Annie, the Face of Bodega
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Annie Murphy Springer is not a typical Bostonian, although that is where she was born and she still tends to call a car a “cah.”
With blonde braids and bright purple clothing, she wasn’t a typical fire chief, nor was she your typical management consultant, although that was her career for years. (A bank executive once told her, “They look at you funny when you come in, Annie, but not when you go out.”)
At 77, you would expect her to rest on her laurels. Instead she is busy becoming a television star, telling the world about the “Wonder of Watercolor” and the beauty of Sonoma County on PBS stations.
When the people of the west county see a Reubenesque figure in a field wearing bright flowing clothes, they just wave. They know it is Annie out plein air painting.
Springer has made Bodega her home since 1971, when she found her way there by following her own advice: “When in doubt, turn left.”
She had finished a three-year stint in Germany, where she worked for the military, and in Boston strapped her skis onto a VW Bug bound for a friend’s place in Chicago. The ski trip turned into a long journey, and at one point Springer literally found herself at a crossroad. Turning left would take her west, right would return her to Boston.
West it was, leading her to Oakland and a job with the Ford Foundation. Springer’s job was working with African-American motorcycle gangs and hooking them up with public agencies interested in reaching the under-served.
She quickly discovered that her clients were functionally illiterate. Rather than trying to reach them with newspaper ads, Springer got local schools to advertise their reading programs on popular radio stations. She also persuaded them to teach in the garages where the bikers worked on their choppers, using motorcycle manuals as texts.
Springer had gone to work for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty Model Cities program when she met her late husband, David Springer. He was a geologist and owned a geophysical supply shop in Oakland. They married a few months later and were still newlyweds when they relocated to Sonoma County.
During the Creighton Ridge fire, hot ashes began to fall on the house they were still building, so they checked out the local fire department. There was one truck, no gear and no hand tools. Both joined the fire board to help out, and in 1979, Annie Springer was elected fire chief, one of the nation’s three female fire chiefs.
Her tenure left some indelible memories. Springer began the Big Event, still a major fund-raiser, as well as the Gong Show. At the first show, proud of the gear the department now owned, she put it all on, from tanks to boots, then began stripping to the song “Night Train.” She expected to be gonged, but the gong didn’t sound until she was down to the red long underwear. Her performance made the local TV news.
Other fire chiefs learned that she had management skills and appealed for her help getting bond measures passed in the wake of Prop 13 cuts. When their bonds passed, word began to spread and the State Fire Marshall approached her.
“I filled a unique niche. I knew management and I understood the culture of firefighting,” she said. “But David had the magic. I just had the mouth.”
With his computer and graphic design expertise, she designed a 40-hour course on managing small fire departments. The manuals that go with it are still in use.
In 1986, she retired, handing over the department to Ron Albini.
David Springer died in 2005, and as Springer recovered from the loss, watercolors helped her restart her life. Springer began teaching plein air watercolor, sometimes with a twist such as her Watercolor for Guys workshops. KRCB-TV shot a series of two-minute art lessons that have now been marketed to 300 other PBS stations.
Springer’s next goal is raising $10,000 to film the pilot for a 13-week series to air on national PBS stations. Her motto: “I’m on fire to inspire before I expire.”
To see Annie Murphy Springer’s art and her mini-lessons, go to anniemurphyspringer.com.
Read about all 10 people chosen as Towns’ “Faces of Sonoma County.”