Noe Valley Voice April 1998

Basking in the Glow of 'Sunny Jim'

By Florence Holub

Seventy years ago in 1925, my father bundled the family up in his Model T Ford and braved the one-way dirt roads that delivered us from a sparsely populated farm in northern Idaho to the most exciting metropolis imaginable: San Francisco!

We had only been here long enough to find living quarters in Noe Valley when we learned of a celebration going on downtown. The celebration, called the Diamond Jubilee, was being held in honor of the 75th anniversary of California's admission to the Union.

On the last day of the six-day event, my father drove us to Market Street, where he'd heard the city was holding a parade. But when we reached the avenue, a policeman stood in our way, saying angrily, "Don't you know that crossing here is not allowed today?" We didn't know the law, my father replied meekly, explaining that we had just come from a potato farm in Idaho. When the officer saw the three terrified little kids in the back seat, he gallantly let us through, saying with a smile, "Welcome to San Francisco."

I was 5 years old, too young to understand what it was all about. But after we found space on the sidewalk, I was just as enthralled as the rest of the spectators. This was one of the most awe-inspiring, magical sights I'd ever seen!

At the same time, my future husband, Leo Holub, was 7 years of age and also new to the Bay Area. His family lived in Oakland, and they'd left home early that morning and taken the ferry boat across the bay to the Ferry Building, where the parade began.

The highlight of the day for Leo was when a man on a float began throwing handfuls of coins to the crowd. Leo scurried around trying to catch one. He was short, and there was a mob of people with the same desire, so he was fortunate to grab two of them! His father, who was a coin collector but had never been very aggressive, failed to get one. He looked so crestfallen that Leo gave him both of his.

They were beautiful gold-colored coins the size of a half-dollar that had been struck at the old San Francisco Mint at Fourth and Mission. On the face was an engraved scene of a miner panning for gold, and on the back was the California grizzly bear.

At dusk, Market Street was transformed into a "Path of Gold," with 20,000 lampposts glimmering from the Embarcadero to 10th Street. We children sat spellbound as the seemingly endless procession passed before us.

I remember one float that was particularly breathtaking. It sparkled with tiny lights amid graceful goddesses in long white Grecian gowns who gestured and smiled benevolently at us mortals below.

After the parade passed by, we were swept along with the crowds to the Civic Center, where brilliant beams were spotlighting the magnificent City Hall. Beneath the dome stood a man I would later come to know as Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph, wearing a top hat, striped pants, black tails, and a carnation in his lapel. Rolph gave a spirited speech, which evoked a response from the throng that was deafening, enthusiastic, and prolonged. I wondered what he had done to deserve such adulation.

Five years later when I was 10, our family went to the concourse in Golden Gate Park to hear a Sunday concert performed by the Municipal Band. After playing a few patriotic marches, the band suddenly broke into a spirited rendition of "Smiles," a popular song of the time. "Smiles" was also the theme song for Mayor James Rolph II, who had just appeared on stage wearing a derby, a natty black suit with a flower in the buttonhole, and the broad smile that earned him the title "Sunny Jim." He spoke a few affable words, to wild applause.

Everyone I spoke with over the years seemed to feel the same warmth and affection for the mayor. It was only when I was a teenager -- visiting old family friends who lived on San Jose Avenue, a few doors from the mayor's home -- that I began to understand why.

My friends proudly pointed out the large mansion surrounded by a black iron picket fence at the corner of San Jose and 25th streets. On the grounds was a lovely garden, where Rolph could often be seen picking a posy for his lapel. In the corner stood a flagpole, where every morning he raised the American flag.

I learned that James Rolph, also known as "Mission Jim," had grown up in his father's home at 21st and Guerrero. After he married, he acquired the elegant San Jose Avenue home, where he reared his family and lived out his life. The mansion took up half a city block. In back, facing Guerrero Street, was the stable (later the garage).

When I was 40 and living on 21st Street, our next-door neighbor, Helen Hughes Helfrich, told me of the day her father took her for a ride on the J-car, the new line on the Municipal Railway which the mayor had helped create. When they boarded, they discovered Mayor Rolph at the front of the car, boisterously greeting the passengers. When he saw Helen, he took the little girl from her father and, still discoursing, held her until the end of the line.

