Ray Olson’s father asked him, “Why there?”
Olson shrugged. He felt he could never satisfactorily explain why he kept returning to the traffic-heavy intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Richmond Parkway, often in the middle of the night. For 13 years, as frequently as daily, Olson would go back to that same, nondescript spot just off of the side of a bustling roadway, near a pipeline interconnect station owned by Chevron. Passing drivers would shoot Olson strange looks. What’s that man doing? Did he need help?
Olson didn’t care. He’d push from his mind the roar of passing cars and the glare from their headlights. He’d have a conversation with his son.
“But why there of all places?” Olson was often asked.
“I don’t know,” Olson said. “It’s just…I feel connected.”
Olson has been visiting the site ever since Nov. 30, 2003, when his son, Raymond, died while he was the passenger of a vehicle involved in a drunken driving-related crash on San Pablo Avenue.
To remember his son, the mourning Olson and his family members built and maintained a make-shift memorial in the very location where Raymond died at age 22. They visited regularly, holding gatherings on Raymond’s birthday. Olson would often replace items that ended up stolen from the site. The memorial featured candles, plants in marble angel planter boxes, stepping stones, wreaths, solar-powered lights and more. When the memorial grew to a certain size, Olson would scale it back.
He often visited late into the night because he knew it was located on Chevron property. He didn’t want to be told to leave. When he read a note posted at the site from Chevron officials asking him to call them, Olson initially ignored it, expecting he would be told to remove the memorial and to never return.
Eventually, Olson and Chevron officials connected. He was stunned by their proposition: Rather than remove the memorial, the company, in collaboration with the city, offered to add to it.
The company set aside land adjacent to the facility to develop a quiet, attractive, memorial park that now houses a lasting remembrance to Olson’s son. While Chevron still owns the property, it will be maintained by the city for public use.
On Saturday, Olson and his family struggled to fight back tears during a dedication at the new memorial, which contains a plaque engraved with Raymond’s face mounted on a large rock, along with a park bench right next to it.
Olson no longer has to stand by the side of a busy roadway to speak with his son. Today, he can have a long, quiet, uninterrupted moment with Raymond.
The memorial park is open for all public members who want a quiet place to remember loved ones. It was professionally landscaped with a focus on drought-resistant plant-life that requires very little maintenance, meaning less noise pollution from sprinklers, lawn mowers or leaf blowers. The memorial is also further removed from traffic.
Joe Lorenz, a representative with Chevron Richmond, said constructing the memorial park made sense.
“We knew we needed to do construction work at this site, and we knew we needed to somehow reach out to whomever was maintaining this memorial to discuss an arrangement of a more permanent memorial for Ray’s son,” Lorenz said. “Clearly it was lovingly done and it was constantly maintained.”
Cesar Zepeda, president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council and Hilltop District Homeowners & Stakeholders Association, described the love behind the project as inspiring. Chevron initially reached out to Zepeda to find out to whom the makeshift memorial belonged.
Zepeda went onto neighborhood blogs to ask around and said he received passionate responses from community members demanding that the memorial be left alone.
“That just showed the love that this community feels for Raymond,” Zepeda said. “And it doesn’t matter if we never met him or knew him. It was the love that you saw coming out of the memorial. That was all that mattered.”
Zepeda also pointed out the memorial’s constant and somber reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving, noting that Raymond wasn’t behind the wheel in the DUI-crash that ended his life.
Now that the memorial will receive regular care and maintenance by the city, Zepeda told Olson he will now need a new hobby. To that end, JCPenney at Hilltop Mall pledged to sponsor Olson’s pursuit of “some kind of hobby, whatever it is,” Zepeda said.
David Gray, spokesman for the Mayor Tom Butt’s office, added that the city plans to dedicate a day in Raymond’s honor. Gray also told Olson and his family to call the city if any maintenance or cleanup is needed at the park.
Olson said he is eternally grateful to Chevron and the city.
“Everyone is treating [Raymond] as if he were their own child,” Olson said. “Now I don’t have to worry about him being forgotten. I don’t have to go on the side of the road [to clean it up] at three in the morning. I can’t thank you all enough. All of you.”