends who might show up. Pida was a perfect host, charmed the girls, and had serious arguments with all of our friends, and Helen produced wonderful meals. Mother was always a Santa Barbara girl, but she was also a great ranch mom. We never got too dirty for her, as long as we ‘got slicked up for dinner.’” Helen was a true ranch mother. Rattlesnakes often crawled down through her ivy and lounged on the lawn. “I keep a shovel handy,” she told me, “and chop off their heads.” There was a flat stone by the front door with a stack of rattles.
I never did quite figure out exactly why and how Helen’s boot flew so high and far on that roundup more than 40 years ago, but it must have been a frightening experience, what with a bucking horse and a boot stuck in the stirrup. But Helen put her boot back on, got on the horse, pulled tightly on her gloves, and rode on. We had work to do.