Ted Eliot, Sonoma County conservationist and retired diplomat, dies at 91
Earlier this week, Ted Eliot lay in bed recuperating after minor surgery and reflected on the meaning of a man’s life. It was an unusual moment of introspection for the former diplomat and fervent conservationist.
Eliot wasn’t one to ruminate, his daughter, Wendy Eliot, said. He was a doer. But on that day, confined to bed in a convalescent hospital, Eliot looked back over his 91 years with the question, “What is the purpose? What is it all for?” He settled on a simple answer to a big question: “To be of service.”
By that definition, Ted Eliot had more than met his purpose when he died Thursday at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital of a heart attack. He was a longtime resident of Sonoma, but recently moved to Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa.
Eliot served for 30 years in the U.S. foreign service and State Department, including a post as ambassador to Afghanistan. He served on and headed a multitude of boards both corporate and nonprofit, from the San Francisco World Affairs Council and the World Peace Foundation to the Planning and Conservation League of California and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In Sonoma County, along with his late wife, Pat, he will be best remembered as one of the region’s most vociferous and effective advocates for conservation, open space, public access and environmental protection.
“We all shared the thought that the purpose of life is to leave the world in a little better shape than we found it. I was able to tell him clearly, you accomplished that,” said Wendy Eliot, who followed her parents into environmental service as conservation director for the Sonoma Land Trust.
Not long after buying a parcel on Sonoma Mountain in the 1980s, Ted and Pat Eliot, who died in 2016, joined the effort to pass ballot measures that set up the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. In 2006, Ted Eliot co-chaired the Measure F campaign that extended a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the district for another ?25 years, drawing support both political and financial. He later served on the district’s advisory committee.
The Eliots had a deep passion for the outdoors, and Sonoma Mountain in particular. Pat, who grew up in Marin County, spent several summers on Sonoma Mountain working at the Jack London ranch exploring its reaches by horseback.
The couple traveled the world to posts in Germany, the Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But they resolved to return to Pat’s beloved Sonoma Mountain, buying 50 acres in the upper reaches of Diamond A in Sonoma in the late 1970s and then moving to Sonoma in the mid 1980s.
“The deal they made was it was her turn,” Wendy Eliot said. It became what amounted to a second career of service on a local level.
The Eliots placed a conservation and trail easement on their property and then spent years persuading their neighbors and other landowners to do the same by either selling or donating land for the creation of what eventually became a public trail across Sonoma Mountain. It leads from the county parkland east of Rohnert Park to Jack London State Historic Park and then beyond another 2 miles, ending in a loop at the Eliot’s property. The last leg is called the Eliot Family Trail. It was a hard-fought victory for the couple.
“He convinced them it was the right thing to do, that they weren’t going to lose their privacy and it was not going to intervene in their quality of life,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Sonoma Valley. She met Ted Eliot years ago walking precincts and the two became “instant kinsmen.”
“He absolutely understood how important it is to bring people together, and also to convince them about the appropriateness of working together to achieve a common vision,” Gorin said. “And he was persistent. He had a spine of steel. We needed his key leadership at a key time to move people forward and defuse some of the anxiety.”
He drew on his diplomatic skills to negotiate but stood up for his principles.
“You never wanted to be in Ted’s crosshairs, but he was always on the right side. Once you acknowledged it he was your friend again. He wasn’t going to just tell you what you wanted to hear. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. But then he’d shake your hand,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
Eliot was deeply involved in efforts to preserve Sonoma Developmental Center for open space and public access. And he served three, three-year terms on the board of the Community Foundation Sonoma County. In the last few years, he continued to serve on the board of the foundation’s Sonoma Valley Fund.