Lee Bollinger, longtime former Press Democrat advertising executive, dies at 96

Lee Bollinger was a Sonoma County-reared, Greatest Generation gentleman who popped aspirin to remedy rejection of his first attempt to serve his country in World War II, and who couldn’t help it that newspaper ink ran through his veins.

Bollinger, who delivered The Press Democrat as a kid and then worked for most of his 50-year career as an executive and stalwart of the paper, died Oct. 8. The disciplined but gentle-tempered Marine Corps veteran was 96.

“In many ways, my father’s story is the classic American story,” said his eldest child, Lee C. Bollinger, for nearly 20 years the president of Columbia University in New York City.

His father helped to support his family as a boy in the Great Depression, and shortly after his wartime graduation from Santa Rosa High School in 1943, tried to enlist in the U.S. Army.

“They turned him down because he had a heart murmur,” said son Brad Bollinger, who was for decades a Press Democrat columnist and editor and who retired late last year as publisher of a sister publication, the North Bay Business Journal.

He said his father was undeterred by his medical exemption from the Army, and simply went home and took some aspirin.

He then applied to the U.S. Marine Corps and was accepted. He would fly dozens of combat missions in the Pacific and be decorated as a gunner in the belly of a Grumman TBM Avenger, a torpedo bomber.

Lee Bollinger was but 12 years old and the Depression was grinding on when he began earning a bit of money by delivering The Press Democrat. In time, just about everybody in three generations of his family would work jobs or careers with the paper.

“It’s been a family affair,” said Tami Bollinger Edwards of Santa Rosa, Lee Bollinger’s lone daughter.

She worked at the newspaper for more than 30 years and retired in 2012 from the retail advertising department. Her grandmother, Sue Bollinger, Lee Bollinger’s mom, operated the PD’s telephone switchboard in the 1940s and later created the paper’s news library, or more commonly known among staffers, “the morgue.”

Lee Bollinger Jr., the Columbia University president, was a young attorney when he began to focus on freedom of the press.

“I knew it in my bones. It was part of me because it was part of him (his father),” he said. As a leading First Amendment scholar, he teaches and speaks and writes books on the subject.

His father was still a teen when he went to work in the PD building, doing whatever needed to be done. He proofread news copy and also read aloud to Sen. Herbert Slater, who was blind and wrote a column for the newspaper.

If the young Lee Bollinger wasn’t busy at the PD or doing schoolwork, he was likely playing tennis. “He was a very good tennis player; he almost became a professional player,” Brad Bollinger said.

It was at Santa Rosa High that the athletic Press Democrat employee met and fell in love with classmate Patricia Young. They were both 18 when they married in 1943. The following year, they shared a tearful goodbye before he shipped off to war.

“That was really a hard time for him,” Tami Edwards said. Her brother Brad said their dad returned after his honorable discharge and never said much about being at war.

The 20-year-old combat veteran came back to The Press Democrat in late 1945 and worked in the circulation department, becoming its manager. He and Patricia had welcomed three sons into the world when an opportunity drew them out of state.

In 1957, the owners of The Press Democrat, Ruth Finley and her son-in-law, Evert Person, purchased a daily newspaper in Oregon, the Baker Democrat-Herald. They asked Bollinger to become its editor and publisher.

So, the Bollingers and sons Lee, Mark and Brad moved to central Oregon. Lee Bollinger Sr. became a pillar of community life in Baker City. One memorable day was when the newspaper publisher welcomed John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy there on a campaign stop.

The Bollinger family grew by three during the 10 years that Lee ran the Democrat-Herald. In 1967, the paper was sold and Bollinger returned to The Press Democrat as its new head of classified advertising. His family settled back in Santa Rosa.

In those days, classified ads – offering or seeking used cars, pets, apartments, jobs and more – were a significant source of revenue for the PD and other papers. Bollinger came to national prominence as he grew the paper’s classified department.

In 1979, his staff sold more than 1 million classified ads, more than any other newspaper of similar size in the country. A decade later, the PD broke records again by selling 2 million classified ads in a year. Today, most such ads have migrated to the internet.

Bollinger accepted numerous professional awards and became prominent in the international Association of Newspaper Classified Advertising Managers. Driven and exacting but also elegant and kind, he was beloved by the employees of the PD’s classified department and colleagues throughout the newspaper.

Elaine Thompson was 18 when she went to work in the PD's classified ads department in 1958. She said she can't imagine having a better boss than Bollinger.

“I thought he knew everything," said Thompson, who retired in the late 1990s. "And he was a gentleman. He was soft-spoken but got his points across.”

Said Gaye LeBaron, the longtime Press Democrat columnist and writer of Sonoma County history, “Lee’s death reminds us of what journalism was like here 60-plus years ago, and it’s a happy memory.”

Tami Edwards recalled that her father left the newspaper at midday every day to go home and have lunch with Patricia. Edwards said her father was strict but loving and he taught his children the benefits of discipline and the pursuit of excellence.

“We always sat down as a family for dinner,” she said.

She remembers that family crab feeds that had all of the Bollingers raising their arms over their plates to guard against Dungeness crab being snatched away by the rivals at the table.

"I'm proud to be his son, I'll tell you that," said Jayme Bollinger of Santa Rosa, who worked his entire career at the Press Democrat and retired in 2012 as a district manager in the circulation department.

He savors remembering playing catch in the front yard with his dad. "He was just a great man."

Lee and Patricia Bollinger’s life was joyful,busy and productive, but not without its hardships. They endured the deaths of two of their six children, Mark and Jeff. Both were young men when they died of complications from illness.

Their father had worked for the PD longer than anyone else when he retired in 1992, at age 67. He and Patricia savored life-after-work and their children and grandchildren up to Patricia’s death, at 84, in 2010.

Lee Bollinger continued to live in the family home in Santa Rosa until about a year ago, when he moved into an assisted-living residence. He had lived at Spring Lake Village since last March.

To the end, his son in New York said, “He was a person of great integrity. It was a wonderful, wonderful life.”

In addition to his four surviving children, Lee Bollinger is survived by six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

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