For a group of second-graders in Paradise, Calif., the rural community still on the mend after last year’s devastating fires, it was hard to know what was more interesting on Wednesday: A visit from California’s governor or the story about the unusual first pet he had as a young boy.
When asked by Gov. Gavin Newsom to guess the type of animal it was, the children offered several ideas.
The students shouted out a few conventional choices: A dog, a cat or maybe a frog? All incorrect. One boy suggested a sock.
“My first pet was an otter, like an otter, and his name was Potter,” Newsom told the 7- and 8-year-olds. “Potter the Otter.”
Elaborating for the curious students, Newsom said Potter slept curled up on his bed. “I’d get cozy with it,” the governor told the class.
Newsom regaled the students with the lighthearted story during a tour of Paradise Ridge Elementary School nine months after the Camp fire decimated the town and displaced hundreds of families. The school sits on a former intermediate campus and replaces two elementary schools that were damaged in the fire.
Michelle John, superintendent of Paradise Unified School District, said the student population in her schools has decreased by more than 50% since the fire.
Newsom signed a bill into law earlier this year that provided $24 million to backfill property tax losses in Butte County to help the community begin to rebuild. The current budget provides another $10 million for Camp fire recovery. Bulldozers were at work throughout the town on Wednesday.
After visiting a couple of classrooms, Newsom took questions from reporters about state efforts related to wildfires. Standing among bookcases in the school library, Newsom reluctantly continued to answer inquiries about Potter.
The governor’s late father, William Newsom, founded the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation and advocated for a ballot measure to protect the big cats. Newsom said his dad, who served as a state appeals court judge, also became an advocate for otters.
“Somehow, I don’t know how, he ended up with a river otter named Potter, who was my first pet,” Newsom said, adding that he has pictures of his dad with Potter.
Newsom said his parents disagreed over Potter’s place in the family.
“There was the moment where the otter bit the mailman and my mother said, she said to my father, ‘It is either your son and daughter, or your damn otter,’” Newsom said.
The governor joked that Potter may have been “one of the reasons for the divorce” of his parents when he was a young child.
“He kept the otter,” Newsom said laughing. “He was a great dad, but God bless.”
Some obituaries about Newsom’s father, who passed away late last year, mention that he kept an otter as a pet. The sellers of the governor’s childhood home, a wooded property in San Francisco near the Sutro Forest, remembered buying the house from the Newsom family in the 1970s and said they had a “cute toddler” and an otter, according to an SFGate article published earlier this year.
A May 2018 tweet from Jennifer Siebel Newsom, in which the first partner wished a very happy World Otter Day to her husband’s first pet, Potter, similarly backs up the story.