Former North Coast congressman Don Clausen turning 90
FORTUNA — The broad smile, a trademark of his 20 years of representing the North Coast in Congress, still flashes across Don Clausen's face.
"I had a good run," Clausen said during a 90-minute interview at the Fortuna nursing home where he has lived for the past year.
Taking cues from the photographs on the walls of his room, and with some prompting from son-in-law Jim Baumgartner, Clausen reflected on his youth in Ferndale, his prowess as an ambidextrous baseball pitcher, service as a World War II aviator, two decades in Congress and 63 years of marriage to his late wife, Ollie.
Saturday, Clausen will celebrate his 90th birthday at a public event at the Ferndale Town Hall, not far from the blue, three-story home at the edge of town where Clausen grew up in the verdant Eel River Valley.
"Lucky, I guess," Clausen said of his longevity, but age has taken a toll on the once-energetic Republican who held office for two decades in a Democrat-dominated district from Sonoma County to the Oregon border.
Diabetes, lung disease and recurring headaches have sapped his strength, and two falls last year that involved head injuries diminished his memory.
"I don't feel like I'm as sharp as I used to be, by a damn sight," Clausen said, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing khaki slacks, a striped shirt and nylon jacket.
Glancing at a painting of Ollie on his wall, Clausen said: "She was a jewel."
He remembers meeting the former Jessie Oleva Piper, a waitress at the Hi-Ho ice cream shop in Crescent City, in 1948.
Clausen, who established an insurance agency and an air ambulance service in the Del Norte County seat after the war, offered to teach Ollie how to fly.
She became a pilot and a congressman's wife, hosting Hollywood stars and political leaders and compiling a paperback cookbook of family recipes that Don Clausen still autographs and hands out to people he meets.
Ollie died of cancer in July, and Baumgartner said his father-in-law hasn't been the same since her death. The Clausens lived in Santa Rosa from 1990, when Clausen retired from a Federal Aviation Administration job, until they moved a year ago to the nursing home.
Clausen got into politics in 1955, when he was elected to the Del Norte board of supervisors. In 1962, he lost a bid for Congress to Clem Miller of Marin County, a popular Democratic incumbent who died in a plane crash a month before the election.
Three months later, Clausen won the special election to fill the vacancy created by Miller's death.
An affable, talkative man, given to slapping other men on the back and kissing women's hands, Clausen proved a natural at politics, hailing from the far north end of the coastal district in which more than half of the registered voters were Democrats throughout his tenure from 1962-82.
The night he was unseated by Democrat Doug Bosco in November 1982, Clausen said he was "sort of ending where we started" with election losses book-ending his career.
"The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery when he has to make a detour," he told friends in the banquet room of a Santa Rosa hotel.
Clausen, who served in Congress under six presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, was a moderate Republican, a political species that is "practically extinct today," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.