Quiet words of hope to a stranger

My goal in writing here is simple – to share from my experience, my observations and my heart what I hope might have meaning for some readers, to offer the lessons I have learned or that my life demonstrates that, like yours, sometimes came at great cost.  A cost in years of unfulfilled potential, and wandering, trying to reconcile what I had been taught to the calling I felt in my own heart.  During some of those years, I was blessed that some came into my life to “walk alongside” and encourage me.  Little did I realize that I would be asked to do the same, for someone I never met and will never know. 

As I write in June of 2020, this would have been the month that many cities, mine included, were planning to host celebrate Pride; in SF’s case, the 50th annual.  But in 2012, I was just starting my own coming out process, in my early 50’s – a “late bloomer” in every respect.  I think my own first attendance at Pride was LA a year or two prior – so I was hardly in a place to share insights on “gay” life. It was a time of adjustment, discovery, mistakes and choices – not all of which turned out well.  Still, for some reason, my counselor at the time asked me to consider writing a letter – to a stranger. 

He had been approached by the parents of a 14-year-old boy who had recently come out to them as gay – something I could never had imagined when I was that age in 1972, 40 years earlier. His parents were more than supportive – so much so, that they felt and realized they could not offer their son all the guidance and insight he was seeking, and they had tuned to my counselor for help and support, for them as well as their son.  For some reason, he thought that I should write this teenager a letter of encouragement.  After all, my counselor was gay – what did I have to offer? 

To me, this was confusing.  I had spent years in “reparative therapy”, hiding from everyone in my life, exposing myself to danger through denial, and letting shame rule my heart; never knowing love, openness, true honesty – and missing out on acceptance from others as well as myself.  I was trying to find my own way after a life of hiding. What could I say to a 14 year old two generations younger in a very different world?  But I said yes – and ultimately, perhaps, the letter I wrote was the one I wish someone had sent me when I was alone and every voice around me was telling me that what I felt in my deepest heart had to be ignored. 

Here is that letter, from 2012 – and following – a closing observation.  


To my young friend, who has more questions than answers – for whatever it is worth, this is the best wisdom I have to offer you as you begin an uncertain journey.

  1. BELIEVE in yourself.   Whatever flaws, whatever failures – you are an amazing and magnificent creation.  You have potential that you cannot imagine.  You must be on your own side – others will join you – but always, always know you have worth.  Surround yourself only with those who affirm your unique worth, and in turn believe in them and their worth as well. 
  2. EXPLORE life with an open mind.  The world has more wonders than you can ever see, more perspectives on life than you can ever learn, and more ideas than you can imagine.  Travel, whether it be across town or oceans, to see something new and be open to embracing that which others may not accept.
  3. RESPECT all individuals, whether they stand with you or are in your face – their lives are just as precious, unique and wondrous.  There will be some that you will never agree with on any issue at all – but you must respect them, and their values, to learn from them and become all that you might be.
  4. CREATE something – anything – you have abilities and powers that are yours alone, and that means that there is something you have to offer the world, one person or millions, that can only come from you.  Don’t shut doors that are open to you – try something new, the only failure is to say “I can’t”.
  5. GIVE freely … give from your heart, give often.  Give forgiveness to those who don’t understand you, give support and encouragement to those in need whether through your abilities or through your wallet, give when no one asks but you see the chance to make a difference, and give without anyone even knowing it came from you.  In return, in time, you will receive joy unlimited.
  6. ACCEPT that you cannot have everything the way you want it – not in your own life, not what you want from your family and loved ones, not from your school or your job or your friends.  You cannot control what happens to you – but if you accept that you cannot make things happen the way you want, you have taken a step to freedom.  This is a very hard lesson to learn, and live.
  7. If you can … have FAITH.  Faith is different from belief, different from knowledge – it is understanding that there is something larger than you.  You may not choose to have the same faith that those who love you want you to have; you may in time grow to have faith in something other than what you understand today.  That is ok.  But … if you can see that there is a power beyond you, beyond all that you know, and if you come to believe that power loves and cares for you, and each person you meet in life … you will experience life in a way that most never imagine, and you will find joy. 

Life is not always kind, and rarely fair; the rules and stories we learn as children in time may seem to be something to throw away.  There is truth in everything, and I hope you will, more than anything – SEEK – look for the truth, look for that which has value and meaning that lasts.  If you do look, beyond what others tell you to do, or be, or pursue – if you look within, and look above – you will find.  You will find the wonder of life, and you will celebrate, and you will become the miracle only you are. 


