The San Jose that Might Have Been

A former Mayor of San Jose imagines Silicon Valley with a little more Hart in its world.

By Tom McEnery | Edited by Jenny Desai

There had never been a New Year’s celebration like it in anyone’s memory. Well, perhaps Martin Murphy’s 50th-anniversary party in 1881 came close, but today was very, very special. Every national media outlet was on hand: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, and all the rest, as well as the foreign press. It was like a combination of millennium events, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a Super Bowl party all rolled into one. Time magazine had just voted San Jose “The City of the Century;” CNN had followed suit. Soon it was the story of the year, and in a time when people were looking for good news stories to distract us from the traumas of a long, messy occupation of Iraq and the internecine fights between the state legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, this was an honor that had been as surprising as it was extraordinary. All of the morning news shows were set up in the plaza of the Guadalupe, that large swath of green and fountains that extended from the river and the new city hall on the west, surrounding old Holy Family Church, and extending one half mile to the steps of St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Market Street, the two grand nineteenth-century edifices facing one another over a plaza worthy of the most sophisticated European city. In the center of this park was the reconstructed electric light tower that was rebuilt in the eighties, complete with a daily laser show. The park then turned south and joined Chavez Plaza in front of the Fairmont Hotel, providing a grand entrance to the various museums situated on both sides of Park Avenue, giving the most spectacular urban design in any of the new Sunbelt metropolises. Yes, they were all there: Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, the “Good Morning America” staff, Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, Jay Leno, David Letterman. Even Geraldo Rivera was spotted interviewing a homeless man with a bumper sticker on his shopping cart saying “At Least Our Cows Are Sane.” And so the day progressed. It was a veritable circus of TV and radio, with satellite trucks blocking both ends of the mighty park. There was even a Ken Burns crew on hand, shooting some footage for his forthcoming documentary called “The Age of Invention: Entrepreneurs and the Internet,” and David McCullough was spotted filming over in the lobby of the stately De Anza Hotel.

“The City of the Century” – it was quite a title. San Jose had come a long way from those first pobladores, those early settlers that had founded the city in 1777, and from those many immigrants who had nurtured the Valley and been nurtured by it. And certainly, it was a distance from those early twentieth-century progressives who had pushed for the best and most responsive city government, resulting in a business climate and quality of life that was unique. They had set the stage for tremendous post-war population growth and the advent of a place that would be known the world over as Silicon Valley. All day, anecdotes, stories, interviews and a rash of compliments that were no beamed around the world from the thriving center of this most fabled valley.

It did not happen by chance.

San Jose had had many fine leaders over the years, and their accomplishments were chronicled in the Museum of San Jose, a world-renowned history center that stood on the corner of Naglee and the Alameda. Yet everyone agreed that if there was one person who stood head and shoulders above the others who had built this Valley of Heart’s Delight into the envy of the civilized world, it was the same man who had donated his family home to be the home of that very history museum, and he only had one condition on the grant – that his name would never appear on any plaque or dedication: business leader, scion of a distinguished family of merchants, reformer, mayor, philanthropist, and onetime lieutenant governor of the state of California. No, there was little doubt who was the preeminent person responsible for San Jose’s march to its exalted position. Many had been called. But the one chosen, the one most responsible for her rise as best city in the nation was obvious. As one wag said: “He was first in peace, valiant in war, and first in the hearts of all who love San Jose.” Looking back, it would not have startled anyone: His name was Brooke Hart.

As the son of Alex Hart, the highly respected owner of Hart’s Department Store founded by his grandfather, Leopold, young Brooke had been groomed for a special position in the community from his earliest days. Even as a boy, when he visited the California Theatre and paid his 10 cents for a double feature or dropped by the Farmers Union to pick up a few kitchen items from his mother, it was obvious to all that he was different. Not in a strange way, but in an unambiguous sense that presaged something special Certainly his was a life blessed and burgeoning with opportunity, but there was more to it. As he grew into a young man and waited on the customers at his family’s department store that dominated the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets, he was popular with both young and the old. He seemed to have a particular rapport, a special charm, a solicitous attitude. Brooke was to – coin a phrase – to the manor born.

