That the son of parents who relocated from Depression-era Arkansas to work the packing sheds of Salinas should work to honor the author of The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps not surprising. But that the same man, Jim Gattis, should be an important linchpin between the private local donors and the large foundations who together helped to make this year''s opening of the National Steinbeck Center possible is both intriguing and worthy of note.

"The project is a result of the cumulative efforts of a lot of people," says Gattis, who himself drove a lettuce truck as a young teen. "Over a 20-year period, a lot of people--Steinbeck fans--coming out of the educational side were very significant in having the vision. In taking it to the next level, when we got into final fundraising, we realized we needed other people."

Ironically, many of those "other people" were folks like Gattis, born--or at any rate, reared--with John Steinbeck''s literary legacy hovering over the city of Salinas; a presence as perennial to locals as the Salinas River.

"I was simply not aware of Steinbeck," confesses Gattis, who, at the peak of his fundraising efforts for the center, read all of the Nobel Prize-winner''s works. "I had fallen into the trap of most locals--that it was easy to take Steinbeck for granted. He was always there. I''ve used the illustration that it''s like Point Lobos, one of the most noted places in the world, but how often do locals go there?"

Gattis admits that he was browbeaten into becoming a convert to Steinbeck and the center that now honors him. The founding president of the California International Airshow, and a former president of the Hartnell College Foundation and past boardmember of the Community Foundation for Monterey County, Gattis already had a reputation for going into the community and seeking assistance for a variety of causes. "A group of five or six people who had supported everything I ever asked put me in a room and beat me up for two or three hours and asked me for something in return," recalls Gattis.

A longtime Salinas merchant who until recently was the purveyor of an Oldtown men''s clothing store that still bears his name, Gattis was very quickly able to parlay his name and connections into some pretty sizable donations for the Steinbeck Center. On one of his first forays into fundraising, he approached the Salinas Valley-based Harden Foundation and convinced the board there to donate a million dollars to the new National Steinbeck Center--a donation that also met the goals of the Los Altos-based Packard Foundation, which just a few weeks earlier had given the fledgling Salinas project a $500,000 two-for-one matching grant.

"I thought there was nothing to this," says Gattis of that first miraculous coup. "I found out how difficult the next million was."

As a local businessman, Gattis also found it easy to understand the skepticism with which much of Salinas viewed the Steinbeck Center project. On the one hand, local merchants desperately wanted to see the center built in the hope that it would draw tourists to Steinbeck Country. On the other hand, the project had been talked about for so long, that "a pervasive attitude of concern was whether the project would be built or not."

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The solution, says Gattis, was to tap locals for five-year pledges and to ask specifically for a first payment just for the project''s exhibit and design phase." The idea was that if the project "was for any reason unsuccessful," donors would be released from any future obligations.

The strategy apparently worked. In addition to the Packard and Harden grants, plus an additional $ 3 million from the city of Salinas'' Redevelopment Agency, around $5 million was raised from the local community--a miracle in itself--and the project that for years had been only a pipe dream this June opened in what locals hope will soon be a revitalized downtown. (Meanwhile, Gattis himself continues to raise money for the Center''s new agricultural wing, slated to open in the year 2000.)

The National Steinbeck Center museum is now entering its second calendar year--a tribute not only to Steinbeck, but to locals like Gattis who believed in a museum to celebrate the author''s life, and then worked to make that tribute a reality.

--Jill Duman


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