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I first became aware of Ruth Hayward back in 2010, when she responded to a request for reader tales about presidential visits to San Diego. She had a doozy.
Hayward recalled that she worked next to the airport when JFK dropped by in 1963. “During Kennedy’s visit, the presidential plane (a Boeing 707) was parked about 70 feet from our building,” she said. “One day I saw them load in a mattress and two cases of scotch … we all asked ourselves if we were witnessing some history.”
I followed up, asking her why she didn’t walk over and join the party. Her pithy and earthy response — “I wasn’t his type — no money, no influence and especially no boobs” — became one of my favorite quotes ever.
It turns out that Hayward, who’s 77 and lives in La Jolla on Mount Soledad, is more than a wisecracker. She’s a prominent sculptor who took up the skill in retirement after working for decades as an engineer.
Hayward sculpted the quartet of statues of early San Diegans that stand near the Cabrillo Bridge entrance to Balboa Park. She’s also sculpted local busts of several noteworthy women, including comedian Lily Tomlin and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.
On a recent sunny afternoon, I sat down with the lifelong San Diegan — a graduate of Hoover High and San Diego State University — next to the bronze statues she created in Balboa Park. We talked about sculpting, her career in a male-dominated business and the reason she owes her existence to the park.
We’re sitting in Founder’s Plaza along with your statues of three men who were crucial to the early history of San Diego and Balboa Park in particular — Ephraim Morse, Alonzo Horton and George White Marston.
The statue of horticulturist Kate Sessions is across the street in Sefton Plaza.
What do these people mean to you?
Without them, we probably wouldn’t be sitting in this gorgeous park. They’re visionaries. They were not selfish, and they thought about preserving the environment without plastering it over with buildings.
How big did you figure out how to make the statues?
I made them a little larger than life, about 10 to 15 percent, because I wanted them to not be like little midgets. I wanted to make them more imposing than real life, so you’ll look at them and wonder, were they really that big?
Hayward explained that she molded the sculptures with the help of the photos of the faces of the original subjects and photos of the bodies of modern people she’d photographed.
I’d find someone whose body looked like the person I was going to sculpt. George Marston is a man who sat in front of me at the symphony, and Morse is a person I’ve known for a long time, very tall and thin. Horton is one of my neighbors.
Then I made a turntable with radial arms on it, and make them freeze and stand on it. I’d rotate them every 22.5 degrees and have my camera on a tripod — click click click.
You do that so the camera and the person are always in the same place instead of walking around the subjects with a camera?
Absolutely. If you move a degree or two one way or another, it’s quite different.
Who stood in for Kate Sessions?
Kate was a friend of mine. I bought her hat in Buenos Aires, a gaucho hat, and I fixed it up. Kate wore a hat very similar to that.
I’ve heard Sessions wasn’t the easiest person to deal with.
I think she probably wouldn’t be. People would laugh because she wore these long skirts, and they could always tell where she was because there would be like a snail’s trail going up through the soil.
You’ve sculpted busts of several other women, including one of Lily Tomlin at Rachel’s Women’s Center in downtown.
When I was taking the pictures of her, she was very shy. She’s really a shy person. When she came down to have the bust unveiled, I said to her, “Lily don’t you want to see this before you have it unveiled in front of all these people?” and she said, “Remember, I’m an actress.”
Before you retired, you worked as an engineer for 38 years. What was it like being a woman scientist in the 1960s?
At the beginning, it was very lonesome. Usually the secretary was the only female around. In the ’80s, there was a push to get more women in technology because a lot of the guys decided it was much easier to get a master’s in business and make more money than worrying about the rigors of technology, science, physics and that sort of thing.
Was it a sexist environment?
It was pretty sexist. When affirmative action came along, that stopped the bottom-patting and overt remarks, and there was some upward mobility for females. You could, if you were good, climb up in the technical part of it. But the managerial part was only beginning to open up for women when I retired.
What was your specialty as an engineer?
About the last 30 years, I worked in research into how electromagnetic waves propagate through things. The last big problem I worked on was trying to find buried plastic explosives, like land mines and other things. They’re hard to find because there’s no metal, and their electrical properties are very much like soil. If they’re pretty well hidden, the smaller they get, the harder they are to find.
Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, one of the most well-known scientific minds in San Diego, has been pushing for a major makeover of Balboa Park. (Read more about it here.) What do you think of his plan?
I’m all for getting the cars out of the park, and I’d probably even say OK, build a bypass bridge if — and only if — they’d put the parking garage over by the naval hospital. Because if you want to get the cars out of the park, why put a parking garage in the middle?
Of course, it if was left to me, I’d close Cabrillo Bridge (to cars) and let people get in from the other side.
What does Balboa Park mean to you personally?
My grandfather, my mother and her stepmother lived in Martin, Tenn. He read about the 1915 exposition and thought San Diego was a wonderful place, so he moved his family out here in 1916, and my mother met my father, and here I am.
If it hadn’t been for the exposition, I probably wouldn’t have been here.
We talked earlier about how these statues represent four people who preserved Balboa Park. And these three men we’re sitting next to were businesspeople, not starry-eyed environmentalists.
Do you think businesspeople were different back then?
Maybe they weren’t as selfish. Not that all businesspeople are selfish now.
What do you think about San Diego overall?
We’ve managed to make a pretty good city. For the most part, we have had the environment in mind.
Still. But it could be better.
So you have faith in the city in the future?