Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Petaluma's hometown heroes

Wherever you live, I hope you have people like Bill and Lucy Kortum working to make your community a better place to live. This is an article I wrote for our local paper, the Petaluma Argus Courier. It was because of Bill's efforts to save the Sonoma County coast for the public that every inch of California's coastline is now accessible to you and me.

Kortums honored for a lifetime of service - Conservation group honors couple for their service to community and environment

Bill and Lucy Kortum met while painting fences at the Kortum family ranch on Ely Road. It was an apt beginning for 53 years of hard work together to make the world a better place, on the way imbuing their three children with the same activist drive.

Family connections brought them together. Lucy’s best friend Jean had married Bill’s brother Karl, founder of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Bill and Lucy cemented the relationship by spending the rest of the summer repairing a sailboat and sailing together.

Today, the couple maintains a finish-each-other’s-sentences kind of intimacy and shared purpose. On Saturday Oct. 6, Sonoma County Conservation Action, which Bill founded in 1991, will honor the two with a special dinner.

The Kortums’ imprint on Sonoma County history is everywhere. Bill has been involved in choosing the location for Sonoma State University, purchasing the land for Salt Point State Park, incorporating the City of Cotati, securing Petaluma’s urban growth boundary and numerous other achievements.

Bill was born and raised in Petaluma, at that time a town of 6,000.

“We had free run of town and the hills around,” said Kortum. “You just felt you owned the place. That sense of freedom has kind of driven me all these years — the sense of ownership, and sense of responsibility to conserve that great resource.”

He was 8 or 9 when his family moved from Western Avenue to the ranch on Ely Road, where Bill and Lucy live today, surrounded by abundant vegetable and fruit gardens. Within sight of the house they helped design is the barn Bill built himself as a high school project. The barn is now the family winery.

Activism was a family tradition. Bill’s grandfather had been a founding member of the Calistoga City Council, and his father and older brother Karl fought to keep Highway 101 from being rerouted through the family ranch. His mother was active in the PTA.

“It was a demonstration that you did not have to accept the status quo,” said Bill.

After a stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Bill earned a degree from the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis and established the Cotati Veterinary Hospital.

Lucy, born to a Navy family in Coronado, went to Pomona College and later Sonoma State University, where she got her master’s degree in history. Through her efforts, both the Sunset Line and Twine building and Petaluma’s Carnegie Library (now the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum) are on the National Historic Buildings Registry.

Later, a government grant enabled her to survey and research Carnegie Libraries all over the state for her master’s thesis. This project sent Bill and Lucy on a series of visits to the small towns of California.

For her work as a historian, Lucy received the Petaluma Good Egg Award in 2006, and in 2005, the Jeanne Thurlow Miller Individual Award from the Sonoma County Historical Society. She still works one day a week each at the Petaluma Museum and the history room of the Petaluma Library.

In 1960, Bill’s veterinary expertise played a significant role in fighting the establishment of a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head. He garnered the support of the conservative Sonoma County dairy industry by showing them tissue samples from cows contaminated with radioactive iodine near the Humboldt reactor and convincing them that no one would want to buy contaminated milk.

Sharing a love of the California coast with his brother Karl, Bill responded to the privatization of Sea Ranch beaches by spearheading an effort to keep Sonoma County’s beaches public. He chaired the California Coastal Alliance of 110 groups that in 1972 sponsored Proposition 20, the initiative that mandated open beaches in California.

The Kortum Trail along the coast near Shell Beach is a tribute to his efforts.

Following the family tradition of politics, Bill served as a Sonoma County Supervisor and as a member of the Petaluma School Board and the Democratic Central Committee. He is founder and current board member of the Sonoma County Conservation Action, and is still arguably its most active member, said fellow boardmember John Kramer.

Bill Kortum achieved his successes by going directly to the people, knocking on doors to ask in simple language if they really wanted their waste water dumped into the Russian River or a nuclear power plant on their doorstep. Thanks to his efforts, SCCA has reached 70,000 households a year, said Kramer.

“Even more than all the great organizations he and Lucy have helped create and build, I think Bill’s great gift to the region has been the legions of younger activists he has patiently mentored,” said Larry Modell, past chair of Petaluma Tomorrow, which gave Bill the Greening of Petaluma Award in 2006 in recognition of his work on Petaluma’s Urban Growth Boundary. “Through all these decades, the hundreds of us who have had the good fortune to work with him have learned volumes about how government works, how to change it, and how to have fun doing so.”

Along the way, Bill said, Lucy’s partnership has been essential. Not much for meetings, she has shaped Bill’s writing, organized papers and photos and maintained computer files.

“He runs around and she organizes it,” said SCCA board member Fran Tanti.

According to Kramer, it was Lucy who, on her Underwood typewriter, typed the telegram to the state commission that brought SSU to where it is.

The Kortum influence has reached far beyond Sonoma County, somewhat to their surprise. As he said, “We protected our coast and the whole coast of California was protected.”

Now, urban growth boundaries are taking shape in California cities.

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At 10/10/07, 8:37 PM, Blogger Gail Jonas said...

Bonnie, This is great! No need to repost about the Kortums. How about an update, i.e,. linking to this article with a brief description of the evening honoring them. Now I'm more motivated to work with the video of the event.


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