Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thank You, Nick Haverland ... We Will Always Miss You

Fifteen or so years ago, when we decided to have some work done on our house, a contractor named Jim Haverland showed up to do the work. Jim was a friend of a friend. He turned out to be a terrific fellow – smart, knowledgeable, kind, low-key – and he and his wonderful wife Susan soon became our friends as well. Susan had a demanding corporate job in those days, so Jim took care of their boys. All summer he came to our house with Nick and Griff, then about 6 and 4, in tow. Every day they played in the yard with our daughter Sara, who was the same age as Nick, and they always played the same games. Hide and seek, because what little girl doesn’t want to be chased around by two little boys? And bug-hunting, because that’s what Nick loved to do.

Over the years, the Haverlands became a permanent part of my life – one of those Ventura families you know fifteen different ways, through school and play activities and work and civic events. We remained friends through so many changes – the kids growing up, a divorce on our side, the tragic early death of siblings on both sides. After a while I became friends with a lot of parents from the Open Classroom School on the Blanche Reynolds Elementary School campus and in so doing met a much wider range of Jim and Susan’s friends, because Nick and Griff had both been Open Classroom students. My daughter Sara and Nick were one year apart at Foothill Technology High School.

Jim still did contracting work for my former wife. Susan eventually left her corporate job and moved into community service jobs that brought she and I closer together in our professional lives. For several years she ran the Mixteco Project, aiding Oaxacan immigrants around the County. More recently she ran the County’s farmworker vanpooling project, and only about two weeks ago we had a meeting in the Mayor’s office to discuss how things were going. I brought her up to date on Sara, and she brought me up to date on the boys. Griff was almost done with high school and would be going to UC Santa Cruz. Nick – a personable boy whom everybody loved – was almost done with Ventura College and was planning to study ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in the fall. He still loved hunting bugs.

Everybody in Ventura now knows what happened to Nick Haverland Wednesday evening. Riding his bicycle with a friend along Telegraph Road in East Ventura, he was stuck by a car and killed. They were headed to a night class at Ventura College. When Nick was hit, the driver had already hit two other bicyclists and a car. Adding to the tragedy was the fact that the driver – who has pleaded not guilty to a charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – was only a few blocks from his own house when the accident happened.

Nick Haverland’s death has affected our community more deeply and profoundly than I would have imagined. Everybody has been talking about it and everybody, it seems, feels touched by it. I have lived through a number of tragedies in Ventura – the killing of of 21-year-old Jesse Strobel in Midtown in 1993, for example, and the crash of the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 into the ocean near Anacapa Island in 2000 – but I have never seen an outpouring like this.

Even before the accident scene was cleared, the news about Nick flew around town, mostly by Facebook postings and by texts. The intersection of Telegraph and Mara, a typical suburban landscape near Juanamaria School, quickly became a shrine with flowers and candles and a white “ghost bike” memorial. On Thursday morning when I went to Poinsettia School to talk to fifth graders about what it’s like to be mayor, mostly they wanted to talk about Nick’s accident. Many of them had actually seen it occur, and many more had seen the news helicopters over their house. When Jim and Susan visited the scene a day or two after the accident, a Gold Coast bus made an unscheduled stop. Recognizing Jim and Susan as Nick's parents, the bus driver jumped out and hugged them and all the passengers prayed for them.

As a typical guy, I “under-emoted” in the moment on Wednesday night, not sure what to feel or how to feel it. By Thursday, I was beginning to feel weighted down by grief. And by Friday, when I drove past the scene for the first time, as Mayor I began to wonder how we as a community could possibly find the right way to grieve this loss.

There are a lot of reasons why Nick Haverland’s death hit home with so many people around town. The first, of course, is the Haverland family – a great family that everybody seemed to have a connection to, the kind of family, as I said, that you seem to know fifteen different ways. The second was the public nature of the accident. Nick was struck at quarter to seven on a beautiful May evening when it was still light out, close to Juanamaria School and the Albertson’s shopping center. Lots of people were out and about, and I am astonished at the number of people – and children – who actually witnessed the event or ran to the scene immediately after it happened. And finally, of course, was the nature of the incident – an apparently intoxicated driver who struck three bicyclists and one car in three different incidents in his own neighborhood, and who refused to – or couldn’t – get out of his car when the police confronted him. It is not just Jim and Susan and Griff and their friends who will have to grieve. So will the entire neighborhood and even our entire community.

On Friday I went about my normal mayoral duties – chairing the monthly meeting of the County Transportation Commission in Camarillo, welcoming the state convention of the League of Women Voters to the Crowne Plaza, and attending the Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo at the Four Points Sheraton. Even so, it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do as Jim and Susan’s friend to ease their pain (or mine, which was obviously nothing compared to theirs but still hurt a lot) and it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do as Mayor to help the community grieve.

