Noe Valley Voice April 2006

Local Writer Salutes the Salvation Army

By Olivia Boler

Ding-ding-ding! Who isn't familiar with the sight of a person standing outside Safeway or Macy's during the winter holiday season ringing a bell next to a kettle full of change? The soldiers, officers, and volunteers of the Salvation Army are as ubiquitous as Christmas trees and dreidels in December, but what do they do the rest of the year?

The answer to that question can be found in a new book by Noe Valley resident Judy Vaughn, titled The Bells of San Francisco: The Salvation Army With Its Sleeves Rolled Up (RDR Books), published last November. It's replete with anecdotes and photos of the Army's nearly 125 years in the city.

"I worked for the Army for 27 years," Vaughn, the organization's retired public relations director, explains. "Officers came and went. I stayed and eventually became a kind of institutional memory."

The book chronicles the beginnings of the Army, founded in 1865 by William Booth, a Methodist minister in London, England. Booth changed the name of his charitable organization from New Christian Mission to the Salvation Army in 1878, while on the lookout for volunteers. Those who become members of the Army's church are called soldiers. The Army reached California in 1883, under the direction of Maj. Alfred Wells. The organization operates along military lines, and the leaders hold ranks. The goal of the Salvation Army is to foster a love of God and aid the needy, including alcoholics, drug addicts, and disaster victims. It also champions women's rights, a legacy of Booth's wife, Catherine.

This year, April 18 marks the centennial of the infamous earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906, taking 3,000 lives. The Salvation Army played an important role in alleviating that disaster.

"Like everyone else, the officers were sleeping when the quake hit at 5:12 a.m.," Vaughn says. "Several of them lived in Oakland, and they could see that people would be running to catch the first ferries out of the city, so they met them at the boats with food and shelter."

The Army also set up refugee camps in Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, working hard to unite families who had been separated in the ensuing fires. The Army itself was hard-hit, losing all but two of its buildings in the city. By the summer, however, it raised enough funds to rebuild its South of Market Street headquarters.

Despite its own losses, the Army continued to assist the disaster victims. "It provided the same kinds of services as it did in the Gulf States following the 2005 hurricanes," Vaughn says.

Vaughn, 68, grew up in Chicago and Swayzee, Ind. She came to San Francisco in the 1960s and found gainful employment in the blink of an eye. "There I was, three weeks in the city, and suddenly I was a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle!" she says with a laugh. "I used to call myself 'girl reporter in high-heeled pumps.'" She stayed there for a few years before moving on to a variety of jobs in social services.

She and her husband, Royce, have lived in Noe Valley for 43 years, 40 years in the same house on Valley Street. They have four children, who live up and down the Pacific Coast.

A natural-born storyteller, Vaughn relishes her post-Army gig as a historical tour guide. She's currently training to lead walking tours with City Guides, and is immersing herself in pre­Gold Rush history. She's also writing her memoirs, and on May 2 will read with her memoirist group, Six Easy Pieces, at the San Francisco Main Library from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Adair Lara and Alan Kaufman headline the event.

"In recent years, I haven't been doing much writing except poetry and press releases until this [Salvation Army] book," Vaughn says. "But now my memoir group challenges me to explore new venues."

The book is available at Books Inc., Black Oak Books, Cody's Books, and Or, call the Salvation Army at 415-553-3500. Vaughn will also have a booth at the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Expo on April 15, 16, and 17 at Pier 48. For more information, visit