By: Ari Pintado
Being surrounded by people you truly care about has been a constant in Greg’s life. Many of his oldest friends stood by him for several ventures, running events for the community and for the exciting moments that life brings. When Greg decided to enter politics, those very same friends were right there by his side.
One of these people is one of Greg’s longtime friends, Larry Cunningham. Greg and Larry first met in the 70s while they were both a part of the Chula Vista Jaycees. The Jaycees was a service organization made up of young men who ran several community events, including the Fiesta De La Luna parade and carnival, the Miss Chula Vista and Jr. Miss contests. Larry recalls them both being single at the time and were roommates on a property they had bought on F Street.
Greg graduated from San Diego State in 1970 and joined the Sweetwater Union High School District as a teacher at Montgomery Middle School. He taught driver training in the morning and was in class in the afternoon. He transferred to Bonita Vista High School midyear and became its Dean of Student Activities.
Greg had long been interested in politics. He was appointed to the city of Chula Vista‘s Parks and Recreation Commission and along the way met Cheryl Willett. Both were teachers and both were interested in local politics. After four years of dating, they married in December 1975. Two weeks later, Greg asked Cheryl what she thought if he ran for City Council. She offered to help him campaign.
Larry remembers being a part of Greg’s team when he decided to run for City Council and later on his run for Mayor. The group consisted of a small group of friends. In addition to Larry, Jerry Prior, Ken Weimer, Jim Biddle, Hal Coupar, Mike Bailey and Cheryl ran his campaigns.
“That was the first time any of us had ever been involved in politics,” said Larry about their experience. “It was hard work but we had lots of fun.”
Greg ran for City Council in the April 1976 primary. He came within three percentage points of winning out right. More precinct walking, sign posting, neighborhood coffees and fundraisers later, Greg was elected in June and was sworn in the following week at age 27. His first vote was for a sculpture, the Sea Shanty, on the grounds of the new Library at Fourth Avenue and F Street, the former site of the F Street School that he attended as a little boy.
It did not take long for Greg to realize once you become a public figure the famous saying, “you have a reputation to protect” really does apply.
Larry remembers a story about the first time Greg almost had a public relations nightmare. Greg was on his first term as a Councilman when he and Larry decided it was time to do some cleaning in the backyard of a rental they owned. While combing through the backyard, they discovered several large marijuana plants growing throughout the yard. These plants had belonged to the current renters, but the property belonged to Greg and Larry.
Without a second thought, the two men quickly began pulling out every single plant. They were gone within a few hours. Greg and Larry acted fast before any one got the wrong idea about the Councilman.
“It was not a good look for a newly-elected Councilman,” said Larry, or for Larry, who later served several terms on the Chula Vista Elementary School District Board of Education.
Fast forward a few years later and Greg was elected mayor in 1981. One of his favorite Sunday drives was along the alleys of older Chula Vista. He kept a log of unpaved alleys on a whiteboard in his office—projects on a to-do list. Dredging began on San Diego Bay near J Street and Bay Boulevard, a necessary but questionably fragrant task. He enjoyed taking Cheryl and their daughter Elizabeth for a Sunday drive to watch as the dredging took place. The first drive was interesting. The second was a repeat of the first. And by the third week, even Elizabeth scowled her disapproval.
The city delivered Council agenda packets in manila envelopes on Friday evenings. During Greg’s tenure as mayor they grew in size to fill a briefcase, then a suitcase. Greg used highlighters on almost every document. His family knew what to get him for Father’s Day, his birthday and Christmas: a package of 24 yellow highlighters. Someone asked Elizabeth what her dad did when he was at home in the evening. She answered, “He goes Pssht. Pssht. Pssht.” That is the sound a highlighter makes as it’s drawn along printed text.
