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My ears perked up last week when Mark Van Bibber, a structural engineer from La Mesa, mentioned that he had recently worked on a treehouse project.
So as I set out to find the next subject for the San Diego People Project, I discovered whom Mark worked with on the unique building.
He pointed me to Eric Williams. He’s the director of property for the Girl Scouts of San Diego-Imperial County. But that’s not even half his story.
Williams spent most of his life in the Coast Guard. He did search and rescue operations in the Pacific Northwest, drug interdictions in the Caribbean and eventually served as a marine inspector in Virginia and San Diego.
After doing some volunteer work refurbishing a building for the Girl Scouts, Williams eventually retired from the Coast Guard and took on a full-time gig at the organization’s Balboa Park facility. (That volunteer work earned Eric acclaim in this 2005 story in The San Diego Union-Tribune.)
I photographed Eric and we talked about some of his old sea stories. After the interview, I asked him some questions that will lead me to next week’s installment of the San Diego People Project.
Name: Eric Williams
Occupation: Director of property for Girl Scouts of San Diego-Imperial County
Part of town: “Right here in Balboa Park.”
So you live right here on the Girl Scouts’ campus?
I do. So, if you go to the northwest corner of the property, right next to Boy Scouts Drive, you can see my house — a little caretaker’s house. It’s been here since 1955. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years cleaning it up and fixing it up.
I live there with my wife Marlene who I affectionately refer to as the first lady of Balboa, because I think she’s the only lady who lives in Balboa Park, and my daughter.
What’s it like living up there?
It’s pretty cool. I gotta say it’s pretty neat having all of this as my backyard. I get to interact with lots of people in the community — troop leaders, people who support Girl Scouts, staff. It’s a very social environment. I interact with a lot of people every day.
And your daughter has a pretty big playground?
She does. Treehouse, climbing towers. Yeah, she thinks it’s pretty cool.
I can imagine that this would be an interesting transition for your family?
It was. In a lot of ways it’s similar to government housing. The house is provided to me and there’s lots of activity going on which is very typical of military housing.
But it’s unique. We have an 11- or 12-acre backyard and lots of people visit our backyard constantly. So when we go for walks in the evening we’ll meet kids, troop leaders. So we’re always meeting somebody different.
And of course I’m always getting called for things that are wrong. Toilet’s plugged, sink’s plugged, breakers that have tripped — whatever it is — they all have my phone number and they call when things go wrong. So it can be busy.
Were your kids Girl Scouts?
Oh yeah. Both of them grew up in the Girl Scouts program. My wife was a troop leader. She does a lot of volunteer work with the council here. My family’s very active in the community, very active with the Girl Scouts.
And now one of your girls is off to college?
Yes. Oldest daughter, who’s now 19, is going to the University of Ottawa. Just completed her first year and is loving it. And I would say her Girl Scout experience helped prepare her for that — to live so far away from home and to be so self-assured.
Sounds a bit terrifying for a father?
It is. I’ve got to say I’ve shed a few tears. You know, it’s hard to let a child out into the world. But at the same time, it’s pretty exciting to see her really get out there.
Can you tell me a bit about your Coast Guard experience?
I’ve got to say, I absolutely loved being in the Coast Guard. There are days I would have paid the Coast Guard to go to work. As a young guy, I did a lot of search and rescue.
It was exciting and I wasn’t prepared to go to college either financially or mentally and the Coast Guard gave a great outlet for my energy, my motivation.
I don’t have a degree from a university but I have the equivalent training of an engineer. I qualified as a marine engineer through the programs I went through in the Coast Guard. So I really did well. I promoted well. I retired as a lieutenant.
Do you have any good old war stories?
I have a lot of sea stories I could tell you. Probably too numerous to name here. Typically it takes a different setting to get me going on my sea stories.
Just one. What’s one of your best?
I was stationed up in Washington State on a patrol boat. We went out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and took a big oil tanker in tow with this 82-foot boat. It always struck me as comical that we were towing an 800- or 900-foot oil tanker with an 82-foot Coast Guard patrol boat. That’s one of my most vivid memories.
But had a lot of memories of saving people and going in water.
I remember one girl who got caught in a rip current in Newport, Oregon. Swam off the beach, picked her up, put her on a rescue boat that came out and got her.
I’ve had a fishing boat rip itself open on the jetty in Newport, Oregon. Went out in big seas — 16-, 18-foot breaking seas, pulled a bunch of people off that boat and towed it off shore and let it sink.
Just a lot of really intense memories.
Is your wife happy that you’re on land now?
Yeah, she is. It’s funny, when I was stationed on the Columbia River, I was part of a test team that tested a new Coast Guard search and rescue boat. So everyday my job was to get up and to push this boat to its absolute limit. So we did things like put the boat broadside into 16-foot breaking waves, operating in 20-plus-foot surf. I think when I decided to retire, she was not sad.
— Interview conducted and edited by SAM HODGSON