Great men aren’t always world movers

Roger Hooper, 1917-2010
Roger Hooper, 1917-2010

My father-in-law, Roger Hooper, died earlier today at age 93.  While I don’t expect to be eulogizing him at his funeral, I would like to note why I considered him to be a significant person in my own life and a great man in his.

Roger attended Groton and Harvard (Art History as an undergraduate, Architecture in graduate school) in the 1930s and 40s with names that have made headlines: statesmen-to-be such as JFK and Bill and MacGeorge Bundy; and influential architects like Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and I.M. Pei.  His own father wanted him to follow family tradition and become a Boston Brahmin lawyer, but Roger had fallen in love with the Pacific and the promise of postwar California. So instead of having his name etched in hardwood in the hallowed halls of a law office overlooking the Boston Commons, he left his mark by creating his own architectural partnerships in the back-alley haunts of North Beach and the San Francisco waterfront.

How liberating and engergizing it must have been for him to explore the possibilities of modern design in wood and glass in the era when building codes were not restrictive, redwood and fiberboard were cheap, and clients could afford spectacular settings in the San Francisco Bay Area, Big Sur and beyond. Competition must have been fierce; I picture Roger winning over prospective clients with his sociability and good taste, and giving those clients a 110% effort after the contract was signed.  Listening to Roger and his architect partners, you could tell that he loved all of it–discussing the program, sketching the designs, producing the construction drawings, making decisions with clients and contractors, working with the amazing landscape architects of those times, getting the photography and publicity for the finished projects.  And there was his ongoing appreciation of great European architecture; after each of his extensively photographed trips to France, Spain and Italy, his family (now including me) would be treated to his entertaining slide shows that might go on for two or three hours. That was a great lesson for me–that you must love your calling and profession if you want to live a happy life–and certainly reinforced my own decision to go to architecture school after college.

Balancing his dedication to his work was the energy he gave to his home life.  He and his wife created and lived the Bay Area dream in Marin County, moving their growing numbers from Sausalito, to Corte Madera, to a run-down but unique Bernard Maybeck house in the then-sleepy town of Ross, to a summer place in Inverness, and finally designing and building their stunning glass-house home for the next 45 years on the top of a Ross hill.  His son and daughters grew up learning to hike, swim, sail, go horseback riding, and play tennis, all in the great outdoors of Northern California.  When I met Roger (he was in his 50s, my future bride his daughter in her early 20s), it seemed that every weekend, he was dedicated to sharing the fantastic opportunities of Marin County with his family–I was immediately recruited for small sailboat races on Tomales Bay, or asked to informal doubles matches at the local tennis club, or to barbecued steak dinners cooked on the porch of their Ross house. He enjoyed life and his surroundings, but more importantly, he wanted his family and friends to enjoy it with him.  This I also consider an important lesson.

Finally, Roger gave his family and friends important daily lessons about appreciating and enjoying the natural environment.  Because of his interest in Democratic politics, he and his wife became intimate friends with many important leaders in the environmental movement in San Francisco in the Rachel Carson era, at America’s awakening that strong political action had to be taken if the destructive effects of development and industrialization on the environment were to be reversed.  Many of Roger’s close friends in the 1960s and 70s, such as Clem Miller, Peter Behr and Marty Griffin, helped create the incredible coastal preserves of Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate Recreation Area.  Roger gave what free time he had to the cause by becoming a board member of the Marin Conservation League and a supporter of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in their efforts to channel Marin’s necessary growth into areas and practices that would create the least damage.  He passed on these important environmental values to his wife and children, who are all involved in one way or another with environmental efforts small and large.  This is another thing about great men: they don’t have to do everything, but if there is something they see as wrong that they can help right, they step in.

So I will think in awe of Roger Hooper as a great man long after his death, by looking at his architecture, his family, the open space that was saved in Marin County, and that my wife is saving throughout California in her profession as an environmental lawyer. I have no such feelings of respect for most of the conventional “great men” whose autobiographies fill the best-seller lists.  Roger’s passing leaves me with immense admiration for what he accomplished in a lifetime of 93 years, and humbles me.