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The Enduring Spirit of Healdsburg's Elders

The faces of our seniors remind us of our connection with friends and family, and Gina Riner's project keeps that connection alive.

A few weeks ago the City of  Healdsburg dated from the Feb. 20, 1867 incorporation.

But you don’t have to be too much of an old timer to remember March 5, 2007, when the city held a 150th Anniversary Celebration – a Sesquicentennial, if you’re counting in Latin – in the Healdsburg Plaza.

This marked the filing of the “town plat,” a legal document in map form that identifies the main shape and character of a town. It was Harmon Heald himself who drew up the plat and took it down to the Santa Rosa Hall of Records; it was filed March 5, 1857. (We have an image of the Town Plat in our slideshow)

As well as a car show, food booths, wine-tasting, music by the Beatles Flashback and a birthday cake, there were also a number of displays from local artists, clubs, and civic information booths.

What I remember most about that event, though, was Enduring Spirit – a long line of large format posters of Healdsburg’s “elders,” looking wise and warm, like a pantheon of grandparents.  (Look for a Healdsburg Viewfinder later this week of a flashback to the Sesquicentennial in the Plaza.)

Enduring Spirit is an art and history project of individual portraits of 10 men and women, each over 90 years old, who were still alive in October 2005, when the images were taken by photographer Vivienne Sosnowski in the exhibition room at the Healdsburg Museum.

The images are 30 " x 40, " shot with a large format camera using natural light. The portraits seemed to surround the flow of Plaza visitors like a strong cliff holds a stream in place – no matter how fast the water, the wall is unmoved.

The faces were at once proud and inviting, realistic and idealistic. A few looked familiar – had I seen Walter Murphy at the hardware store? Wasn’t Eugene Cuneo the guy who held court at Seghesio’s? That’s Lou Foppiano – I have his autograph on a bottle of Zinfandel, back from when he was just 90. (He turned 100 a few weeks ago.)

Photographer Sosnowski became so energized by her subjects that it launched her book “When the Rivers Ran Red,” about Prohibition in Sonoma County. But for producer Gina Riner, it remains an undiminished calling, even a life-changing commitment.

Riner moved to Healdsburg in 2001, after a lengthy and demanding marketing job in high-tech with Lucent Technologies. She fell in love with a Craftsman-style bungalow on Grant Street, and through a series of fast-moving coincidences, quickly became the owner. She set about restoring the house, not remodeling it, even down to painting it in the earth tones that were popular in the time of its building, 1913.

While researching the house, she found out it was built by George F. Day, who also built the neo-classical building at Plaza and Center, as well as about 100 other homes in the area. More importantly, though, she learned that George Day’s daughter lived just a couple blocks away – still alive and alert at 92. She is now 101.

Evelyn Day Iverson was the first of a small group of elders who worked their way into Riner’s life, and heart. So, after three years of largely do-it-yourself restoration, she turned her attention to documenting Healdsburg’s most senior of citizens – not as earth-shakers or history-makers, but as local people in touch with their friends, families and community.

“That’s what the people said when we interviewed them,” Riner told me. “What did they value in life? Well, their family, their friends. What was important to them in life? Their family, their friends. What were they lacking? Well, we had our family and our friends, we had enough food – we just didn’t have any money. They didn’t think money was important.”

Riner started the Healdsburg Heritage Project, and put together the Enduring Spirit exhibit with Sosnowski’s photos. It premiered at the Hotel Healdsburg Carriage House on March 12, 2006, with a special one-day exhibition. Despite a steady rainfall, the line went out the door and down the street, and the Carriage House was so crowded you could barely catch glimpses of the eyes of the elders.

Although the collection has a “permanent’ home in the street-facing corridors of the City Hall, behind slightly tinted glass, it remains a vision in search of an audience. Soon, the exhibit once again found a gallery-type showing, opening at the Palette Art Café (now Affronti) on February 1, 2007. (Images of this showing also appear in our slide show.)

It turned out to be a seminal display, sparking a teen-driven “history scavenger hunt” that encouraged a still-younger generation to see their own home and family with new eyes. And it gave the City Council the jump-start it needed to produce the Celebrate 150 Years event in the Plaza on March 5, 2007.

Enduring Spirit – it’s singular, like the spirit each of us has, and we all share – is “not just a set of photos and a set of essays,” as Riner made it a point to tell me.

“You can’t believe how many connections have been made because of it. People have come up to me and said, You’ve done such a great thing for this community, The people that you’ve photographed and wrote about, you probably extended their lives by a couple years.”

She gave as an example C.H. "Barney" Barnard, who was the oldest in the group at 106. He lived two years longer, because, his relatives told her, he felt valued, and listened to. (Of the 10 original subjects in the project, five are still alive.)

“We’re still learning what the impact is of a project that was a labor of love,” said Riner. “The value of simple living, of how much these people have to offer, to teach us, and that we shouldn’t ignore these elders.

“We should say ‘hello’ to them, look into their eyes and say ‘hello.’ … They hold all the treasures to the wonderful parts of the past that slip through our fingers because we're so attuned to technology and electronics.”

Last month, Enduring Spirit made a two-week appearance in the barrel room of , just in time for Winter Wineland. Riner is now director of sales and marketing at Limerick, and combining her roles seemed appropriate. 

Starting this week, is displaying the 10 large-format images, with accompanying essays, providing another place for the eyes of time to meet. Owner Will Seppi has set a goal of raising $5,000 to help restore the prints, some of which have been damaged by heat and sunlight. The donations have already started coming in.

So, if you’re not doing anything this Saturday, March 5, drop by Costeaux’s and make a 154th birthday toast of your breakfast mimosa to the city of Healdsburg, and to the elders who sustain us.

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