“What a big chunk of history has fallen off Sonoma County’s storyboards,” lamented Gaye LeBaron, and she was right: in a two-and-a-half hour service that could have easily stretched five times that length, plenty of stories were shared today about the larger-than-life Hugh Codding, who died this month at age 92.
Inside the Person Theater at the Luther Burbank Center he helped found, populated mostly by Santa Rosa’s older, “greater” generation, some of those stories were tender. Some were funny. Some were sad. All of them painted a picture of the life of a man who more than any other shaped Santa Rosa, for better or for worse, as we know it today.
A spinning replica of the Coddingtown sign adorned a stage teeming with flowers, but no amount of decor could match the stories told from the podium. Accidentally lighting a tree on fire. Fainting in the boxing ring. Threatening to incorporate Montgomery Village as its own city. Putting an elephant in his front yard. Planning to send a cat into space. Walking out in the middle of a meeting with East Coast bankers. Buying a dozen fish and claiming he caught them.
For each tale of Hugh the hard-nosed businessman, there came stories of Hugh the good-hearted philanthropist. LeBaron read from some City Council minutes circa 1950, wherein an H.B. Codding appeared before council and offered a parcel of land—between Montgomery Drive and Sonoma Avenue, east of Farmers Lane—for a new civic center. “Think about that,” she said. The city turned him down. He built Montgomery Village instead.
Hugh’s son David told his story of going $200,000 into debt from building Taco Time franchises in the late 1980s (“I thought I knew everything,” he related) and asking Hugh for a $100,000 loan to get back on track. David proposed to repay it out of every paycheck while working for his dad. Hugh refused. “It was probably the best lesson I ever got,” said David, who now owns Montgomery Village.
Henry Trione suggested considering the Coddingtown sign Hugh’s tombstone, and Bill Smith told stories about massive real estate deals being sealed with a handshake in about a half hour’s time by the notoriously impatient developer.
But perhaps most poignant of all was a vignette told by former Coddingtown manager Jackie Simons, who one year accompanied Codding on a walk through Coddingtown, bustling at the time with Christmastime shoppers. “What are they all doing here?” he asked her, bewildered. “What are they buying?”
Codding, who built shopping centers but rarely bought anything, respected his merchants; he just didn’t understand why anyone would need retail stores, Simons said. Therein lies the frustration of Hugh Codding—he feverishly built a version of Santa Rosa that even he himself had little use for.
And yet it was the times. Codding was merely a conduit through which the changing tide of American culture flowed. “Hugh didn’t bring the changes,” said LeBaron, “but he was here to implement them.” A powerful reminder that if Codding hadn’t developed the hell out of post-war Santa Rosa, someone else would have beat him to it. Someone else, to be sure, with a lot less personality.
Rest in peace, you strange, fascinating icon, you.