When an infestation plagued the upper branches of a 100-year-old oak tree in Len and Irene Martinez’ Cameron Park backyard earlier this year, inspiration struck.
A jack-of-many trades, including woodcarver, 82-year-old Len halted the tree removal process once the trunk reached 9 feet. “When the contractor showed up and started removing the upper branches I got an idea,” he said.
The Air Force veteran remembered a Native American tradition when totem poles were carved to honor deceased leaders. Len’s totem pole pays tribute to what he honors most: America.
“What better way than to carve a totem pole with an eagle protecting Mother Earth, Old Glory, the stars and stripes and the logos of all five branches of the military?” he asked.
At the bottom, there’s also a smiling bear Len carved from a Tahoe sugar pine. “It’s there as a reminder that no matter how bad things are, keep smiling,” he explained.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Len’s as adept with a computer as anyone from the millennial generation. He still works part time creating digital laminations and graphics using AutoCAD. He also devises and builds prototypes for people with new patents. He’s an athlete too. When Len was growing up in Colorado he held the school record at the time for running a mile in less than five minutes.
“Every day is like going to school,” Len said.
When he was chief engineer at BW Norton Manufacturing in Oakland for 20 years, Len stumbled once he started to deal more with China. So what did he do? “I learned Chinese.”
Len thought of a way to make the totem pole mobile so he could move it to his front yard for the neighbors to see. It has hidden rollers underneath and four screws keep it bolted into place.
The totem pole isn’t the only creation Len and his wife Irene have brought to their Cameron Park neighborhood. The couple was so impressed by stories of little free libraries around the region they started one.
Little free libraries are pop up libraries in neighborhoods where people are encouraged to take a book and leave a book.
“There are no time constraints at our library,” said Irene of the little carved house that stands at eye level in front of their Riesling Court home. “Take a book, leave a book… or just take a book.
“I’m a big reader,” Irene continued. “I read just about anything, but I mainly like mysteries and romances.”
Irene asked her husband to build the library. After first designing an octagonal shaped house, Len decided it looked too busy. The experienced mechanical engineer with two years of architectural training built homes from scratch, so crafting the manzanita and cedar planked little library was, in the end, easy.
“Irene would ask to see my plan and I’d just say, ‘I have the sketch right here in my head,” Len said with a smile.
For visiting “night owls,” Len installed an LED light on the red roof, which is how they came up with the distinctive name, Red Top Library.
Irene and Len now spend their morning walks letting neighbors know about it. “We’ve passed out more than 50 flyers,” Irene said.
“Neighbors are saying what a great idea and service it is for our immediate community,” Len added.
For those wanting to donate books, they’ll take them. Len said he already has plans to build a side hutch once the little house is full.
“A little girl down the street comes over twice a day to see if there are any new books,” Irene said as she opened the latch to see if any feedback had been jotted down in the notebook they leave for visitors.
“I like this comment right here,” Len said pointing to the words, ‘This is so cool!’”
When asked what projects Len has in the works next, Irene said, “He tells me he’s going to take a break for a little while.” Moments later she quoted wisdom when talking about Len’s talents and energy. “Confucius said, ‘If you don’t learn something new every day you’re dead.’”