Don Green, man behind SSU’s Green Music Center and ‘Father of Telecom Valley,’ dies at 90
Philanthropist Don Green, one of two music lovers whose names are emblazoned on Sonoma State University’s Donald & Maureen Green Music Center and who made his fortune as the father of Petaluma’s Telecom Valley, died Monday in Mexico.
Green, who turned 90 on May 12, had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 17 years but continued to live an active life. With his wife, Maureen, Green led the way to finance building of the Green Music Center with an initial donation of $10 million in 1997. Maureen Green died Nov. 6, 2020.
When he died, Green was on vacation with his caregiver and household manager, Julie Chavez and her family, at a seaside resort in Puerto Vallarta. The group had planned to travel that day to Guadalajara via van.
“He was very excited about this grand adventure,” said his daughter, Rebecca Green Birdsall. “Julie called me about 8 a.m. in the morning and said that he wasn’t able to swallow his pills, so she called an ambulance … then she called back 10 minutes later and said he had passed away. I think it was heart failure.”
While Green was in Mexico, he was texting and sending videos every day, Birdsall said. Meanwhile, she was visiting Kenya to check up on a veterinarian clinic that her winery, Black Kite Cellars, was supporting in an effort to help the area’s elephants.
“He lived every moment and was still ambitious and looking forward to experiencing something new,” said Birdsall, who traveled to England two years ago with her father.
Green’s co-founding of Optilink in 1987 gave birth to Sonoma County’s Telecom Valley, a hub of innovation in northeast Petaluma that flourished from the mid-1990s until the middle of the next decade.
“He was a very steady leader who never got upset or berated people,” said John Webley, one of Green’s early hires at Optilink and later his business partner in Advanced Fibre Communications. The two were close friends for more than 30 years.
Webley remembered Green as a larger-than-life personality who besides his telecom business ventures did so much for Sonoma County through his philanthropy and generosity.
“He was behind so many charities,” Webley said of Green. “He did a lot of community work quietly.”
Rich Stanfield, who went to work for Green as vice president of sales at Advanced Fibre in 1994, called him a mentor and a great friend.
“Don was a guy I would do anything for — best boss I ever had, by far,’’ said Stanfield, who said he had no intention of relocating to the North Bay but, after flying here with his wife for dinner with Green and his wife, accepted a job at Advanced Fibre. “He’s the most authentic person you’d probably ever meet in your life.”
Creating Tanglewood West
Green wrote a memoir, “Defining Moments,” in 2016 that traces his life from his working-class roots in his native England to his successful career in Canada from 1956 to 1960 and to California starting in 1960.
The Greens moved to Santa Rosa in 1987 and started singing in the Sonoma State University Concert Choir, then helped start the Sonoma Bach choir, founded in 1991 at Sonoma State. They also were active members of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa and sang with the church choir there.
Former SSU Choral Director Robert Worth first discussed building a small, choral hall with the Greens because the choirs had no place to perform on campus.
“That was the seed, and then (former SSU President) Ruben Armiñana had the idea of a Tanglewood West,” Worth said, referencing the storied music hall in western Massachusetts.
“It got to be a much bigger deal, and it took longer than anybody thought,” Worth said.
That idea became a reality at the end of 1996, when Green’s company, went public. It took another 15 years and donations from other philanthropists to make the hall a reality, with Green and Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown leading fundraising efforts.
“My support for the project did not flag,” Green wrote in his memoir. “One of my biggest contributions was a belief that it could happen, but at times even I had doubts.”
Green’s dream of a world-class music hall was finally realized Sept. 29, 2012, when the Don & Maureen Green Music Center held its grand opening. It ended up costing $128 million.
“His goal was to make the world a better place, to plant seeds for future generations,” Birdsall said. “That’s what the Green Music Center was about. What do we do that will be here in 100 years that countless people will benefit from?”
“Don Green’s heart, passion and integrity were huge,” said SSU President Judy Sakaki. “His vision, ideas and philanthropy transformed Sonoma State and our community. The Green Music Center is his legacy.”