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In 1970, when Alex was a park ranger on Angel Island, he came across Chinese carvings on the walls of what he learned was the former Immigration Station. At the time, the plan was to tear down the building, and his supervisors told him not to bother with the “bunch of graffiti.” Undeterred, he told George Araki, his biology professor at SF State, about what he saw, and a movement was born.
Alex later told Erika Lee and Judy Yung, “I didn’t discover the poems. They had been there for years and other people knew they were there. But I’m proud of the fact that I was able to turn on the ignition and get the motor running so that people like Paul Chow could step on the gas and get the car to move to where it is today, a national historic landmark. We needed to save the Immigration Station to remind us of the tough times some immigrants had coming to this country.”
To view a reenactment of his rediscovery of the poems on Angel Island, as part of an excellent documentary on the island, visit Radio Television Hong Kong’s website here.
Thank you, Alex Weiss, for “getting the motor running” to save the Immigration Station. We will always appreciate your foresight and life of community activism, and hold you as one of our dearest and most important supporters. You will be truly missed, and we will stay committed to our work in honor of your contributions and inspiring life.
“I didn’t discover the carvings; I just started the engine and others drove the project to “ And so, Alexander Weiss humbly explains his role in the discovery and preservation of the poetry carved into the walls by detainees at Angel Island Immigration Station. But this is just one of the adventures that Alexander Weiss had a hand in. From his family’s escape from Austria in 1940 to his days as a Freedom Rider; from his growing up in the Fillmore during its early jazz days to his creation of special days at Hearst Castle and Natural Bridges State Parks, Weiss has been the nonconformist, most often to the public’s benefit.
Weiss was born in Austria in 1936. “We had a place in Klosterneuburg where I was born, a house with a yard and a field. It was 121 Martinstrasse. And we also had an apartment in a house in Vienna, which belonged to my mother. She was adopted and one-third of this building in Vienna was hers. We traveled between the two places a lot.”
Weiss’ father, Morris was a wine press salesman and traveled all through southern Europe, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, selling small hydraulic and hand presses to small vineyards. His mother Regina was a haus frau, raising Alex and his younger sister, Doris.
Leaving Austria in 1940
Although Hitler entered Austria in 1938, the Weiss family did not leave until 1940. As typical for many Jewish families, Morris had a business and did not think the situation would be so bad. He thought of himself as an Austrian more than a Jew; that is until, as Weiss puts it, “they told him he was a Jew and they arrested him in 1940 and gave him a choice of signing over everything: his business, his homes in order to get exit visas just for him, and my mother, and my sister and myself.” Within 2 days of signing over everything, Weiss’s family was on a train to Trieste. [Alex’s father] had to leave behind his mother and 5 sisters. Two of his sisters got out. One went to England and the other went to Paris and when the Nazis occupied Paris, she was hidden by a Christian friend during the Occupation and survived. And she actually came to visit her brother and family when they settled in the Bay Area. But the 3 other sisters and his mother all went to the camps and they all died.
Weiss has vivid memories of the stay in Trieste. He says “We had to spend about two weeks in Trieste waiting for this ship, the Saturnia, to come and take us to New York.” During that time, only his father went out because, as Weiss recounts, “Trieste at the time was full of Mussolini black shirts. And Gestapo and all that. “ Weiss’s father spoke fluent Italian due to his business travels and could pass as Italian. But young 4-year old Alex was “climbing the walls” and his father finally relented to let him go outside. “He said ‘Okay, I’ll take you out. We’ll get an ice cream. We’ll take a walk. But you cannot speak German. If they hear you speaking German, they’ll know that we might be refugees and they might send us back.’ So, I promised that I wouldn’t say a word.” And Weiss kept his promise until he and his father were standing in a plaza full of hundreds of pigeons who, all of a sudden took off and Alex yelled to his father in German, “‘Look, papa, the pigeons.’ And he looked at me and he slapped me. And I cried. But it wasn’t that he slapped me; it was the look on his face – he was scared. And I had never seen my father afraid.” Weiss still remembers “how afraid my father was and I thought I had screwed up. That I had spoken German and they would send us back.” Fortunately, they were not discovered; several days later, the Weiss family boarded the ship to New York.
