Howell Norman Watenpaugh (1930-2006)
Norman Watenpaugh died in a tragiac accident on 15 Oct. 2006 in Gilroy, CA. Norman was born on 14 Oct. 1930. He was married to Michiko Hattori on 13 Apr. 1954. Norman was the son of Howard Norbert Watenpaugh (1899-1975) and grandson of Frank Martin Watenpaugh (1870-1960).

Howell Norman served in the Korean War as an Armaments Weapons mechanic. Norman attended Boise Jr. College and graduated from U. of Idaho in 1958 in Dairy Husbandry. He had his own farm and dairy delivery business, and worked as a farm equipment engineer. He started his own engineering business that specialized in wastewater management. He was an avid fisherman, liked to build things and was interested in photograpy. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church.

Friday, October 20, 2006
By Dennis Taylor

Gilroy's birdman struck down while walking.

The birdsong throughout Gilroy struck a melancholy chord this week with the passing of Norman Watenpaugh.

He died Sunday, the day after his family celebrated his 76th birthday with him. Seventy-six going on 36. For those in the bird-watching community, Norm was one of a kind. For me, he was a mentor. He was tireless advocate for bird and wildlife habitat, and the godfather of a program providing critical nesting boxes for cavity-dwelling birds such as western bluebirds and tree swallows.

He was also an educator - always willing to lead parents and kids on excursions around Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy during the annual Gilroy Earth Day celebration. When grass-roots groups were formed to address the ongoing threat of habitat loss, Norm was there. He was an ever-present face for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society where each spring he kept meticulous records of the number of nesting cavity dwellers in the Gilroy area. An engineer by trade, Norm produced a birdhouse design that allowed for adjustable cavity sizes for different species of birds - a program he continued to run right up to his death Sunday.

All of this at an age when many would trade in the field work for a comfortable chair.

I first met Norm several years ago while walking my dog in Las Animas Park in Gilroy. We were passing each other on a trail and in his hand was what looked like an aluminum pool sweeper and a birdhouse. It was too much for my curiosity. I confided that I was an amateur bird watcher, which was actually a fairly elevated job description for what I did at the time - an amateur bird admirer was more like it.

Over the years I began to walk with Norm as he used the aluminum pole (it was, I later learned, a converted painting extension) to hook the birdhouses from 20 or 30 feet up in trees and check for newborn chicks and fledglings. He would record them in a tattered spiral notepad and later fill out more detailed reports that he'd send along to the SC Valley Audubon Society.

Being a mentor and a teacher came so naturally to him.

This week at his home in Gilroy I was able to glimpse another side to Norm, a husband, father and grandfather - far more cherished than the Norm I knew. Sitting in his living room surrounded by woodcarvings of graceful, elegant birds, his family recalled how dedicated he was to his grandchildren.

The last time I spoke to Norm a week or two ago in front of Nob Hill Foods in Gilroy, he broached the subject of me acquiring some of his "trails" as he called them - the routes where he has hung more than 100 birdhouses.

It didn't make much sense at the time. He was in phenomenal shape, able to hump it up steep trails and still able to carry on a conversation at the top while I was busy getting a couple extra lung-fulls of air. But I now know why he wanted to give it up. Their names are Brett and Alex and Megan, his grandchildren.

His children, Norma and Don Watenpaugh, Sandra McCarthy and Susan Bruner believe he was so dedicated to his children because he wasn't able to spend a lot of time with them while they were growing up.

"He was a field supervisor and was gone all the time," said son Don Watenpaugh.

"He was so hard working - a lot of times he had two jobs - and as a result we all have very strong work ethics," added his daughter, Susan Bruner.

When he had some leisure time, he loved aluminum and steel birds as well. There must be something about flight that intrigued Norm beyond mere curiosity. He was a veteran U.S. Air Force flyer who served in the Korean War.

"He hated war," said his son-in-law, Mark McCarthy. "Yet he knew more about vintage aircraft than most experts."

All of his family has spent time with Norm at air shows, his favorite being the Watsonville show because it is a fly-in and he was able to watch all the vintage planes soar in, Mark said.

Norm has - had - a dry sense of humor that he would use as an expression of affection - "he would tease me all the time," said his grandson Alex - as well as for irony to make a sometimes biting point.

In July we were walking up behind Christmas Hill Park checking birdhouses with fledgling sparrows. He stopped and made a gesture from the treeline toward an open expanse that will soon be home to the Glen Loma housing development.

"I guess there's nowhere else to build," he said. If you weren't looking at Norm, you might miss the irony, but he would always turn and look right at you over the top of his eyeglasses and crack a telltale grin. Point taken.

Life simply delighted him. His wife, Michiko, began laughing even before she could get the story out about their 50th wedding anniversary two years ago.

"We went to Cancun and it was the first time he saw girls with belly button rings," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, as though to say this is another silly Norm story. "He couldn't take his eyes off them. I asked him what he was going to do and he said he wanted to trade me in for two 25-year-olds."

From there the stories flowed.

"Remember the raccoons he'd bring home?" Don asked.

"What about the turtles?" Don's sister Sandra piped in.

