Rescuing the local park

When city trimmed staff, retiree refused to let standards go

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Across Santa Rosa, city parks are in rough shape. Budget cuts have gutted the parks and maintenance staff. Crews struggle to stay on top of the litter, graffiti and maintenance.

But in a quiet corner in the city’s northeast, visitors to Hidden Valley Park enter what seems like a park from a bygone era.

Hardy Soderholm prunes back blackberry bushes at Hidden Valley Park in Santa Rosa. (John Burgess / PD)

There is no litter around the picnic tables, no overflowing garbage cans, no graffiti on the play structure. You’ll find no cigarette butts in the sandbox, broken bottles in the woods or dog waste along the walking paths.

That’s because the little 9-acre, triangular park just north of Hidden Valley Elementary School is blessed with a guardian angel.

Hardy Soderholm treats Hidden Valley Park like it was his own backyard, which it pretty much is.

The 69-year-old resident of Sleepy Hollow Drive can walk out his back gate and into the thick stand of oak and bay trees that form the park’s northern boundary.

The home’s easy access to the park was one of the features that drew him and his wife Cheryl to the place five years ago when they retired here from Pasadena to be closer to their two children and grandchildren.

They were thrilled to return to Sonoma County. He and Cheryl, both Minnesota natives, owned Coast to Coast Hardware in Healdsburg from 1986 to 1994, leaving as Soderholm moved on to executive positions at other hardware firms.

When the city took a hatchet to the parks maintenance staff, chopping it from 70 full-time employees to 12, Soderholm’s sanctuary started to show signs of decline. So he started pitching in.

First he just picked up litter. He initially was hesitant to do more because he didn’t want to take away someone’s job. But appreciative city officials gradually allowed him to take on more and more responsibility in the park. “It really hurts them to see the parks not being maintained properly,” Soderholm said.

Now he restocks the dog waste bags, removes or paints over graffiti, digs out poison oak and even brings his own power tools into the park to whack weeds and blow leaves. He has chopped up fallen trees and even helped rebuild a washed-out section of a footbridge.

“If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was assigned to clean up the park,” said park superintendent Lisa Grant. “He’s just super.”

Soderholm alerts the city when he’s going on vacation, and convinces a neighbor, Lynn Zellers, to help with the upkeep in his absence.

The vast majority of visitors to the parks are conscientious about keeping it clean, but Soderholm marvels at how unthinking a few people can be. He finds bottles smashed in places where children walk and play, including the sand around the play structure.

But what he’s finding is that a clean park tends to stay clean because people recognize that someone’s working hard to keep it that way.

“I think 90 percent of people who use their park have no idea who’s maintaining it,” Soderholm said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.)