By David Kligman
SAN FRANCISCO—The Golden Gate Bridge represents something different to everyone.
For PG&E Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley, the landmark is where he proposed to his wife Sarah on Thanksgiving weekend 1971 when he was stationed at Mare Island as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.
“We went out for a drive on that Friday afternoon,” Earley recalled. “Coming back over the bridge, I pulled into an overlook. Looking at the city, I popped the question.”
So Earley didn’t think twice when he was invited to join other business leaders and city, state and national officials for a ceremony today (May 25) to unveil the renovated Bridge Pavilion that coincides with the span’s 75th anniversary (see more about this weekend’s events). PG&E is one of the sponsors of the milestone celebration.
“I wasn’t going to miss it for anything,” he said. “The company has been around 100 years. It’s as iconic as the bridge is. I think it’s great that we’re a sponsor.”
The purpose of the event was a ribbon cutting to showcase the revamped 3,500-square-foot plaza, which includes new overlooks and paths, a new gift shop and a renovated café. There’s also a new plaque that officially recognizes the contributions of Charles Ellis, a civil engineer who designed the bridge but was fired from the project before it opened. The 1938 Bridge Round House, the site of the old gift shop, now is a place where tourists can pose for souvenir photos that show them on the cables or on top of the bridge.
Janet Reilly, president of the board of directors for the bridge, emceed and individually thanked many of the guests. She even mentioned Earley’s engagement 40 years ago, which drew applause.
Also recognized was 95-year-old Gus Villalta, who helped build the bridge and who attended the ceremony.
But mostly the gathering was an opportunity to reflect on the majesty of the 746-foot-high bridge and what it represents. Gov. Jerry Brown said the bridge is a testament to those who built the bridge during the Depression.
“We’re the result of those who came before us and those who come after us,” he said. “That’s what a bridge is. It connects one side to another. And we’re connected to our past and to our future. What a great day! It’s Golden Gate Bridge Day, not just in San Francisco but in California.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents California’s 8th congressional district, said the bridge is a “gateway to the American dream.” She also said it’s amazing to think the span was built in less than five years.
“Seventy-five years ago, people of courage and innovation decided that there would be a bridge,” she said. “This bridge is a reminder that no matter how daunting the challenge or overwhelming an obstacle, America always invests in big and bold endeavors. The history of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge is the history of overcoming doubt, defying odds and achieving what many thought was impossible.”
In between speeches, Martin Scott of the National Park Service performed an authoritative rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And Tracy Nelson of the San Francisco skit musical production Beach Blanket Babylon closed the ceremony with the rousing “San Francisco,” which includes the famous line “San Francisco, open your golden gate.” [Hear Nelson belting out the song.]
For tour guide Linda Cahill, the Golden Gate Bridge is the rare man-made structure that enhances the beauty of the nature around it.
“It’s not a bridge,” she said. “It’s the world’s largest sculpture. There’s something about this bridge. When the sun rises it looks like the first day of the earth and when it sets it looks like the last day of the earth. It’s stunningly beautiful.”
E-mail David Kligman at email@example.com.