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Art Volkerts, former Press Democrat editor, dies at 96

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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.

Born on what would be his life long home in the west county’s Blucher Valley on Feb. 23, 1920, young Arthur J. Volkerts ran barefoot through greater Sebastopol and swam in Blucher Creek.

“We swam naked, naturally,” he told LeBaron in a videotaped 1998 interview. “There weren’t any girls around at that time.”

Volkerts attended Canfield School, with one room and one teacher, discovering that it was helpful to hear what the older students were learning.

Only months after he graduated from Analy High in 1938, he and high school sweetheart Tess Garrison married at the Methodist church in Sebastopol. He took work harvesting fruit, apples and hops. When the Japanese attack on Oahu in 1941 drew the United States into the war, he was a laborer on the project to build a stone jetty at Bodega harbor.

In 1944, then 24-year-old Volkerts was helping to build barges, salvage tugs and small tankers at Basalt Rock Co. in Napa when he received notice he’d been drafted into the Army. He told LeBaron in ’98 that following a physical exam he was told, “Go on home ... We don’t want you.”

He was informed he’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis and he spent nearly a year at the former sanatorium on Santa Rosa’s Chanate Road. He shook the TB but was advised that he’d never again be able to do much physical labor.

“It was sort of a turning point in my life,” he told LeBaron.

He knew sports and he liked to write, so he took a correspondence course in journalism from UC Berkeley.

Completing it, he recalled, “I went up and pestered the people at the Sebastopol Times.” He was on his way to becoming the most widely read and influential newspaper editor in Sonoma County.

Former reporter Golis said that Volkerts wrote the editorials and “he left his reporters to do their jobs, which meant reporting both sides of the issue. I’m sure there were times that he didn’t like something I had written, but he never said a word.”

Among the many reporters he hired was Catherine Barnett, now The Press Democrat’s executive editor.

She recalled, “When Art sent you on a story, he knew the name of every stream, back road and rancher you would cross. If a reporter dared to suggest it was an unrealistic amount of work to deliver a story on his exacting deadline, he had a response: ‘Cleaning chicken houses is work. This is typing.’ ”

“In my lifetime,” Barnett said, “The Press Democrat has had only four editors. Art served longer than any and directed coverage during the community’s most dramatic transformation. Unprecedented growth and development changed the nature of the place as we went from a farm county to Wine Country.”

One of the Volkerts’ three daughters, Jan Hollman of Folsom, said her dad always was proud “of what he did at the PD, and the things he stood for at the PD.”

Before he retired in 1986, Volkerts also briefly worked as assistant to the publisher after the New York Times purchased The Press Democrat.

Hollman said her father drew his greatest joy from his family, and he certainly loved his fishing. Beyond that, he’d have been happier recently if his Giants hadn’t been eliminated from the march to the World Series.

Volkerts was renowned for his vegetable gardening and was long active in the Kiwanis Club, the county’s Fish & Wildlife Advisory Board, the governance council of the Sutter North Bay Foundation, Sons in Retirement and the Empire Breakfast Club.

In addition to his wife in Hessel and his daughter in Folsom, he is survived by daughters Judy Dillon of Roseville and Pat Howard of Sacramento, six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson, with a second on the way.

Volkerts’ family hopes to arrange for a service this week in Sebastopol.

Memorial donations are suggested to be sent to Canfield 4-H, 5400 Blank Road, Sebastopol 95472 or to Hessel volunteer firefighters, 4500 Hessel Road, Sebastopol 95472.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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