Let the record show: In 1968, Santa Rosa achieved Peak Pepper. That was the year when the local Grand Poobahs gave a badge to our town character and proclaimed she was henceforth the town marshal. What could possibly go wrong?
This is part two of the story of Pepper Dardon. Her backstory was hashed in “I, PEPPER” which I urge you to read before continuing. Starting sometime in the mid-1950s she became a noisy and (mostly) cheerful fixture around the downtown district. How well someone got along with her depended on who they were and which Pepper they met. “She could be obnoxious or sweet, depending on the street persona she adopted that day,” her 1992 Press Democrat obituary noted.
She was invariably kind to children who seemed to view her as silly, a grownup who didn’t act like the usual sort of adult and wasn’t much taller than they were. Older kids might think she was scary or mean because she teased them. Teenagers with smart mouths sometimes recognized her as one of their own ilk.
If you were a store clerk or bank teller having a busy day you did not want to see Pepper coming through your door. “Santa Rosa merchants, who endured her tirades as she made her daily rounds, considered her either a charming looney or a public nuisance,” the PD obit also recalled. She was sure to do something disruptive; “Topping it all off, she yodeled, sang and played the harmonica. But not very well.” Should there be a candy jar on the counter she would shoplift fistfuls to hand out later – see above, Children: Kindness to.
The men and women who were active in social clubs and charities appreciated her as an indefatigable volunteer. Pepper’s self-appointed downtown duties included collecting money for good causes, which often were a sizable portion of all money raised during a fundraising drive. She sold lapel pins for the Lions Club’s White Cane Day, ersatz red poppies for the VFW, candy for the Santa Rosa Jewish Women’s Club (she wasn’t Jewish), tickets to the Kiwanis pancake breakfast, rattled donation cans for the American Cancer Society and probably begged donations for still other groups forgotten.
When the campaign was over and the club held its inevitable self-congratulatory luncheon Pepper was often invited because of her outsized contribution. For a long time those orgs treated her as something like their own poster child, as did the Chamber of Commerce and particularly the Police Department.
“There’s no question she got away with a lot. She was a kind of mascot to our smaller-town Police Department. The officers treated her like a pet.” Gaye LeBaron wrote in a must-read 2005 column. Even before the town marshal gag, Pepper was chummy with the officers personally and they did favors for each other; cops would give her a lift in patrol cars and she would run errands for them, such as fetching a raincoat from the police station, according to a different column by Gaye. Nor did it hurt that she prowled downtown with a sharp eye for lawbreakers, like the top elephant enforcing good behavior on her unruly herd. Woe to anyone she caught jaywalking or dropping a gum wrapper – people were astonished such a tiny woman could holler so loud.
But Pepper had no greater champion than the Press Democrat, particularly columnist Gaye LeBaron. Pepper’s birthday was usually heralded in the column, as were the impressive sums she collected for the fundraiser de jour. There were items when she broke her thumb and when she adopted a kitten. After husband Paul lost his job of twelve years as Occidental Hotel janitor, readers learned the Lions Club passed the hat and raised $36 to help them out. Updates followed as he was hired twice again as a janitor and lost those jobs as well. At one point an anonymous caller sniped to LeBaron’s editor she should “stop talking so much about Pepper.”
It was early in 1968 when a Pepper fan wrote to LeBaron suggesting they lobby to have Pepper chosen as Grand Marshal for that year’s Rose Parade: “Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.” Gaye liked the proposal and hoped Pepper would get the nod – but a quirk of fate caused her to end up as a different kind of marshal instead.
The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce decided the town needed lots of parties to commemorate its centennial year of 1968. There would be fine speeches from VIPs on Centennial Day in March, followed in May by a whole Centennial Week highlighted by the Rose Parade. Yessir, we would spare no effort to celebrate the town’s 100th birthday in style. (Ignore for the moment that Santa Rosa was actually founded in 1854 and 1868 was only the year of incorporation, which was a legal formality that went almost unnoticed.)
Those festivities were lightly covered in an earlier article but considering the focus was a specific event around the time of the Civil War, it’s surprising the doings in 1968 were such an ahistorical mess. People dressed up in turn-of-the century garb, rode old bicycles or drove antique cars and a barbershop quartet sang, all stuff from a half century later. Or maybe Santa Rosa was more like a cowtown in the Wild West – there was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle. There was also a Centennial Year Marshal because…they always looked cool in TV westerns, I guess.
The selection of the marshal was intended to be a rollicking funfest because everyone knew and liked the candidates – everyone who was part of Santa Rosa’s clubby businessmen’s world, that is. The Downtown Development Association nominated Datsun auto dealer Bob Torvick. In response, a Chamber of Commerce leader said the honor should instead go to Dave “Bugsy” Hill. It was agreed the matter would be settled by an election with votes mailed to the Press Democrat.
For nearly two weeks they bantered in the newspaper. Torvick assured voters he had a full head of hair and was “kind to children very often.” “I am real relaxed,” promised Hill. “I can go to bed sooner, sleep later, and get up feeling fresher.” Oh, you crazy kids.
