Memories of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics

By Rick Seymour, Sausalito Historical Society

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK SEYMOUR  Rick at his desk on Haight Street

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK SEYMOUR

Rick at his desk on Haight Street

News that the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics were closing after 52 years of service brought back some special memories for Rick Seymour, who had a 33-year career with the legendary institution. Rick, a long time Historical Society member, has written a number of memoirs about his days there.  In the following excerpt, he recalls how his career got started, after he had been living in a Mendocino County commune:

By spring, 1973, I needed something, anything by way of employment. Sharon [Rick’s future wife and future secretary of the Historical Society] went to work for another group of architects and I was offered a half-time janitor and assistant secretary of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics Administrative Offices.

The salary was negligible. I had read something about the Clinics in the sixties and had no idea they were still going. Working in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, then in the process of devolving from a psychedelic haven into a crime-ridden teenage slum with many of its businesses boarded up and its streets littered with garbage and dog feces, did not bode well either. Such menial employment meant at least some money, however, that I sorely needed by then to finance my ongoing search for a "real" job. Sharon and I had lived through the winter essentially on her savings.

When I reached the corner ex-dental office that housed the Clinics' administrative offices, I was met by a very thin, dark haired woman who appeared to be tripping on something. She gazed at me with her mouth hanging open and then abruptly told me I was hired and to show up for work the next day. And that was that.

Within a few weeks, the other half-timer quit for personal reasons and I was promoted to full-time janitor and secretary. After the daily emptying of wastebaskets and floor sweeping, my duties were similar to those I had performed for the 831st Air Clinic Division at George Air Force Base, in the late 1950s. I was good at it and soon I was taking minutes at the Clinics' various board meetings and learning to use phrases like "discussion ensued followed by a vote."

My desk was directly across from the entrance to 1698 Haight Street, the Clinics' executive offices, so I was the first person encountered by anyone from the outside world. Annie, the head secretary, made sure that I kept a short length of iron pipe, its nether end filled with lead, by my chair— just in case. Fortunately I never needed it.

While Annie was the primary secretary, my real boss was Richard Frank, a smart and able administrator who bore the title Central Administrator. His was in many ways a thankless job and several months after I arrived he left to return to graduate school. A troika composed of the Clinics' founder Dr. David Smith, Dr. George (Skip) Gay, Director of the Drug Detoxification, Rehabilitation and Aftercare Project, and Anne Gay, Skip's ex-wife and Head of Accounting, undertook interim management of the Clinics and I was promoted to Office Manager.

The Clinics Board of Directors decided that a strong but diplomatic force was needed at the top and met in a special session at the Copper Penny Restaurant on Masonic. I was there to take minutes of the meeting. As the directors solidified their thoughts on what was needed, a startling and in ways frightening thought came to me.

"I can do it! I can be the leader they're looking for!"

When the Board took a break, I followed David Smith into the men's washroom and told him that I wanted the job. David nodded and when the meeting resumed he recommended that I be put in charge of the search for a new Clinics chief executive.

In December the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics Board of Directors was ready to meet the candidates and choose a new chief executive. I had posted ads in appropriate publications and gathered resumes and applications that a board committee had winnowed down to six people, including myself, that they considered potentially eligible for the job. I had also written up a plan of action, based on my experience serving as business manager, outlining what I would do if I were chosen and distributed it to individual board members. I had also had my hair and beard trimmed.

When my turn came, I was called into the Board meeting room down the street from 1698 at the Clinics' Crackerjack vocational rehabilitation center. Dianne Feinstein, Board member and future Mayor of San Francisco and California Senator, had read a draft copy of my book Compost College and was presiding over the selections process. She pointed out that the Clinics needed a leader who was willing to take risks and asked me if I was willing to do so.

"You've read my book, Dianne," I answered. "If I take risks and fail, I can always go back to my plastic wickiup in Mendocino."

She laughed and thanked me. I was later told that when I had left the room, she turned to the rest of the Board and said, "There is our new Chief Executive Officer." Dr. Irv Klompus, a retired U.C. physician and Board vice-chair, came by my office a short time later to inform me that I had been appointed the Clinics Chief Executive Officer, effective immediately. The next person to come by was Bob "Skeezix" Corrado, Business Manager of the drug treatment programs to tell me that the Detox Unit's plumbing was backing up. My first act as Clinics CEO was to take a plunger down the street and unplug the Drug Detoxification, Rehabilitation and Aftercare Project's toilet at 529 Clayton Street.