“Community service i s a core value for the Gursky family because they have always been involved in assist ing residents and boosting the communit y in a numbe r of ways.”
The past few years have been an interesting period of time for me. I’m at a stage of life when many women my age are watching daytime television and meeting each other for midmorning coffee and at weekly bunko nights. However, I seem to be running at a pace that is at least as fast as at any previous time during my life.
The history of my involvement in the East County community began five decades ago when I married a Brentwood cattleman named Roy Gursky who, at the time, was one of the “sons” in the Gursky and Sons livestock business. The Gurskys are one of the original Brentwood families. Grandpa Nathan, the family patriarch, fled the Russian Revolution and lived in San Francisco. They had a summer home in Brentwood where Grandpa kept some dairy cows. His son, Ephraim, attended school in San Francisco and then at Davis. Ephraim and Nathan started a family business, converted from dairy to cattle, and opened a feedlot on Empire Mine Road.
Community service is a core value for the Gursky family because they have always been involved in assisting residents and boosting the community in a number of ways. Roy always believed in giving back to the community from the good things that had come to him. For example, he was president of the Lions Club, the local fire commissioner, and a member of the school board, plus a director both of Harvest Time and the Chamber of Commerce.
I had been born and raised in the suburban culture of Lafayette when it was a small village surrounded by walnut orchards. During pleasant weather, my two younger siblings and I ran free playing with neighbor kids and spending happy summer retreats at our family cabin on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore.
I graduated in 1965 from Walnut Creek’s Del Valle High School and enrolled in UC Santa Barbara’s Art and Art History program with the hopes of one day become curator in some tony art museum. At the same time, Roy was studying Ag Management at Cal Poly with the goal of one day managing the family’s cattle business.
Roy was a senior at the time and working as the manager of a student dorm. One day he brought a group of boys down for a mixer with the girls at my dorm. More than a hundred of us were on the dance floor, but I looked across the room and saw Roy just as he looked in my direction. The two of us engaged in an “across a crowded room” experience. Roy approached me and might as well have asked, “Can I have this dance for the rest of my life?” because we became a couple that very night.
I transferred to UC Berkeley, but our budding romance was interrupted when Roy graduated, joined the Air Force Reserves, and spent the next year in basic training and tech school in Biloxi, Mississippi. He returned during my junior year, began working on the ranch, and married me on September 7, 1968.
I enjoyed country living, but we didn’t have much leisure time. The men were usually up before dawn tending to their horses and cattle and running our large feed mill. They would often be gone until sundown. My own schedule quickly overflowed with responsibilities for managing meals and housework plus serving as a fulltime teacher at Knightsen Elementary School. Life changed dramatically when I gave birth to our first child, Nathan. I quit teaching and devoted myself to the role of stay-at-home mom. Our little world became even more joyful and full when Stephen came along two years later.
“This year we planted 100 baby olive trees. Some day soon we intend to be marketing olive oil under our Gursky Ranch label.”
When Nathan was in kindergarten a terrible downturn in the cattle market turned our lives upside down. Our farmhouse, property, horses, cattle — everything that had made up the beautiful country life we had enjoyed so much — vanished and we had to move into town. We borrowed money to buy a house on Beatrice Street.
We started over to create a new lifestyle. Roy’s brother Barry and his dad tried to hang on to the cattle business for a while as agents buying stock for other ranchers. However, Roy became a partner in a real estate brokerage, and I resumed my interrupted teaching career at Knightsen Elementary.
In 1979 we moved to our current Brentwood property. At that time Apricot Way was little more than a country lane winding among rows of orchards. We had come into possession of ten acres of walnuts and sold our first harvest to Diamond Nuts. We made almost no profit on the transaction, so decided to cut out the middleman and in 1980 registered our Gursky Ranch retail nut business. We joined the Harvest Time growers association and began selling retail walnuts out of our garage.
We grew the business by finding local vendors who could provide additional products for us. The market niche was strong and customers kept coming to us to buy almonds and dried apricots, as well as the walnuts harvested from our own trees. We also attended the annual Food Show in San Francisco where we met vendors, sampled their products, and grew our product list. Gursky Ranch was a seasonal business, open from the October nut harvest through the holidays.