Coming to San Francisco
Once in New York, with about five dollars in hand, the Weiss family took a train to California where Morris hoped to find employment as a wine press salesman. But California didn’t have little hand hydraulic presses. For the first year in San Francisco, the family lived mainly on support from the Jewish welfare organizations. When the United States entered the war, Morris went to work in the shipyards. He also went to the Air Force recruiting office. But he decided not to volunteer once he was told by the Air Force that they could not guarantee that he would be a bombardier to fly over Vienna.
Growing up in San Francisco
After living on Divisadero Street and Ellis Street, the family settled into a place on Steiner Street where they lived until 1948. Weiss went to school at Golden Gate Elementary School and Roosevelt Junior High School, where Johnny Mathis was one of his friends. Speaking of growing up in the Fillmore, Weiss says “It was really interesting. It was like the Harlem of San Francisco. But it wasn’t all African-American. It had a lot of little enclaves of refugees. There was a Jewish district on McAllister Street with a Jewish deli, even a kosher chicken slaughterer. And Italian places. But it was primarily Black and a lot of jazz. I liked it. Like I say, Johnny Mathis and I were buddies and we sort of hung out with a little junior gang. Our heroes were the guys who ran the Fillmore, who were mostly black pimps. They were the guys who dressed nice, had lots of money. And we would do errands for them, buy them cigarettes and they would give us a dollar.”
Around 1948, Weiss’s parents bought a house in Daly City where Weiss attended Jefferson Union High School, where he was a classmate of John Madden’s. He says “[John Madden] was on the football team. And I went to every football game because I was in the marching band. In the marching band, I played mellophone, E-flat horn. It’s like a French horn with trumpet valves. Music was my big thing in high school. I played the violin in the orchestra and the bassoon in the band, and string bass in the jazz band and mellophone in the marching band.
After graduation from high school, Weiss’s interest in music continued. He says, “I went to San Francisco State as a bassoon major. I was in a high school where nobody knew what a bassoon was. I was the only bassoon player. So I went to San Francisco State and declared a music major, a bassoon major. My first private lesson, he had me play something and he said, ‘Who taught you?’ And I said ‘Nobody. I taught myself.’ And he said, ‘Well, we have to start from scratch.’ And then I played in the symphonic band but there were two other bassoonists and they were really good. I was competent but I wasn’t that good. So I decided there was no future for me in playing bassoon.” Eventually, Weiss dropped out after one semester and joined the Navy
Navy and Schwabacher-Frey
He spent 2 years on a World War II-type destroyer escort, cruising up and down the West Coast from Vancouver to Acapulco and Hawaii, mostly going out to sea and doing antisubmarine war games. The ship he was on had a lot of old time sailors and men from the South. They gave him a bad time, knowing he had been in college. So in order to protect himself from the teasing, he had to become more salty than they were. And, as Weiss says, “I went ‘striking for Bosun’s mate,’” the saltiest thing you could be in the Navy. As Bosun’s mate, he was a skilled seaman and they stopped messing with him. After spending two years in active duty, Weiss decided to get a job. His first job was at Schwabacher-Frey, the old-time San Francisco men’s clothing store. But after about a month of wearing a coat and tie, he says, “Man I don’t like this.” And fortunately, he answered an ad in the paper that said “Yosemite wants waiters and busboys.”
Upon answering the ad, Weiss was told “Well, you can leave in two days and take the bus to Yosemite.” At Yosemite, Weiss spent the summer as a waiter at Camp Curry and made friends with fellow waiters who were students from University of Mississippi. After the summer was over, one of his friends asked Weiss if he wanted to travel across country back to Mississippi. And Weiss said “Sure.” During the trip the Mississippi friend was telling Weiss how great everything was in the South. “He dropped me off in Biloxi, Mississippi.” Weiss says “I was at the Greyhound Station and I went to get a drink of water and all of a sudden, a couple of guys came by and said ‘What are you drinking out of that nigger fountain for?’ And I said, ‘What? Colored people.’ And it blew me away.” Weiss then joined a friend who was at Keesler Air Force Base and they went to New Orleans. And there, Weiss says he found that in walking down the street, “if a black man was coming, he would step into the street off the sidewalk to let us pass. And I grew up in the Fillmore where all through my school years, elementary school and junior high, I had black friends. And so, that impressed me – the injustice of it all.”
