Sonoma Stories: The Class of 1968 saw Santa Rosa change hugely long before last October

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

It didn’t take a historic conflagration to transform Santa Rosa in the eyes of the grandparently ex-classmates who capped their 50th high school reunion Sunday with a picnic near the pony rides at Howarth Park.

Members of Montgomery High School’s Class of 1968 witnessed an epic change to their hometown long before the Tubbs fire.

While they were rooting for their Vikings in the midlands of the 1960s, this bunch also took in double features with cartoons at the doomed California, Tower and Roxy theaters and at their choice of three drive-ins.

The class’s Marlayne (Maddox) Williams said she was the second baby born on the day Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital opened in 1950. As a young child, she said, her town was so small and its trees so few that when she and her family approached by car from the south she could spot the Flamingo Hotel bird tower from just north of what was becoming Rohnert Park.

Classmate Rod Murdock, who traveled to this weekend’s reunion from his longtime home in Alaska, told of growing up in Santa Rosa at a time of trust and innocence.

“The keys were left in cars and front doors were left unlocked,” Murdock said.

Now 68 years old or close to it, members of Monty’s Class of ‘68 felt their hearts break 50-some years ago as they witnessed the demolition of Santa Rosa’s grand, downtown county courthouse and Carnegie Library. Most of them were still in town October of 1969, when devastating twin earthquakes made a clean slate of much of downtown, becoming the demarcation between the old Santa Rosa and the new.

Some of these baby boomers had been chased from their homes at age 13 or 14 by the advance of the warm-up to the 2017 firestorms — the 1964 Hanly fire.

“I got on the roof and put sprinklers there with my dad,” remembered Ron Taylor, a retired college professor who as a senior was Montgomery’s student body president.

As that fire 54 years ago inched closer, Santa Rosa native Linda Lambert and her family trailered their horses to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds from their hillside home off Montecito Avenue.

“It was scary back then, but it happened so fast this time,” Lambert said.

Murdock, who now installs and repairs home appliances in Kodiak, recalls his mother packing him and his siblings into her pristine 1963 VW Beetle to put more distance between them and the ‘64 fire now widely viewed as a precursor to last fall’s deadly, enormously destructive Tubbs fire.

Murdock said running from the Hanly fire as a kid wasn’t much worse than following the news of the recent disaster from 2,000 miles away.

“Because I grew up here, it was palpable,” the Alaskan said at the picnic following Saturday night’s reunion of about 100 Class of ‘68 alums at the Saturday Afternoon Club.

“I felt this huge amount of despair and shock,” he said. “It hurt.”

While Murdock and his ex-classmates caught up, laughed, thumbed through old yearbooks and reminisced, they also shared perceptions of how their town, or former town, was impacted by the Tubbs fire and how its recovery is proceeding. Good and bad, offered Bill Welsh, who served as class president and whose home off Riebli Road fell to the Tubbs fire.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“I think that the community is trying to be compassionate and supportive,” said Welsh, who’s retired from several enterprises, among them real estate sales and a flooring business.

But he perceives that a great many of people who didn’t lose their homes don’t grasp how difficult life is right now for a great many who did. Though reluctant to speak of his own difficulties, Welsh said the myriad obstacles to staying in Santa Rosa have him considering a move.

He relates what has become a common story: He said he has looked at many homes for sales and tried to buy one listed at $850,000. He offered $925,000 but lost the house to someone who offered $1.1 million.

The former Marlayne Maddox said of the Tubbs fire, “It’s definitely changed the landscape of this town. It won’t ever be the same.”

But she and several classmates said Santa Rosa remains a city with a heart, and that the caring that has flowed since the first night of the fires is hugely helpful to the community’s recovery.

“I think people are being amazing,” said Taylor, the retired professor. “People realize they have a role in it even if they didn’t get hurt.”

Class member Mark Gladden, an attorney now living in Healdsburg, said the recovery “is doing way better than I expected.”

As happened after the tragedy of 9/11, Gladden said, “All of a sudden people put aside their differences and came together.”

One of the many things life has taught the Montgomery High Class of 1968 is that healing takes time.

Kathleen Johnstone, an actress and former medical facility administrator who came to the reunion from near Scottsdale, Arizona, said it seems to her that Tubbs fire survivors and the public officials they rely on have come a long ways since October. Still, they have a long ways to go.

“They’re just now getting things rolling,” she said as the 50-year reunion wound down.

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

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