MAYO HAYES O'DONNELL
The Historian of Monterey
Mayo Hayes O'Donnell
What historical magic that name conjures up. What battles fought. What accomplishments heralded . What love bestowed. What volumes of lore bequeathed to generations yet unborn. What honors heaped upon this little but always determined lady.
Her tireless efforts over half a century to preserve the history of Monterey, both in words and invisible reminders of the pueblo's fascinating past, fortunately did not go unnoticed during her lifetime.
"The Historian of Monterey," as she was often called, was the recipient of tributes by the Senate of the State of California, by the City of Monterey, by the California Park and Recreation Commission and by the California Historical Society.
She held the Laura Bride Powers award of her dearly beloved Monterey History and Art Association which she helped found. She was chosen Woman of the Year in 1961. And outstanding Citizen of the Year for the Monterey Peninsula in 1968. To name only a few top accolades.
Yet to this writer she is not remembered most vividly as the tough historical protagonist, the ardent ecologist and preservationist, or as a legend in her own time, accepting the mantles of gratitude and adulation on public rostrums.
Instead , she is remembered as the kindly lady who in 1935 invited a young cub reporter to the warmth and friendship of her home, a haven in a new and familiar environment. A relationship which lasted for the rest of her life.
Her husband, William M. O'Donnell, was the managing editor and eventually co publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, and my boss. Mayo's "William" as she always referred to him, was a Cornell graduate, a warm and witty Irishman, and himself an ardent worker in the historical vineyard. They made a great pair. Unfortunately he did not live to see her receive most of her civic honors. He died in 1949.
In 1935, when I first knew them, they had been residents of Monterey for 10 years. They lived in a house up near Monterey High School. It was only in later years that they took up residence in the old Spanish adobe, the Casa Soberanes, built by Don Jose Estrada in 1830, and better known as the House with the Blue Gate, which they were ultimately to give to the state as a historic landmark and which is now open to the public.
Mayo O'Donnell was born on May 6, 1892, in Goshen Junction, Tulare County, California. But that was all to come out later. All of her interesting life, for reasons best known to herself, she carefully guarded the secret of her age. Only at the time of her death in January, 1978, was it revealed that she was 85 years of age.
She was always so full of vim, vigor and enthusiasm for the task at hand that not until the last few years of her life did anyone realize how old she really was.
She and her husband settled on the Monterey Peninsula in 1925, two years after their marriage, and a lucky day it was for Monterey and the surrounding area. For while there were others at work in the same cause, it is safe to say that Mayo O'Donnell, perhaps more than any other individual, kept alive the spirit of Old Monterey and spearheaded preservation and restoration of historic structures. Certainly over the long haul, both in years, continuity and versatility of interests.
Prior to coming to Monterey, Mayo had been the society editor of the San Jose Mercury-Herald. Writing was second nature to her, and for many years she wrote a regular column for the local newspaper, the Monterey Peninsula Herald, called "Peninsula Diary," devoted to historical accounts of early California and the significance of Monterey, first to Spain, then Mexico, and finally the early days of California.
But the real love affair of her civic life began on the night of Nov. 16, 1930, at Cadematori's restaurant, when she and 14 others signed the articles of incorporation of the Monterey History and Art Association.
The first official meeting was held Jan. 19, 1931, which makes this year of 1981 the 50th anniversary year of the Association.
Although probably the best known and most ardent member over the years, Mayo was never president, serving for many years as the unpaid executive secretary and in later years as its honorary lifetime director. But there was little that went on in the organization in which Mayo did not have a hand, either directly or so subtly that those who carried out the work thought that it was their idea alone.
Of course, sometimes it also worked just the other way around, but I do not think that Mayo was fooled very often into pulling other people's chestnuts out of the fire.
There are a number of annual programs of the Monterey History and Art Association, the Adobe tour each April when charming hostesses open the old adobes for throngs of visitors, the Sloat Landing Ceremony, when the raising of the U.S. flag over Monterey in 1846 is commemorated with services at the Customs House and Sloat Monument at the Presidio of Monterey, an antique show, and various teas and luncheons during the year.
But the highlight of the year for members-and particularly for Mayo-has been the Merienda, the gem of the Association's celebrations, held each June in Memory Garden of the Pacific Building, given to the state by the Jacks sisters, Lee, Margaret and Vida Jacks, and Mary Jacks Thomas.
The Merienda was held sporadically until 1939, after which it became an annual affair. Mayo was in to every aspect. I, personally, can remember her decorating Memory Garden into an orange grove, by tying oranges, one by one, on the branches of the Magnolia trees that shade the old patio. It was quite a sight.
Beginning also in 1939, a lovely young Favorita, usually from an old family, was chosen each year to preside over the festivities. And although Mayo stoutly denied having had anything to do with it, it was always known that no Favorita during her lifetime was ever named without Mayo's stamp of approval.
Having known most of them, I can say that she chose exceedingly well . They were all charming, vivacious and a credit to their antecedents.
As a three-time president of the Association this writer can testify first hand that whenever there was a real problem one went to the chief, the oracle, the historian of Monterey, to Mayo O'Donnell. A great and gracious lady.
