Helen Rudee, first woman elected to Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, dies at 100

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Helen Rudee, the former North Dakota farm girl who became the first woman elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 1976, rising in local politics despite those who saw such seats as reserved for men, died Wednesday, seven months after the ladies’ tea that helped mark her 100th birthday.

Rudee had cut her political teeth as a doctor’s wife in the PTA and then in an elected seat on the Santa Rosa school board when she tuned out the naysayers and declared herself a candidate for the county office. Since the founding of Sonoma County following the Gold Rush, there’d never been a woman on the Board of Supervisors.

Rudee often recalled that she’d never had a problem working with males as an equal — five boys had been born to her family before she arrived in Anamoose, North Dakota, on Feb. 21, 1918.

“I grew up with brothers,” she once said, “and I know how to kick!”

She won the 3rd District supervisorial race in 1976 and served three four-year terms in the seat representing the central portion of the county. An admitted “slow decision-maker,” she set a deliberative, analytical tone on the board by politely and persistently asking questions, then staking her position.

“She was wise and patient, and she had a heart and a mind,” said former supervisor Brian Kahn, who recalled that when he joined the board in 1976 through a gubernatorial appointment he was 26, opinionated and prone to thinking he knew more than he did. Rudee was more than twice his age when they first sat together as county supervisors in ‘77.

“She helped me do my job,” said Kahn. As a supervisor, Rudee kept an open mind while inviting debate, investigation and analysis.

“She was willing to have her initial view challenged, probed, explored,” Kahn said.

Rudee, who started out as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party, did not set out to become a female county supervisor, just a supervisor. But by her example and later, her advocacy, she motivated other women to pursue their ambitions and dreams.

“I imagine that Helen was a role model for many,” said friend Jeannie Schulz, a leading Sonoma County philanthropist and the widow of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz.

Rudee was “a woman engaged in her community and willing to give her time and energy to the local political scene,” Schulz said. And beyond that, as “a role model for all of us.”

In recent years, Rudee earned praise for building the foundation of the current Board of Supervisors, the first ever in Sonoma County on which women make up the majority.

“She was such a strong supporter of women’s rights and women entering the workforce, and certainly the political arena,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley and the east county.

“Throughout my career, Helen has been an inspiration to me and many other women who are in politics and other male-dominated fields,” Lynn Woolsey, the former North Coast congresswoman, said on the House floor in a tribute to Rudee’s 86th birthday in 2004.

“She is a trailblazer who has made it better for all women,” Woolsey told the House.

Rudee was the most esteemed VIP present in the supervisors’ chambers early last year for the post-election swearing-in ceremony, when Lynda Hopkins’ addition as west county supervisor solidified the board’s first female majority.

“Helen Rudee broke the glass ceiling in these chambers when she ran for office back in 1976 and won as the first female supervisor,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the 3rd District incumbent, told the assembly.

Rudee, who retired from the board in 1988 at age 70, smiled elegantly as she was showered with a standing ovation on that special day in 2017.

“What an institution, and what a person,” her successor in the 3rd District, former supervisor Tim Smith said Thursday. He recalled fondly Rudee’s dignity, patience, sense of humor “and the compassion she had for people who were in need.”

Smith, who served a record 20 years on the board and retired in 2008, said his predecessor embodied the polar opposite of the coarseness and disrespect of much of today’s political discourse.

“Helen couldn’t have been more accepting and kind,” he said.

“She was kind to the core. That’s just who she was. There was nothing put-on about her at all.”

Longtime friend Gaye LeBaron, the Press Democrat columnist and writer of Sonoma County history, said that all through her long run in public service Rudee “was a master of serenity in the face of criticism, a determined woman, with no trace of militancy — not an easy task in today’s ‘us vs. them’ world.”

Rudee lived for decades in the home on Santa Rosa’s stately McDonald Avenue that she’d moved into in 1957 with her husband, the late Dr. Bill Rudee.

The mother of four, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of seven relocated last May to the Humboldt County ranch home of a daughter, Elaine Ozanian, in Ferndale.

There, Ozanian said, she read, received guests and enjoyed the country scenery.

Rudee was felled by a stroke on Tuesday evening and she died Wednesday at Redwood Memorial Hospital in Ferndale.