From his graduation from the small but prestigious Jesuit college, Santa Clara, it was clear that great things would come from young Brooke. Most of his gifts had been apparent to all for years. But there was one event when his poise in the spotlight, his vision, had been crystallized. It was in a banquet at the De Anza Hotel in 1933, when Brooke had been made vice president of the family department store. These were trying, parlous times for San Jose and the entire country – it had been a very rough few years for the people. Through the banking crisis, the Great Depression, bad crops, and the Prohibition controversy, Americans struggled to remain resilient. Franklin Roosevelt had been president for a mere nine months, and while the people always leaned towards optimism, the specter of anxiety and fear was everywhere. Fifteen million people were out of work, and 5,000 banks had failed in the last few years. Desperation seemed always present. There was a crime epidemic of bank robberies and holdups, and the daily headlines were filled with the exploits of Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and the ghastly Lindbergh kidnapping.

Kidnapping was to the thirties, you see, as political assassination was to the sixties, and terrorism is to our day. People tried to ignore it and live their lives, but they could never put it totally out of their minds. Change was in the air. I guess no one realized just what those changes would mean. Things would happen in far-flung parts of the world: Manchuria, Abyssinia, Czechoslovakia, and, of course, Munich and Poland, that would affect all the bright-faced young men of San Jose, working in the canneries or the stores on First Street, or going to school at State College. It would affect them in a way that none could even imagine in their wildest flights of fancy. And Brooke Hart was to be at the heart of the storm.

As his brother Alex would tell Brooke’s biographer, Harry Farrell, it was an electric night at the De Anza, the coming out party of a true leader, and everyone there that evening sensed that the words that Brooke spoke about his hopes and dreams were the clarion call for his generation in our city. He was speaking of “their” hopes and dreams; it was an epiphany of sorts, one might say, for many who observed it and were inspired by it.

That evening, few people noticed a minor scuffle over on Second Street near the old Bank of America lot that was reported in the back pages of the Mercury Herald the next morning. There had been an attempted robbery and then the arrest by Chief John Black, of two men by the names of Harold Thurman and Jack Holmes, for the beating and attempted robbery of a salesman from Salinas. Both men were given jail terms, and almost forgotten was the wild bragging of one of them, who told of plots to do a “Lindbergh” here and kidnap for ransom of the sons of San Jose’s finest. They were going to get $50,000 out of it, so the wild claim went. It was idle raving, the police surmised, the braggadocio of weak minds. And the plot, and the robbers were quickly forgotten in a world where millions were out of work and the scourge of world calamity hung like a pall over the land.
Yet in our valley, people did what they always had from the earliest times. They got up early, worked hard, helped their neighbors. And they always tried to keep buoyant and the optimism that our part of the Golden State is known for. Well, young Brooke recognized this clearly. And he had a plan. Hard work had never deterred him; as a matter of fact, he was raised to take pride in it.

“Hell is truth discovered too late, duty neglected in its time.” This was Brooke’s favorite quotation. He might have picked it up in old Father Kavanaugh’s philosophy class at Santa Clara, or maybe it as in one of those Penguin paperbacks he was toting around. He wasn’t the best of students, but he had a real flair for history and elocution. His best friend, Charlie O’Brien, used to say that Brooke might not be able to add a column of numbers so good, but he could tell you every verse of every poem that Robert Service ever wrote. It was a gift, Charlie maintained.
That bit of classical education was to serve him well, as Brooke Hart was drawn to people with dreams. Perhaps that’s why he gravitated toward President Roosevelt, so early on. His dad had indeed voted for F.D.R. in ‘32, but Brooke was always his own man. He might well have been a Republican like most of his dad’s friends at the Sainte Claire Club over in Senator Phelan’s building, but with his social conscience and sympathy for small business–and the fac that the Democrats in the thirties were the percolators of ideas, the “brain trusters” so to speak–that’s where he wanted to be. Always where the action was happening.

Things moved quickly.