The library of the Association is situated in the old St. James Episcopal church, Monterey's first Protestant place of worship, and of which Mayo had been a parishioner, and which later, threatened with demolition by urban renewal, was saved by the Association and moved to Van Buren Street. It is now the Mayo Hayes O'Donnell Library, a small but choice collection of California available to the public, particularly students.
Mayo, of course, served in many other civic capacities in addition to the Monterey History and Art Association. She helped organize the Casa Abrego Club for Women and served for five years on its board of directors. She was also a founding member of the Monterey Foundation, another organization devoted to historic preservation and beautification.
Mayo was a past president of the Peninsula Garden Club, and planned the El Estero Rose Garden for the garden club, a memorial to her husband.
She was a member of the Monterey Museum Board, the California Historical Society, and the Monterey County Historical Society.
She was a member of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, the USO board, and of Delta Kappa Gamma, a national organization for outstanding women in education. She also served as the Grand Marshall of Seaside's Independence Day Parade of Champions in 1970. A bronze bust of Mayo was donated to the Association in 1974.
Monterey is unique in having preserved more adobe structures than any other California city, and in having made them an integral factor in planning for the future. And in nearly every acquisition and preservation, whether it be public or private, Mayo in some way had a hand, either in discovering the danger to its existence, a person or organization to give it tender, loving care, and the never ending battle to stave off "progress" in the form of industrial development at the expense of Monterey's past . Mayo was honored as Woman of the Year by the Monterey-Pacific Grove Quota Club at a dinner at Asilomar in January of 1961, the first of her many civic honors.
Among the tributes paid:
"Someday the history will be written of the people who had the foresight to preserve the buildings that make our pueblo what it is - and her name will top the list."
"She won't need any monument. All the buildings which have been preserved, very largely through her efforts, are monument enough ."
Speakers included Allen Griffin, publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald; Carmel Martin, speaking as one of her earliest associates in the History and Art Association; Corum Jackson, Allen Knight, and James F. van Loben Sels, president of the Monterey Foundation at the time.
Mayo responded by saying: "l don't deserve any credit . You don't deserve credit for doing things you enjoy. Everything that l have done l did because l wanted to . . . and I really enjoyed it." lt was a theme she was to reiterate many times before her death.
Then in 1965 Mayo was honored by the state senate, in a resolution authored by Senator Fred Farr of Carmel. It stated that she and her husband "showed a deep and abiding interest in the history of Monterey from the time of their settlement there which has continued through years of leadership in the History and Art Association and the Monterey Foundation."
lt adds that "Mayo Hayes O'Donnell, perhaps more than any other individual, had kept alive the spirit of Old Monterey."
The Laura Bride Powers award was presented to Mayo during her beloved Merienda. Perhaps the highest honor of all, since it is regional and includes all the cities of the Monterey Peninsula, came with her recognition as Outstanding Citizen of 1967 at a January dinner of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce in 1968.
A story in the Monterey Peninsula Herald said: "The audience was obviously thrilled and emotionally touched when master of ceremonies Joseph G. Ansel announced that Mrs. O'Donnell was the winner. Many persons dabbed at their eyes. She was given a standing ovation .''
lt was this writer's pleasure, together with the late County Clerk Emmet McMenamin, to assist Mayo, at that time in rather fragile health, to the podium, where she accepted the honor in a clear, strong voice.
In 1972 Mayo was feted by the California Historical Society at its annual awards banquet at what is now the Lodge at Pebble Beach.
And in one of the most touching tributes, Mayo was honored with a plaque from the California Park and Recreation Commission in recognition of her long years of untiring service in the interest of historic preservation in Monterey and the state.
lt was in July of 1970 and the presentation was made by acting chairman Mrs. Clarice Gilcrist of Piedmont. She, as well as her former husband, the late Joseph R. Knowland, for many years head of the state parks commission, were close and dear friends of Mayo, having worked together on many occasions.
Mrs. Gilchrist , choked with emotion as she made the presentation. "This could not go to any more qualified woman, to a more dedicated woman," she said. "This woman has given her life to the preservation of the Peninsula she loves and has shown her devotion to the state by giving it her home."
In her response, Mrs. O'Donnell recalled the founding of the History and Art Association, and early efforts to restore the Custom House in Monterey.
And again she reiterated her creed. "A person should not take credit for doing a job he enjoys doing. l have had a great time, and I enjoy it so I don't deserve any credit." There was a final party for Mayo including just a few old friends at Casa Serrano in 1977 where champagne flowed and toasts were made to the honored guest.
Allen Griffin, former publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald toasted Mayo's contribution to the community through her column in the newspaper.
Her considered reply: "I spent the best years of life at The Herald, and I think I made good." Just a year later Mayo was dead.
As an old friend, I can vouch for the fact that Mayo Hayes O'Donnell enjoyed every minute of everything. And in spite of all her protestations , she deserved every honor that was bestowed upon her.
All we have to do is look around us. Everywhere she has left her mark .