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During the "hippie" period 1967–1968 in San Francisco, an individual named Al Rinker started an organization located at 1830 Fell St in the city's Haight Ashbury district called the Switchboard. Its purpose was to act as a social switchboard for people living there.
In early 1967 the Diggers (not the 1649 English group but the new USA Diggers who named themselves after the original group) were promoting a new type of philosophy and life concept in the Haight Ashbury. With media coverage of the district increasing, a local resident Al Rinker visualized the need for a service providing news and information about the Hippie movement. He rented an apartment at 1830 Fell Street in early 1967, adjacent to the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, to act as both his home and headquarters of his conceptual "Switchboard". Al found willing assistants in George Darling and Danny to assist with his concept of a human switchboard.
While he and the volunteers were doing this, the "Human Be In" took place and the Fillmore Auditorium was gaining national prominence. News coverage of the Haight Ashbury skyrocketed bringing in more people with more work required to keep the Switchboard going.
The rapid influx of people flooding the area created an immediate need for some services that Al had not originally considered. One of these was in finding safe lodging (Crash Pads) for the wandering jobless hippies that arrived without any means of support. This program proved so popular that Al's office (living room) was changed to the "We will help you find a place to stay" room. Al moved his office to a tiny room next to the kitchen. The Switchboard attracted additional volunteers Ron Small and Kenny to assist with the many tasks the Switchboard wanted to accomplish.
Social networking took a back seat to the more critical services required by the population explosion. In summary, the Switchboard was created, then made useful by events not originally considered and grew to fill those needs as well as those in its original plan.
Note: I, Steve Bridge, was a hippie in Haight Ashbury who used the switchboard in the early part of 1969. Therefore the 1968 ending date for the Switchboard is not accurate.
Description of Services
Al Rinker had this mission statement for the Switchboard "The Switchboard is a volunteer service designed to facilitate communication among people throughout San Francisco, and specifically to serve as an informational and referral source for the Haight-Ashbury community." As mentioned above, this mission quickly became secondary to services required in a community flooded with runaways and youthful hippies with no means of support. From June 1967 through September 1967, the Switchboard spent a great deal of its time resource in the following areas:
- Runaway Assistance - Children will always run away from home for one reason or another. Many times there are very valid reasons. Other times they are childish reasons. Who can judge one from the other and how? The runaway assistance program attempted to mediate between the runaway child and their parent(s).
- If requested, the Switchboard would contact the parents and pass on a message or tell them that their child wished to communicate with them or simply tell them the child was OK.
- It worked the other way also, a parent thinking their runaway child might have headed for the glitz of the Haight could call and leave a message that they wished to communicate with their child.
- Al had the rule that no parent would be told the location of their child without approval from the child. Legally this was dangerous but Al insisted that without strict adherence to it, none of the runaways that wished to remain runaways would have ever left a message to be delivered to their parents.
- At least eleven children were reunited with their families.
- A very successful program for assisting runaways in San Francisco is The Huckleberry House. Still in its infancy in 1967, it took many referrals from the Switchboard to provide Counseling Services. Later Huckleberry House services were expanded to include 24-hour crisis services and emergency shelter.
- Crash Pad referral - or the free bed for the night program. It wasn't difficult to get press coverage. Newspapers and News stations were eager for any stories about the Haight. Al got enough coverage that he was able to fill a large index box of organizations and private individuals willing to provide a bed to a needy person. People called every day either offering or needing assistance. After 4PM every day, the front room was filled with young people seeking a bed for the night. During the Summer of Love this was the busiest service performed by the Switchboard.
- In the fall of '68, Hippie had long been declared dead and as the cold fog wisped into the Panhandle every afternoon, the number of visitors to the Haight had dropped in equal proportion to the temperature. By October 1968 the front room was restored to its original function as Al's office. No one was asking for a crash pad anymore.
Social Events 1967–1968
- Music concert – On August 15, 1967, Happening House planned an arts and crafts fair followed by a free live concert in the Panhandle. About 15 bands were to perform however the police would not issue a permit for the live music portion of the fair. The Switchboard and Happening House then jointly sponsored a live music concert at Sokel Hall on Page Street as a follow up to the fair.
- Softball Games - As a fund raising activity, the Switchboard formed a softball team
- In July 1967 there was a radio broadcast game between the Switchboard and the KNEW radio staff. A bevy of Playboy playmates were scheduled to participate and play an inning or two. While enough players from the Switchboard and KNEW showed up to play, no Playmates ever arrived at the game.
- In August '67, the Switchboard played its second and last game against Happening House. This received TV news coverage but notes from the game do not mention on which TV station(s). They do mention the game was won by the Switchboard by a score of 28-16.