Upon returning to San Francisco, Weiss resumed his college studies at San Francisco State where his main interests were zoology and marine biology.
This was the time, in 1961, that the Freedom Rides were taking place. Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Rides were organized to send blacks and whites to the South to put pressure on the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce its regulations barring discrimination in public transit places such as bus station waiting rooms. As Weiss puts it “The idea was to jam the jails with hundreds of people. The Freedom Rides in ’61 were to get the jails filled and to impress Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General at the time, to enforce the law. That is, that you could not have separate waiting rooms in interstate commerce.”
Weiss volunteered for the Freedom Rides because as he says “You’d watch the news and watched the stuff going on in the South. They had the Aniston bus burning, the first Freedom Riders. And I said, ‘I can’t just stand by and watch this.’ After training in non-violence techniques to help ensure any confrontations remained non-violent, Weiss and others were flown to New Orleans. In New Orleans, they hid out for a while because as Weiss says, “the New Orleans police and others knew there were Freedom Riders coming. They would look for strange white people.”
After taking the train from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, he and other white Freedom Riders walked into a colored waiting room and sat down. “And then the police chief at the time – I even remember his name, Captain Ray – would come by and say ‘Y’all got to move on. You’ve got to move on or go to jail.’ We’d sit. And he’d say ‘Okay, you’re all under arrest.’ And he would take us to the Jackson, Hinds County jail. We stayed two days there and then got into vans. And they sent us up to Parchman Farm, Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s a notorious place. And that was that.”
Weiss recalls: “We were happy to finally get to jail, because we didn’t want to be caught out in the open, on a train. People knew we were Freedom Riders. But I think the FBI even had our names. The people who got really hurt were the early, the ones in the Aniston bus burning who got beat up, people in Alabama who got beat up. But we were – that’s why we hid out in New Orleans for a little while before we got on the train. And when on the train, let’s just get over there so these people on the train don’t decide to attack us. And so that’s why we’re happy to get to jail.
“You weren’t entirely on your own. We were members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). They were the ones who sponsored us, paid for the plane ride and train ride and what have you, took care of you. But once you were in jail, then you were really on your own with the other people that were also in jail. And you organized yourself.”
Weiss recalls the court proceedings with the judge asking the protesters’ lawyer: “‘Jack, are you going to represent all these other folks the same way you just represented this one?’ And he’d say ‘Yes.’ He said ‘They’re all guilty.’ Bang of the gavel. That was that. We were arrested on breach of the peace. It was a misdemeanor. Breach of the peace because we were in the colored waiting room.”
The protesters were then sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm in northwest Mississippi. As Weiss recalls: “They put us in these cell blocks, eventually. And we just sat there. I mean, they took all our clothes; we just had shorts. They would harass us, like close all the windows during the day when it was hot. And then at night open them up and hose us down. Stuff like that. And the food was pretty bad. The morning was chicory coffee, and grits, and maybe lunch was some beans with some fatback. So food was a big deal. And we’d say ‘Hey, you going to eat that?’ We would communicate. There were two to a cell. We could communicate with the others. We organized that at certain times it would be quiet so this cell could play chess with that cell. They would yell out their moves.”
The Freedom Riders were sentenced to 6 months and a fine. They were eligible to be released from prison after 39 days. When the 39 days passed, however, the authorities did not release the Riders, “they messed around with us just to hassle us.” Eventually, they were released after 46 days.
While in prison, the Freedom Riders were restricted in their activities. They could write letters, which the authorities censored. And Weiss does not recall getting any mail. He recalls that there was a minister and rabbi who showed up a couple of times. To take advantage of the visits, Weiss says “And of course when the minister or priest came, we were all Catholic and got out of the cell and would go talk to him. And when the rabbi came, we were all Jewish and would go talk to the rabbi. “
The only reading material they were given was the Bible. Weiss recalls: “So, I read the Bible from cover to cover. I said ‘Man. That Old Testament is mean.’ And the other thing was this chess game. And then every night, we had … each person … give a lecture in their expertise. And so we could do that. Somebody would talk about politics. We had a guy who did ads for commercials for TV, and he would tell us how they did the commercials, how they painted the food, made it look shiny and stuff like that. I gave a lecture on the candiru, which is a parasitic fish, that’s kind of strange. If you’re in the Amazon waist deep and you urinate, this fish will go right up into your urethra. And this is the kind of thing they loved to hear. Because my thing was biology and I could lecture on that.