Here we are, eight years later. I always loved happy endings, in fairy tales and myth, and later in movies – but I cannot offer you one, today.  I can share that in the years since, I have found love, married, moved to San Francisco, made plans that didn’t happen, and like you am doing all I can to stay balanced through the present challenges – and more to come.  But life has taught me there are no endings, only streams that converge and diverge, mingle and dance.  I cannot tell you what happened in that young man’s life, or where he is today at age 22.  But my counselor, Patrick, did tell me that the parents and their son were touched deeply by what I wrote.  So why share it with you today? 

By nature, most of us tend to congregate with others who share our viewpoint, history, goals or interests.  Birds of a feather. But sometimes the connections we need to open our eyes to new possibilities must come from outside our bubble. We cannot learn from those who merely repeat what we already believe to be true.  Although my life path might have similarities with your own, or someone you know, I believe we sometimes learn more from people who are different from us – that there are truths in all our experience that we can glean if we are open to listening to others, then looking within ourselves, and then realize there are options ahead we did not previously see. A secret door. An unfamiliar path. 

You have the keys to someone’s door, and the light to their path that they perhaps need your help to step forward on. Today, we are surrounded by need – and opportunity – to change our world.  Not probably in huge ways, on our own – but by listening, and caring, and accepting.  And perhaps, by sharing.  Perhaps your truths, that you paid a price for – are the hope that someone in your life needs to hear.  

So, join me for Pride – and “come out”.   Not in the sense that you might generally think of – unless, of course, that is something you might need to consider.  But in the sense of looking at what perhaps lies buried in your own life, unshared, that could make a difference by opening up to someone in need.  Perhaps that doesn’t seem likely to you, but I promise – you have pearls of great price that may offer hope to a stranger, as well.  Isn’t it worth it to take that chance?

If there was ever a moment to listen first, and learn – to realize none of us has “all the answers” but only together can we BUILD the road to a better tomorrow – that moment is now.  Listen to the hearts of those around you, perhaps strangers now, and your own – and you will know, somehow, when it is your time to “come out” and share your truths to those whose stream crosses through your path.  You may never know what miracles may follow. Let’s move forward , together.

Are you going … to San Frantasia?

I invite you to be my guest on a trip to an enchanted place – where dreams and history, fantasy and hope combine into a land that never was,  and will never be – but whose promise still shines brightly today. 

Copyright Albert Tolf, San Francisco

“It is the bridge to enchantment – Sunshine, Sails, Surf, Birds, Kites & Joy.  Hillside Gardens forever in bloom.  Fishing wharfs, foghorns & Moviemakers.  Architectural Daring – high as the hills.  The taste of goodness & and touch of whimsy.  It’s the past, present and future, flower stands & the bell atop a cablecar.  

San Frantasia – Timeless wonderland of the West.”

Decades ago, these were the words at the bottom of the poster which I saw among the pieces of history at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA, buried in an old freightcar filled with lamps, timetables, and more.  The jumbled vision of old and new, whimsy and dreams, caught my eye – never imagining I would one day live here in the less colorful yet still vibrant real city by the bay.  Like many curiosities that attract my eye, it faded into my memory, stirred recently by discussion with a friend who asked me to find it online – along with new discoveries. I hope you will let me guide you along the path that helped me find it after all those years.      

It turns out “San Frantasia” sprang from the vision and imagination of Albert Tolf, whose father Albert Tolf Sr. emigrated in 1900 from Sweden, settling eventually in Joliet, IL where Albert Jr. was born in 1916.  He had formal training at the Chicago Institute and for a while assisted on the now nearly forgotten “Gasoline Alley” newspaper comic. Following a vacation trip to San Francisco in the late 30’s, Albert fell in love with the city, moving here in 1948.   He worked on billboards and other commercial projects, including scenic painting for an amusement park under construction in Southern California – a risky venture by another visionary, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.  Soon, Albert gave up commercial art to build his own gallery featuring his oil paintings, at six SF locations over 20 years, including Post at Sutter near Union Square, the Transamerica tower, and a Holiday Inn lobby on Kearny.  One profile described him riding around his gallery on a custom unicycle! Albert married his wife Naomi in 1967, retiring to Santa Rosa where he passed in 1996. 

1974 profile of “Albert Tolf – Swedish American”

Another explorer provided an online window that opened my eyes to the broader world of Albert Tolf’s vision. In 2016, local resident and respected photographer Ron Henggeler was exploring a Berkeley bookstore, and found a worn volume published by Albert called “This was San Francisco”.  He too was charmed by the illustrations of local lore and events.  He scanned and cleaned all of the images, which you can find on his personal website, including thousands of wonderful historical and current images. I hope you will explore his amazing online gallery, but here is where you can see the entire book of Albert’s collection of local facts and curiosities – https://www.ronhenggeler.com/Newsletters/2016/5.18/Newsletter.html

The original images were published over several years in the 50’s, when Albert provided a weekly cartoon “In Old San Francisco”, illustrating local history and lore to the “San Francisco News”. This publication is long gone, like many, as after mergers it was eventually bought and shuttered by the San Francisco Examiner.  The website above has all of the illustrations, but here is just one example, of a name many of us know (and a treat many of us have enjoyed!) – Ghirardelli Chocolate.   


