Monday, February 27, 2017

The Idea-a-Minute Man

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week I was honored to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the William Penn Mott, Jr., Presidio Visitor Center in San Francisco. It was a stunningly sunny day, with the Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the distance. The event honored a diverse city, the power of partnerships, and the legacy of a man who devoted his life to supporting public parks.

National Park Service mounted police at the Presidio.

But before he ran the U.S. National Park Service – before he directed California’s parks and recreation department, before he was general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District – William Penn Mott, Jr., was superintendent of parks for the City of Oakland. While he held that job he created Children’s Fairyland. And many millions of kids (and parents) are thankful for that achievement.

William Penn Mott, Jr., was a lifelong supporter of public parks, which he successfully championed over his lifetime. He founded the nonprofit California State Park Foundation in 1969, and was later appointed as director of the National Park Service, a post he held from 1985 to 1989. As special assistant to the National Park Service, he was assigned to support the conversion of the Presidio from military post to national park. He died in 1992.

William Penn Mott, Jr. (left), with Fairyland executive director Charlotte Rowe (who doubled as Mother Goose) and Fairyland co-founder Arthur Navlet in 1974.

The new center, located in a refurbished historic guardhouse at the Presidio’s Main Post, provides a state-of-the-art “platform for discovery,” using video, exhibits and interactive tools to welcome visitors at the park’s new “front door.” 

The William Penn Mott, Jr., shadowbox at the Presidio.

I hadn’t been to the Presidio in quite some time, and I was hugely impressed with how a formerly unwelcoming military base is now the world’s largest national park in an urban area, hosting daily cultural, recreational and educational events.

Jean S. Fraser, CEO for the Presidio Trust, says that “now everyone from the Bay Area and beyond can easily discover the Presidio’s free resources—history, spectacular vistas, wild open places, trails, and opportunities for play.”
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (center) with the William Penn Mott, Jr., shadowbox.

While still in Oakland, Mott definitely believed in play. He made so much come to fruition—not only Fairyland, but also the Oakland Zoo, the Rotary Nature Center,  the redesign of Mosswood Park, and more. It’s remarkable to many of us local history buffs that there is no formal tribute in Oakland that recognizes the achievements of William Penn Mott, Jr., during his tenure here from 1946 to 1962. One environmental writer has estimated that Mott had a hand in creating, planning and administering more acres of parkland and open space than any other American in history.
The Presidio ribbon-cutting ceremony featured an Ohlone welcome and blessing. Bill and John Mott, William’s sons, and U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi were there, among many others. I spoke briefly with Bill and his daughter Larie Flaherty, who helped design an exhibit for the center that included photos of Fairyland.

Mott's granddaughter Larie Flaherty (far left) and her father, Bill Mott (far right), watch as Rep. Pelosi cuts the ribbon.

William Penn Mott, Jr., was known as the “idea-a-minute” man, and we are honored that Fairyland—which continues to thrive-- was one of his earlier ideas. Mr. Mott visited Fairyland one morning only days before he died, and we like to think that this tiny part of his huge legacy still held a place in his heart.

Getting to the Presidio via public transit from the East Bay is remarkably easy, with fabulous views along the way, and I highly recommend a visit. Just take BART to the Embarcadero station, walk across the street and catch a special (free) bus directly to the Presidio. The route takes you through North Beach and Chinatown: lovely. You can find bus schedules here.  
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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