“Since it was a misdemeanor, when I became a park ranger, I had the distinction of being the only peace officer in the state of California that ever did time in a state prison. Because you can’t be a peace officer if you’ve been convicted of a felony. Since I was convicted of a misdemeanor and it was okay to be a Freedom Rider, I was okay to be a peace officer.”
Weiss is modest about his time as a Freedom Rider. Even though laws were passed to make discrimination illegal, it was still going on. And it was the African American people who Weiss describes as the really brave ones. “Because the black people who lived down there and were Freedom riders there, they were the ones that were really the brave ones. I mean, they had to live there and they were under the gun constantly. Later on, as the 60’s went on, people were being killed and bombed, what have you. Then you had the whole thing with Turner Chaney and Goodman, the Voter Registration Drive, who got killed. And the kids who got bombed in Alabama.”
After the Freedom Rides, Weiss returned to San Francisco where he returned to school and also joined the San Francisco chapter of CORE, organizing sit-ins and picket lines. He served as Direct Action Chairman. One example of the direct action, as Weiss recalls: “We would test a real estate office. Send in a black couple, very well dressed, a doctor and his wife. They would go to a real estate office and they would say ‘No, we have nothing.’ Then we would send in a white couple exactly the same except they were white. ‘Oh, yes. We have all kinds of houses.’ And then we would confront the real estate agent and if he wasn’t cooperating, we would sit in and picket and all that.”
It was during this time that Weiss reunited with Margaret Oakley. They first met as Freedom Riders in Mississippi. In 1963, Peggy came to San Francisco and went to CORE office and said “Where’s Alex?” When she learned he was in Sacramento at a sit-in, she traveled to Sacramento and “sat down next to me.” They have two children, Jessica (who is now a stockbroker in San Francisco) and Aram (who resides in Santa Cruz), who joke that their parents met in jail.
Peggy was pregnant with Jessica when Weiss was arrested during a sit-in. That incident helped him decide that with a baby on the way, he no longer could afford the risk of arrest and jail. He decided “I have to get a real job.”
With his training in biology, Weiss became a zookeeper at the San Francisco Zoo.
From 1964 to 1967, his main job was on the weekends, when he was relief for Jack Castor, the well-known lion keeper. He was often told by visitors during feeding time: “Oh, what a great job you have. “ To which Weiss replied, “Yeah. You see me for one hour a day feeding the lions and there’s seven hours where I’m shoveling crap and hosing stuff, wheelbarrows-full, the hard work.”
Living in the Haight
During this time, Peggy and Weiss lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. As Weiss recalls: “It was just before the big Hippie thing. But it was still very . . . they had little coffee houses and people playing folk music, talking politics. It was sort of like post-beatnik, pre-hippie. I was more of a beatnik than I ever was a hippie.”
“I had a friend who was a resident at Mount Zion in pathology. We got together, he was a piano player. And we started our little group; I played standup bass. And we had little gigs in the clubs around San Francisco. It was him, and me, and a tenor player who was an orderly at Mount Zion who became well-known in the jazz circles, and a drummer. So we had this little quartet, which was also something that I did in high school.
I kept telling my friend Al Sutton who was the doctor: ‘Hey, can’t we call it the ‘Jazz Hormones’?’ We really didn’t have a name. We played what you would call it “West Coast Jazz” or “progressive Jazz. We played other people’s tunes. We took a lot of standard tunes and played jazz. At that time, the film Black Orpheus was out and we did a lot of bossa nova from that film and so on.”
