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Tea and talk with Fran Meininger

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Sylvia Crawford/Glen Ellen Columnist

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Often enough in this column I’ve sung the praises of local folks who do good in our town and in our Valley. Few, I feel, would match up to the subject of today’s column. Truly she’s an exemplary woman, someone I’ve admired for many years.

Last spring, when Glen Ellen resident Fran Meininger announced by email that she would be retiring from her lovely store, My Girlfriend’s Closet, I invited her over for tea and time to talk.

Sitting together on the porch at Creekbottom on a mild spring day, I had a chance to ask Fran all the questions I’d always wondered about. Long aware of her career and changes, I knew she was a woman who has been at the forefront of a number of important organizations in our Valley. Her work and dedication have made a difference in the lives of so many folks throughout our Valley – particularly young folks. Yet, Fran was never one to brag or make herself prominent, and so, though I knew of her, I didn’t really know much about her.

I first met Fran in the late 1980s when our boys were members of the Valley of the Moon Boys & Girls Club. We didn’t go there often, as Sonoma seemed (back then) quite a trek from Glen Ellen. But we loved their Halloween events (and first met Roger and Diana Rhoten at one of those). Equally entertaining were the Boys & Girls Club’s Christmas gatherings with dear David Williams presiding as the best Santa ever.

So, initially, as Fran and I talked, we reminisced about other good folks we both admired.

Home on Brookside Road

Fran and her parents, Cecelia and George Braga, moved to Sonoma Valley in 1960. Her dad was working at Hamilton Air Force Base and they planned to move to Novato, in fact they’d already put an offer on a house. On a whim, off for a drive to Sonoma, they discovered their dream home.

It was in that paradise, on Brookside Road, that Fran grew up playing in the creek and riding her horse. While she frankly admits to a wonderful childhood, she also says that Sonoma Valley is a better place now than it was then.

With some surprise I asked why, since folks often bemoan today in favor of the “good old days.” Not Fran. “Our Valley has evolved, because of the many nonprofits that benefit people in our Valley.” She says that people in this Valley have opened their hearts and given so much to help others. She’s seen that first-hand and has been long at the forefront of those helping nonprofits.

School days, music, opera and ballet

But, long before all of that, Fran attended local schools including El Verano and one year at Flowery. We shared a good laugh as she talked about Muriel Robbins, her kindergarten teacher, and Evie Berger, her first-grade teacher, another couple of folks I admire greatly.

Fran attended Altimira (when it was new), then on to Justin Siena High School (where she and David Everidge were classmates) and Dominican College, where she majored in music.

That was a surprise to me. Music, Fran? Yes, turns out she enjoyed being on stage, performing. Her first voice teacher, at age 5, was Dan Ruggles. She recalled wearing a lovely rabbit cape when he took her to the opera. She also enjoyed ballet and was in a class with Beth-Marie Deenihan, who later became a ballet teacher and Sonoma Treasure. In time, performance (like the pageant behind the Mission at Vintage Festival time) and dance became less interesting, and music took the lead for Fran, though it did not become her career.

Directing the Boys & Girls Club

In 1980, Fran’s mama Cecelia, a great Italian cook, opened the Bread Basket Café in the Valley Shopping Center, near where Marcela Barrenchea’s Scandinavian Bakery is now. Fran helped her mom in the restaurant. She loved the social aspect of working in the restaurant, meeting lots of folks, watching them enjoy the food she had loved all of her life.

David Williams, later to become Sonoma’s own Santa Claus, as Lumpy, was one of their customers. At that time he was the director of the Boys & Girls Club. He invited Fran to host a cooking class at the club. That was the beginning of a great friendship and led eventually to one of her great jobs.

In 1985, Fran went to work at Hanna Boys Center, her first job in the nonprofit arena. Fran began her career as the executive director of the Valley of the Moon Boys & Girls Club in 1989. She remained there through 2000 and was the moving force behind the establishment of the new and beautiful facility at Maxwell Park.