"Sunny Jim" Rolph managed to be everywhere at once, even sporting events. Another neighbor, Vivian Wreden -- who was also a little girl at the time, one who had a great fondness for dogs -- recalls the day her father took her to the greyhound races at a track down the peninsula. The mayor, who raised pedigree cocker spaniels, was also there. Vivian remembers how he rose, smiling and dressed to perfection, and gave a rousing speech that made everyone smile. But she doesn't remember exactly what he said.

Undoubtedly, what he said was not as important as what he did. At Cover to Cover bookstore on 24th Street, I found a staggering list of Rolph's achievements recorded in The San Francisco Almanac, by well-known historian Gladys Hansen.

Another book, Hometown San Francisco by Jerry Flamm, was given to us by our good neighbor, Wendy Tice-Wallner. It paints a more personal portrait of the man and his times -- and they were difficult times!

The city government was riddled with corruption when the 1906 Earthquake and Fire struck, leaving half the city in ruins. An honest and able man was sorely needed to rebuild San Francisco and at the same time produce a world-class fair, scheduled for 1915, to coincide with the completion of the Panama Canal.

James Rolph had distinguished himself after the quake by delivering water and supplies with his horse and wagon to people all over the city. He'd also converted the stable behind his home on Guerrero into headquarters for the Mission Relief Association of the Red Cross.

In 1909, when he was already a wealthy, successful businessman, Rolph was asked to run for mayor. At first he declined. But in the following year he threw his bowler into the ring. He won election in 1911. For the next 19 years, he was so well regarded by his constitu-ents that he was elected again and again.

"Sunny Jim" was just what the city ordered. As mayor, he worked tirelessly to oversee the construction of City Hall, often inspecting the site himself to ensure against shoddy workmanship. The building was completed in 1915, and on the day it was dedicated, Mayor Rolph climbed up on the golden dome, beamed at the astonished faces below, and ran up the American flag.

That same year, he presided over the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which opened with a massive parade of 150,000 marchers from around the world. They were led to the fairgrounds by the mayor himself, decked out in his familiar stovepipe silk hat. The fair was a tremendous success, not only for its beauty but because of the cash it brought in, which paid for construction of the Civic Auditorium.

Many other city buildings and services we now take for granted -- the Hetch Hetchy water system, the Bay Bridge, and the San Francisco Airport, to name a few -- were also launched during his tenure.

The mayor had a genius for relating to people of all races, creeds, and professions. He had a good sense of humor, too. Whenever there were Native Americans in the crowd, he would repeat his tongue-in-cheek claim that he was related to Pocahontas, through her marriage to Englishman John Rolfe. (The mayor's father, James Rolph I, came from London.)

The Rolph family home on San Jose Avenue is now gone, replaced by a row of stucco structures. But another house he built, a charming Tudor, still stands at the corner of 21st and Sanchez streets. The second-story dining room opens onto a large deck (complete with flagpole) that boasts a spectacular view of the city. Here he entertained his host of friends -- from politicians to movie stars to visiting firemen.

When he ran for and won the governorship of California in 1930, his friend from North Beach, Angelo Rossi, became mayor of San Francisco. (Rossi used to joke that while Sunny Jim was the son of the Mission, he was the son of the beach!)

Rolph's gubernatorial inauguration was a three-day jubilee with an eight-mile parade and pageant. Sacramento had never seen anything like it.

But Sacramento was not San Francisco, and the free-spending mayor now had to bow to a penny-pinching state budget, brought on by the Great Depression. The Depression affected everything and everyone, including Governor Rolph, who by the end of his first term found himself deep in debt and failing in health. Ignoring his doctor's advice, he continued to make personal appearances until he could stand up no longer. He died of heart failure on June 2, 1934.

James Rolph lay in state under the cupola of the City Hall he had brought into being, while thousands of mourners streamed by, paying their respects to the man who had given his life, his fortune, and his big heart to the people who loved him so well.

In the 64 years since, there have been many occasions when "Sunny Jim" has come to mind. One came recently. My man Leo and I were allowed to take a tour of the now scaffolded City Hall, to view the progress of the seismic retrofitting mandated after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

We are happy to report that everything is coming along splendidly. An "isolater," a large disc made of laminated rubber and steel, has been buried beneath the structure to absorb future tremors. The building, considered the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in the United States, will be restored to its original beauty and designated a national historic landmark.

When the renovation is complete -- by the first of the year -- let's remember to send a banner up the flagpole for our favorite son, the Honorable Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph II.