Back in the day, when the psycho-politics of Santa Barbara needed someone to play the Big, Bad Developer, Jerry Beaver was it. And he didn’t merely play at it; as they say in Hollywood, he inhabited the role. He owned it. He embraced it.
In one particularly bruising campaign against the slow-growth majority then controlling the Goleta Water Board, Jerry famously declared, “I’m a developer, I’m a developer, I’m a developer.” For those slow on the uptick, he had a T-shirt made proclaiming the same thing.
In that particular instant, Beaver — who just died this past week at the age of 86 — was leading an effort to recall three members of the water board before their terms were up. At that point, the Goleta sub-basin was in serious overdraft and the board was refusing to issue new water meters, even to sympathetic young families who’d just bought their first homes. Beaver thought that was wrong. And he pounced. Though the recall failed, Beaver played a key role in the next regularly scheduled election, making sure the board majority changed.
Either in spite of or because of this, I loved Jerry Beaver. He was fun to write about. He always took my calls, even knowing — or suspecting — that I was going to kick his ankles. Beaver was always straight and direct. Always. He spoke with an engaging Jimmy Stewart warble to his voice that conveyed a whiff of outraged innocence, but also a shrewd intelligence that said, “Let’s cut the crap.” Beaver never hid behind professional campaign spokespersons — though he definitely hired a few — or those sneaky $99 campaign donations that don’t require the donor’s identity be disclosed. He was one to stand up and be counted.
Over the years, I would find, the totality of Jerry Beaver was far greater than the sum of all the tidy stereotypes I might conjure. He was a lifelong tennis freak, more avid than skilled, but totally devoted. He didn’t just donate to all kinds of arts groups; he’d open his home to various visiting artists. Yes, Jerry tried to save the local Republican Party from itself many times. But like a lot of Republicans who’ve since been drowned out, he also supported such things as Planned Parenthood and gay rights. He built a penthouse apartment downtown with his wife of 58 years, Helene — a force in her own right. They seemed to really like each other; until a bad fall laid Beaver up a few years back, he and Helene could be seen walking everywhere together.
Over the years, there were the small but meaningful kindnesses. When I had a health scare a while back, Jerry and Helene reached out. It mattered. When my son was born, there was a book from the Beavers. Little things. But they all mattered. Small gestures that say we’re part of the same community no matter what political tribes we choose. Over the years, I saw Beaver get frustrated and angry. I never saw him hate. He did not have the need to revile his opponents. Because they disagreed, they did not have to be evil. People could and did disagree, at least in his universe, about what was right. In subsequent interviews about past adversaries, Beaver betrayed no lingering grudges.
In the radioactive context of the current political culture, it’s easy to get misty about such things. Why, in retrospect, does the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush — who also died this past week — look so much better than it ever did at the time? Our differences are real; they should not be trivialized. But once upon a time, people knew how to talk as well as to shout. Now we just yell.
Beaver started out wanting to be an architect. He thought architects looked cool with their plans rolled up tight and tucked under their arms. He studied architecture, but along the way he became an appraiser and then moved to Santa Barbara, where he and Helene had three sons. He started three commercial real estate development companies. Beaver leaves behind some big footprints. Some for the many developments that he built. None may be as big as the big one he didn’t.
In the late ’60s, Beaver led the charge to construct two nine-story condo towers at the current site of the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. Among his many investors was News-Press titan T. M. Storke and banking legend Louie Lancaster. The city had a four-story limit, but the council voted to grant Beaver a “variance” anyway. A battle royale ensued. Challenged in court, the judge would find the idea of a five-story variance out of line. Then an oil heiress named Alice Keck Park donated the money to buy the land where the park now stands. In 1972, voters made the four-story height limit part of the city’s charter. Later, according to one historical account, Beaver confided to an opponent of the project that Santa Barbara was better off that he lost that battle.
Like I say, Beaver was not one to hold a grudge. He moved on.
So long, Jerry.