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Bill Hart, a former Sonoma County personnel director and longtime YMCA board member, died of mesothelioma Tuesday at his Santa Rosa home. He was 90.

A gracious and refined man, Hart served for 36 years as county personnel director, first in Orange County and then in Sonoma County from 1973 until his retirement in 1986.

In 2008, he was honored for his contributions to the Sonoma County Family YMCA, which Hart credited for helping him rebound from a crippling illness in his late 60s.

Hart also was praised for his public service, with former county supervisor Tim Smith calling him "one of the most respected department heads the county has ever had."

Former supervisor Helen Rudee in 2008 recalled the twinkle in Hart's eye and the sense of him "being comfortable with himself, in control of what he had to do."

Doctors told Hart he would never walk again after he was paralyzed — and left in constant, excruciating pain — in 1991 by an inflammation of his spinal cord nerves due to an unknown cause, said Jean Hart, his wife of 68 years.

"There were quite a few days that he could have just said, 'Forget it,'" she said in an interview five years ago.

With therapy and his family's support, Hart stood, then walked and finally returned to his routine of working out with weight machines at the YMCA.

In 1993, the couple returned to their travels, and Jean Hart said: "We walked over a lot of the world after that."

A Sacramento native, Hart interrupted his education to join the Navy in 1943, serving as a pilot at bases around the United States during World War II.

He had met Jean at Sacramento Junior College in 1942, and they married in Florida in 1945. After the war, he enrolled at UC Berkeley and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1947.

Hart worked for Contra Costa County for four years, then was hired as Orange County's first personnel director and watched as Disneyland sprouted in an orange grove and the county grew from barely 200,000 people to 1.6 million.

Hart resigned from Orange County in 1973, saying in a 2008 interview that the board of supervisors there had "turned into a bunch of crooks."

In Sonoma County, he served for 20 years on the Goodwill Industries board of directors and for 34 years on the YMCA board.

Attorney Mike Senneff, a longtime friend and fellow YMCA board member, said "there are very few people who actually live and embody the whole principal of the YMCA: the triangle of spirit, mind and body."

"Bill is an amazing guy," he said.

Hart was an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa.

In addition to his wife, Hart is survived by his daughters, Candi Bisconte of Lake Forest, Sarah Hart of Santa Rosa and Meredith Johnson of Newark; son, Chris Hart of Goldendale, Wash.; sister, Sally Yost of El Dorado; six grandchildren and several nieces, nephews and cousins.

A former exchange student from Australia, Irene Etchell, was considered part of the family, Jean Hart said.

Services will be at 2 p.m. July 13 at First United Methodist Church.

Memorial donations may be made to the United Methodist Church Foundation of Santa Rosa, 1551 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, 95405, or the Sonoma County Family YMCA, 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa, 95404.

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