Life was a satisfying round of family, work, and community service until a dozen years ago when Roy was diagnosed with cancer. He battled the condition for nearly a decade and then he was gone. Roy Gursky had been a wonderful human being. He was always a loving husband to me, a faithful father to his children, and a servant to his community. His absence left an aching emptiness in my life and in the lives of many people who knew, loved, and admired him.
After Roy passed, I wanted to grow our walnut business in honor of his memory and to create a viable retail business to leave for the kids and possibly for generations to come. It was tough at the beginning because I had been trained as an educator and not as a businesswoman.
We embarked on a period of seemingly unending trial and adversity. Machinery kept breaking down; appliances and utilities continually seemed to be falling apart. Roy had been like MacGyver when it came to figuring out how to make things work, and we missed him badly. He had always taken care of the details, leaving me to create gift baskets while teaching school and raising children. As a result, his absence left me with a big learning curve, mastering details about such things as finances, contracts, taxes, marketing, and vendor relations.
Fortunately, I discovered that I enjoyed managing the business and becoming the face of Gursky Ranch to the community.
Sales and profits continued to grow until Steve and his wife Sarah and I decided to open the store year-round. We felt surrounded and supported by Roy’s spirit and wanted to keep the operation going just as he had set it up. However, in order to sell more products we had to make changes, such as upgrading our branding and adding vendors. In particular, I wished to practice the Buy Local gospel
I had always preached, so searched out additional local products to put on our shelves. I reduced costs and made the business more environmentally sound by eliminating nearly all of our East Coast vendors.
We continued working to turn our little country store into a thriving business. In 2013 the Chamber of Commerce validated our efforts by selecting us as the Brentwood Business of the Year.
A LIFE OF JOYFUL SERVICE
For all its growth, Brentwood remains a wonderfully family friendly city, retaining some of the roots that I remember from the days when there were fewer than 2,000 residents and everyone knew everybody else. We played various roles in the subsequent expansion. For example, while the kids were growing up we helped organize the first Youth Soccer League and I became a swim team mom, soccer mom, baseball mom, and band mom. (I probably would have become a chess mom, but the kids never competed with the chess club.) I also joined the Children’s Home Society, helping raise money to assist disadvantaged children.
We’ve been members of Brentwood Harvest Time since 1980. I joined the local Soroptimist club in the 80s, supporting their goal of assisting girls and women at home and around the globe, plus granting scholarships to women who were returning to the workplace as a single head of household.
I’m a member of the Brentwood and Oakley Chambers of Commerce and serve as a chamber ambassador. I was a member of the Brentwood Relay for Life committee for a dozen years and served as chairperson during one of them. A decade ago, Roy and I worked with Ed McClellan and his Operation Creekside, helping to put together care packages for the troops. I am still doing that. Last May Assemblyman Jim Frazier honored me as the Woman of the Year for his 11th Assembly District because of my community involvement.
We continue to have a lot of irons in the fire. My sons, Steve and Nathan, have planted a commercial garden and have built a greenhouse so we can now sell organic vegetables in the store and conduct some farm-to-table services with local restaurants. This year we planted 100 baby olive trees. Some day soon we intend to be marketing olive oil under our Gursky Ranch label.
I’ve got five grandchildren who keep us all busy and help keep us young. They were beautiful infants who stubbornly refused to obey their grandmother’s stern commands to stop growing. As a result, Nathan’s 19-year-old Matt is now attending college in Menlo Park. Matt’s 17-year-old sister Lauren attends Menlo-Atherton High School, and 12-year-old Sarah is in seventh grade at La Entrada Middle School. Steve’s daughter, 11-year-old Sophia, attends Bristow Middle School. Her 9-year-old brother Evan is in fourth grade at Ron Nunn School. At the other end of the age spectrum, my mother, Darlene Hay, lives in Summerset I. At 91 years of age she is still going strong.
I’m proud of the men my sons have become and the fine people my grandchildren are developing into. I’m proud of the city that Brentwood has become and of our Gursky Ranch Country Store.
Roy’s spirit remains a strong influence among us. He would be proud, too!
Photos By Ron Essex