Edwards Street Sign 03.04.2016. Photo: courtesy Bob Gantz
Neighbors gathered March 4 to celebrate a sign dedicating a block of Edwards Street in Berkeley to a couple that left their mark. Photo: courtesy Bob Glantz

By Robert Glantz and Judy Kennedy

Friends and neighbors gathered March 4 to celebrate the unveiling of a sign dedicating the 2300 block of Edwards Street in Berkeley to the memory of Eugene and Mary Tarrant — community organizers who became known as “the Mayor and First Lady” of Edwards Street.

“Gene” and Mary Tarrant were the first African-American family on the block (which runs between Bancroft and Channing), and when they moved into their home, in 1953, they were greeted by protesters. According to Gene, he politely told the assembled crowd that they could picket all they wanted, but he and Mary planned to stay and to be good neighbors.

The couple made good on that promise through perseverance and hard work. Among other things, they were instrumental in forming the block watch association, launching the neighborhood newsletter and organizing the annual Edwards Street block party. That event will celebrate its 42nd anniversary this summer.

Mary and Gene Tarrant dancing at the wedding of neighbors Bob Glantz and Nancy Montgomery at the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park in 2004. Photo: Cantoo, Inc.

In the early 2000s, Gene and Mary’s community organizing efforts were honored by Berkeley’s mayor and City Council.

“The benevolent spirit of Gene and Mary Tarrant lives on here on Edwards Street,” said block historian Judy Kennedy, a neighbor who worked with Berkeley City Councilman Darryl Moore, his aide Ryan Lau and Roger Mason of the Public Works Department to have the block dedicated in honor of the couple.

Gene and Mary at their 1943 wedding. From the estate of Eugene and Mary Tarrant

Eugene A. Tarrant was born in Ennis, Texas, in 1919. Mary (née Williams) Tarrant was born in Natchez, Mississippi, about the same year.

They met in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1942 when Gene was home on a short leave from the U.S. Navy. (A Pearl Harbor veteran, he served aboard the USS San Francisco for the duration of the war.) Though he’d been out nightclubbing until the wee hours, his mother insisted he go to church with her on Sunday morning and that he wear his uniform.

From the choir loft he heard a beautiful soprano voice. He asked his mother to introduce him to the singer, Mary Williams. This led to three nights of dinner dates that culminated in Gene proposing to Mary before heading back to his ship and the war in the Pacific. She said yes, and they were together for “three days and 65 years,” as Gene described their long and happy marriage.

The couple moved to 2327 Edwards St. on Sept. 20, 1953. Gene and Mary had no children and no living relatives. They both said Edwards Street was their family.

The dedication sign on Edwards Street. Photo: Bob Glantz

Following a rash of burglaries on the block in 1973, Gene and Mary hosted a meeting in their home to form a neighborhood watch association. This also led to the launch of the annual Edwards Street block party. For the celebration, the street is blocked off, a band strikes up music and neighbors contribute food for a potluck. Along with food, music and camaraderie, the party includes games and prizes for the kids.

And, of course, a toast is always raised to Gene and Mary, the couple whose efforts helped make the 2300 block of Edwards the community it is today.

“Gene and Mary Tarrant played a vital role in making the 2300 block of Edwards Street a strong, congenial and cohesive community,” said Glantz.

The jazz band assembled by then-neighbor Neal F. Heidler (on bass) strikes up a tune at one of the Edwards Street block parties. Photographer unknown
Bob Glantz (left) and Siggy Zerweckh work the grills at an Edwards Street block party, circa 2002, seen with a satisfied young customer. Photographer unknown

A crowd of neighbors, as well as Councilman Moore, came out March 4 to celebrate the dedication of the block and admire the new signage. The placement of the sign is significant in that Gene for many years served as the block’s unofficial parking warden. On street sweeping days, he would go up and down the block warning people to move their cars. Said longtime friend and neighbor John Rodgers: “Over the years, Gene probably saved half the people on the block enough money on tickets to buy a new car.”

Gene and Mary were happily married for 65 years. In 2004 they attended the wedding of neighbors Bob Glantz and Nancy Montgomery. Rather than toss the bouquet, Nancy handed it to Mary and asked the couple to dance to their favorite Nat King Cole number. The idea was that since Mary and Gene, who Bob and Nancy describe as their “mentor couple,” had had only a bare-bones wedding during the lean years of WW2, they wanted to share their special day with them at the Brazilian Room.

Mary passed away in 2008. Gene followed his bride six years later, in 2014, at the age of 94. (Read Gene Tarrant’s memorial leaflet.) Both Mary and Gene were big jazz fans and saw many of the greats, such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, in concert. Neal Heidler, who played bass at the Edwards Street block parties, eventually moved to Indiana with his wife Leah. However, he flew back to the East Bay for Gene’s memorial service and organized a jazz combo for the event.

Read more about the history of the Edwards Street block, including the Tarrants in their own words in “Edwards Street: The Story of a Neighborhood” compiled in 2002 by Judy Kennedy.

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for your local news? You can support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside Member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time contribution.

Guest contributor

Freelance writers with story pitches can email editors@berkeleyside.com.