Perhaps Cowboy Wally Hagaman was best known as the friendly host who served incredible round flat food at Cowboy Pizza in Nevada City during the ‘80s and ‘90s, but he was at home on a wide range of activities that benefited his fellow humans.
After experiencing multiple strokes, he passed peacefully at home among loved ones on Dec. 21, 2020.
His roaming of the ranges is a story to remember.
Cowboy Wally was born June 30, 1942 in Tacoma, Washington. He did most of his growing up in Montana. Born into an International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees family, Wally learned many aspects of the stage from his father and kept up his membership and theatrical skills even during the 20 years of practice as a therapist.
His father ran the projector at the local movie house, and Wally learned that trade as a child. The day he graduated from high school he left to catch a merchant marine vessel to Europe and traveled extensively there by bicycle.
He put his childhood photography talent to use as a medical photographer for the U.S. Army in Germany in the early 1960s. After his stint in the military, he earned an AA in Business Administration from College of San Mateo in 1970, a BA in Speech Pathology in 1972 from San Jose State College and a master’s degree a year later from California State University, San Jose.
In his years as a speech pathologist, Hagaman worked with patients from infants to geriatrics and served as chairman of the California State Television Committee for the Deaf. He was a licensed school audiometrist and worked with hearing and speech-impaired students from kindergarten through junior high.
He spent twenty years in both private and public practice in the San Francisco area. He had a working knowledge of sign language. He practiced the energy arts: tai chi (he learned from a Chinese master who spoke no English), craniosacral and Breema, which he learned from a Kurdish master.
As a hobbyist, Wally loved photography, antique clocks, old cars, and musical instrument repair, especially church pipe organs, building string instruments and reproducing old pianos. He was a ham radio operator, too.
So how did a therapist with a background in theatrics wind up hustling pizza?
“In one way it was a case of making a job for myself,” Wally explained in an article about his pizza shop in 1991.
“I grew up in Montana and wanted to move into the foothills (from the Bay Area) where I felt more comfortable.”
After five or six years visiting the Sierra foothills and hanging out on weekends, he found a spot he liked: the historic and culturally rich town of Nevada City in the heart of the Sierra gold country.
“Making pizza was something I did well at home,” Wally said. “On the advice of a friend in the restaurant business, I felt I could fill a need that wasn’t being filled.” So he bought a faltering business on Spring Street, a site of a series of short-lived cafes and coffee shops, and opened Cowboy Pizza.
I first met him when he was preparing to open Cowboy Pizza on Spring Street in Nevada City. I peeked in his shop and marveled at the wall hangings, a huge painting of cowboys sitting around a bonfire eating pizza. A hay-stuffed cowboy manikin sat on a chair in the corner. A sign in the bath room read, “Men please put the seat down for the ladies. Ladies, please put the seat up for the men.”
Later that day I saw him leaving his restaurant as I drove by and I stopped to introduce myself. I told him I had a complete set of Burma Shave signs I had found in an old garage in Sacramento I had been hired to clean out. He was interested and gave me $100 for them. I brought them to him the next day.
A few days later he told me they were copies and not the real kind. I offered to buy them back from him, an offer he accepted. Wally was only interested in the real thing.
We established a longtime friendship that day. I wound up helping him with T-shirts, menus and hanging out at flea markets. Very soon he gave my 8-year-old twin daughters a Saturday morning job folding takeout pizza boxes.
If it was a Saturday night, you hung on to your hat. After being approached several times by local musicians, Wally presented live music on Saturday nights. You could catch Sourdough Slim and his accordion; Dakota Sid and his son Travers;the unlikely combo of ukulele, trombone, keyboard and standup bass Top Quark; or the incredibly clear-voiced Shannon Savage, a local young singer/songwriter. He gave Jennifer Berezan and Chris Webster some of their earliest gigs. Autographed photos of folks who played the venue hung on the walls — with respect.
Wally frequently gave free meals to performers who were playing at Community Radio KVMR gigs. He often would show up at the KVMR studios with free pizzas. He kept a big bowl of water in front of his restaurant for dogs passing by. He gave his patrons fortune cookies when he gave them their bill. He even had his customers create fortune cookie messages and had them inserted by the bakers.
Cowboy Wally served only craft beers. He talked the local Budweiser distributer into carrying Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a new Chico craft brewer. Today they’re big time. Wally was way ahead of the curve on that.