From “In Old San Francisco”, First edition 1959, by Albert Tolf

After some more digging, I found that the volume Ron Henggeler had discovered was a revised reprint of the original edition, “In Old San Francisco”, published in soft cover in December 1959.  But I still didn’t know where “San Frantasia” came from?  As I learned in the few articles I was able to track down online, Albert created numerous images of his beloved city, as well as artwork of local landmarks in both present and past times, such as Union Square and the Embarcadero.  

“The San Francisco Waterfront in 1903” by Albert Tolf

Eventually I learned, to my surprise, the original poster which I had seen years before was initially available accompanying another smaller 1966 publication – “Al Tolf’s San Francisco .. Timeless Wonderland..” which he described as “a presentation of seven impressions and caricatures” with “one plate reproduced as a lithographic print”.  Tolf is quoted as saying “San Francisco is like one big Disneyland”, and it is clear his imagination was unfettered. Several of those images follow … because, as you see below, I engaged in retail therapy and tracked down – separately – both original books and the print for my own. It was apparently quite successful, with one article noting in time over 12,000 posters were sold.  A few even apparently remain on display in some locations scattered around our city, their origins mostly forgotten. 

When I look at this amazing “gee whiz” world that Tolf created in his poster, filled with cable cars on impossible heights, steam engines and horse drawn buggies alongside dirigibles, unending construction of skyscrapers near tiny houses, horses and convertibles – I am inspired.  This is a vision, yes, a dream – and I am struck by how that dream endures even over 50 years after he created it.  Today we are facing upheaval here and in our broader world, our village where creative and personal freedom, fringe culture and groundbreaking thinking have been birthed for over half a century since his publication.  Still, even now, in this time of uncertainty, sometimes bleak and seemingly impossible challenges – San Francisco remains and endures and becomes and evolves.  Just as, in a shorter time frame than this city, we all must, constantly, and at a seemingly increased pace.  Somehow, this vision I feel in Albert Tolf’s art gives me – hope. 

But the most intriguing article I found was from the San Francisco Rotary in 1967 – the second oldest chapter in the world! They were very kind to share with me that Albert, a devoted member, even designed their “Grindings” newsletter masthead, still in use today – shown here with their permission (thank you!).  It captures in just a few detailed lines much of our iconic city.   

Image courtesy of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, by Albert Tolf

The article showed a “work in progress” which hopefully still exists today, for the upcoming anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge.  Like his talent, it was large – as was his love for his city – and was created for display in the Rotary offices. But, as change comes to all things, Rotary closed their office in time, and passed it on to another non-profit agency with a long heritage – I hope to discover they still have it on display, and that I can share this history of their treasure for future preservation. 

Albert Tolf, 1967, “Golden Gate Bridge” work in progress for SF Rotary Club

As much as I would love to have one of his amazing originals of this “Timeless wonderland” that has become my home, I am happy to have brought “San Frantasia” and his books into my life. For those who are fortunate to have one of his many whimsical sketches, or full on oil paintings of his beloved city, or railroads, and other places he loved – perhaps our trip through time will help them learn of Albert’s amazing life – and to realize they have a small treasure.

It’s hard to say just why thinking of San Frantasia gives my heart a lift, but it does.  Although it’s impossible for me to pick out one “favorite” segment of his detailed vision, this tiny image from the lower right side is perhaps the perfect way to thank Albert, and all the dreamers and characters, visionaries, adventurers, scoundrels and outliers that brought us the city we love today.  May it endure, and continue to be a shining star for future generations.  “The best is yet to come” – it is now in our hands to bring that dream just a little closer to reality.  Shall we? 

Detail from “San Frantasia” by Albert Tolf, 1966

Resources –


Tattered pages, echoes of faith

Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children.  Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks.  I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone. 

Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy.  Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well.  Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817.  After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka. 

“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old.  It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age.  It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn.    Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable.  A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces.  They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony. 

After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville.  The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July.  I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong.  He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847.  In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California. 

I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future.  It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling.  Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond. 

The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life.  Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes.  Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009.  He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west.  It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past. 

As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so.  How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now.  There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family.  As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother.  There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship.  This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it. 

There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial.  There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister.  I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage. 

But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children.  Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery.  As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..

“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.  

Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
Memorial Card for Robert Titus Pence, in my grandfather’s papers

I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement.  For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA.  Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I.  So shall, hopefully, we all.