Phantom of Opera meets Bride of Frankenstein

It was during her first year at the club that Fran met Rick Meininger, her life-long love and sweetheart. On Oct. 31, at the B&G Club Haunted House, he came as the Phantom of the Opera, while she was the Bride of Frankenstein. The following year, on Halloween of course, Rick and Fran were married. Two years later, they moved to Glen Ellen, where they’ve happily lived, amid beautiful trees, in a yard graced by deer and with gardens she’s loved ever since.

During the time that Fran directed the B&G Club, just over one decade, she brought about significant changes. As Bill Lynch praised Fran in an editorial on her retirement from that position, he recounted, “When she arrived in 1990, the club had an annual operating budget of $150,000 and staff of six. The club facility was a former commercial laundry building on First Street West, and it serviced an average of 60 children per day.”

“Today,” (here Bill is referring to the year 2000) “the club is in a brand new $3.2 million, 23,000-square-foot building at Maxwell Park, has an annual operating budget of $550,000, a staff of 19, plus it has added numerous programs like environmental studies, fitness, a homework assistance program for all grade levels and reading assistance. The club now serves over 300 children per day, plus summer attendance that is up to 424 per day, and that doesn’t count all of the other programs it sponsors and creates throughout the year.”

Fran Meininger is obviously a woman with drive, determination, creativity and accomplishment, but all of it is done with a heart for those she serves.

Directing the Ed Foundation

Following that, Fran worked for a short while as a consultant with various organizations, eventually joining the City of Sonoma police and Sonoma County Sheriff department. During that time, she helped develop and manage programs dealing with teen drinking and gangs.

From 2006 through 2010, Fran was the executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Among her proud accomplishments there was establishing the Teacher Support Network, working with Lynn Wirick. She and Lynn became friends when Fran worked with Lynn’s husband Michael Ross, who was the architect of the Maxwell Farms B&G Club.

Fran further accomplished one of her dreams by establishing the school garden programs, working with Kathleen Hill and others.

When Fran retired from the Education Foundation, board President Kevin Jaggie said of her, “I have witnessed Fran for years on various projects in the Sonoma Valley and she has always amazed and inspired me with her work.” Susan Reber added, “Fran’s leadership has been instrumental in evolving the Education Foundation into a program-based organization ready for 21st century challenges. Her great enthusiasm, generous heart and tremendous professional ability will be sorely missed.”

Leaving that position, Fran stated that she “just wanted to do something fun,” a reasonable goal after more than 25 years of guiding some of the Valley’s most important nonprofit organizations.

Great clothes at thrifty prices

And what did fun mean to Fran? Finding great clothes at thrifty prices. She opened the very successful second hand boutique, My Girlfriend’s Closet. Even then, Fran continued her nonprofit involvement, serving on various boards and holding workshops for Teen Valley Services “Skills for Life” program, educating girls about business dress and offering discounts on clothing.

Along the way Fran volunteered for numerous organizations including the Cha-Cha-Chas, who help fund the Children’s Home in Los Guilicos, and La Luz, where she coordinated one of their fundraisers.

Fran has even served as the chief organizer of our own Glen Ellen Village Fair. That alone makes her an honorary Queen of Glen Ellen, I’d say.

While she admits that My Girlfriend’s Closet was a fun adventure, she has happily passed it on to dear Anna Bimenyimana, who runs Bon Marche, and funds micro-enterprises in her beleaguered home country, Rwanda.

We applaud Fran Meininger for her many years of service, which continues through the many programs she established. She sets a fine example for all of us.

We wish her well in this, her final retirement, as she tends her garden, using the fruits of her labor to prepare delicious meals for friends and family … still caring for others, just in simpler ways.

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The Folks in Glen Ellen column also appears online. Look for it at www.sonomanews.com/category/lifestyle-history. Or look for my name, way at the bottom on the home page at sonomanews.com. Want to see your own name in the news? Share your stories with friends and neighbors in Glen Ellen. Call or write me at 996-5995 or P.O. Box 518, GE 95442. Or email me at Creekbottom@earthlink.net. Glen Ellen chatter rarely requires timeliness; however, if your news does, please be sure to contact me at least two weeks before your desired publication date.