Meet Pops, A San Rafael Icon


Pops in his favorite whip.

Killian Brait, Contributor

Gary McFadden lowered his thumb and got in the car. The teenager was making his second trip to San Francisco, putting thousands of miles between him and his hometown: Mansfield, Ohio. That’s not to say McFadden was running from Mansfield. No, in fact, he was running towards the opportunity that only SF could offer in the summer of 1967.

He wasn’t alone either; thousands of high school students were also eager to become involved in the counterculture movement rocking the country.

However, the hippie lifestyle soon lost its allure. McFadden needed money and so he began to work as a printer. He quickly realized he didn’t like working indoors and transitioned to construction. Money wasn’t an issue at this point. McFadden wasn’t rich, by any means, but that had never been his goal. He needed money for food, shelter, and showers, anything else was an added benefit.

By 1982, McFadden had settled down in San Rafael, a few blocks from the local high school, with his wife and son. In the following years, he would have his second and third sons with his now ex-wife. It was during this time that McFadden was a smoker. A habit that would leave him with a smoker’s cough each time he laughed. Smoking would become one of the only things McFadden regretted, “I read the warning on the side of the packet and figured it wouldn’t happen to me.”

In the mid-‘90s, McFadden’s divorce would, unfortunately, keep him from seeing his sons all that often as they were approaching high-school age.

This changed when the football coach at the high school noticed McFadden constantly hanging around the football team to watch his oldest son play. When the coach found out what was going on, he immediately accepted to have McFadden, commonly known as “Pops” by this point, work as a volunteer for the football team. Pops would help the team in whatever way he could, setting up water for the team, taking care of equipment, eventually setting up fields. In the early 2000s, when his sons had graduated, Pops decided to continue helping out.

With each passing year, Pops would decide to return to the school, taking on more responsibilities and gaining more experience. Even during a nine-year period of “houselessness” Pops stayed with the school, living out of whatever vehicle he could. When Pops talks about this period of his life, he discusses it in a very matter of fact way, the way someone would talk about something that they don’t view as bad, even if the rest of society might. In Pop’s words he was “never hopeless or helpless,” and he did not consider himself homeless since he always had a vehicle to stay in. That is why, when Pops discusses his current living conditions – a house in the Canal with a bathroom, kitchen, and bed – he isn’t merely happy to have a roof over his head. Instead, he believes he is “truly blessed.”

When I turned up outside his on-campus office the morning of the Bell game, Pops was drinking his morning coffee and preparing to set up the football field for the upcoming student vs. teacher football game. It was hard not to notice the tie-dye shirt he wore that day, even if the colorful spirals seemed normal on him.

That day was a good day for Pops, he was open and cheerful, and the questions I had for him would often turn into narratives about his past.

When I asked him about his name, he chuckled before telling me how his wife had started calling him “Pops” around 1985, then his kids, then their friends, and before long the entire school was referring to him as “Pops.”

When I asked him about the trip from Mansfield to San Francisco, he told me the story of a ride he got in “redneck territory” where the driver was drinking beer and had a pistol in the glove box in order to shoot any wild animals they saw.

However, the best stories about Pops come from those who know him. While he would never admit it, nor want it, Pops has become an iconic figure at San Rafael High School, and so it seems most people have a story about him.

Jose De La Rosa, the athletic director at SRHS, told the story of how Pops saved the Wrestling MCAL finals by setting up Gym Two for the finals with less than an hour’s notice.

Fabricio Maldonado recounts the first thing Pops ever said to him and the football team during freshman year, “Hello my name’s Pops. It’s pronounced ‘Pops’ spelled ‘G-O-D’.”

Ben Johnson, campus security at SRHS and the coach Pops started with, tells perhaps the most touching story. It was Homecoming, and Pops had heard he would be Grand Marshal. Johnson knew it was an emotional moment for Pops, yet he was stunned when Pops arrived wearing a black tuxedo with tails, a top hat, and bow tie while driving his signature electric cart. When Johnson asked why he had dressed so nicely, Pops responded that he had to “dress appropriate for the occasion.” This story illustrates Pops’ appreciation of the school and the students, as well as his all-around great spirit.

These are stories that show what Pops has achieved simply by supporting the SRHS community. Pops is without a doubt an icon, he’s been at the school longer than any of the current students have been alive. He’s the guy who set up a peace sign out of Christmas lights on the edge of campus to “spread the love” in true hippie fashion like he always has.

That’s why, when Pops’ health forces him to retire from his work at SRHS, it will truly be the end of a great era.

I said at the beginning that it had never been McFadden’s goal to become rich. I was talking about money, and on that point, I still believe I am right, yet, Pops is rich. His life, his choices, and his community have made him one of the richest people I know, and the only evidence you need of this is that he keeps coming back, and keeps making a difference.