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‘Bench Bunch’ a Healdsburg institution

Friday, February 22nd, 2013 | Posted by

In Healdsburg, the Bench Bunch’s Mike Coyle, left, and Martha Kemp share a laugh with Holly Berkley while Dotty Walters and Gail Roper browse through the book bin outside the Downtown Bakery and Creamery. (Photos by ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent

To the outside world, the center of town is Healdsburg’s historic downtown plaza. But to those in the know place it’s slightly east, at the bench outside the Downtown Bakery and Creamery.

For more than two decades, a group of residents have been congregating on that spot almost every morning like clockwork, forging friendships, sharing gossip, hopes, dreams and losses and keeping up with town happenings. Not much goes on in Healdsburg without the “Bench Bunch” knowing about it.

“It’s our little community within a community,” says Dotty Walters, 77, who was there when it all started. “We tell stories and keep up with the lives of our friends, and we try to be here every day, rain or shine.”

Jim Walters playfully tempts Jilly the Queensland Heeler and Tasha the Golden Retriever with bags of warm pastries from the Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg.

Technically every day but Tuesday, that is, when they gather at the Bean Affair north of town, a practice that began when the Downtown Bakery briefly closed on Tuesdays. Some 40-50 people make up the whole crew, though not everyone shows up every day. But over the years, through all sorts of news, good and bad, the one constant in their lives has been the familiar faces outside the bakery each morning.

“It’s comforting to see them there every day,” says Maya Eshom, daughter of bakery founder Kathleen Stewart, who has worked there on and off since the Bench Bunch started coming around and is now a co-owner along with her half-brother Joseph Stewart. “It wouldn’t be the same without them.”

Today they have a bright new bench, commissioned by the bakery owners and built by local craftsman Iain Rizzo. Back then, the bakery had just a small indoor area for customers. Some people grabbed their pastry and a coffee and stood out front. One of the early devotees was Dotty Walters who, in 1991, found herself at loose ends, having just finished overseeing the renovation of her and her husband Jim’s Victorian.  A sales executive who is credited with developing mashed potatoes for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jim Walters was on the road five days a week, so Dotty began going down to the bakery for coffee, pastry and someone to talk to.

As it turns out, she had a kindred spirit in a man named Jim Fagan, whose wife Barbara also traveled during the week. Fagan was making daily trips to the bakery to read his morning paper over coffee, and the two starting meeting each morning and chatting about their friends and family and town events.

Friendly and serially outgoing, Dotty started conversations with anyone who walked by. Over time, the conversations became friendships, and suddenly a group of people were meeting every morning.

From this vantage point, they have seen Healdsburg grow from a quiet small town into the sometimes bustling wine country tourist destination. They have many stories to tell. One favorite is the big black Buick that every six months parked out front. Out would climb none other than celebrated chef Julia Child. The Bench Bunch watched in amazement as she “filled that Buick with boxes of sticky buns,” says Jim Walters. “Finally someone asked her, I think it was Dotty, what she was doing with all those sticky buns.”

Childs knew Stewart from her days at Berkeley’s famouse Chez Panisse restaurant before she opened the bakery. Walters said Childs explained to the group that she had a freezer where she kept the sticky buns. Each night she would take one out and leave it on her kitchen counter for the morning.

“She said, ‘By morning it is just right,’ ” Jim Walters said. “Then she said, ‘I love Kathleen’s sticky buns. They are full of butter, you know.’ ”

It was Dotty who suggested that Stewart install a bench out front for people to sit on, and so the “Bench Bunch” was born. Dotty has earned a few monikers over the years, including “Queen of Clean” after she helped start a campaign for Healdsburg to place more trash containers around the plaza.

One of the other regulars, artist Chris Blum, dubbed her The Dotty Llama because she’s famous for doling out words of wisdom.

“Dotty is an amazing woman who is very wise,” says Mikey Coyle. “Over the years, I have heard her give a lot of very wonderful advice.”

