This time around, it was a voluntary decision. A half-century ago, it was far from that.
Back in 1962, directors of the hospital — then Tracy Community Memorial Hospital — approved plans to expand the hospital north into Harmon Park. The city of Tracy was willing to sell the 2.3-acre park, but there was one major hurdle to overcome: acquiring reversionary rights freeing the city from its promise to the Harmon Foundation to keep the land as a park “in perpetuity.”
The foundation, created by New York financier William E. Harmon, had provided funds in 1925 for the city to purchase the park land, which then was outside the city limits. Major B.F. Rice, active in the American Legion, led the successful campaign to acquire the grant for the park land.
Local organizations teamed with the city to develop playgrounds, playing fields, picnic areas and tennis courts on the property, which was annexed into the city in 1944.
The hospital was built in 1948 on the southern part of the block faced by Eaton, McKinley (Tracy Boulevard), Beverly and Bessie. The park occupied the balance of the block to the north.
In 1962, hospital directors, seeing increasingly crowded conditions in the hospital, voted to expand the hospital to increase capacity from 49 to 75 beds and enlarge maternity wing and ancillary services and offices.
They wanted to expand partway into Harmon Park on the north side for their project, and the city of Tracy needed to acquire the reversionary rights from the Harmon Foundation to sell the park land to the hospital.
Not everyone in Tracy agreed that was a good idea.
That was especially true for Kitty Pieper, who lived across Bessie Avenue from the park. She was determined to derail the hospital expansion plans into her beloved park, and she was generating plenty of support.
As more and more people began to discuss the issue, the recreation commission — then a body independent of city government — heated things up a notch by voting to oppose the hospital’s park purchase.
And then Gene Schuppan, a Press advertising manager who wrote a twice-monthly column for the Press, wrote of the wonders of playing in Harmon Park with his son, Scotty. More heat.
And all the time, Kitty and her cohort, George Steele, were distributing petitions opposing the sale of the park. Things were reaching a boiling point.
Ford Hudson, the blunt-spoken Bank of America manager who was president of the hospital board, was really getting agitated. He vented some of his steam at the Press, which he thought was giving too much coverage to opponents compared with the hospital. We responded we felt we had balanced coverage of a major community issue.
The hospital board approached the City Council in October 1962 asking to purchase the park, but the council still needed to acquire the reversionary rights and postponed a decision until December.
When December came, there was still no formal response from the foundation. City Attorney Clay Wilkinson reported that he had received a cordial response from the foundation to consider the matter, but no decision.
At the lengthy, and often heated, City Council meeting in December, pros, cons, accusations and charges filled the air. Hudson declared that the hospital absolutely needed the park to make the expansion project work and to receive $300,000 in Hull-Burton federal financing.
Dr. A.R. Glover said that without the planned expansion, the hospital wouldn’t measure up as a first-class facility.
On the other side, Kitty Pieper presented petitions containing 1,116 names in opposition, and several residents spoke against the park sale.
At the end of the long meeting, the council voted, 3-1, to approve the sale, with Mayor W.E. “Brownie” Brown and councilmen Manuel Pimentel and Loren Jolley voting “yes” and Councilman Ben Nielsen voting “no.” (Councilman Earle Williams, a hospital board member, abstained.)
The approval was given with one important caveat: the need to obtain those elusive reversionary rights.
As the hospital continued to make plans for its expansion and to raise $350,000 to be joined with the $300,000 Hill-Burton grant and $150,000 in hospital cash for the $800,000 project, still no word was heard from Harmon in New York City.
Kitty and her crew weren’t waiting passively, though. They kept busy, too, sending copies of the petitions, letters, telegrams and press clippings to the foundation offices in New York City.
The new year, 1963, soon arrived, and still no word. Finally, on March 7, 1963, Wilkinson received a letter from the Harmon Foundation attorney. The gist: The Harmon heirs voted to deny the city’s request for reversionary rights.
The foundation board members said the reversionary rights would be transferred to the city only if they felt the community supported the sale. “We are sure that the help our group received from those who wrote letters and sent telegrams to the Harmon foundation was an important factor in finally resolving this issue.” the letter read.
Kitty Pieper and her crew had won.
What many considered “the little people” of Tracy had spoken, and the civic leaders who formed the hospital board had been rebuffed.
But all was not lost for the hospital expansion. Somehow, despite repeated claims they could not, the hospital’s architects revised their plans so that the expansion project could be completed without the park land. The expansion work went ahead and was completed in 1965.
Fast-forward to 1976. Hospital directors were again planning an expansion project as Tracy continued to grow. This time, they quietly contacted the city and asked to buy the park land.
When the request surfaced, there was no organized opposition, as everyone agreed that if the hospital was to expand, this time it needed the park land.
Early in 1976, the Harmon heirs approved passing the reversionary rights to the city. The hospital bought the park property from the city for $65,000 and began building.
A $2.5 million project adding a two-story building and expanded emergency room, laboratory and operating suite was the result.
Now, after new property has been purchased west of town in the Gateway Business Park, the hospital is staying put, at least for the next 10 to 15 years. And that means the original Harmon Park land, hotly contested 50 years ago but eventually purchased by the hospital, will remain an important part of the longtime home of Tracy’s community hospital.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at email@example.com.