A Brief History of Amazing Older People in San Francisco

Percocity is overrated.

Ruth Asawa at work, 1957. (Photograph by Imogen Cunningham)

Have you ever met someone a little younger than you who seemed really cool, and maybe you were thinking of getting to know them a little better, and then they turn around and say something like, “Who’s Phil Hartman again?” or “You look good for your age!” or “Send us an mp3 and we promise to give you some exposure, Annie Lennox.”

It’s frustrating, but our youth-obsessed culture shows no signs of abating. At the same time, everybody knows a 26-year-old barista who feels like a complete fuckup because their life is totally over. So we present some San Franciscans who lived into their 80s or longer, to show you that it’s never too late to do cool stuff.

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (1881-1968)

San Francisco’s ultimate society doyenne, Alma de Bretteville grew up in poor circumstances before becoming a nude model and later marrying sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels. The “Great-Grandmother of San Francisco” was instrumental in the creation of the Legion of Honor and the Maritime Museum. At six feet in height, “Big Alma” was a noted patroness of the arts who also sued an ex-boyfriend for “de-flowering” her. She lived out her last years in a Pacific Heights mansion now owned by author Danielle Steel, but lives on as the woman on the monument to President William McKinley in the Panhandle.

Jose Sarria (1922-2013)

A drag queen and San Francisco native, Sarria was the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States, waging an unsuccessful campaign for supervisor in 1962. Standing less than five feet in height, Sarria was heavily involved with the Tavern Guild and other early LGBT-rights organizations, and famously wore buttons reading “I Am a Boy” while in drag, to circumvent a city ordinance mandating gender-appropriate attire. He sang operatic arias while waiting tables and declared himself the Absolute Empress I, the Widow Norton of the Imperial Court System — a network of charitable organizations he founded — by “marrying” 19th-century S.F. eccentric Emperor Norton. Today, a small section of 16th Street in the Castro is dedicated as Jose Sarria Place.

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)

A sculptor who developed her technique of crocheted abstract forms while in Mexico, Ruth Asawa became known as the “fountain lady” for her many large-scale outdoor works. Interned in a camp with other Americans of Japanese descent, she went on to redefine the field of sculpture in terms of its relationship with urban spaces, and her arresting, wiry pieces can be found in the de Young Museum. Asawa went on to found the school for the arts on Portola Drive near Twin Peaks that now bears her name.

William Del Monte (1906-2016)

The last survivor of the biggest disaster in San Francisco history, Bill Del Monte was barely 3 months old when fires engulfed the city on April 18, 1906. He and his family, North Beach residents, escaped via horse cart, and while thousands of others perished in the catastrophe, Del Monte lived for nearly 11 decades, working as a stock trader until nearly the end of his days. It’s arguably debatable to include someone whose most notable achievement happened before his cranial soft spot closed up, but heavy lies the head that wears the burden of history for that long.

Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920)

Effectively the last surviving member of the first generation of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Pop Artist Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of ordinary objects rank him as the peer of Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Rauschenberg. Born in Arizona, Thiebaud had his first solo show in San Francisco in 1960, and SFMOMA owns a significant quantity of his work. In 2010, Google celebrated its 12th birthday with a Thiebaud birthday-cake doodle.

Hikaru Sulu (2237-2350)

Born in mid-23rd-century San Francisco, Hikaru Sulu served valiantly as helmsman on several incarnations of the USS Enterprise before he was promoted to captain and given command of the USS Excelsior. After playing a key role at the conference that brought peace between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire, Sulu remained on active duty until at least the age of 113. And while Star Trek actor, LGBT activist, and native Angeleno George Takei turned 80 this spring, he’s still working hard, too.

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