The former Helen Browning was put to work not long after her birth 100 years on a stretch of the Great Plains in North Dakota’s southeast corner.

She would recall that she and her folks and five older brothers raised just about everything that could be raised on a farm — “except ducks and geese. My father thought they were messy.”

The Dust Bowl raged through much of her school years. LeBaron wrote for Rudee’s 95th birthday in 2013:

“She has vivid memories of the Dust Bowl years, of the black clouds that blotted the sun and withered the crops. She remembers walking to high school with a kerchief wrapped over her mouth and nose, to keep the choking dust out of her throat.”

Not long after graduating from high school, Helen Browning moved to San Francisco to live with a great-aunt and five older cousins — all males — and to study nursing. It was at the Stanford School of Nursing that she met doctor-in-training Ford Shepherd.

They married and in 1940 the couple relocated to Santa Rosa, where he worked for a year as a resident physician at the former Sonoma County Hospital on Chanate Road. Dr. Shepherd befriended a fellow resident, Dr. Bill Rudee.

When Ford Shepherd completed his residency, he and his wife settled in Santa Cruz and he began to practice as a radiologist. The couple had four children.

Less than 20 years into the marriage, Ford Shepherd fell ill and died at age 42.

His widow subsequently accepted an invitation of a date with bachelor Bill Rudee, then a general practitioner in Santa Rosa. They hit it off, and were married.

In 1957, the family of two newlyweds and four children settled into Santa Rosa’s historic grand boulevard, McDonald Avenue.

Helen Rudee immersed herself in her children’s school life and in the Parent-Teacher Association. It became her springboard to politics and public service.

In the 1960s, a resignation created an opening on the Santa Rosa Board of Education and Rudee accepted an appointment. The men in the other seats made her the board clerk.

She rose to president of the school board. She won two elections and served 10 years as a trustee when, in 1975, she declared that she would run for the Board of Supervisors against incumbent Charles Hinkle.

It was a complicated primary. When an attempt arose to recall Hinkle, and also Supervisor Bill Kortum, Rudee announced that she would not add her name to the list of candidates to be considered by voters were the recall attempt against Hinkle successful.

Hinkle was recalled, and Wayne Bass won the vote to replace him. So then Rudee ran in the general election against Bass, and won.

She was sworn in as the Board of Supervisors first woman in January 1977 along with fellow newcomers Kahn and 26-year-old Navy veteran and Sonoma State College graduate Eric Koenigshofer, the youngest person ever elected to the board.

Koenigshofer said Thursday, “It was exciting for a young person to be on a board with a new twist.”

For 12 years, Rudee brought to the county’s governing board a high degree of collegiality, compassion and deliberation. Chief among the challenges facing her and her colleagues were the need to develop a general plan to guide land development in the county and a lawsuit that demanded the construction of a new county jail.

Rudee became deeply involved in the Women’s Political Caucus in the Bay Area, in the formation of the county’s Commission on the Status of Women and in the locally conceived Women’s History Project, precursor to National Women’s History Month.

She was widowed for a second time with the death of Bill Rudee in 1995. In 2008, she hosted the party that kicked off neighbor Shirlee Zane’s campaign for the board seat that she’d occupied for 12 years.

In 2011, Rudee consoled Zane following the suicide of the supervisor’s husband, Peter Kingston.

“She knew what it was like to be a young widow and have your husband die very suddenly and tragically,” Zane said Thursday. “She was a remarkable woman.”

Just before her 100th birthday in February, Helen Rudee said her eyesight had dimmed but she enjoyed having someone read her the newspapers. As she reached a century of life, he said, “I just want to make sure the garden is taken of, and the family is well situated.”

These past five months in Ferndale, her daughter Ozanian said, she remained grateful to visit with friends and family and sometimes listen to music.

“She’d be outside, walking on the porch and looking at the animals,” her daughter said. “She beat me in gin rummy all the time.”

In addition to Ozanian, Rudee is survived by daughters Carolyn Young of Bellingham, Washington, and Anne Haskins of Friday Harbor, Washington; son John Rudee of Cobb and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Plans haven’t yet been made for services.

Staff Writer J.D. Morris contributed reporting. You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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