News relating to Camp Mather throughout the year.
Paul Xavier Spring, who retired six years ago from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department as Camp Mather’s year-round gardener caretaker, died of natural causes at his home in Vacaville on Nov. 4. He was 68.
Paul was born on May 23, 1955 in San Francisco. At the time, his parents, Jack and Helen Spring, and his older brother, Brian, were living in the Sunset District. His parents later moved to the Westwood Highlands neighborhood of San Francisco near Mt. Davidson and City College, where they raised their four children.
Paul graduated from St. Emydius Grammar School in 1969 and from Riordan High School in 1973.
Paul’s father, Jack Spring, who predeceased him, was the former general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department from 1975 to 1980.
“He was a great brother,” said his younger sister, Eileen.
“We were all close in age. I remember him walking me home from grammar school when I was little... and riding bikes together and hiking together. We’d walk down the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River and go fishing. The boys would fish and I would swim.
“He was very generous and kind and funny. He had an amazing sense of humor. And he loved being outdoors.”
Kevin O’Connell, a close childhood friend and classmate of his at St. Emydius, Riordan and City College, noted Paul got his Associate of Science degree in horticulture at City.
“He got along with everyone,” O’Connell said. “He was the type of guy you liked when you met him. He didn’t have a bad bone in his body. “
Another friend. Richard Griek, said Paul started his first job in 1976 as a gardener with a private landscape company and worked his way up to foreman and later superintendent.
Paul started his career with the City in 1983 working as a gardener for the San Francisco Public Works Department. He later transferred to the Recreation and Parks Department as a gardener. Paul worked for the City and County for 34 years.
Paul married Christine Gilleran in 1990 at Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco and together they had one son, Matthew, who is now 27 and lives in Groveland, Ca. Paul and Christine later separated.
Around 1992, Paul became the supervisor of the gardening crew of the Urban Forestry Division of Rec & Park, said Jane Herman a friend and former co-worker.
“Our job focused on reforestation in Golden Gate Park,” Herman said. “We worked together for about three years planting and caring for trees in the Park before he was selected to be the gardener-caretaker up at Camp Mather.”
In the spring of 1995, Paul and his family moved to Camp Mather when he was assigned by SFR&P to takeover the gardener-caretaker position there. He held that job for 22 years until he retired in 2017.
He was among a handful of City employees who stayed in Camp during the devastating 2013 Rim Fire, which burned 400 square miles of the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. At the time, it was considered the largest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history. When San Francisco firefighters and the Forest Service’s “Hot Shots” arrived from around the country, Paul and a handful of other Camp Mather staff stayed in Camp and showed firefighters where critical infrastructure was located.
Mike Cunnane, who worked 47 seasons at Mather, half of them with Paul, was manager of the Camp at the time.
“Paul was much more than our gardener and caretaker,” he said. “Paul loved the guests and helped out wherever he could. He helped train and lead our fire crew, served as the liaison for the Strawberry Music Festivals and helped teach kids to fish through our recreation program. But Paul's finest accomplishment was his efforts helping fire fighters divert the Rim Fire, which saved the Camp in 2013.”
At the height of the fire, with his eyes and throat smarting from heat and smoke, Paul was told by the fire chief in command to leave – to go home. He looked at the commander and said, “This IS my home.”
At the time, and for two decades prior, Paul and his family were the ONLY year-round residents at Camp Mather. Some affectionately called him the mayor of Mather.
A brass plaque in Camp near the flagpole commemorates the firefighters and staff who helped save Camp. Paul’s name is on that plaque.
Tom Siragusa, Deputy Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department at the time, said, “The best part about Paul was that he knew every square inch of that camp. It was like having somebody up there who owned the place.
“During the Rim Fire, when a bulldozer was cutting a fire line around the camp, we lost a water line. Within seconds, Paul located where the line was cut and a short time later was able to procure the right materials and repair the pipe. If he didn’t know where that pipe was and didn’t have the skills and ability to repair the pipe, then the Camp would have been without water. We needed that water to fight the fire and to put the camp back together.
“His love of the Camp and his passion for making sure that it was not going to be damaged in any way was instrumental in saving the camp,” Siragusa said.
Paul’s passion for Camp Mather went back a long way. He had vacationed there as a kid with his parents and siblings.
“He was an avid fisherman,” his older brother, Brian, recalled. “Paul and I spent a lot of time together. We did a lot of fishing and exploring at Camp Mather. We vacationed there every year from the time we were little.”
