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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.”

Green was a regular audience member at the center’s performances, enjoying the music for nearly a decade. He served on the center’s board with Birdsall.

“The music center has turned into something that is pretty magical,” she said.

The Greens also made contributions to the Santa Rosa Symphony and its youth orchestras, the Santa Rosa Children’s Choir and the Sonoma County Humane Society.

“Don was a man who, though usually the smartest person in the room, listened more than he talked,” Worth said. “He encouraged and enabled more than he commanded. He was a dynamic leader but understood that leaders need to keep in touch with what it’s like to follow. ”

Growing up in wartime Liverpool

Green came from working- and middle-class roots. A redhead with sensitive skin, he was born in Liverpool in 1931, the son of a father who toiled in the coal mines from the age of 13 and a mother whose family worked as coal merchants.

When World War II started, Green was evacuated to a farm to keep him safe from Nazi bombings. But after his mother visited and sized up the situation, she brought the young boy home after just six weeks.

“She said, ‘You’re coming home with me, and if we die in this war, we die together,” Birdsall recalled. “He spent the entire war on the docks of Liverpool.”

Although he didn’t go to school during the war, Green was always interested in learning and fascinated by telephones and radios. After marrying his sweetheart, the former Maureen Eustace, he studied for his engineering degree at night while working at the British Post Office. The couple had a son and a daughter, then made plans to go abroad.

“His ambition was always to leave England, but he wanted to have his degree in hand first,” Birdsall said. “Six weeks after I was born, Dad emigrated to Montreal, with a letter of introduction in his pocket.”

After working for six months for Standard Telephone Cables, he earned enough to bring his family to Canada in October 1956. But a few years later, the family was on the move again, this time to San Francisco. The young family traveled to Buffalo, New York, before driving across the United States.

“That was a pretty big moment in their lives,” Birdsall said. “I think they were instant Californians. This is 1960, and there’s folk music, wine and this wonderful, creative culture.”

In San Francisco, Green started working at Lynch Communications as a design engineer and, within seven years, he became vice president of engineering. Two more children, Duncan and Victoria, joined the family.

In 1968, Green left Lynch to start up Digital Telephone Systems in Novato, staying on through two acquisitions and retiring at age 55. But retirement was really not his thing.

“He stayed retired for about three weeks, then came up with the idea of Optilink, a fiber-optics company,” Birdsall said. “Then he started Advanced Fibre Communications.”

When that company went public in 1996, Green owned stock and options in AFC that were worth $137 million by 1997.

“When you are a CEO of companies, the best way you can measure your success is by the market, and it was an immense success,” Birdsall said. “It brought a lot of wealth to people who were part of the company.”

That paved the way for the couple’s $10 million donation to the Green Music Center, which at the time, ranked as the biggest gift in California State University history.

AFC also owned 500,000 shares of networking startup Cerent Corp., which was purchased by Cisco Systems in 1999 for $6.8 billion in what is believed to be the highest price ever paid for a closely held technology company.

“The transaction instantly created 30 new millionaires,” Green wrote in his memoir.

Technology business pioneer

While he was synonymous with the music center, Green also left a lasting imprint and contribution to Sonoma County business and industry through his pioneering work in technology innovation.

In its heyday of the late 1990s, Petaluma’s Telecom Valley was comprised of 60 or 70 little tech companies employing about 5,000 people. These entrepreneurial ventures were laying the groundwork — literally the cable lines — for the modern high-speed internet.

Green's Optilink was “the seed” and, from it, there was a “huge explosion of mental resources,” said Webley, who now runs Trevi Systems, a water purification tech company in Rohnert Park. Webley also was a financial contributor to construction of Green Music Center.

Webley and Stanfield are examples of Green's many colleagues who went on to start their own tech companies. And Green often became an investor, board member or both in those enterprises. Stanfield now runs Tibit Communications in Petaluma, maker of a device that fits in the palm of a hand and enables high-speed digital connections to homes, businesses and cellular towers.

Telecom Valley essentially petered out during what Webley described as the “epic meltdown” of the U.S. tech industry in 2001, mainly because it was an overbuilt sector. Many recall that period as the bursting of the tech bubble.

Many of those early startups grew up in south county and then sold their stock to investors after initial public offerings, or were acquired by larger players across the vast telecom and computer hardware and software field.

Some of those entrepreneurs like Webley and Stanfield, though, continue developing new technology in Sonoma County. They credit Green’s influence and guidance.

“A lot of people point back to Don. He was the leader behind all of this,” Stanfield said of the early wave of tech energy and innovation abundant in Telecom Valley.

Outside his business pursuits, Green's close friends said he enjoyed music, tennis, pingpong, travel and spending time at his second home at The Sea Ranch.

Webley, who last spoke to his friend three or four days ago, said that although Parkinson's took a toll on Green's body, “his mind was sharp.”

Webley fondly remembered traveling around the world on business with Green. He said Green's philosophy was to offset the rigors of logging countless miles of airplane travel by relaxing with delicious food and wine at fine restaurants wherever he went.

Green would say you have to “treat yourself,” and he’d order a “good plate of food and nice bottle of wine,” and enjoy the company of his friends or business associates, Webley said.

Green also studied birds and named the vineyard and boutique winemaking operation he had with his daughter after one of them, the Black Kite.

Asked what people in Sonoma County who might associate his name with the Green Music Center but didn't know him should remember about the technology business pioneer, philanthropist, global traveler, music lover Green, Stanfield said: “He was a great man. One of a kind.”

His family, especially his 69 years of marriage to Maureen, were precious to him, and his kids would often seek him out as a moral compass.

“Whenever I had a moral dilemma, I knew if I talked to my father, I would get guidance,” Birdsall said. “He was pure in that way. He could see what the right course was.”

Although he loved all choral music, including the great works by J.S. Bach, his favorite choral work was Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem.

“My favorite thing about Don in these last years is that he kept his sense of humor, the eye twinkle, and the request for a kiss on the cheek on Symphony Sundays, even when it was hard for him to articulate,” said his friend, Gaye LeBaron. “I‘d have to say he was one of the most remarkable people I’ve known.”

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by son David Green of Sebastopol; son Duncan Green of Boise, Idaho; daughter Victoria Green Comfort of Santa Rosa; seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a memorial service at a later date.

Donations may be made to the Green Music Center, the Santa Rosa Symphony or the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.

You can reach Staff Writers Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com and Paul Bomberger at paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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