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Claus Neumann, the Santa Rosa hotelier who opened the iconic Los Robles Lodge on Cleveland Avenue and ran the La Rose in Railroad Square, died Friday after years living with Lewy body dementia. He was 81.

Neumann learned the hotel trade as a young man in Europe and then under Conrad Hilton of the Hilton Hotel chain before opening Los Robles in 1962.

Neumann "brought a sophistication that we hadn't seen around here up to that point," said Gaye LeBaron, local historian and Press Democrat columnist.

The hotel restaurant was a central place for club meetings, wedding receptions, fundraisers and other community events, she said.

"When Claus came to town, there was a certain class that he brought," said his wife of nearly 40 years, Debbie Neumann of Santa Rosa. "He made a big impact on the social scene in Santa Rosa."

Neumann was born Nov. 8, 1929 in Marienburg, Germany, a small East Prussian town that is now part of Poland.

The son of a sugar factory manager, Neumann described his early childhood as idyllic. He joined the Hitler Youth at age 9 when the group's activities were more akin to the Cub Scouts, his family said.

However as Nazi Germany grew more belligerent, Neumann recoiled from what he later called "groupthink," his family said.

Neumann's family wouldn't learn about his experience in the later days of the war until he and his wife took their three children to Poland in 1988.

As many German families fled before a looming invasion by the Russian Army in 1945, Neumann and his father stayed behind to help his father's factory employees escape, his family said. When the pair finally headed toward American-controlled Germany, dead bodies in the snow lined the roads. At one point they stayed with a couple who planned to commit suicide just before the Russians arrived.

"It was as bad as you could imagine," his son Evan Neumann said.

Neumann later chronicled his experience in a memoir published in 2007 called "Farewell Marienburg."

In 1949, Neumann was arrested for illegally crossing the border between opposing Germanies and spent 22 days in jail, his family said. When he was freed, he left Germany and found work at hotels in Spain and Switzerland.

In 1953, a couple from the United States vacationing in Seville, Spain convinced him to return with them and become their butler in Palm Springs. His American adventure had begun.

He spent years in Palm Springs, Beverly Hills and a stint in New Orleans, and would marry Barbara Medialle in 1959. They would divorce 10 years later.

He followed a job offer to Santa Rosa and in 1962 opened the Los Robles, a 105-room motor lodge on Cleveland Avenue near Coddingtown shopping center, and brought his European style to a very rural Sonoma County.

It was at the Los Robles where he met his second wife, who got a summer job at the hotel. Neumann's wife said she tried for some time to get the "very debonair, and very elegant," Neumann to ask her on a date, she said.

Finally, he did and five weeks later on April 19, 1971 they married.

He and his wife ran the Los Robles, with a 1.5-year hiatus from 1994 to 1996, for more than 35 years. They bought the Hotel La Rose on Railroad Square in 1994 and ran it until they retired from both businesses in 1999.

In 2007, Neumann was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease. Neumann told his family in late February that he would like to stop eating and invite death to come, his wife said.

With the help of hospice caretakers and social workers, his family cared for him through the end at his Santa Rosa home. His wife and children gathered around him Friday when his health deteriorated and he died.

"All four of us sitting around touching him, singing his favorite song &‘When the Saints Go Marching In,'" his wife said. "We sang him out."

In addition to his wife and son, Neumann is survived by daughter Sasha Neumann of Truckee and son Mark Neumann of Santa Rosa; brother Gerd Neumann of Celle, Germany; sisters Elga Rombey of Tecklenburg-Leeden, Germany and Inge Neumann of Osnabruck, Germany as well as his first wife of Healdsburg.

Neumann's family is planning a memorial service at Santa Rosa's Friedman Events Center at a future date and they would like to invite alumni of the Los Robles Hotel and restaurant to contact them to get involved.

Memorial donations can be made to the University of California, San Francisco Memory and Aging Center or the Culinary Arts program at the Santa Rosa Junior College.

— Julie Johnson