"Don't forget the snakes!" Susan finished. "He always had such a soft spot for animals."

And as though Susan's comment triggered a joint memory, the legend of Lacy the dog ran through the siblings like an electric current.

"Dad froze Lacy!" the entire family seemed to belt out at the same time.

Norm's beloved family dog Lacy died one winter day. He took her out back to bury her, but the ground was frozen so he needed to wait a few days.

Naturally, he put her in the freezer.

"But he didn't tell me so I went to open the freezer and here was this dead dog looking at me!" Michiko said, covering her mouth with her hand in mock horror of the memory.

While Norm was indeed a character, he also had a serious side. He could be stubborn, or as Michiko put it, "he often went in a straight line. He did not like to bend."

That is likely why he struggled with understanding why more people didn't participate in local causes when so much is at stake. "He really wanted people to take an interest," his daughter Susan said.

It seems as though I'll have a lot to think about as I'm humping it up those hills with that pool sweeper ? er, paint extension tossed over my shoulder.

Memorial services to be held 11 a.m. today, Friday, Oct. 20 at the Gilroy Presbyterian Church.

Donations can be made in his name to The Audubon Society, 22221 McClellan Road, Cupertino, 95014.

For a look at Norm Watenpaugh out in the field doing what he loved, read The birdman of Gilroy.

Gilroy Loses Birdman
by Emily Alpert of the Gilroy Despatch

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

By Emily Alpert (
Gilroy - Norman Watenpaugh walked six miles a day, two miles after every meal. He walked briskly, despite his 76 years, as swift as the birds he doted on. They called him the Birdman of Gilroy: guardian of bluebirds and barn owls, architect of hundreds of birdhouses.

Sunday night, he was almost home as he crossed Wren Avenue. He didn't see the truck speeding toward him, and unfortunately, the driver didn't see him.

"Gilroy lost its Birdman," his wife Michiko said quietly, folding her hands.

The Dodge pickup hit Watenpaugh as he crossed near El Cerrito Way. He was a block from home, where an hour earlier he celebrated his 76th birthday with his family, splitting pumpkin pie with his grandkids, tearing open gifts and playing board games until dusk. Afterwards, he went out walking, as he always did, Michiko said.

But he didn't come back.

At 7:09pm, Gilroy police received the call. Flares blocked the street from Welburn Avenue to First Street, where shaken crowds gathered on the sidewalks. Yuri Nunez, 33, from Hollister, was standing with his sister outside her Wren Avenue apartment when they heard the sickening sound: not a screech of brakes, but a thud. Hours later, people still clustered on Wren Avenue, hushed and somber.

The driver, a Gilroy man, was not arrested, but could face "a whole slew of charges," said Sgt. Kurt Svardal. The incident will be submitted to the district attorney's office for review.

Despite street lights, the road is dark at night, say neighbors, and cars barrel down Wren Avenue, cutting between busy Welburn Avenue and First Street. In the last three years, there have been at least six accidents at the nearby intersection of Welburn and Wren avenues, one causing injury, according to data prepared by crime analyst Phyllis Ward.

"I've only lived here since March, and I've already seen two accidents," said Steve Zuniga, 45, a resident of El Cerrito Way. He worries about the kids who cut across the wide avenue each afternoon. "There's no place to cross here, unless you go down to First Street."

Sunday, as the sun set, Michiko Watenpaugh grew anxious. She left the house to look for her husband, and found police cars gathered on Wren Avenue, Norman's body veiled by a sheet.

"It was horrific," said Norma Watenpaugh, one of their four children. "We were in shock."

They didn't expect to lose him so soon, daughter Susan Bruner said. Before his death, he used to say he had another 10 years in him, at least, and he'd scarcely slowed after retiring from Gilroy Foods, where he worked as an agricultural engineer. His daughters rattle off his activities: the Audubon Society, Gilroy Garlic Festival, Lions Club, Boy Scouts, Earth Day, Senior Center, and the nameless small gardens he planted in every corner of Gilroy. Norman's bird-shaped whirligigs spin above the blossoms of his corner lot, a certified natural habitat.

"He growed a lot of plants," said Megan, age 7, one of three grandchildren.

"Grew," corrected Sandra McCarthy, Watenpaugh's daughter.

"So many flowers," Megan added. "Like a jungle."

An Air Force veteran, he hated war, but loved soldiers. He attended church every Sunday, alongside grandson Brett. He believed in the sanctity of nature, and the dignity of animals and birds. At city meetings, he was an environmentalist gadfly, a member of Save Open Space Gilroy.

"He was so concerned about some western bluebirds," recalled David Houston, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, "that he was feeding them mealworms, their favorite thing. He'd hang a feeder nearby and make sure nobody messed with it."

Houston also credits him with saving South County's barn owls. He's built more than 100 birdhouses for them, built to the species' unique needs. Walk along Uvas Creek or Las Animas Park and you'll see them: small wooden houses, perched in the trees.

Even a stray cat he nursed back to health still lingers in Norman's yard. Every animal - bird, cat, or human - knows kindness.

Which is to say, it knew Norm.