His vegetarian pizzas were very popular, accounting for 60 percent of his sales. He proudly said, “We use the best quality ingredients we can get. We use organic vegetables when we can. There’s no animal fats in the dough; we don’t even use the same cutters we use for the meat pizzas. We now have seven standard vegetarian pizzas.” He welcomed people to bring their own dairy-free cheese to use if they were allergic or vegan. He taught others how to make gluten-free pizza dough at home.
As the popularity of Cowboy Pizza widened, he ran a T-shirt design contest that his customers judged. Hundreds of multi-colored Cowboy Pizza shirts were suddenly seen the world over. Cowboy Pizza gave a free pizza to customers who brought in a photo of themselves in an unusual or famous place wearing a Cowboy Pizza T-shirt. Some winners: Egyptian pyramids, the Irish Blarney Stone, southernmost tip of the United States (the Big Island of Hawaii), and so on.
Wally had a humorous diabolic side, too. He learned that a restaurant in Nevada City didn’t allow the wait staff to keep their tips, so he tipped by leaving a card for a free Cowboy Pizza addressed to the wait person.
He helped other businesses when he could. Before Ike’s, a Cajun-style restaurant, opened in Nevada City, he offered them the use of his licensed kitchen in off-hours to bake bread to help get them going. Ike Frazee said, “Adrienne and I purchased Wally’s mixer from Cowboy Pizza and have used it to make every loaf of bread at the restaurant, and we think about Wally every time we use it.”
In 1995 Wally sold his Cowboy Pizza business and bought the Pine Street Market down the street. Tamara Pohley, Wally’s long-time right-hand person and good friend, followed him there to run the deli. It quickly became the place to go to get the town news, a fresh cup of coffee, a sandwich or a huge burrito of rice and beans for a buck, something Wally offered to make sure the kids who hung out in front of his store could get a decent meal. Other store owners at the time were trying to get kids banned from the downtown streets. Wally fed them. He was always an energetic advocate of the young.
Nevada City author, photographer and historian Hank Meals recalled: “Wally was a real wise guy. That is to say he had a clever remark for almost every situation. While hanging out in his market on Pine Street, I heard him tell some visitors who were marveling at the eclectic mix of merchandise that if they didn’t make a purchase within the next five minutes, he’d have to assign them one. They were sharp enough to know that he was only kidding, and they appreciated his wry humor, like most of the rest of us.”
KVMR bluegrass deejay and local electrician Eric Rice told of doing a bit of electrical work for Wally at the store: “When I was admiring an antique grandfather clock in the store, Wally said, ‘Take it. You can have it.’ He just gave it to me!”
Another range where Wally was at home was local history, especially Chinese history. He ran the Fire House Museum in downtown Nevada City and was an active volunteer at the Historical Society, to which he donated his extensive library of California Chinese history, including his own book on the history of the Chinese Temples during the Gold Rush. His work at the museum gave a solid focus on the Chinese impact in the Gold Rush.
He worked with the local Nisenan tribe to make sure their story was told.
Meals said of their joint interest: “Wally was also very much the wise guy (as in wise, intelligent and astute) on other topics as well. We shared an interest in history and we worked on a few research projects together. His work was always diligent and respectful. Wally was authoritative about the 19th century Chinese who lived in Northern California and had a professional and personal relationship with Him Mark Lai and Phillip Choy of the Chinese Historical Society of America, based in San Francisco.
“Once I spent a splendid day with him and Phillip Choy at the Chinese Temple in Oroville. Hanging out with these two scholars, I gathered factual information, had a few attitudinal adjustments and experienced how graceful the learning process can be in the presence of wisdom.
“It wasn’t always easy determining whether Wally was sincere or messing with your mind, but it was always worth the ride. He made research and learning an adventure. I miss you Wally.”
Cowboy Wally leaves behind the results of good work on many ranges of interest and a huge host of good friends who loved him — and he them. His passing leaves a large number of family and friends, including his wife, Hilary; son, Noah; daughters, Heather and the late Jennifer; his long-time friend Christopher James; sisters and brothers-in-law JoAnn and Richard MacDonald, Linda and Dennis Hewitt and Kathy and Doug Fry; five nieces; and one nephew. He felt true joy being an active hands-on grandfather, “Grampy” to Olivia, Katie, Corwin, Anderson and Zain.
The family extends its gratitude to FREED and Hospice of the Foothills.
An email forum address, firstname.lastname@example.org, has been set up so friends of Cowboy Wally Hagaman can share their stories. Just send your story there and join the remembrance.
So long, Cowboy. It sure was good to know ya.
Dan Scanlan lives in Nevada City.