Brooke had a career like many of his generation, that “greatest generation” that we read so much about. Yet in a time when the world “great” is so misused, many would certainly apply it to his accomplishments. Throughout the thirties, he worked with his father at the department store, and whether it was the moving of the train station from Market to Cahill streets, promoting a new airport out on Commodore Stockton’s old ranch, providing work relief for the indigent, or initiating the West Santa Clara Street Association, he left little doubt that he knew what he wanted. “Let’s make it the grand avenue, the King’s Highway, El Camino Real, and the Garden Alameda all rolled into one!” Brooke used to say. “We’ll link San Jose and Santa Clara, two fine cities, two great educational institutions.” And so they did.

The years of the thirties brought a kind of malaise to many, but the Harts remained optimistic and it was contagious. They were a decent and charitable family–Brooke himself was the product of an interfaith marriage between a Catholic and a Jew, something truly unusual back then–and they conducted their business in that fashion. Things seemed predictable in San Jose. How wrong we were.

Pearl Harbor changed everything.

In 1941, although he could have been deferred from military service, Brooke enlisted in the army right after the attack on the U.S. fleet in the Pacific. He served in North Africa and France, receiving the Silver Star as a lieutenant who led his men to safety at the Battle of the Bulge, the last desperate attempt of Nazi Germany, in its death throes, to turn the tide. He never spoke of it much when he got home but did speak long and passionately about Bobby Jacobs, Leon’s boy, you know the owner of Jacob’s on First Street. Brooke Always did what he thought was right, regardless of consequences. His old friend, Rabbi Joe Karesh, always called him “the last of the honest men”–and then would add, “sometimes too honest for his own good.” The war ended, he came home like all the other boys, put away his uniform, and picked up life where he had left off. It was good to be home.

But San Jose had changed, too, in some fundamental ways. The old agricultural valley was in its last phase, even the old bean spray company that John Crummey founded beat its plowshares into swords, and become a defense contractor called FMC, turning out amphibious vehicles. Indeed, the winds of change were blowing at hurricane force and San Jose would either harness those forces, Brooke knew, or be at their mercy.

Elected to the council in 1946 with the reform slate, he replaced old Boss Bigley and the other dinosaurs, and in the following years with the bipartisan support of people like Duncan Oneal, John McEnery, and Al Ruffo, the little garden city moved into the big leagues of economic development: from 90,000 in 1948 to 210,000 in 1960, and 450,000 in 1970 (we’re nearly a million now). “There is no place for party in the business of San Jose,” Brooke would say, echoing his father. “We know neither Democrat nor Republican, only San Joseans.” In “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” among the three listings for Brooke, is this: “There is not a Democratic or Republican way to fix a sewer; only the right way or the wrong way.”

Soon after he was voted mayor in that first blush of optimism after the war, he formed a partnership with the city manager, another Santa Clara boy, Dutch Hamann, and the tired regime of the old boys’ network collapsed. It would not fit the needs of the emerging city that the veterans coming home, and the tens of thousands that would fill the housing tracts of San Jose demanded. There must be a new San Jose–and both bastions of the powerful, the Sainte Claire Club and the Rotary, were among the first in the nation to admit women; one of those early admittees, the diligent Janet Grey Hayes, went on to be the first woman mayor of a major American city. And so San Jose evolved.

There would have to be balance. All would embrace the values and virtues of the past, but be open to the changes and entrepreneurship of the wizards of Sand Hill Road and Stanford. Brooke used to say, “Just because they went to Stanford, doesn’t mean they’re not smart. I guess they just couldn’t get into San Jose State!” He liked that bit of humor–and, they say, even David Packard laughed at its deadpan delivery.

Many would comment on how the first look at San Jose upon taking the Trolley shuttle down to the city center after traveling on the Cahill station’s bullet train or BART was the best first look at a city that one could get anywhere in North America. It was no surprise that when Hewlett Packard outgrew its facility in Palo Alto that the firm moved–lock, stock, and calculator–to the old St. Joseph’s School site. It began a stampede of high tech companies to locate in downtown San Jose. It was a rich skyline: by 1960 there were over a dozen large companies downtown, and that number rose to five score in the early ’80s. Silicon Valley had emerged seamlessly with the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

Alex Sr. was very proud of his son’s emergence as a leader, and old-timers would often recall the two of them walking down Market Street from the store, and sitting on the bench at Plaza Park, right beneath the parapet of that old gothic monstrosity city hall, now the entrance to the much-admired Technology Center of Silicon Valley. When, in the 1990s, the city debated whether to honor labor leader Cesar Chavez Plaza in the early 1990s by naming the plaza in Chavez’s honor, an ailing Brooke Hart left a sickbed to testify for the last time at City Hall–in favor of the proposition. “Don’t we always honor commitment and virtue in our city?” he pleaded. The debate closed; it passed unanimously.

