Who was Chauncey Jerabek?
Jerabek is a big name in Scripps Ranch. There is a park, a street, and a school named after him. Students at Miramar Ranch Elementary School dedicated their nature trail to him.
So who was he? He was Chauncy I. Jerabek, the head gardener for E.W. Scripps's Miramar Ranch in its early days. "Jerry," a self-taught horticulturist, came to California from North Dakota in 1910 and was delighted with the vegetation here. The majority of the plants were new to him, and in a few years the man who came to be known as "the tree man of San Diego" knew them all by name.
Kate Sessions, whose own feats of planting earned her the title of "Mother of Balboa Park," brought Jerabek out to meet the newspaper magnate Scripps at his estate, already flourishing in 1911.
Jerry came to work at the ranch in a four-horse supply wagon on a dirt road, taking in the native chaparral. The ranch's hillsides had been planted with pines, eucalyptus, sugar gum, blue gum, and shrubs such as oval leaf and needle bush. His first assignment was to raise the trees already here and to clear off the chaparral in the level places between the hills to plant 20,000 more trees.
He reflected on those days when he visited the ranch in April 1963 to lead nature walks when the San Diego Vassar Club conducted a public tour of the estate, then owned by Margaret Hawkins, widow of Robert E. Scripps: "Why, the ground there was so rocky we said we were harrowing it, we were turning the stones over so the sun could shine on the other side...The trees were to be planted 12 feet one way and 15 feet the other. In the morning when everyone was fresh, the strides they made stepping off the distance were a good full length. But toward the end of the day the strides became shorter and shorter.
"Some men dug small holes with picks, others planted the seedlings. A man on the water wagon filled each basin and a few days later some men came back and hand-cultivated the scooped out soil to prevent evaporation."
He returned in November 1974 to join 300 scouts and residents in trying to save plants that had been put out in the 1890s. They transplanted venerable old shrubs out of harm's way. The highlight of the day was Jerabek's replanting of a tree in the park named for him.
In a letter he later wrote, he reminisced about the early days at Miramar Ranch. He had married Hulda Schultz, a teacher who operated out of a one-room wooden schoolhouse in the center of what became Mira Mesa. At the time it was the only structure in the area. She drove a horse and buggy to school, some kids followed on ponies, most on foot.
The Jerabeks lived in a house on the mansion grounds, which also served as the Miramar post office. Jerry was the acting postmaster. In 1963 he described what his employer did to make life comfortable on the ranch. "Mr. Scripps built the road to Poway over the hump, one to the Fanita Ranch near Santee, a road to San Diego by way of Murphy Canyon, and one to La Jolla. He also had a private telephone line to La Jolla and the only one from San Diego in Miramar."
In 1978 Jerabek made his last trip back to Scripps Ranch for the opening of the new school that would bear his name. A film documenting the occasion shows Jerabek as a dignified, good looking older gentleman.
He said he had polio when he was 8 years old and overcame it because of his "wonderful mother." He wished she could have been around to see a school named for him. "She always wondered if I'd amount to anything," he joked as he cut the ribbon, officially opening Chauncy I. Jerabek Elementary School. He said he had pen pals around the world and he was going to send each of them a piece of the ribbon from this special day.
"This is the biggest honor I've ever received. I can think of no higher honor," said Jerabek as three kindergarten children took him by the hand and led him into their new school.
He marveled at the old trees that now towered over modern Scripps Ranch. "They are like children in kindergarten and first grade," he ruminated. "You start with something small, add a little knowledge and care each day, and you get great things from them." Jerabek passed away a few months later. He was 87 years old. Largely due to his expertise and loving care, Scripps Ranch has become a unique pocket of San Diego, a garden spot providing "country living" in the city.