Celebrating 95 Years of SF history (Part 1)

This Very Special Episode of Crosswalk Confidential differs from its usual format. These memorable events from the streets of San Francisco celebrate the history of woman who has lived here more than twice as long as I have and I was honored to help commemorate her life with a bit of “street theater.”

A few weeks ago my friends C. and M. asked me and our friend F. to participate in what was billed as “a once in a lifetime opportunity.” All we knew was that we’d be involved in some way for C.’s aunt’s 95th birthday party. Her aunt, Fortunata Oliva (“Aunt Flo”  to the family), was the first from her Italian immigrant family to be born in the US, right her in San Francisco. She’d lived her whole life in the City by the Bay, graduated from UC Berkeley, and went on to work in the SF Unified School District for much of her career. She is still active, mobile, and sharp and lives independently in West Portal. All remarkable feats!

The plan was unveiled to us the day before the big event. Thirty family members and the guest of honor would board a festively decorated motorized cable car and traverse the city visiting landmarks from her life. Aunt Flo knew about the bus trip, but what she didn’t know is that at a few stops along the way, they’d encounter some non-union actors celebrating elements of her life in the City.  M. did a thorough run through with us with all the costumes and props that he’d either purchased or created and we chose our roles and practiced reading our scripts. They’d even recruited a friend as a driver so we could focus on changing costumes in the car between stops. Charmed by the idea and relieved we didn’t have to execute any choreographed dance routines, we headed out with our costume boxes and scripts and rested up for the big day.

graduates with signs outside Marina Middle School

Two “graduates” representing the generations of San Francisco students Fortunata taught in her years with the SFUSD. (Even if we weren’t her students we both were born, raised, and schooled in SF.)

March 12, 2017 was one of those San Frantastic days that start out a bit chilly from the overnight fog and warm to a perfect mid-70s. Since it was Sunday, our driver got rock star parking right near our first designated staging area, outside of Marina Junior High School (formerly known as Marina Middle School) as the intersection of Fillmore and Bay. A building diagonal from the school had collapsed during the 1989 earthquake, but the school and its majestic columns withstood that shaking.  Ms. Oliva had taught at Marina for many years, as well as many other schools around the city. I didn’t go to Marina as a kid, but much later, I attended continuing education classes there, hatching my bird nerdiness with ornithology classes offered through CCSF.

We garbed ourselves in red and green graduation gowns (for the colors of the Italian flag) and held signs celebrating Flo and her big birthday. Through the miracle of cellular technology C. and M. gave us updates and ETAs on their arrival. When we saw the cable car bus approaching, we adjusted our caps and gowns and grabbed our signs to greet the guest of honor. We boarded the bus and announced ourselves as representatives of all the students she educated throughout the years, thanking for her years of dedication. Her eyes lit up as she recalled how much being a teacher meant to her “I adored all of my children. I loved the sight of them.”

Fortunata Oliva chocolate bar wrapper

Personalized chocolate bars for the birthday lady and her guests.

We presented her with a “Best Teacher” award a la the Oscars and handed out chocolate bars that commemorated this special woman “95 years in the making” M. hustled us off the bus to keep everything on schedule and we waved good-bye as they departed for a trip through North Beach.  Flo was baptized at St. Peter and Paul church, right next to Washington Square park. She also joined her father on excursions for “groceries” in the neighborhood that were actually opportunities for him to sneak off and play cards with his buddies while she got to have a chocolate treat.  While the party bus cruised towards the narrow streets of North Beach , F. and I were whisked away by H., our calm and collected driver, for our next adventure.





  1. I love this so much! What a beautiful thing to do. Can’t wait for the next installment.

    1. Thank you for reading! It was a really special experience. And there’s an interesting “twist” in Part 2–stay tuned!

  2. […] The continuation of a Very Special Episode of Crosswalk Confidential celebrating the   history of woman who has lived here more than twice as long as I have. (And making a little history in our own way.) You can read Part 1 here. […]

  3. Virginia Thompson · · Reply

    Thank you both for the beautiful tribute to my sister, Flo. Both of you made it such a special day. Flo has always been upbeat and very loving. To me she was the ‘perfect teacher and perfect sister”
    When she was a very young teacher she taught girls who were sent to the Good Shepard sisters in the outer Mission. These girls were thought incorrigible and impossible to teach. She did teach them, not only a tough curriculum, but also how to set a table, how to dress presentably and how to treat others in a dignified manner. They loved her.

    Thank you again for all you did.
    Ginny Thompson

    1. You are so very welcome! Thank you for sharing how much your sister meant to you and more history about her special connection to her students. She is an amazing and inspirational person!

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