Coyle is a petsitter and driver with many clients among his friends on the bench. He also was the recipient of the group’s philanthropic giving. Last year, he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his car broke down, the one he relies upon for his business. Members of the Bench Bunch organized a fundraising effort to buy him a used Volvo and help him out with his medical bills. Coyle is presently in remission.

“It’s a group that’s hugely supportive in good times and bad,” says Clarence Harper,  a retired anesthesiologist who hangs out with  his wife Clare, also a doctor. The Bunch, as they call themselves, have dubbed the Harpers “Paradox.” “All of us help each other. It’s a truly amazing group,” said Harper.

He discovered this first-hand when he also was diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago. He found solace and advice from a fellow Bench Buncher, who had recently gone through the same thing.

Among the other regulars are Alson Kemp, a retired attorney who was a trial lawyer and partner at San Francisco law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro. His wife, Martha Kemp, is a celebrated botantical artist and teacher who has been awarded five gold medals from Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society. Like a few other of the regulars, the Kemps often bring their Golden Retreiver Tasha, one of the unofficial Bench Bunch mascots.

Then there’s 83-year-old Gail Roper, a member of the 1952 Olympics swim team who has broken more than a hundred World Records as a master swimmer. Gail is also an avid birder who has come to appreciate friends she has made on the bench.

“I look forward to coming here and seeing everyone,” she says. “I try to come here every day.”

Retired dentist Bob Santos and his wife Julia and sheltie Gracie, are also regulars. Bob has been active with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and was instrumental in bringing classes permanently to Healdsburg. Roger Bartels has a dental office around the corner from the bakery and was one of the many regulars  flagged down for conversation by Dotty Walters.

“She actually stopped me to try to get me on board with the project to clean up the plaza,” he said. “She enlisted me on the spot.”

Then there’s Bruce Blaikie, who for years was the operations manager of the Geysers for Union 76 and Cal Pine and also plays the French horn in the American Philharmonic, and his wife Pat, who participates in a consignment collective in town.  The Blaikies’ dog Jilly is also a regular — in fact, it’s common for members of the Bunch to bring their pets with them. When Tom Cleland, a retired dentist, and his wife Emmy joined the bench, Bruce and Tom discovered they had a connection. Both of their grandfathers played in the same community band in Riverside. Blaikie even dug out an old photo of the two on a fishing boat with Tom’s dad.

Among many other regulars are former executives, opera singers, artists, winemakers, writers, retired professors and natives of places as far away as England, Belgium and Sweden. Out on the bench, though, there’s no hierarchy. There’s just camaraderie.

“It really says a lot about the kind of community we have here,” says Stewart. “There isn’t any judgment. They’re just humble, kind, caring people.”

  • Gina

    I enjoyed reading this story, Elizabeth!

  • Nicole

    A wonderful article about truly wonderful people who make this town just the most lovely place to live!

  • Snooty

    I liked the Healdsburg before all the imports. 50-80 was a good time to be there. After that, ehh.

    • Chuck

      Totally agree with you. Sometime in the 90’s we had to start to drive to Santa Rosa to buy underwear. After that, I was gone.

  • KC Mosso

    Great local story. Thanks Elizabeth. I really enjoy your writing.

  • Jennifer

    Last fall I wanted to run into the bakery to grab a loaf of bread for dinner. My baby had fallen asleep in her car seat and I didn’t want to wake her for such a quick errand. I parked in front of the store and explained to someone from a group of people gathered outside my situation and if they would keep an eye on my locked car for 1 minute while I ran in. They were more than happy to oblige. Little did I know it was The Bench Bunch who bailed me out! Thank you to them and for this story so I know who they are.

  • Sue Walters Briggs

    I am even more proud to be related to my cousins Dotty and Jim Walters and to have had a chance to sit on the the “Bench Bunch” bench with you folks years ago while visiting the Walters!

  • Buz Kanter

    How beautifully you have captured the essence of the early founders like Jim and Dotty Walters that permeates the Bench Bunch. There are no more loving and giving people than Jim and Dotty. Long ago we entitled Dotty “Mayor” of Healdsburg and people flock to follow them as the Pied Piper in service and philanthropy. Hopefully the next generation will honor and continue the Bench Bunch.

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