In keeping with his job title, Paul was someone who truly cared. In addition to providing grounds maintenance and security for San Francisco’s 337-acre family recreation camp for two decades, he was the type of guy who bent over backwards to help guests and staff there.
“Paul was just a nice guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” his friend, Kevin O’Connell said.
Last summer, an elderly couple who had vacationed at Camp for years, sat in front of the dining hall to be first in line when the doors opened after the staff ate their dinner. Paul stopped and chatted with them as others walked past. The woman later said she mentioned to Paul that her husband had forgotten to pack his underwear. Paul told her he had some extras and delivered them to their cabin later that evening. Not quite the shirt off his back, but close.
“He enjoyed helping everyone – from charging a dead battery to directing them to the dining hall,” says his friend Neil Fahy, at 96 the City’s oldest employee and a naturalist at Camp Mather. “And his knowledge of the camp was encyclopedic. It ranged from when structures were built to where the sewer and utility lines were located.”
As a volunteer S.F. Rec & Park naturalist, Paul worked closely with Neil.
“He really enjoyed telling the guests his first-person account of the Rim Fire and the beetle infestation,” Neil said.
“I’ll miss his smile and cheery good morning at breakfast as we started another fun-filled day at Camp Mather. We did a lot together but what I enjoyed most was the laughter. Now, when I ask myself Mather questions, I think, ‘What would Paul say?’”
Claudia Reinhart, a friend and former manager of Camp Mather, remembers Paul’s generosity.
“One of the really caring and nice things Paul did beyond his duties was to help people with planting memorial trees at camp in honor of colleagues, friends and family passings. Under the radar, low key, personal and he never said no.”
Paul’s favorite hobbies included the outdoors and gardening, the Giants and 49ers, fishing and hiking, rock and roll concerts, reading and cooking.
Bob Frantz, a Friends of Camp Mather board member, said: “I first met Paul in 2005 during my first FoCM precamp volunteer week. I always found him willing to help us out with tools, hardware, and use of his truck, whatever we needed to get the Camp ready for the summer.”
Paul’s favorite places were the City where he grew up, Camp Mather, Tuolumne Meadows and Peach Growers near Camp, where he had a summer cabin. After his retirement in 2017, Paul spent summers at Peach Growers.
Paul had a home in Groveland and was past president of the Tioga High School Board of Trustees in Groveland, where his son, Matthew went to school.
Since retiring, Paul roomed with his friend, Bruce Rasmussen in Vacaville during the winter months. They were neighbors in Peach Growers.
“Paul moved into my place after having hip replacement surgery, about two and a half years ago, before Covid,” Rasmussen said.
“He was always willing to step in and help anyone with anything. He had a lot of knowledge about how things worked. He was good at problem solving.”
When he had a problem to solve, Bruce said he’d look for the best solutions. He always wanted to make sure he did things the right way.
He had a lot of skills, as a gardener, handyman and jack-of-all trades. And, Rasmussen noted, he was an experienced tree faller.
“He volunteered because he loved working at Camp Mather. He called the workers there ‘his boys.’ He made the Camp a better place.”
When Paul finished his summer volunteer work last September at Mather, he stayed on at his cabin in Peach Growers until October. He had fallen in the middle of the month and was rushed to the emergency room in Sonora with a dislocated hip. When he returned home to his cabin a few days later, before heading down the hill to Vacaville, he said one last goodbye to Camp Mather. Two days later he passed.
Allison Murnin, who worked with him at Camp Mather, said, “Paul had many gifts – he was gentle and kind, unassuming and generous, intelligent and kind-hearted. He was a patient and tender friend to all and a champion of nature and the people he so deeply loved.”
The landscaped lawn area and ball field at Camp Mather are among his lasting legacies. He once recalled the hours it would take him to mow the grass. During the off-season, he said he’d sometimes drive his John Deere mower in circles, creating labyrinths in the acres of uncut grass to keep from boredom. He, and his father before him, planted many of the trees in the area, including the quaking aspens around Birch Lake and the stately sequoias in front of the Dining Hall and Bunkhouse.
His mother and father, Helen and Jack Spring, and his brother, Patrick, predeceased Paul.
He is survived by his wife, Christine Gilleran of Groveland; his son, Matthew, of Groveland; an older brother, Brian Spring (and his wife and Wendy Kahn) of Mill Valley; a younger sister, Eileen (Spring) Erickson (and her husband, Kenneth Erickson) of Rancho Murieta; and several nieces and nephews.
Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Paul’s life on Friday, December 8 from 1 to 5 p.m. at Lake Merced’s Boathouse, 1 Harding Rd., San Francisco.
– Tom Graham