Years passed, and young Alex Hart, Brooke’s brother, was now a full-fledged partner in the family business. He would often join Brooke in the park or on the long walks from the family home down the Alameda, past the bend at Race Street. And on up Santa Clara, where on their right the canneries and packing sheds had been replaced by the Garden City Sports Complex, home to the 49ers and the Giants. Up ahead was the arena where the Sharks and Warriors, run by another protégé, Greg Jamison, entertained millions. Four teams: few cities had that! As the walk continued, they would always stop at the bridges over the rivers, where the Los Gatos and Guadalupe merged, the site of Tommy Monahan’s urban folly, Monahan’s Lake, and there they would appreciate what Sunset magazine called “the finest urban park in America,” complete with vineyards from the Masson and Mirassou holdings and trees from Louis Pelliers’ city gardens.

It was the partnership of the Harts and the great entrepreneurs of Palo Alto, Bill Hewlett, and Dave Packard, that made this center of San Jose so unique. The Harts were the first to recognize the genius of the venture capitalists at the venerable Kleiner Perkins–and later recruited two of their most brilliant successors, Kevin Compton and John Doerr, to add their resources to the enterprise. Surely only the Harts had the sheer gravitas to close such a deal. Their steering committee recruited a young Bostonian architect, the gregarious Frank Taylor, who had made a nice reputation in Cincinnati, to head the project. The new city hall, built after the abortive attempt to move from the downtown to North First Street, was one of the early efforts of I.M. Pei. It explored the path of history, as it wound from the statue of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the pueblo, to icons of Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple Computer, to the poets Edwin Markham and Robert Service, past the scholarly Ernesto Gallarza, playwright Luis Valdez, and on to Cesar Chavez and writer Jack London. Each was given a spot in the pantheon of San Joes’s past; all were made a part of its future. Special plaques noted such things as the raising of the American flag in 1846 and the fact that the first computer parts for Woz and his friend Steve Jobs, were given, on credit from the computer floor of Hart’s, by none other than Brooke Hart himself.

Because of these accomplishments, veteran columnist Leigh Weimers called Brooke the next Robert Moses but hart demurred, always, and gave his protégé, Frank Taylor and all the others full credit for the city’s metamorphosis. “Good plans are rare,” he once told his friend Frank Cucuzza. “Good implementation is even rarer.”

Many have written scholarly and well of Brooke and the last 50 years of our history. I believe Wallace Stegner’s monograph on Brooke Hart, written a decade ago, used the analogy of Brooke as a Gary Cooper type, a Capraesque “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” It was a nice phrase but not technically an accurate one; Hart was born to the purple of commerce and groomed for leadership. A more accurate comment would be that he knew that “to whom much is given, much is demanded.” Scott Herhold, the Mercury writer who did the fine series of articles shortly before Hart’s death, said simply: “He lived a life consistent with his principles. And in doing so, became an inspiration to all.” I think that one best captures his essence. Kevin Starr made the same point in his masterful California history series, calling Hart the “avatar of all worthwhile in California.”

For Brooke, it was impossible to care about San Jose and not become involved in the affairs and future of the state. In 1958 he became lieutenant governor. His friend, Governor Pat Brown, was a rare break in a long succession of Republican chief executives. This administration led the board of regents in building a UC system that was the envy of all, and its jewel in the crown was its campus in the rolling hills of the Almaden Valley and the preeminent business and technology school in the world. Brooke was also Pat Brown’s link with the business community and sealed a partnership between the new Democratic governor and the emerging titans of Silicon Valley: Dave Packard, Bob Boyce, Gordon Moore, and all the other brave new minds. He served two terms and was acknowledged as the point man that developed an economy that many nations would envy. Business in the state was made the most efficient of any state government under the watchful eye of Lew Wolff, the private developer who had rebuilt much of downtown San Jose and now headed the “Committee for California” working directly for the governor’s office. Other key people, like Lee Brandenburg, headed the “little Hoover Commission.”