- The infamous cocktail party - In the heyday of the '67 summer, Al and Ron Small were invited to speak on a local radio talk show. From ideas sown during that broadcast, it was decided to have a cocktail party that would be attended by both the "straights" (translate that to political figures, newspaper figures, authoritarian figures like the police) and the "Hips"(translate that to the founders and invited staff of (1) the Psychedelic Shop (Ron Thelin and his brother Jay Thelin), (2) the Switchboard (Al Rinker, George Darling, and many others), (3)The Diggers, (4)The Free Clinic (Dr.David E. Smith) and other organizations active in the "Hip scene"). Al was contacted by someone calling himself Herb who professed to be a journalist. Herb wanted to provide monetary support for the party in exchange for interviews with Al and others at the Switchboard. He wrote Al a check for $1500.00 not an insignificant sum at that time. The money went toward loads of booze and some party food (no drugs). John Shelley the Mayor of San Francisco and Herb Caen a popular journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle (not the Herb above) both made appearances and the free flowing alcohol made for a lot of camaraderie. But not much came of the event except that the check Al had been given bounced and Herb disappeared after the party. While this was not the only reason, the Switchboard began to change. Al had financial problems and the mood of the Haight itself had changed.
- In late September 1967, many of the shops in the district began to display a stack of 4x5 cards on their counters proclaiming "Funeral Notice for Hippie". "Friends are invited to attend services beginning at sunrise, October 6, 1967 at Buena Vista Park". Al actively supported the funeral concept. Al and many of the original Digger group had realized that the media had exploited the word "Hippie" to have a or be a negative concept and decided to have a funeral to end the negative connotation that had become attached to the word. The media once again twisted the purpose of the event and broadcast the story nationwide calling it "The Death of the Hippie" without explaining the true purpose of the procession. During the days preceding the event, Al Rinker described the event as the beginning of the end. Ron Thelin gave away everything in the Psychedelic Shop to the customers who came in. The funeral procession went from the park down Haight St and ended in the Panhandle. Ron (of the Switchboard) was one of the pallbearers carrying a trinket filled casket. It was emblematic of the fate of the hippie movement and of the Switchboard. The Psychedelic Shop closed for good right after the funeral. The Switchboard lingered on but withered. Al left for more remote northern territories in 1970. 
After the departure of Al Rinker, Ken and others took up the Swichboard concept. They moved to a storefront office at 1797 Haight St. It went through a number of moves and forum changes through the 1990s.
Where are they now
- Al Rinker passed in May 2003. He wrote a book about the entire Haight Ashbury experience called "Beyond Haight" but was never published.
- Ron continues to be involved with his charitable projects for runaways and other youth programs.
- George, Kenny, Danny and all the other noble volunteers from that brief period have vanished more successfully than Hippie.
- Ron Thelin moved to the San Geronimo Valley in Marin County, CA. He died in 1996.
- Jay Thelin became president of the Thelin Company, which makes wood pellet-burning heaters. He sold the company in 2009 and retired.
This article makes reference to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. While the Free Clinic was located in the Haight Ashbury district and was associated with the hippies by geography, it should not be thought of as a "hippie" organization. The Free Clinic is in operation today. It provides free medical care and medical assistance to anyone needing it.
Footnotes and other references
- Evening Independent article about the Switchboard and Community activities, Jul 26, 1968
- Digger Archives The Current Status of the Haight-Ashbury Hippie Community (Excerpt) by Stephen M. Pittell, Director, Haight-Ashbury Research Project, September, 1968
- Village Voice article about the Switchboard and Runaways, Dec 14,1967
- "The Haight Ashbury - A History" by Charles Perry Random House 1984, page 143
- "We are the people our parents warned us against" by Nicholas von Hoffman, LCCN:68013465
- Herb Caen column San Francisco Chronicle 1967 "Mayor visits Switchboard Get together
- Death of Hippie Parade
- Note from his son Adam
- Ron Thelin and the Red House
- "The Summer of Love" PBS video narrated by Peter Coyote
- The Haight Ashbury - A History by Charles Perry Random House 1984 ISBN 0-394-41098-X
- Pg 126 Reference to the Switchboard and Crash Pads
- Pg 143 Reference to the 1967 Concert
- Pg 150 Reference to the debt after the cocktail party
- Pg 177 Reference to the Switchboard after the departure of Al Rinker
- The Treehouse Naomi Wolf's recollections about her father Leonard Wolf and a reference to Happening House
- Year of the heroic guerrilla By Robert Vincent Daniels, contains references to the Switchboard, Happening House, the Diggers etc
- Special Report on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco featuring Ron Thelin of the Diggers