Trip to Europe
In 1967, Weiss and Peggy decided to take an extended trip to Europe, traveling and living out of a Volkswagen van. Their van was their home and their two young children were their passports. Weiss recalls the children’s help getting through customs from Bulgaria into Turkey. “The people on the Bulgarian side said ‘Empty the van!’ And we had this big pile of dirty diapers in a bag. Those were the days we still had cloth diapers. And he got to that and said ‘Go on.’”
They spent the winter in Crete renting a summer home in Chania. It was during the wintertime that they also traveled to Vienna, where Weiss had spent time as a young boy. As he recalls: “So here we are in this van, I’ve got a beard and Levi’s. And I get out of the van – we parked the van in the street, and I get out – and I look down the street and say, ‘Man, I’m in Vienna.’ And this old man comes by – when I say ‘old man’ somebody who probably looks like me now. But I was only in my 30’s. And he looked at me – this was a mind-blower – this really happened. And he looked at me and he says to me in German: ‘Are you a Jew?’ And I said ‘Yeah. I’m an American tourist, a Jew.’ And he says in German again, since I speak German, he says, ‘This is not a good place for you.’ And he walked on. And I’m going, ‘What the hell? Is he an old Nazi or is he an old Jew?’ Is he an old Nazi telling me to get the hell out or is he an old Jew saying that there are still anti-Semites in Vienna, which is true. So that blew me away. I said ‘Man!’ I had bad feelings about Vienna after that. So we stayed in the campgrounds for a while and then took off and went to other places.”
“Now, later on my wife, Carol, and I went to Heidelberg in Germany and through Austria and it was fine. I had no problem like Vienna. Though I still don’t like the Austrians very much. Nothing to do with our past governor. I just felt the Austrians were as bad or even worse than the Germans as far as their treatment. The Germans at least admitted stuff and did this restitution. But Austrians said ‘No, not us.’”
Upon their return to the United States, Weiss and Peggy returned to the Haight and rented a place. And Weiss worked as a gardener at a school, doing the landscaping. “I didn’t much like it. But it was a job; I had to make a living. And then Peggy said ‘You hate this so much; why don’t you go back to school?’ So I did. I went back to State to go after my degree. I got part time jobs: I worked at the Academy of Sciences as an assistant to the birds and mammals guy. Then I saw an ad for seasonal state park rangers. So, I signed up for that and I got that job. And they said, ‘Where do you want to go? Here, there, or there?’ And I thought of Angel Island. I’d be there all by myself, taking care of this island. I had this vision of palm trees and coconuts. So I went to Angel Island and that was in 1970.”
Weiss rented a room in the Sunset district in San Francisco from Carol Nelson, another Parks employee, and her husband. “So during the week I could go to school and rent a room. And then on weekends, I could go to Angel Island. Until the summer, when I would work full-time at Angel Island.” On the Island, Alex lived in different houses, a place in Ayala Cove, a former guard house next to the Chapel. His first job was to greet visitors at the ferry dock. In those days, visitors had to put quarters in a turnstile. Weiss’s job included making change and making sure visitors used the turnstiles. He also patrolled the area, “making sure that people were okay. Trying to tell them ‘Don’t pick the flowers.’ ‘No dogs off leash.’ That kind of stuff. And doing the paperwork – lots of paperwork. You had to do all the fiscals at the end of the day – all the money that came in, you had to make reports. So quite a bit of paperwork, and patrolling, and public contact. Being helpful to the people. ‘Protecting the park from the people and protecting the people from the park.’”
At that time, the Immigration Station was off-limits and was closed to the public as a public hazard. As Weiss recalls, “The buildings were not in great shape. Like even the Immigration Station was dark, and had broken boards on the floor.” As Weiss recalls, “The plan was to open that up and make a major recreation area picnic area out of that which would mean destroy all the buildings. They were going to burn down the buildings. I knew that much.”
About the poems, Weiss recalls that people knew the poems were there. He says: “People keep saying that I ‘discovered’ the poems. No, I didn’t ‘discover’ them. People knew . . . the park people knew they were there. But one of the things is that I was curious. It was part of my job to go around and see what’s going on around the Island. So I went to see the Immigration Station with a flashlight. And I noticed that even though it wasn’t open to the public, I noticed these carvings. In fact, I was amazed; it was everywhere. First I saw the main ones. ‘Hey, this was far-out.’ But then if you shined your flashlight up against the wall, the whole wall was covered, all the rooms were covered with this calligraphy.”
