Art Volkerts, former Press Democrat editor, dies at 96
Art Volkerts, the retired Press Democrat editor who grew up in Sonoma County, knew it like his backyard and through his newspaper editorials won some decisive battles over the county’s development, died Saturday on the family ranch where he was born.
Volkerts, a generally soft-spoken and knowledgeable man who for decades recharged himself by fishing the Russian River and other North Coast waterways he came to value and understand like few others, was 96.
He had lost his eyesight but, with some assistance, was enjoying a quiet life on his family ranch in the Hessel district with his wife of 78 years, Tess. He woke and dressed Saturday morning and then collapsed as he walked to the breakfast table.
As a young man, Volkerts turned to journalism largely out of necessity after a long bout of tuberculosis during World War II precluded him from continuing with more physically demanding work such as agriculture or construction.
The ex-MVP football player with Sebastopol’s Analy High School, Class of 1938, pursued journalism as a sports reporter with the weekly Sebastopol Times. Switching to the daily Press Democrat in 1948 as a reporter, he quickly ascended the ranks, becoming the newspaper’s managing editor in 1955. He took over as editor in 1972 and was an editorial-page voice through the decades that Sonoma County residents witnessed rapid post-war growth and knocked heads over how much was enough.
“For three decades, when people thought of The Press Democrat, they thought of Art Volkerts,” said Press Democrat columnist and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron. “He was a community editor at a time when this was a more cohesive community.”
One of Volkerts’ greatest victories was his advocacy of the construction of the Warm Springs Dam in Dry Creek Valley in the 1970s and ’80s.
“It wasn’t an easy thing,” he told LeBaron in a 1998 interview. “I really think that the project has, especially during the drought years, proved itself. It’s not only the water, it’s the recreation.”
Said retired Press Democrat reporter and editorial director Pete Golis, “Art championed the dam at a time when voters were closely divided on the issue. He was just convinced that it was the right thing to do for Sonoma County. After years of drought, who now thinks we would be better off without the water from Lake Sonoma? No one that I know.”
Some opponents of the project to create Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam argued that it would further stimulate construction and population growth in Sonoma and Marin counties. Development was a hot issue in the region when, in 1976, 26-year-old attorney and Vietnam war veteran Eric Koenigshofer ran to unseat Bob Theiller, a beneficiary of Volkerts’ editorial support, from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
Koenigshofer won. He and a new, liberal, growth-resistant board majority rounded out by Helen Rudee and Brian Kahn often took positions in opposition to those of Volkerts.
“We were going head-to-head over what direction the county would take,” recalled Koenigshofer, still a resident of the west county.
What Volkerts often viewed as desirable development, Koenigshofer said, “I and others — my peers, baby boomers — saw as sprawl.”
Smart and deeply rooted in Sonoma County, Volkerts “was a gentleman,” the former supervisor said.