How does it feel to keep a secret for 70 years? If you live in Redwood City — our city — you have a pretty good idea. In a national sense, when people hear or read the words “Bay Area” they automatically think about San Francisco, the town that oh-so-modestly gave itself the nickname “The City.” Perhaps sports fans are also aware of Oakland because of the sports teams — the A’s, the Raiders, the Warriors — and to a lesser extent San Jose because of the Sharks.
Ask Peninsula natives about the Bay Area, however, and naturally the answers are more varied and soulful. You’ll hear shout-outs for Palo Alto, Berkeley, San Mateo, maybe picturesque burgs like Half Moon Bay, Tiburon or Marin. All of these cities feature unique charms of their own, their tourist attractions, and they all bring something to the table.
Redwood City, however, is the Rodney Dangerfield of hamlets; it just doesn’t get any respect, even, sometimes, from its own.
Four people who have spent a considerable amount of time and effort to change the perceptions and stereotypes of our town are two journalistic couples, Janet and Reg McGovern and Betty and Nicholas Veronico. Their new book, “Redwood City,” the latest installment of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, was released on Oct. 6 and offers a little bit of everything for everybody, from history buffs to architectural enthusiasts to those who can’t get enough of stunningly beautiful aerial photography, the kinds of pictures that make you feel vital and insignificant all at once. Mostly, though, it’s a book made by Redwood Citians for Redwood Citians, to give us all a much-needed perspective into the town’s past and an appreciation for those who came before us.
“When you’re a reporter, there’s a tendency to take a jaundiced view of the city or subject that you’re covering so you’re ‘objective,’” said Janet McGovern, referencing her long career as a reporter and a columnist for the Redwood City Tribune (which later, ominously, became the
Peninsula Tribune). “But what struck me about earlier days in Redwood City was how much prior generations accomplished in a very short period of time. That’s true of infrastructure problems like the need for freeways and better roads or establishing a port. But that’s also true when it comes to building community — churches, new schools, civic organizations and businesses. This is a great place to live.”
Indeed, but why are so few people outside of the city aware of this?
The McGoverns, who met while working at the paper (Reg was a news photographer for over 40 years before retiring in 1981) aren’t quite sure, but both are adamant that the town was always culturally important and socially attractive, in contrast to the commonly held notion that only the recent downtown refurbishments have made it so. “I spent hours and hours scrolling through microfilm of old newspapers at the library and it was so engrossing I had to tear myself away when the library closed,” Janet said of the research process. “I’d come across incidents in these old newspapers that Reg had told me about, and these stories came to life for me when I read contemporaneous accounts of what happened as it was unfolding. I came away from my research feeling like I’d missed out in some ways by being ‘born too late.’ I would have loved to have been living in Redwood City, for example, for the first Fourth of July parades and rodeos. I have a much deeper appreciation for how Redwood City came to be the city that it is as a result of the contribution of people who lived here long before us.”
That the McGoverns found a forum to express their love and passion for their city is due largely to the success the Veronicos had with the San Carlos edition of Images of America. Nick Veronico has authored 24 different books, many on aviation, an interest he shared with longtime friend Reg. After he used many of Reg’s photos in the well-received San Carlos book, including one of the Chemical Associates fire of 1950 that was voted the best newspaper picture of 1950 in California by the Associated Press, it didn’t take much arm-twisting of the editors at Arcadia to convince them to bring the McGoverns into the fold for a Redwood City book.
“I’ve known Reg for nearly 20 years, and he and Janet have been generous enough over the years to help me with photographs for my work,” Nick explained. “Many of the photos survive today not only because Reg shot them, but that he had the foresight to keep prints or negatives.
The McGoverns helped Betty and I with photos for the San Carlos book, and when that was done, we thought whom better to partner with on a book about Redwood City than Reg for his photos and Janet for her writing talents.” The partnership resulted in the whittling of duties in what would’ve otherwise been quite the formidable task: one person chronicling and researching the entirety of Redwood City’s extensive history.
“We figured that since Nick, Betty and I are all writers, we could divide up the research and writing, which is what we did,” said Janet, summing up the process. “We each did a couple of chapters and dozens and dozens of captions. The Veronicos did the layout.”
For Betty Veronico, a Redwood City native who worked with Arcadia on “Lighthouses of the Bay Area” after the successful San Carlos book (another project to which Reg contributed photographs), working on the book gave her an unexpected thrill, bringing out memories and feelings long buried into her subconscious of her happy childhood and ritual weekend trips to a local pizza parlor, where her father always ordered the same two untraditional toppings, beef and onions.
“Redwood City has changed a lot over the years — some for the good, some for the bad. Doing this book brought back so many memories. I remember shopping at all the downtown stores and going to the Fox Theatre for Saturday matinees,” she said, while expressing confidence that the 200 vivid photographs inside their book would inspire similar feelings in others.
While the quartet of professionals were all obviously pleased with the final result of their labors, and rightly so, they stressed that Arcadia’s format is firmly committed to publishing coffee table–style books, with strict limitations placed on the amount of text. If it seems to you that the pictures draw your attention more than the words, rest assured that it’s by design. While Janet, Nick and Betty managed to fit in an ample amount of the town’s history despite the restrictions placed upon them, there are other books out there for those more interested in reading about Redwood City’s past than seeing it.
“The Archives Committee of the Redwood City library in 2007 released ‘Redwood City: A Hometown History,’ which has considerably more text and can explore the city’s history in greater depth than the type of book that we wrote, which tells the story primarily through photos,” confirmed Nick, describing his and his collaborators’ project as a “companion book.”
The majority of the photographs in their book, about 75 percent by Janet’s estimation, were culled from Reg’s personal archives, and the lion’s share of those from the 1940s and ’50s, while most of the rest were secured from the Redwood City Public Library. Among the many reasons he loved working in this city all his life, besides meeting the love of his life here, was how in his professional prime the whole Redwood City community, and the surrounding ones as well, seemed so close and familial.
“We had a good network on the paper, where people would call you or call the desk and we were able to get to the activity very quickly, whether it [was] a fire, an auto wreck or a cat in the tree,” Reg recalled. “I also took a lot of aerials because they blended with the news that we were covering and served us well over the years. We had good rapport with the Palo Alto and San Carlos airports to take us up almost on a moment’s notice.”
It’s only fitting then that in the end two families, two husband-and-wife professional tandems, produced such a wonderful homage to our city, not only as a way to honor it but to celebrate their love for each other too.
The journey has proved most personal for Janet, who can’t hide her reverence for her husband’s skill as a photographer and makes no secret of the fact that, in a way, their book is a tribute to his career.
“This book was a labor of love for me because I wanted people today to see what a great news photographer Reg was,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Many of his pictures are around town, uncredited. I saw this book as an opportunity to let people today see and appreciate his wonderful pictures and the contribution he made to recording the history of our area.”
Soon critical acclaim of their book will come, word will spread and Reg’s career won’t seem anonymous any longer. It only makes sense for it to happen in, and because of, Redwood City, a place whose illustrious past is becoming discovered anew and whose metropolitan future is a certainty to anyone who’s been paying attention.