Then on Saturday, as I went on my mayoral rounds, I saw some amazing things that reminded me what a remarkable community we have – and how this remarkable community can pull together when people like the Haverlands need it. First I went to the American Cancer Society “Relay For Life” event at Buena High School, where dozens of teams and hundreds of people had congregated for a 24-hour fundraising walk to “fight back” against cancer. This is a national event, but it annually raises more than $200,000 – that’s right, $200,000 – in Ventura alone. Then I went to Barranca Vista Park, where hundreds of families and dozens of vendors were out for the spring “Family Festival”. Then I went to Harbor Cove Beach down at the Harbor, where Ventura County squeaked out a first-ever victory over Amgen in the Corporate Games. And then I went to Jim and Susan’s house.

We complain all the time about things we don’t like here in Ventura – we have too much growth or not enough; there aren’t enough police officers or we pay the police officers too much; there isn’t enough parking downtown or we hate the damned parking meters. But none of that matters very much compared to what we have. Most towns can’t do what we do every day, on a regular basis, in Ventura. Most towns can’t raise $200,000 in one day for to fight cancer. Most towns can’t put on a six-week corporate games event that draws dozens of teams from other cities, costs $700,000 to run, and yet pays for itself. And most towns can’t successfully pull together around even a beloved family like the Haverlands to help the family – and the community – grieve such an enormous loss.

Yet Ventura can. It is this cohesiveness, this love, this sense of hometown-ness even in a city of more than 100,000 people, that makes our town special. As I made my rounds on Saturday, I finally began to feel that, as Mayor, I was doing what I should be doing to help our community grieve – and to honor the memory of Nick, such a wonderful kid and one whom practically everybody in Ventura loved. I was moving through a Saturday in Ventura both typical and extraordinary, participating in life-affirming acts all over town that sometimes seem routine to me but, in truth, are anything but.

When I finally got to Jim and Susan’s house late Saturday afternoon, I was, as always, amazed by their love and their energy. A few other friends were there. They are obviously devastated by their loss and very emotional, yet they remain focused on the positive and truly caring for their friends, who obviously are hurting far less than they are.

One of the reasons I always connected with Jim and Susan is that we were part of a cohort of folks who moved to Ventura back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for the specific purpose of raising our kids in a town with a high quality of life and a strong sense of community. We mostly didn’t know each other in advance, nor did we know a whole lot about Ventura when we arrived. But we all had the same sense of Ventura: It seemed like a town with a real sense of centeredness, a town that could sustain us, not just financially and socially but emotionally, through good times and bad. And as we connected with each other over the years, we did our best to contribute to this sense of what might be called emotional sustainability.

Yes, we had jobs and ran businesses, mostly right here in town. And, yes, we coached soccer teams and worked on PTO boards and started nonprofits and, in at least one case, ran for the City Council. But we also tried our best to care for each other and our community. I guess you could call this “giving back,” but the truth of the matter is that we never really thought of it that way, because there was really no difference between “giving back” and just living our lives. It was all part of being Venturans.

Late Saturday afternoon, as Susan and I leaned against the refrigerator in the Haverlands’ kitchen – a refrigerator filled with the usual photos and notes and schedules – it dawned on us both that this remarkable townwide quality had emerged even in the most devastating, tragic moment imaginable.

The circumstances of Nick’s death unfortunately meant that Jim and Susan’s grief was not completely private. They had spent several hours at the scene on Telegraph Road Wednesday night with television helicopters roaring overhead, and a photograph of the two of them embracing was published in the Star on Thursday morning (though they were not identified in the photo).

You could interpret this lack of privacy as intrusive in the most private of moments. Yet, as it turned out, these public circumstances allowed Ventura to rally around the Haverlands in a way that they – and I – could never have imagined. It has brought their friends together around them, and it has even brought many people whom they don’t even know into their lives with a love and caring that they never imagined. It has even brought me closer to many people I love – not just Jim and Susan, but also my former wife, the wonderful graphic designer Vicki Torf, and other dear friends like Rosie Ornelas and Steve Svete and Mindy Lawrence and many others who developed close ties over the years to the Haverlands and to each other.

We were right all those years ago when we moved to Ventura. It is a place that can help us and hold us and heal us, not just economically or socially but emotionally. In that sense, it is the most sustainable of cities.

It is the greatest of tragedies, of course, that it took the death of a wonderful young kid like Nick Haverland to remind of us all this. After all, Nick reminded us of it every day just by being himself. And I am still worried about how our community will complete the grieving process. I am worried about the kids at Foothill, who knew so many people involved in the incident. I am worried about the kids at Juanamaria Elementary School, whose families witnessed and heard the incident and assisted our first responders. And I am worried about Jim and Susan and Griff, who will have to live with this tragic loss for the rest of their lives.

But I know our community will continue to come together with the Haverlands to grieve for the family and for themselves. Jim and Susan and Griff are planning a celebration of Nick’s life sometime in the near future. I’m not sure where or when yet, but I will be there, as both friend and Mayor, to help the Haverlands and our community at large in the grieving process – so that we can honor Nick as he deserves to be honored, and we can once again rely upon and renew Ventura as a place capable of sustaining us all.