The votes were counted on April Fool’s Day and it was a tie, each of them pulling a whopping ten votes (there were two write-ins for Pepper). A committee was formed to decide what to do. The agreed solution was for the two to face off in a showdown at high noon at Courthouse Square – using real guns firing soft wax bullets. Only Torvick and Hill voted against the notion. Mayor Hugh Codding was named as the referee.
The shootout was scheduled for the sixth of April and everyone in town was invited – until fate intervened. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were waves of rioting nationwide on the following days and the Golden Gate bridge was closed following a bomb threat. The faux showdown was cancelled because playing at shooting someone was no longer funny. There was a memorial ceremony at Courthouse Square that day instead.
“Since the cancellation of the town marshal contest and even before there has been a veritable groundswell of support for Pepper to assume the title,” wrote LeBaron a few days later. “I was all for Pepper being given a place of honor in the Rose Parade. Now, perhaps, I’ll modify my stand to include a town marshal’s badge.”
And so it came to pass; Pepper put on her badge, which thereafter became as much a part of her as body and soul.1
Had she not been cast to play the role of Santa Rosa’s official fake town marshal, 1968 was still a banner year for Pepper.
She was at (or near) her peak for doing street fundraising; “she has collected literally thousands of dollars for charity and while her methods may be unorthodox there’s no denying their effectiveness,” remarked Gaye LeBaron. She was fêted at luncheons both by the Lions Club and the Rotary Club at the Flamingo Hotel, where she had never been inside. And maybe most importantly. Paul finally had a stable job, then in his fourth year as janitor at Community Hospital.
But the year ended with Paul changing from being an employee to a cancer patient at the hospital on Chanate Road. Despite not having a car, Pepper visited him every day for three months, most of her rides courtesy city police “who happened to be going out that way.”
Paul died there in early 1969. The Press Democrat gave him a front page obituary although most of it was about Pepper. Eggen & Lance donated his funeral service and burial with Police Chief Dutch Flohr and other officers acting as pallbearers. It was all quite a tribute, given that few apparently knew him except as the man married to Pepper.
His salary was meager, but losing it created a financial crisis for Pepper. Those who were closest to her – LeBaron, Helen and Dr. Bill Rudee, along with Ford car dealer Bob Bishop – created a “Pepper Pot” fund that carried her over for several months until Bishop, a former mayor who “had some political clout,” as Gaye later wrote, was able to get her a state pension for being certifiably “unemployable handicapped.”
Pepper was then 55 but gave no signs of slowing down in the years following, often topping her previous charity collection records. In 1973 she pulled in a quarter of all money raised by the Lions during their White Cane benefit. Police and firefighters remained devoted to her; when she was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery they made a plaque declaring her Santa Rosa’s “Official Firebelle,” just as the San Francisco firemen once honored Lillie Coit.
She fully embraced the Marshal Pepper routine, never seen without her badge. At some point in the 1970s her usual ensemble included a vest with text on the back reading:
“She really believed she was the Marshal,” her PD obituary said.2 Gaye LeBaron wrote much the same in a 1975 column: “I think the problem is that Pepper, like so many other controversial people, is beginning to believe her press clippings. Call someone the town character long enough and they begin to try to live up to it.”
(RIGHT: Detail of photo from the Macy’s Coddingtown grand opening, courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com)
Then in 1975 the unthinkable happened: Pepper was no longer allowed to collect money for any of the charities or social clubs.
Apparently the first to break ties was the Lions Club, the group she was always closest to. LeBaron spent an entire Sunday column explaining the issue.3 The Lions said she was dropped because of “too many negative responses” to her methods, browbeating people to donate. “Don’t try to run away lady, I see you trying to keep from giving me money” or “Whatsamatter, lizard? Too cheap to help the blind people?”
Yeah, she could be pushy, but the Lions and everyone else knew that before letting her shake their collection cans. A more serious issue was that she was skimming. “She would get five times more [money] than anyone else, in spite of the fact she pocketed probably half,” said Lon Kaufmann, a Pepper supporter who had known her since she arrived in Santa Rosa.4
Nor was she doing all her marshalling for free. She didn’t just scream at jaywalkers but began demanding they pay a 50¢ fine, which she kept. She waited for drivers with expired parking meters in order to fine them too (the PD didn’t say whether or not she fed the meter in the interim). She yanked packages from the arms of shoppers “to carry them for you.” By any definition it was a shakedown, made all the more disturbing because the police sanctioned it by looking away.
Pepper surely missed the applause and praise from the Lions and other groups for being their top donation collector, but she also spoke about it being a tough job. “I was born and raised to be nice and courteous to everyone. But to some people in Santa Rosa you can’t be,” she was quoted in her obituary. In her postmortem column, LeBaron recalled she was cussed at. People would order her to get away from them. “Lots of people aren’t pleasant when you ask them for money on the street,” Pepper once told her.