But Brooke never forgot his real home and rarely did he spend two consecutive nights in Sacramento. It was always his policy to return to his Spanish-style home on University Avenue in the Rose Garden area of San Jose, a block from the old family home. He loved to go to the park there in the mornings and watch the children and mothers enjoying a sunny visit among the roses. Ironically, Hart never married. He once told an interviewer that with all the people in San Jose as his family, he didn’t have time for another one.

I guess he was right.

His travels throughout the state were prodigious, his energy indefatigable. As the state grew the San Jose model of safe neighborhoods, good schools, and burgeoning business enriched the entire state. The title “citizen politician” became the highest compliment that one could elicit. Sacramento was a bastion of enlightened government, and that was another of Brooke’s legacies. It was probably his efforts, business and personal, that helped Brown defeat the formidable challenge of actor, turned politician, Ronald Reagan in the 1966 gubernatorial election. In years later Reagan–who revitalized his acting career in the late sixties with a tour de force in two Mike Nichols films–credited Brooke Hart with both of his Oscars: “Brooke did such a good job for Pat and the state, there was little room to criticize their work.” Regan later served as ambassador to France and to the court of St. James and was a regular at Brooke’s business seminars.

However, Brooke himself never ran for gubernatorial office, or any other ever again. You see, after all that San Jose had meant to him and his family, the thought of not enjoying it fully–his walks, his roses, his friends–was something that he simply could not abide. He delighted in his city.” I love San Francisco, and isn’t it grand to have a theme park so near to our families and industry?” he was fond of deadpanning to tourists. The Hart department stores–now 10 of them–were prospering, as was the business community: for the most part, the city was immune to the swings of the technology world. As a child of the Depression, Hart knew the value of good planning, a sound budget and always keeping a handful of silver coins in his pocket. He loved to recount that formula and jingle the coins.

Leadership is the Key.

To the three bright and energetic young mayors who him–George Starbird, Ron James, and Norm Mineta–Brooke was a mentor and a conscience. “This is not a time, boys, to cut and run for the high grass,” he would chide. It was a firm, but avuncular approach and he was one of the few who could give that message to his successors at City Hall. During their terms, you could regularly see the cars of those three mayors in front of the Hart home on University Avenue. Downtown remained the commercial center of the valley, and Brooke Hart would not have it any other way.

When his friend, historian Leonard McKay, asked Hart how history would treat him, he paraphrased Churchill: “I expect history to treat me well–quite well, Leonard. Because I intend to write it.” Hart, however, never had the patience to be a writer; he told McKay, who would eventually write “Hart and the Rise of San Jose,” “I am too busy living my life to write it.”

Later, in his eighties, he would return and lecture at his beloved Santa Clara University, but it was speaking and proselytizing, sharing the ideas and loves of a lifetime, that Brooke Hart was truly at home. He remained an inspiration to his legions of admirers and friends. Hart may as well have been eulogizing himself, the day he said to Scott Herhold in that last interview: “There is a beauty and honesty in the clear telling of the tales of great men and great enterprise. Not to do your best is the only real sin in life; not to follow your heart, the only true regret.” Those words led the story above the fold on the front page of the Mercury Herald. Herhold remembered later, as he was going out the door, Hart offered his final valedictory: “You know, Scott, if I knew how quickly things were going to change in this city, I would have remembered it all much better.”

Brooke Hart died a few years ago at his home in San Jose at age 90. He slipped away peacefully one morning. He had taken his daily walk down Guadalupe Park and stopped, as usual, on the way back to watch the children. He then returned home and went to his library. He had promised his friend Tony Ridder that he would write a few thoughts for the annual New Year’s special that appeared in the Knight Ridder papers. Although he disliked the title–“The Thoughts of the Great”–he was apparently working on an essay at the end when his heart gave out. Open on his desk were two books, “San Jose and the Rise of the West” by David Halberstam, and “The Poems of Robert Service.”

And nearby, written in green ink in his own clearly distinctive hand, was the following: “The saddest words of tongue or pen are to know that things that might have been.”

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