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Appreciation walk ends with a special encounter

Serendipity recently led me to a hidden treasure and introduced me to a pixie philanthropist who was a muse for one of the world's great philosophers.

This delightful encounter came about through a chance invitation after church on Sunday. It was a dear friend, Lila Sandschulte, who set the hook by telling me that the widow of famed cartoonist Charles M. Schulz would be a special guest at an appreciation walk later that day.

I drove directly to the location – the goldfinch arroyo – after the church service. In doing so, I stepped back in time to a tucked-away place that I had blithely driven by countless times in the past.

There I got to meet Jean Schulz, who was married to "Sparky" for 27 years until his death at age 77 in February 2000.

Perhaps I should start with the place before I segue to the person.

Lila invited me to join a walk in the 43-acre Los Jilgueros Preserve, which anchors a creek channel that took on the name of the birds that flit among its trees. About 80 people, one dog and two golf carts took part in a walk aimed at thanking and recognizing its purchaser and its protectors and supporters.

We walked, talked, posed for pictures and gobbled up boxed lunches. The sky was gray. The air was crisp. The birds warbled and the wildflowers glowed.

The preserve flanks a section of South Mission Road opposite the Fallbrook Community Airpark. It is one of about 20 preserves maintained and operated by the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, which formed in 1988.

Perhaps best known for its Palomares House and Park, the nonprofit group owns more than 3,000 acres of permanently-protected open space and more than 1,000 acres of conservation easements.

The Los Jilgueros tract, which can be found on an 1889 map of Fallbrook, was once actively farmed. Relics of its past – rusted farm implements – stand like silent sentinels. One of them is nicknamed "Nessie."

At the north end of the property, not far from a yawning seasonal pond, is a soaring sculpture that was done by artist Stuart Tucker and commissioned by Jean Schulz. It is titled "Always Aspiring."

With careful and meticulous work, the property has largely returned to its native state. It is a popular destination for families and other guests, as about 60,000 visitors a year crisscross its trails.

Many people – including an array of Fallbrook movers and shakers – have played key roles in the survival of this and other Conservancy properties. But Jean Schulz is the mother of Los Jilgueros.

She lived in Fallbrook on an avocado ranch from the age of 8 until she was 18. Jean was seen as an easy mark and she was the target of a failed kidnapping attempt by two masked men in May 1988. She periodically returned to Fallbrook to visit her mother, who died in 1990.

Jean was drawn to Los Jilgueros when local folks were scrambling for funds to buy vanishing chunks of open space. In early 1990, Jean donated the $800,000 or so that was needed to buy the reserve property. She did it to honor her mother, Pamela Vanderlinden. About 28 members of Jean's family – including representatives of the Forsyth family – participated in the recent outing.

I eavesdropped on Jean's conversations with kith and kin, and afterwards we shared some one-on-one as we made our way back to the parking lot.

Her husband was tagged with his nickname as a youth because he embraced a favorite comic strip character. One of his early works – a sketch and vignette of the family dog "Spike" – landed in a Ripley's Believe it or Not strip in 1937.

Sparky went away to war, and saw combat as part of the 20th Armored Division in Europe near the end of WWII. Stateside he did cartoons and lettering for a couple of publications as he teetered on the cusp of becoming one of the most popular, prolific and influential cartoonists in the world.

The syndicated Peanuts strip first appeared in seven newspapers in October 1950. Peanuts was eventually printed in 21 languages in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Sparky drew nearly 17,900 Peanuts strips throughout his 50-year career, according to Wikipedia.

Sparky only took one vacation – a five-week hiatus when he turned 75. His business empire of comic strips, books, television shows, endorsements and product lines generated $1 billion a year. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was the first animated television special. It aired in 1965 and won an Emmy Award.

The Sonoma County airport was renamed after Sparky.

Jean recalled watching her husband work on countless strips that were typically grouped in week-long batches. Many of Sparky's Peanuts settings and characters were drawn from real life.

Jean once used the phrase "Sweet Babboo" as a term of endearment for her husband. Six weeks later, that same phrase appeared in a Peanuts strip when a character, Sally, used it to describe her boyfriend Linus, who was one part philosopher, one part theologian and one part dreamer. Linus represented Sparky's spiritual side.

These days Jean, 85, keeps busy tending to the workings of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Sonoma, where she serves as the board chairwoman. She is a slip of a woman with a pixie smile.

She told me that Sparky always likened himself to Charlie Brown, but he aspired to be like Snoopy. I myself have always aspired to be like Linus.

Thank you, Jean, for all that this means.


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