Beloved Bakersfield icon Wendy Wayne dies at 64
BY STEVE MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
She traveled to east Africa at age 20, where she lived in a mud hut with no running water or electricity. Later she would come to Bakersfield to work as a nurse practitioner, public health nurse, childbirth educator, credentialed community college teacher, Kern County planning commissioner and the chief administrator at two local nonprofit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of children. As impressive as her resume was, a mere laundry list of her career highlights cannot fully capture the influence Wendy Wayne had on Bakersfield, her adoptive home.
Now Bakersfield will have to learn how to get along without her. The dedicated wife, mother and grandmother — who over three decades grew to become something of a local icon –died early Sunday after a long struggle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was 64.
“Wendy has been one of the really outstanding citizens of our community in the way she has conducted herself over the past 36 years,” said Steve Schilling, the director of Clinica Sierra Vista, where Wayne worked as a nurse and childbirth educator in the late 1970s and early ’80s. “She led a life of meaning,” Schilling said. Blessed with a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of energy and the talent to turn ideas into concrete action, it wasn’t surprising when people around town occasionally referred to Wayne as the “Mother Teresa of Bakersfield” — but only behind her back. She would have none of that sort of talk from friends or admirers. In fact, getting Wayne to talk about herself at all was difficult — often impossible, said Bakersfield artist and family friend Susan Reep. “She had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the world,” Reep said. “There was always another seat at her table. There was always another bed in her house.”
“Wendy has always been my role model.” State Sen. Michael Rubio once said, “She is the type of person who wakes up and thinks, ‘What can I do today to make this world a better place?’ and she has that mentality from the second she wakes up until the moment she goes to
Wayne grew up in Southern California, but came to Bakersfield in the mid-1970s to help her then-boyfriend, Gene Tackett, with his grass-roots and ultimately successful campaign to unseat a three-term incumbent on the Kern County Board of Supervisors. She never left. The pair soon married, and together they would raise two sons, Larkin and Benjamin. In a commencement speech she gave at Cal State Bakersfield last year, Wayne recalled learning to take risks at an early age. “When I was 20, I decided to leave my comfortable home in L.A. and my five siblings and travel halfway across the world to Africa to be a Peace Corps volunteer,” she said. “Now, mind you, I’d never even been camping.” But it was Wayne’s willingness to jump into uncharted territory, to risk failure, that led her to a life of achievement on her own terms.
All with a strong grounding in education. She graduated from CSUB in 1978 with a degree in nursing. Wayne would go on to earn a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in educational leadership. In the mid-1980s, even as poverty programs were seeing cuts at the national level, she was appointed director of Community Connection for Child Care. It was yet another chance to dive into uncharted waters, into a level of administrative complexity and responsibility she had not experienced previously. She helped develop child health programs, day care and health education efforts to combat Kern’s huge poverty challenges. And her history of working in third-world conditions in Africa — and sometimes not so dissimilar conditions in poverty stricken areas of Kern County — helped bring a sense of realistic expectations and that everpresent can-do attitude to her local efforts, Schilling said.
Wayne retired in 2004. But she wasn’t close to being done. The following year, she spent a month in Louisiana volunteering in relief efforts following hurricane Katrina. Working in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she sent home dispatches detailing the devastation and human toll she had witnessed. Some of her observations were published in The Californian, and in every word, Wayne’s compassion was evident, not worn on her sleeve like a badge, but simply embedded in her nature. In the fall of 2006, Wayne returned to Kenya, where she had taught desperately poor students in 1969 and 1970. There she had the chance to visit former student Jedidah Muthoni and her family. In spring 2007, she traveled to Nigeria and India to administer vaccinations to children.
As with her work in Louisiana, she viewed her experiences in Kenya, Nigeria, India and elsewhere as a gift to her, not a gift from her. She said many times over her extraordinary life that she gained much more from her volunteer activities than she ever was able to give. It was one of the guiding principles of her life. Ever willing to accept a new challenge, Wayne served for about 2 1/2 years on the Kern County Planning Commission, finally resigning her position in 2007 after beginning yet another new adventure, taking the reins of then-troubled First 5 Kern, the commission that distributes state tobacco-tax funds to local groups that help children. The organization was in turmoil when she arrived, still reeling from the controversial tenure of the former director. Hope was high that Wayne, through her considerable administrative skills and personal integrity, could restore the reputation of the commission, and many believe she did. But she didn’t have as much time as she had hoped. In March 2008, Wayne left the post after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the body’s white blood cells. She began an aggressive regimen of treatments to fight the disease, and for a time, the lymphoma went into remission. Eventually, it would return, but not before Wayne had the chance to travel, spend precious time with her family and continue to share the philosophy she had established with that first trip to Africa, that by giving, we receive.
Over her lifetime, she was honored many times by those who recognized her achievements. She received the John W. Doubenmeir Award from the American Society of Public Administration in 1994 and she was named Kern County Democratic Woman of the Year in 1996. Her synagogue, Temple Beth El, honored her in 2005 for her lifelong commitment to helping others. And she was inducted into the Cal State Bakersfield Alumni Hall of Fame in 2008. An audience of more than 4,000 listened, laughed and cheered in June 2011 when Wayne gave that commencement
address at the CSUB Outdoor Amphitheatre. As she shared what she called her five WWWs (Wendy’s Words of Wisdom), she talked about the importance of setting goals — daily goals, life goals, and goals in between. It was during her first swim in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Kenya, she told the crowd, that Wayne realized she had swum in three of the world’s five oceans. So she set a goal to swim in all five, including the Arctic and the Antarctic oceans, she told the graduates. “And then I thought,” she said, smiling, “‘While I’m doing that, there’s seven continents — and I want to make love on every continent.’” The crowd erupted in cheers. “I’m happy to tell you today that three years ago, I traveled to Antarctica,” she continued, pausing for more hoots and cheers. “And I swam in the Antarctic Ocean.”
Wayne went on to advise the graduates to take the time to really listen, take risks, find their passion and commit to doing a random act of kindness at least once a week. Because the kindness you give is a kindness to you. “You know, I feel that I’ve had a very magical life,” she told the gathering. “I would tell you that I am the luckiest person in the world.”