The Montgomery annexation south of L Street in Chula Vista in 1985 was the largest annexation ever recorded of a populated region in California. Greg also worked on annexing into the city a smaller portion of county property near Hazel Goes Cook’s historic home in the Pepper Tree neighborhood. Knocking on doors and introducing himself occupied several Saturday afternoons. One experience was especially memorable. A resident came from preparing dinner to the front door, carrying a butcher knife in her hand. She invited Greg in. “Not until you put the knife down,” he said!
Corky McMillin’s Rancho Del Rey housing project was accessible from newly widened East H Street. It protected hillsides and canyons while providing homes. At one time it was said that half the people who lived in Chula Vista either lived in or had lived in a house that Corky had built. In the early 80s, the Eastlake Development Company approached the City Planning Department with plans for a 3,000 acre development in what is now Eastlake. Never having approved such a plan, the City turned the Company away. In a subsequent meeting with the Mayor Greg, using his skills as a high school ASB Advisor accustomed to juggling football, basketball and activity schedules and working with ever-ambitious students, the company concurred that a framework of the project’s various neighborhoods could be phased in more suitably.
Neighborhoods would be linked to one another, and include preserved open space, recreation facilities, business and commercial centers and areas for schools, churches and parks: Eastlake Hills, Shores, Greens, Vistas and Woods. Eastlake has been long recognized statewide as one of the best communities in the region.
In 1976, the city of Chula Vista presented a plan for a hotel and convention center on Gunpowder Point to the California Coastal Commission, who rejected it. A nature center was also included. As mayor, Greg worked with the City Council and submitted a new plan to the Commission in 1983. Outreach to the public was plentiful, with Greg loading a screen, projector, slides and fliers into the trunk of a car he affectionately called the Mayor Mobile.
One mid-November Saturday, Cheryl informed Greg that she was close to delivering their second daughter. “Can you wait ‘til I finish the 10am presentation?” he asked. “No,” she answered. Off they went, driving west on J Street to the home of an aide who helped him move the equipment from Greg’s car to his so the presentation could go on as planned. Emily was born about an hour later. As for the Local Coastal Plan, it was approved in 1984.
One of Greg’s favorites was the construction of the Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center. Groundbreaking took place in 1986. Opening was July 4, 1987. Later renamed the Chula Vista Nature Center, it transitioned into an independent 501(c)3 non-profit with a new name, the Living Coast Discovery Center, in 2010. Although temporarily closed during the pandemic, when the Center reopens Greg and Cheryl urge people to visit on their birthdays and take a friend on the friend’s birthday. The Center relies on admission to stay alive.
During Greg‘s early years as mayor, new opportunities presented themselves along San Diego Bay, and especially the J Street Marina. Jake’s Restaurant on Marina Parkway was one of his favorites. He would go there at least twice a week for lunch and throughout his being seated in a booth, individuals would stop by, ask questions or propose an idea or two. They found Greg as he always was: approachable, professional and understanding. The Galley at the Marina was also a favorite. In the 1980s, the upstairs management office provided a fine place for viewing fireworks permitted at that time. It remains open, serving delicious fish and chips.
Many projects saw their way to conclusion during Greg’s mayoral tenure, including the Blue Line trolley from San Diego to San Ysidro, the most heavily used line in the system, the California Yacht Marina and Chula Vista RV Resort.
Greg doesn’t talk about his efforts to build consensus. He just did it. He knows he can’t make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time, but he made every effort to encourage people to see other points of view.
Greg’s term as mayor concluded in 1990. By then Chula Vista was San Diego County’s second largest city. In that year, Greg signed a Joint Powers Agreement with San Diego County and the City Of San Diego to set aside space in the Otay Valley Regional Park where they shared borders. The cleanup of the OVRP was an incredible undertaking. More is to come on Greg’s efforts to create a Scout Camp in the OVRP in the final installment of this series.
Larry shares that in his 50 years of friendship with Greg he has always seen him constantly serve his community. “He has always been involved in his community, from Jaycees to city government and county government,” said Larry. “Chula Vista and San Diego are very lucky to have had Greg working for the betterment of the community.”
It is no secret that Greg has created many memories with his friends, family and with the people of Chula Vista.