Tribute is the Final Piece of a Story About a Vision and Love
April 17, 2023

Decades after it was first conceived, and one decade after it was completed, Stanislaus State’s Trans-California Pathway celebrates its 10th anniversary with a re-dedication and donor tribute at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 22. 

That is when it will officially be celebrated as the Wayne and Donna Pierce Trans-California Pathway. The program, open to all, will be held in The Robert Cook Memorial Oak Grove. 

While it’s an area of nature and study, the Pathway is a love story. 

It began in 1989 when botany professors Wayne Pierce and David Gotelli and Geography Professor Ida Bowers teamed with friends and family to plant 300 acorns on the University’s corner lot at Geer and Monte Vista roads. 

For three years, Wayne Pierce connected hoses from a faucet outside the Science 1 Building and hand-watered the plants. His wife, Donna Pierce, would weed the area. Others remember weeding the patch, too. 

After three years, Wayne Pierce said the saplings were on their own and 47 oak trees grew. They made up the proposed pathway until 2008, when Pierce, who was retired, passed away. 

Donna Pierce wanted the pathway her beloved husband dreamed of to be his legacy, and she set about completing it. 

“He never got to see it, but it was his dream,” Donna Pierce said. “We never had any money, and we didn’t know anyone with money.”  

Donna Pierce got to work contributing personal funds and seeking donations to fulfill his long-time goal of creating a pathway on the campus where he was a devoted professor from 1971 until 2007, when he was named professor emeritus. 

“The idea as I remember goes back to the 80s,” Donna Pierce said. “He had so many students who had never been to Yosemite or the foothills or the high Sierra. He wanted students and the community to have a transect of California that demonstrated the vegetation from the Valley to the high Sierra, and he wanted his students to be able to conduct experiments and not have to travel.” 

“He never got to see it, but it was his dream.”

- Donna Pierce

 Gotelli’s widow, Inta, recalled an additional impetus for the project. 

“A group of businesspeople in Turlock had this idea for a museum of the history of Turlock,” Inta Gotelli said. “At some point, they decided they needed gardens for the museum. That’s how the idea for the pathway started. The museum was never started but the garden was, and it took on a life of its own.” 

Bowers, who taught in the Department of Geography and Anthropology but was close to fellow professors Pierce and Gotelli, recalls conversations that add to the tapestry of their inspiration. 

“We came together and were friends and talked a lot about it,” Bowers said. “All of us were interested and committed to environmental issues. Part of our very serious concern was we didn’t see very much emphasis at grade schools, on environmental care and helping students truly relate to the environment, plants, living things and thinking about them and caring about them. We thought if we had this walk on the campus, we could all take students at various times through the walk and talk about that.” 

Their hopes and ideas led to the first pathway workday on a cold November day in 1989 when they planted 300 acorns. They enlisted family and friends and fellow professors to help. 

English Professor Jack Williams and his wife Cynthia were there, and she lost a contact lens as she worked. 

Donna Pierce stuck her finger up in the air, being an admitted smart aleck, to determine the direction of the wind, and she actually found the lens, which the wind carried some 10 feet from where Cynthia Williams had lost it. 

It was just one of the memories that stay with Donna Pierce as she looks at the pathway that was completed in 2012.  

Her favorite memory about working to complete the pathway after Wayne’s death was acquiring the necessary dirt to plant the vegetation. 

“It was January of 2009, and I knew we needed 4,000 cubic yards, 200 dump trucks worth of dirt,” Donna Pierce said. “Nobody was building houses or building swimming pools. I called all the pool people and builders, anywhere I could think of because this girl was not going to pay for it. It cost $36,000.” 

Still mourning the loss of her husband of 44 years, Donna Pierce admits she barely got out of bed every day, but one morning she got up and decided to take bottles and cans to the recycling center on Lander Avenue. She went by way of Colorado Avenue, for reasons she can’t explain, but as she passed Turlock High School, she saw workers replacing the football field. There were her 4,000 cubic yards of dirt. 

“I hung on the cyclone fence and screamed at the foreman and when he came over, I asked what he was going to do with the dirt,” Donna said. “He said, ‘I don’t know lady, but I have to decide in the next half hour.’ I said, ‘I know a place 7 minutes from here that will take it all.’” 

She was showing an elderly friend the pathway when the first load of dirt arrived. Pierce took her friend home and returned to the pathway, hopped in the truck, and rode in it to the high school to get another load of dirt. 

“I have a picture of me in that dump truck,” she said. “That was the first miracle, although I think finding that contact lens might have been a miracle too.” 

The day they planted acorns, she asked her husband when they could have a picnic there. He told her in about 25 years. She held one after 20 years in 2010, when there was still nothing in the ground but oak trees. Two years later, a ribbon cutting celebrated the completion of the pathway. 

Saturday’s celebration acknowledges Wayne Pierce’s dream and Donna Pierce’s generosity to make it come true. 

It will be held on Earth Day 2023 in The Robert Cook Memorial Oak Grove, a fitting spot, Donna Pierce said. 

“He was Wayne’s student, then he became the technician of the Biology Department, and he and Wayne were very close,” she said. “The kid was in love with the pathway when it was nothing but mud clots.” 

Robert Cook died young after surgery to repair a bad aorta in 1992. Wayne Pierce delivered his eulogy, which Donna just recently found written on an index card. It read: 

“Robert and (his wife) Alice are charter members of the group that began the Trans-California Pathway project. This group has spent many hours the past three summers watering and nurturing these trees, and Robert was one of the most loyal participants. … It is our intention to plant a small grove of trees in the next segment of the pathway in Robert’s memory.” 

Located, now, on a pathway named in memory of Robert’s mentor, Wayne Pierce and his generous wife, Donna.