Weiss told his supervisors about the calligraphy. Because the North Garrison was slated for conversion to a picnic and recreation area, which included tearing down the Immigration Station buildings, his supervisors had no interest in preserving the carvings. When they did not react, Weiss went to George Araki, one of his biology professors at San Francisco State. And Araki’s response was that one of his relatives had come through Angel Island. Araki and his wife visited the Immigration Station where Weiss showed them the carvings. Araki in turn notified the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State. The initial plan was to photograph the carvings and document them before the buildings were destroyed. This effort evolved into bringing classes from the Asian American Studies Department to visit the carvings. As Weiss recalls: “So all of a sudden, we had like at least twice or three times a week for a number of weeks, Asian Studies groups from all over the Bay Area. And they didn’t know. These were college students whose parents had come through there but wouldn’t talk about it. . . . So these kids were impressed and I would tell them, ‘Write to the state parks commission. Do something because this is going to go.’ And so they did. They got Assemblyman Foran who represented Chinatown to pass a bill to save the Immigration Station. From there, it just went on and on.”
About his role in preserving the carvings, Weiss says: “I didn’t ‘discover’ the carvings. But to save the Immigration Station, I got in the car and turned on the ignition. That’s what I did. And then people like Paul Chow and Felicia Lowe and all these other people got in the car and stepped on the gas and made it move to where it is today: a National Historic Landmark.
Park Ranger at Samuel P. Taylor and Hearst Castle
In 1974, after four years at Angel Island, Weiss was transferred to Samuel P. Taylor Park in Marin County. During this time, Weiss attended the police academy at Asilomar and became a full-time park ranger and peace officer. And then he was assigned to Hearst Castle for two years.
His first assignment was to assist visitors to the Castle. As he recalls, he got into trouble there: when the visitors would ask which tour they should select, Weiss replied : “Whatever tour you take, you will see an ostentatious display of ill-gotten wealth.” While at the Castle, he lived near Cayucos, a small beach town south of Hearst Castle. And notwithstanding the skepticism of his supervisors, Weiss started the first campfire program. Over their predictions that campers were only interested in the Castle, Weiss held a ranger talk that 200 campers attended. And over their objection that the campgrounds lacked a campfire center, Weiss with characteristic persistence declared: “I’ll get one; I’ll get one.” He enlisted help from others, including the San Luis Obispo Men’s Colony, who placed the logs for the seats. And Weiss rightfully says: “So, I’m proud of that; that I started the first campfire programs.”
After two years, Weiss asked for a transfer to be closer to his children who were living with their mother in Northern California. He was offered a position at the Santa Cruz Beaches, which he took and stayed for seven years.
Santa Cruz Beaches
As Weiss recalls: “I was a ranger at the Natural Bridges, New Brighton, and Sea Cliff. Natural Bridges was my favorite. I became permanent at Natural Bridges. I started the first ‘Welcome Back Monarchs Day’ there. And the first Park Rangers Band – the ‘5 M Band’ we called it: Mostly Mediocre Music at Monarch Mariposas. I’m proud of that. They still have it. But they’ve made it a big thing. At the time, it was just us Rangers. People loved that. It was the rangers and park aides doing their thing. Now they have more professional. They made it more of a big deal.”
Alex lived near the Lagoon near Twin Lakes State Beach, in a little green house with Aram, his 13-year old son.
While at Santa Cruz, Weiss received an offer from a friend to join their crew to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti. His friend had built a sailboat with his wife and they were planning to sail around the world. In Weiss’s words: “So I said, ‘Are you kidding? But you know I have this job and I‘ve got this kid.’ So I went to my supervisor and said ‘Can I get a two-month leave of absence?’ And they said ‘Yes.’ And Peggy, the mother of my kids, said ‘You know. You’ve wanted to do this all your life. I’m tired of sitting up here in San Francisco. I don’t see enough of Aram anymore because he doesn’t come up. And you’re living in this place on the beach. I could have a vacation. I could come down and take care of Aram.’ So she came down and lived in the place and took care of Aram while I took a credit card and said, ‘One way to Hawaii.’ And flew to Hawaii and met them and spent 30 days at sea on a sailboat going to Tahiti. And another 30 days traveling around and then I flew back.”
