Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
Eunice Chee entered her "shedding phase" a few years ago. Her late husband, Donald Chee, "was a born collector," and she had lived among his possessions since his death in 2002. While cleaning out a drawer, she came across a surprising aggregate, one she had forgotten about: a complete collection of Fast Passes.
Don's collection should not be confused with the insipid, plastic Clipper Cards we now use. First introduced in March of 1975, the paper passes each bore a unique design, enabling drivers and fare collectors to quickly discern whether the card was valid. Each month exhibited a distinct design.
As Eunice reacquainted herself with the passes - including ones she had contributed when Don was away - John Hogan was contemplating ways to celebrate MUNI's 100TH birthday on December 23, 2012. Hogan manages the San Francisco Railway Museum, a compact cultural institution, located on Steuart Street and...Don Chee Way.
Don was a San Francisco Municipal Railway project manager who was responsible for, among other significant projects, Muni's F streetcar line. He spent 25 years working for the city, but his passion for classic streetcars was unparalleled. Ordinarily reserved, Don became the F line's ardent spokesman, determined to get the historical fleet running. "It sparked a creativity that I had never seen before in Don," remembers Eunice. To this day, the F line remains one of the world's most outstanding vintage lines. A week before Don died of cancer, his colleagues at MUNI submitted a resolution to name the street after him.
"I knew immediately who should be the keepers of the collection," said Eunice, who had been donating Don's MUNI related possessions to the museum since 2006, when it opened its doors. Her donations are made free and clear, without any stipulations. Eunice was moved to see that John had immediately put the passes on display. Calling her own Clipper Card "pretty boring next to the old fun passes," Eunice lists the March 1976 pass as her favorite, and hopes that visitors will leave excited by them.
Hogan has enjoyed the range of reactions to the cards. Some San Franciscans remember particular designs from one month they carried the passes in the wallets and purses decades ago. It reminds them of a different time in their lives, one in which the details, like the daily commute from a home they no longer live in to a job they have not held for years, have long faded into recesses of memory.
Visitors who have only used the Clipper Card "wonder why the city ever stopped being so daring and creative."
Hogan was immediately taken with the passes' aesthetic appeal and variety. "There is a period from 1976 to 1979 when they are just amazing," he says. Among his favorites, Hogan lists a die cut pumpkin-shaped card (October 1977), a tribute to the Bicentennial (July 1976), and a winning entry in a city-wide design contest for school-aged children (September 1979). He is particularly interested in finding the artists who contributed to the fast passes, but has thus far been unable to learn about who designed them.
In the meantime, Hogan is hard at work on an exciting series for the museum's blog, connecting the individual passes to key dates in local history, such as the November, 1978, pass in use when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. Readers will no doubt be interested in this creative way to connect to San Francisco history, which also includes seeing which pass was in circulation when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January, 1982.
The San Francisco Railway Museum is located on Steuart Street (at Don Chee Way), open 10-6, Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is free.