THE GREAT THING about writing this column is the people I meet.
Ordinary folks with extraordinary tales and accomplishments.
Take Howard Wheatley Allen, for example. Ringing his Glenview doorbell last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. His wife had suggested I meet this man, whose sculptures have graced the homes of many world leaders.
But what struck me when we started talking, was his gentle unassuming nature. His bronze birds are treasured by everyone from presidents to princesses — yet his “gallery” is in his basement. And he’s pleasantly surprised when he gets an order for his work.
“I’ll go six months or a year and not much happens,” he says modestly, “then the White House calls, and I think it’s my brother playing a joke.”
In fact, the White House has called several times in Wheatley’s career, and the birds have been ordered by Presidents Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter. But his very first customer was another famous American, with a different claim to fame.
“When I was 9, I was sitting on a pier at Lake Tahoe carving a bird out of wood,” he says. “Trader Vic asked me what I would charge to make him a quail. I said $10 — and he said make it $20.”
That “big sale” was all it took to whet Wheatley’s whistle for bird sculpting. But it wasn’t until 1971 when his next big break came. When Gov. Ronald Reagan read an article on Wheatley in the Sacramento Bee and had his assistant order two quail sculptures — as gifts for the prime minister and the Emperor of Japan.
Years later, President Reagan remembered every detail of those transactions, obviously enamored with Wheatley’s work. But it was Reagan’s counterpart who said something at Stanford that Wheatley will never forget.
After presenting Mikhail Gorbachev with a sculpture of a snow goose in flight, the Soviet President referred to the bird as “a living link” between the United States and Russia. “Snow geese migrate from Russia to the United States,” Wheatley said, “and Gorbachev caught the poetry. His eyes twinkled.”
Maybe that’s Wheatley’s secret, too. Still sculpting at the age of 64 despite a 16-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, he keeps a twinkle in his eyes.
“God gives us what he thinks we can bear,” he says. I just wish he didn’t have such a high opinion of me.”
For more information on Wheatley’s work and his new book, log onto www.wheatleyallen.com
SMOLDERING CONTROVERSY: Not everyone is happy about Oakland’s municipal code on outdoor smoking. It prohibits “lighting up” within 25 feet of the entry of windows to any public building. Rocky Becker says 25 feet means he’d have to stand in the street to smoke in front of his workplace, Montclair Barbers. Sounds like a whole ‘nother health hazard to me.
E-MAIL BAG: Regarding my April 22 column on four local boys who made Eagle Scouts, reader Lisa Hines writes: “There are two more Eagle scouts from that 2001 Corpus Christi School graduating class: Patrick Hines and Mark Oehler” (That makes six Eagle Scouts from that class.) Patrick made park signs and trail markers for Dimond Canyon as part of his Eagle Scout project. Mark built a message kiosk at the Bridgeview Trailhead of Dimond Canyon. Congratulations guys!
‘DYNAMITE’ NIGHT: Hollywood in Moraga? The Rheem Theatre was packed to the rafters the other night with fans of the teeny bopper cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite.” The low-budget, independent film that has grossed millions had two showings at the Rheem, followed by a live Q and A with the stars that played Kip and Pedro. The evening was part of an ongoing film series organized by five marketing students Saint Mary’s College.