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn those rude encounters contributed to her infamous habit of name-calling; “lizard” was her favorite putdown, which could be teasing, affectionate or a sharp slap across the face. Pepper’s lexicon also included “jungle boy” (Gaye makes it clear this was a swipe at businessmen and not a racial slur), “Butterball” for someone overweight, “snakehead” and plenty more. Another part of her regular shtick was to tag locals with nicknames, usually insulting in some way – which might go far in explaining why some strongly disliked her. It’s too late to put her on a psychiatrist’s couch and probe exactly why she thought this acceptable, but Gentle Reader might recall comedian Don Rickles was constantly on TV during those years because many thought his insult humor was funny (certainly not me).
There’s no record of how she felt being blackballed by the social clubs, but her routine didn’t seem to change much. She continued patrolling downtown, Montgomery Village and Coddingtown yelling at litterers, jaywalkers, skateboarders, kids who rode their bikes on the sidewalk (when they switched to the street she’d yell at them for riding in the street) and people in cars who weren’t wearing seatbelts. She yodeled and whistled and told really dumb jokes. She was a regular guest on Jim Grady’s popular KSRO morning show where she would sing and play the harmonica.
The Jaycees never allowed her to ride in a Rose Parade car much less naming her Grand Marshal, snubs that irked Gaye LeBaron no end. But every year Pepper would arrive at the grandstand long before anyone else in order to claim a prime spot (she said she went early in order to keep “lizards” away). Once the event began there was a sweet tradition where emcee John Bugbee would introduce her and the crowd would roar, “HELLO, PEPPER!” and clap for her.
Pepper received an honor (of sorts) in 1982 when cartoonist Dale Messick used her as the inspiration for a character in the soapy “Brenda Starr” comic strip. Messick, who lived in Oakmont, created “Granny Pineapple,” a squat elderly woman who went barefoot, wore a grass skirt and Hawaiian leis along with half a pineapple for a hat. The storyline that appeared in June involved G.P. being so pissed off at the Gas & Electric company she paid her bill in pennies. Brenda and other journalists at the Flash daily paper gave the stunt lots of publicity and soon half the town was doing the same. Ironically, the Press Democrat didn’t carry the strip so we don’t know if Pepper ever saw her sort-of doppelganger, but KPIX sent a crew here to interview Messick and Pepper for its “Evening Magazine” show that aired June 30.
Mentions of Pepper slacked off in the PD after she turned seventy in 1984. “Pepper won’t like me saying this, but the town marshal is not getting any younger,” lamented Gaye. “She’s losing some of that old enthusiasm, a note or two of the old yodel.” She began having trouble with her legs and had to skip the Rose Parade for the first time in decades. Then in 1990 she suffered a bad fall and was bedridden. She was sent to a Petaluma nursing home where she died of pneumonia, August 8, 1992.
Eggen & Lance again donated a casket and the funeral service, which about fifty people attended. The PD gave her an obituary plus columns by LeBaron and Chris Smith sprinkled with Pepper stories. She is buried next to husband Paul in Santa Rosa Memorial Park.
Pepper had no family and it appears the only property she left was her marshal vest, her harmonica (which had to be pretty rusty by then) and a few pictures of her with cops and firemen. But given it was presumed she was intellectually challenged or maybe bedbug crazy, she also left behind something that might surprise: Children’s stories.
She wrote letters and cards to her friends, even though they lived in Santa Rosa and she could visit them anytime she liked. Among the correspondence are stories about her cat Spunky and its seven kittens. The kitties take a vacation to Disneyland, visit Richard Nixon in the White House, have dinner with Roy Rogers and enjoy other splendid adventures. I haven’t read them but Gaye says they are well written, charming and funny. I’ll take her word on that.
The stories she sent to LeBaron and Helen Rudee were handwritten and Pepper also drew illustrations. They’re now in a folder at Sonoma State as part of the Gaye LeBaron Collection and since May 2, 2024 is the 110th anniversary of Pepper’s birth, perhaps SSU might consider transcribing them into eBook format or digitizing them for online reading.
In her Press Democrat obit, a caregiver at the Petaluma nursing home said, “She was a character here, too. She liked to joke. She was a very happy person.” For much of her life she was a ward of the state, spending her childhood stuck in orphanages and her prime years locked away in a horrific institution. As she approached middle age her future appeared just as dismal; she had a 5th grade education (supposedly) and no skills. She was not on track to end up as an independent and “very happy person.” More likely she would live on the margins, remaining a charity case or working some menial and thankless job where nobody knew her name.
Yet today in Santa Rosa here we are, sitting around the internet’s unflickering campfire and swapping half century-old stories about the woman Linda Garcia Dardon invented called “Pepper.”
And that is simply remarkable, if you think about it.
1 FindAGrave.com has a photo from the April 23 1968, Press Democrat showing Dave “Bugsy” Hill, Pepper and Bob Torvick together.
2 Longtime SR Street Character Dies At 78 by Tim Tesconi, August 9 1992 Press Democrat
3 Gaye LeBaron column, September 21, 1975 Press Democrat
4 Salty Pepper Lived Life Her Way by Chris Smith, August 13 1992 Press Democrat