By Peter Rowe
To Iris Engstrand, a neglected hillside plot above San Diego’s Mission Valley is the Jamestown of the Pacific.
Presidio Park is dominated by the Serra Museum, dedicated to missionary Junípero Serra. Plaques note that this is the site of the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast.
The park has seen lots of history.
It’s also seen better days.
“Look at the paint!” Engstrand said, gesturing at the museum’s flaking walls.
“You see the mold?” she pointed to black streaks on the museum’s white tower.
“That clump of trees?” she waved at a cluster of shaggy palms. “It blocks the view, it’s ugly and it’s half dead.”
These are not the ravings of a cranky tourist. Engstrand has a doctorate in history (University of Southern California, 1962) and has taught at the University of San Diego and its predecessor for 48 years. She literally wrote the book on local history — “San Diego: California’s Cornerstone” — and is cherished by a network of scholars as colleague, mentor and friend.
“She’s a real dynamo,” said M. Wayne Donaldson, chair of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “She’s probably one of the most influential people in my entire life.”
“Iris Engstrand,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, “is a scholarly treasure.”
Now 82, Engstrand will teach her last class Tuesday. Don’t expect her to fade away. She’s helping design a virtual reality tour of the Presidio. Campaigning to win UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for El Camino Real. Co-editing The Journal of San Diego History. And insisting the Presidio gets the respect it deserves.
“San Diego,” she said, “just needs to get a little social consciousness about its past.”
Starting, perhaps, with a simple road sign noting the birthplace of California.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Engstrand said. “Here we are in San Diego, the second largest city in California, the eighth largest in the United States, and we can’t even have a sign here.”
Soaked in salt water
When questions arise about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Kate Sessions, Alonzo Horton or any other notable from San Diego’s past, Engstrand is the go-to source.
Not bad for an accidental historian.
Growing up in Laguna Beach, Iris Higbie loved to surf and swim. Her passion for the sea led her to enroll at the University of Southern California as a marine biology major. Even her love life was soaked in salt water. While still an undergraduate, she married Larry Wilson, an albacore fisherman.
For the next six years, she’d bunk aboard fishing boats. Life at sea was an adventure, but marriage also meant new financial pressures. Her parents stopped paying her tuition, so the undergraduate landed a job as a legal secretary.
Her work hours, though, conflicted with the marine biology lab schedule.
A professor noted that Iris had gobs of history units. Why not make that her major, marine biology her minor?
She did, becoming so immersed in this field that she pursued it for a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, all at USC.
Fascinated by Southern California’s Iberian roots, she also won a fellowship that sent her to Spain. In Madrid, she spent two years researching Spanish scientists who had explored the New World.
Her own expedition had touches of glamour, thanks to a roommate’s ties to the crew filming Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren in “El Cid.” The women roamed the Spanish capital in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, borrowed from a studio executive.
Young and bilingual, Engstrand was invited to parties at the U.S. embassy, mingling with actors and visiting dignitaries, including Nelson Rockefeller, then the governor of New York.
Back in the U.S., the freshly minted Ph.D. taught at USC and Long Beach City College. In 1968, she joined the faculty at the San Diego College for Men.
Soon, this L.A. native was synonymous with San Diego history.
Despite her devotion to USC, Iris Wilson was happy to leave Los Angeles. Her marriage had fizzled out. Moreover, she was impressed by Old Town and other efforts to preserve San Diego’s heritage.
On paper, though, she looked like a bad fit at her new school. The College for Men was a private Catholic institution that in 1972 would merge with the College for Women, becoming the University of San Diego.
“I was not only not Catholic, I was divorced,” Engstrand said, “and at the College for Men. But they didn’t care.”
She shook up a small school’s little History Department.
“In many ways, it is her department,” said Colin Fisher, USD’s current History Department chairman. “She created it. She played a role in hiring every faculty member.”
In the classroom, she had a talent for resuscitating the past. Instead of memorizing dates, she urged students to examine the raw materials of life — food, fashion, music, relationships, tragedies, triumphs.
For instance, a lecture on Spanish royalty includes a vivid account of the hidden political and cultural messages in the canvases of Francisco Goya.
“She always stresses the ‘lived experience’ of the people and societies we study,” said Andres Meza, a senior in Engstrand’s course on the history of Spain.
Donaldson, an architect, worked on historic preservation campaigns in the Gaslamp Quarter. Engstrand urged him to investigate the people who built and inhabited those buildings.
“Where did they come from? Why did they come to what was to become the Gaslamp Quarter? What were their families like?” Donaldson said.
“She’s the one who turned me on to really look at the people and their character, and not just to rewrite old history.”
Right place, right time
Credit this rich, multi-disciplinary style to a rich, multi-faceted life. Engstrand’s interest in Spanish scientists, surveying a strange land’s flora and fauna, never faded. In 1999, she wrote “Inspired by Nature,” a history of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
A fascination with the region’s arid climate led her to the San Diego Water Authority’s lawyer, Paul Engstrand. They were married 45 years, until his death in 2015.
An aunt who was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ office manager led to a friendship with the team’s general manager, Buzzie Bavasi. After he became the San Diego Padres’ president in 1968, Bavasi often called on his fellow L.A. transplant.
“My life,” Engstrand said, “has been a series of unusual coincidences, of being in the right place at the right time.”
Coincidence may have been one factor behind Engstrand’s success. Others see a rigorous work ethic and ever-expanding social network.
About 11 years ago, The Journal of San Diego History had lost its editor. Engstrand agreed to become co-editor with another USD history professor, Molly McClain.
“It’s an enormous amount of work but incredibly interesting,” said McClain. “Iris makes everything really fun.”
Wendy Kramer agreed. A historian who lives in Toronto, Kramer found documents proving Cabrillo was born in Spain — unwelcome news to San Diego’s Portuguese community, which long had claimed the 16th century explorer as one of their own.
When Kramer flew here in 2015 to meet local historians, she was uncertain about the reception she’d receive.
Her fears quickly vanished. Engstrand picked her up at the airport, took her out to restaurants, put her up in a bayside condo.
“One of the most lovely things about finding those documents,” Kramer said, “was meeting people like Iris.”
The University of San Diego has never been without an Engstrand, and even after this month’s retirement, the Engstrand Era will continue. Iris’ daughter, Kristin Moran, is an associate dean; a grandson, Tanner Engstrand, is the football team’s assistant head coach.
While leaving a university, she’s not leaving scholarship. She may have another book or five in her — Engstrand estimates she’s already penned 25 volumes — and a course to team-teach (with Derrick Cartwright) on art and architecture.
She’ll also have more time to devote to a bedraggled park.
“She’s particularly keen on the Presidio project,” McClain said. “To see the Plymouth Rock of California being neglected, she is very keen to set that to rights.”
On July 16, a plaque will be unveiled in the park. The inscription honors “the soldiers, missionaries and natives of the Portola Expedition that founded San Diego de Alcalá and gave birth to Spanish Alta California.”
Engstrand was one of the plaque’s backers. Just like she’s pushing for fresh paint, signs, pruned trees and a new banner to join the flags waving outside the Serra Museum.
“The Kumeyaay flag should be first,” she said, “then the Spanish, the Mexican and the United States, if you are going in chronological order.”
History, like a certain historian, never rests.