LeBaron: Ending Sonoma County's 2017 with rejoicing, reflection, astonishment and hope

Ronnie Duvall delivers a Christmas tree to property where a home once stood on Dennis Lane in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on Tuesday, December 19, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


The old year passes. Always an occasion for (choose the word that suits your mood as you prepare to watch 2017 fade into the smoky mists of the second millennium): rejoicing, reflection, astonishment or hope.

It could be “all of the above,” because it’s been that kind of year.

Let us begin with rejoicing — in the best municipal manner as preparations are underway for the 2018 sesquicentennial of Santa Rosa becoming, officially, a city.

Rejoicing would be an appropriate choice. By 1868 this scrappy and more-than-a-little ragtag town on the biggest creek in the valley had already observed two decades of ups and downs — the departure of the padres and the Mexican grantees, the entrepreneurial interests of unsuccessful gold miners, a political coup that brought the county seat to a trading post that wasn’t even a town and its own shadow Civil War with an older, better-positioned rival to the south.

So, yes, what was described by the Sonoma Bulletin — the first newspaper in the county — as a place where there was “nothing but dogs, dust and whiskey drinkers” became an official chartered city.

Having survived the ensuing years of alternating drought and deluge, an assortment of earthquakes including The Big One of April 1906 that leveled the business district and killed one in 80 residents in this city of 8,000 and, from the front of our collective mind, the wildfires of 1964 and the month before last, Santa Rosa has achieved a population that has crept ever closer to 200,000 along with a “Wine Country” reputation for prosperity and pleasure. So “rejoicing” would definitely be a defensible choice.

And as the city celebrates 150, we will also rejoice in Santa Rosa Junior College’s centennial honors.

It was a committee of 14 determined women who would have described themselves (proudly, I suspect) as “housewives” that convinced the school board that the city and county needed to take advantage of the 10-year old state law providing for the establishment of junior colleges.

In 1918 it became the 18th JC in California and a focus of community pride.


“Reflection” is your next choice. And it could apply to the many lessons learned in the year that ends at midnight.

For journalists, timing is everything, particularly upon reflection, as syndicated columnist Joe Mathews can tell you. In late September, Mathews stumbled into a pitfall of prognostication in a column about Santa Rosa. It appeared Oct. 1 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A week later his observations — leading off with “Adjust your California maps: The little dot marking Santa Rosa needs to be bigger” — were sitting on my desktop, about to become the starting point of my first column of October.

I was planning to take a tone of sardonic disbelief. Joe was nothing if not positive about this city’s economic future. “No place in California stands to benefit more,” he wrote, from the “dramatic changes” taking place in the Golden State. Santa Rosa, he suggested was an “edge city,” a kind of border town between the metropolitan Bay Area and the rural north, in his words, “a bastion of hoary traditions like economic growth and middle-class opportunity.”

It all sounded so good. (Although some of it was a bit odd, like his assertion that Santa Rosa’s city motto is “Out There. In the Middle of Everything.” I had never heard that before.)

He wrote about the SMART train and the expansion of the airport, the plans for tall buildings downtown and glowing reports of a “multiphase” housing plan. He predicted a population increase to 200,000, quoting Julie Combs, a member of the City Council, saying, “We’re on the move. We’re interested in growing.”

I don’t think Julie was intending a double-entendre but the growth that Mathews predicted was based on his assessment of this place. “By dint of geography and deliberate strategy” he suggests that Santa Rosa is “emerging as California’s weed crossroads.” He says “in the words used by the city” it will be a “farm-to-market center” for cannabis.

That is what I was planning to write about but that week began the fastest, most frantic October in any Santa Rosan’s memories and the rosy glow of Mathew’s predictions were little more than reflections of fast-moving flames.


There’s not a lot of space left here for other choices. But astonishment is almost too easy — a favorite of those who choose not to choose.

We can begin by being astonished at how quickly things can change. Which may describe our reaction to some of those foregoing predictions.

One day the town and county are poised for unrivaled growth and prosperity. The next you are reading a quote from a UC professor in The Atlantic about extreme weather (including fires) and how economic growth lowers “in proportion to the intensity of the storms.”

And we can’t stop expressing our wonderment at the patience and strength of our friends who have lost their homes and, too often, a lifetime of treasured memories.

To look on the “bright side” when there doesn’t seem to be one. That’s astonishing. But it’s happening at every turn.

Every day a story, a thousand of them, I guess. A couple running through fire on all sides met by two firemen in a borrowed truck making “one last sweep through.” Dispatchers fast-talking comfort to people until rescuers arrived. So many sad, but so many happy endings, too. Neighbors who hammered on doors, wet down the yards with garden hoses. The thousands who found their way out. Lost pets found and family heirlooms recovered from the ashes.

Our morning newspapers have been dampened by our tears.



It becomes almost mandatory to close with “hope.”

The very fact that we are talking about celebrations in the new year means that there is plenty of hopefulness out there — call it determination, if you will — that, given time and patience, this “edge” area where we live will still grow and prosper.

We’ve seen grim times before. In 1906, when the town fell down, people not only picked themselves up, but also did so with such determination that a magazine headline writer called Santa Rosa “The Pluckiest Town in California.” We’ve got a lot of competition for that title this year, but there’s also a hope that lessons learned along the 150-year route have created a strong community.

So we end, as the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II famously termed her 1992, our “annus horribilis” which in Latin is just as bad as it sounds.

And, as 2017 sinks slowly in the west, we acknowledge “all of the above,” of rejoicing and reflection and astonishment and, yes, hope.

With so much more to do, so many more tears to shed on our newspapers, we need the wisdom of the great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminding us when there is so much more to be done, “We must be saved by hope.”

So much more to be done: This can be the mantra offering a clear path to the future as a city, a county — and far beyond, to the nation and the world.