The trip was interesting: “You learn out there: You forget everything else. Your only thing is getting out there, eating, making sure you’re safe. It comes down to just you and the boat and the sea. We had some bad rain squalls; the worst part was around the equator where we were becalmed, no wind at all. Just sitting there, rocking, waiting for a little wind. So it took us 30 days from Hawaii to Tahiti – a whole month. But it was well worth the experience.”
Candlestick State Park
Weiss’s next transfer was to Candlestick State Park. Weiss had declined promotions because they involved transfers to another state park and he did not want to interrupt his son’s life. But Carol Nelson, who used to be Weiss’s park aide and was now superintendent at Candlestick, recruited Weiss and this time he accepted. By that time, Aram was 18 graduated from high school and decided to stay in Santa Cruz. Weiss became chief ranger at Candlestick, California’s first urban state park.
Weiss enjoyed the assignment. As he recalls: “I enjoyed it because there was a lot of fishing, a lot of Samoans in the area. And we tried to do innovative things – Carol Nelson and I. We had artists come in and put up a wind harp and a sound – they installed a bunch of metal things that made sound. It was a really interesting thing to do.” But after four years, the paperwork that was expected of a chief ranger became too much. As Weiss recalls: “I mean, I knew when I was ranger that I was really good. I was a really good ranger. As a supervising ranger, a managing ranger, I was competent but I didn’t have that edge. Plus all my money was going for law enforcement. Not enough money for interpretive stuff. And so I decided “Hey, I’ve got law enforcement retirement.” So, I was like 51 at the time. I said “Hey. I’m retiring.” So, I retired.”
Retirement from Parks and Recreation
When he retired, Weiss had no specific retirement plans. So when an old friend, a retired zookeeper, told him the Zoo was hiring, Weiss applied and began working again at the Zoo. And the cast of characters at the Zoo was pretty much the same as when Weiss first worked there in 1964. Jack Castor, who was an institution at the Zoo, told Weiss he would be his relief again on the weekends. And Carol SooHoo, a donor who bought tigers and other animals for the Zoo, just looked at Weiss when he came back to the Zoo and said “ Welcome home.” As Weiss recalls: “I did basically the same thing. I was a floater. But then they insisted you have a specialty. And I chose carnivores: big cats and bears and so on. And so I spent – well, in between I had open-heart surgery and broke my foot.” After 8 years, Weiss retired again with no specific plans.
Registrar of Voters
And then he saw an ad at the Alameda County Human Resources for a clerk “intermittent services as needed” for the Registrar of Voters. “And so I applied for that, took the test, took the oral, and got on.” Weiss worked whenever there was an election. Months before an election, the Registrar begins working to set up and test the voting machines, doing the paperwork, and ordering the supplies. Testing the machines was an enormous amount of work due to the fear of hacking. The machines had to be tested 2 maybe 3 times. And, depending upon the election cycles, one might work 3 months a year or eleven months a year. And so for 14 years, as Alex recalls “It was ideal as a retirement job because you worked so many months of the year and the rest of the time you were off; you didn’t have to work full time year around. One year, we worked 11 months. That was the year Ron Dellums left Congress and his spot had to be filled by Barbara Lee and her spot had to be filled. So we had a domino effect. And had elections all year round. But normally you work 4-5 months a year, if there was a major election.” In 2009, Weiss retired and even though the Registrar’s office calls him at election time seeking his help, he politely and firmly declines.
And so, Weiss ended his career of extraordinary non-conformity – from Freedom Rider to Park Ranger and Zoo Keeper. And for those of us who cherish the preservation of the Immigration Station, we thank him for answering that ad for seasonal park rangers, being curious about the calligraphy in the Station buildings, and starting the engine.
Alexander Weiss passed away on October 17, 2014. He was survived by his wife Carol Ellison, daughter Jessica Weiss and son Aram Weiss. To read his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, visit this page.
Mary Hackenbracht is a retired attorney for the State of California.
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