Obituary: Lee Wakefield, 1941 – 2016

Lee Wakefield. Photo by Gordon Inkeles

Lee Wakefield in his carefully crafted Pickwick Apartments gardens.  Photo by Gordon Inkeles

Lee Wakefield died in his home at the Pickwick Apartments on Oct. 4, 2016. Lee, 75, was responsible for the terraced gardens, espaliered fruit trees and the sculpture garden behind Sunny Brae’s Pickwick Apartments, which can be viewed from Samoa Boulevard. But he went further, planting fruit trees all over the complex, manicuring the large lawns and hedges and building a stone path along a children’s playground.

Lee didn’t own a TV or computer. In the early 1960s he owned The Library Bookstore on Clement Street in San Francisco that specialized in philosophy. He loved to read and was a frequent visitor to the Arcata Branch Library.

Lee came to Arcata in 1999. He had previously lived in a flat across the street from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. While walking his dog in the park he would work on the park’s gardens, pruning, planting and weeding at will. He ignored occasional complaints from the park’s “lazy” gardeners. This went on for 26 years and you can still see his work in Golden Gate Park especially in the area near Fulton and Seventh streets, where he lived. Lee was married twice during his years in San Francisco.

In 1959, when he was 18, Lee was arrested on the steps of City Hall during a sit-in to protest the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Lee became active in San Francisco politics in the 1970s. He managed John Barbagelata’s campaign for mayor against George Moscone. His candidate came very close to winning. Had Barbagelata won, Lee would likely have run for Richmond district supervisor. But the contentious election took its toll.

Disillusioned with the nastiness of city politics, Lee switched to developing backyard gardens for homes all over the Bay Area. Next door to his flat on Fulton Street was the Korean Cultural Center, a three-story building fronting a barren yard filled with rubble. By the time Lee moved to Arcata, that yard too had a beautiful garden which included producing plum and pear trees and many raised boxes of veggies. Lee installed a gate in the fence between his own gorgeous garden and the one next door.

He settled at the Pickwick Apartments in Sunny Brae. From the first day – indeed, while the movers were still unpacking his possessions--he headed outside with a pair of clippers to begin transforming the apartment complex’s grounds. Behind the apartment was a nine-foot high wall of blackberries at least 50 feet deep. Now the whole area is filled with terraced gardens – all created with hand tools. For this he was written up by Rita Jacinto in the Arcata Eye as “The Planter of Pickwick.”

Lee in his bliss zone. KLH | Union

Lee in his bliss zone. KLH | Union

A typical day found Lee intensively weeding some area amid a miasma of cigarette smoke with a small portable radio playing NPR by his side. If you heard the voice of Lakshmi Singh or Korva Coleman echoing off the apartment blocks, you knew Lee was working his landscaping magic somewhere nearby. In a pinch you could check unit 29. Lee never locked his front door.

His goal, he said, was to fashion the Pickwick grounds so that even after he was gone, the beauty he had imparted there would be somewhat self-sustaining. Among his installations was a “Philosopher’s Circle” of benches with a big wooden cable spool as a table, where passersby could engage in conversation under three apple trees with a long row of daffodils he’d planted nearby.

“He manicured the whole place,” said Pickwick owner Steve Childs. ”I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.” Dr. Lawrence Senffner, a previous Pickwick owner, has equally warm memories of Lee. “He was always there to help out. When the tenants needed the recreation room during the winter Lee would make a fire.”

Lee created an incredible atmosphere at the Pickwick Apartments through his tireless gardening, but also by gathering the residents together. Every few months he’d receive a shipment from his favorite San Francisco cheesemonger and would share this bounty, along with homemade sangria, with his neighbors. He spent many a late night in the recreation room playing billiards, drinking brandy, and telling stories from his colorful past. His boisterous laugh was often heard ringing out across the grounds.

Holding forth in the Philosophers' Circle. Photo by Gordon Inkeles

Holding forth in the Philosophers' Circle. Photo by Gordon Inkeles

Another Lee institution was Sunday outings of the Pickwick Croquet Club, with a small meadow between apartment buildings (which he called “cell blocks”) transformed into a croquet court.

Lee lived alone in his two room apartment, a man of modest living with no income other than investing in the stock market. He welcomed evening visitors, and enjoyed nothing more than conversing at length over glasses of wine in his apartment. A chest-high stack of read Wall Street Journals stood against a wall. New Yorkers, Economists and Atlantic magazines were piled on every table. The rest of his living room was taken up with a six-foot gray plastic garden shed, bags of soil and other gardening implements needed for his daily labors about the complex.

When TIME magazine downsized and simplified its layout, Lee gave up on it, sending the magazine a tart note:

“The new format doesn’t work for me.
My attention span is too long.
Cancel my subscription.”

Lee kept gardening up until just a few weeks ago. Then, his health required that he rest under hospice care at his home. He died in front of a sliding glass door facing his beloved gardens.

Lee's daffodils will forever bloom in his memory. Photo by Gordon Inkeles

Lee's daffodils will forever bloom in his memory. Photo by Gordon Inkeles

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