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Don Engdahl

Don Engdahl was quite likely the most inquisitive and audaciously adventuresome person ever to work in The Press Democrat's newsroom. Engdahl floated aloft in a hot-air balloon that he'd made himself, enlisted his newsroom colleagues in the construction of a hyperbolic paraboloid home on Chalk Hill Road and left the PD to hike the entire California coast by himself. The journalist, sculptor, inventor and restorer of small, French early-'60s automobiles was 77 and had been in failing health for several years when he died April 17 at his home in the New Mexico village of San Geronimo. "He was an amazing person. He was unbelievable," said one of his five children, Santa Rosa's Jane Engdahl, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds employee charged with dreaming up wild new attractions for the fair. "He could do anything," she said. "He brought us up to believe we could do anything, all you had to do was go to the library and get a book to tell you how to do it." The North Dakota-born son of farmers, Don David Engdahl was 22 when he came to work for The Press Democrat in 1955 after a stint in the Army. He left the newspaper in 1958 to continue his college education in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, then rejoined the PD staff in 1961 and practiced hard-driving journalism until he resigned for good prior to launching his 1,200-mile coast walk in 1970. "I can't begin to describe the energy he brought with him" into the newsroom, said former colleague and longtime PD columnist Gaye LeBaron. "When he made his own hot-air balloon, out of a war-surplus parachute, most of the staff spent a Thanksgiving morning holding the tether ropes for his literal 'trial balloon' take-off out where Spring Lake is now." "He always had some mad-scientist project going and dragged us all along," LeBaron said. She recalled the springs that "Dr. Eng" strapped to his feet and then bounded like a kangaroo on the moon, and the clam-digging contraption he called the "automatic clam rifle."|

Don Engdahl was quite likely the most inquisitive and audaciously adventuresome person ever to work in The Press Democrat's newsroom.

Engdahl floated aloft in a hot-air balloon that he'd made himself, enlisted his newsroom colleagues in the construction of a hyperbolic paraboloid home on Chalk Hill Road and left the PD to hike the entire California coast by himself.

The journalist, sculptor, inventor and restorer of small, French early-'60s automobiles was 77 and had been in failing health for several years when he died April 17 at his home in the New Mexico village of San Geronimo.

"He was an amazing person. He was unbelievable," said one of his five children, Santa Rosa's Jane Engdahl, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds employee charged with dreaming up wild new attractions for the fair.

"He could do anything," she said. "He brought us up to believe we could do anything, all you had to do was go to the library and get a book to tell you how to do it."

The North Dakota-born son of farmers, Don David Engdahl was 22 when he came to work for The Press Democrat in 1955 after a stint in the Army. He left the newspaper in 1958 to continue his college education in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, then rejoined the PD staff in 1961 and practiced hard-driving journalism until he resigned for good prior to launching his 1,200-mile coast walk in 1970.

"I can't begin to describe the energy he brought with him" into the newsroom, said former colleague and longtime PD columnist Gaye LeBaron.

"When he made his own hot-air balloon, out of a war-surplus parachute, most of the staff spent a Thanksgiving morning holding the tether ropes for his literal 'trial balloon' take-off out where Spring Lake is now."

"He always had some mad-scientist project going and dragged us all along," LeBaron said. She recalled the springs that "Dr. Eng" strapped to his feet and then bounded like a kangaroo on the moon, and the clam-digging contraption he called the "automatic clam rifle."

Retired Press Democrat Editor Art Volkerts remembers Engdahl's secret clamming weapon, having witnessed it at work decades ago in the Bodega Bay mudflats.

"It shot the clam all to pieces," Volkerts said. "He would come up with crazy ideas."

Volkerts remembers also the big stories Engdahl uncovered and the difference he made to the region. When Pacific Gas and Electric Co. started work on a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head Bay in the early '60s, Volkerts recalled, The Press Democrat supported the project until Engdahl reported aggressively on the danger posed by the proximity of an earthquake fault.

"Really, it was Don who changed our minds," Volkerts said.

LeBaron remembers Eng-dahl as "a tenacious reporter, a regular bulldog" who returned from the sheriff's office one day declaring that the sheriff had threatened to kill him. A PD story on July 12, 1956, reported that Sheriff Harry Patterson became enraged when Engdahl asked to see the jail booking sheets so he could check on a tip that a county employee had been arrested on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer.

The story said Patterson told Engdahl that the newspaper had better send over a different reporter "or you're going to get hurt!" Engdahl asked if the sheriff was threatening him, to which Patterson replied, "You're Goddamn right I am! I'll knock your block off."

Engdahl had covered Sonoma County government for years when he resigned in 1970 to hike the California coastline from the Oregon state line to the Mexico border to gather data and observations for an ecological report.

He completed the great walk in about four months.

"What did I learn?" he wrote late in 1970. "One hell of a lot, I think ... our coast is more fragile than I had believed. Time is running out on our chances of keeping what is there now."

His observations, published in The Press Democrat and the San Francisco Chronicle, fueled public sentiment for the creation of the 1972 Coastal Initiative and the 1976 California Coastal Act, said his son, Eric Engdahl of Chicago.

Following the big hike, Eng-dahl used his lifelong fascination with physics to launch a second career with the state Department of Water Resources. His son said he contributed to projects involving water desalination, thermal energy storage and the generating of electricity.

Don Engdahl retired in 1989 and moved with his wife, Cyndy, to the mountains of northern New Mexico. There, Eric Engdahl said, his father continued to feed his fascinations with "ornithopters, sculpture with metal and found objects, and restoration of automobiles."

In addition to his wife, his daughter in Santa Rosa and his son in Chicago, Engdahl is survived by sons Garth Engdahl of Eugene, Ore., Chris Engdahl of San Jose and Lee Engdahl of South Korea; brother Rodney Engdahl of San Jose; sisters Hazel Finnell of Phoenix and Julia Rothrock of Newcastle; former wife Susee Engdahl of Santa Rosa; and two grandchildren.

-- Chris Smith

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