LeBaron: Helen Rudee memorable for more than political firsts

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My good friend, Helen Rudee, died two weeks ago. This is not news, I know, and tributes have been paid. Nonetheless, I have some things about Helen I want to say, about her generation and mine, and the women who came from those years.

She was 17 years my elder, and more than 17 years wiser about the politics of being female in our times.

She was never militant, but always determined.

It never occurred to her to think anyone considered her less because of her sex, so, if that did happen, she simply refused to accept it. She was rarely angry (and if she was, only family and very close friends knew it).

But it wasn’t a cakewalk. I heard men, community leaders, men I respected who had yet to come to terms with the “women’s issues” that were just over the horizon, say, “Mrs. Rudee is a nice lady.”

Some actually meant it as a compliment — a sentence that today could result in a flock of protesters or a panel discussion on NPR about our changing language. Then came the “Buts…” “But nice ladies don’t belong on the board,” or “But we can’t support her,” or “ But … I can’t vote for her.”

Indeed, she was every inch a lady in the most positive sense of the word. And there was no doubting that she was nice. But it didn’t stop there, as the men in question thought it should. She wanted to “be useful” she told interviewers.

And not all men were opposed. Certainly not her husband, family doctor Bill Rudee. “He urged me on,” she told KBBF’s Elaine Holtz in 2017. “Anything I wanted to do was OK. He had a very busy medical life and was happy to see me involved. And I was.”


SHE CAME INTO politics “through the chairs” of the Parent-Teachers Association. In the 1960s, she was a doctor’s wife and a trained nurse no longer nursing, with children in school. She was holding a state office in the organization when stalwart Alice Zieber, also a physician’s wife, retired from a decadeslong tenure as the only woman on Santa Rosa’s Board of Education.

Faced with appointing a replacement, the men on the board offered the seat to Helen. She became the secretary, as Alice had and other women members (one at a time, always) had been before her.

“After eight years,” she told Holtz, “I told them, ‘It’s time, really. It’s time!’ ” And she became the first woman to serve as president of the school board. There are times she often recounted, that she found herself “the only woman in a room filled with 11 men.”

The odds didn’t change in her next venture.

In 1976, at the urging of friends — and at a propitious moment in county politics — she decided to take a mighty leap.

She put her name on the ballot for Third District supervisor, and despite all the “nice lady” stuff, she narrowly defeated a short-term incumbent.


WE LOVE TO say “the rest is history,” but there’s so much more to say about Helen. First, she was righteous but certainly not vindictive, as victims of wholesale dismissal can be. And, in several ways, she positioned herself as a local leader of the burgeoning “women’s movement.”

As she told interviewer Chris Smith on the day before her 100th birthday in February: “I just decided it was important for other women to follow...” Her assessment after a half century in pursuit of political equality: “I think we could do better. But we’re moving along.”

She was one of a new kind of woman, even in the pre-WWII days, a woman who loved and respected her parents but followed a new path. In her case, that path led her from a North Dakota farm to Stanford and a nursing career.

Married to an Army physician, she traveled from base to base in the war years. Later, as a young widow with four children, she married Bill, a friend from residency days at Sonoma County Hospital.

Helen never rejected her rural upbringing. She treasured it. On the wall in her McDonald Avenue home there is a painting of the tiny town of Anamoose, North Dakota, (population 227 in the 2010 census) which, she insisted, had changed very little, if at all, since she left more than 80 years ago.

A photo of her milking a cow at the county fair was one of several that accompanied her obituary. She would have loved it. She knew how to drive that milking stool. Full disclosure: I was the one she beat to win that competition and it really was no competition at all.

Was I surprised? Not a bit. Having heard her talk fondly of the farm and her five older brothers, I fully expected she would clean my clock. And she did.

She had lots of “farm stories,” and not all of them were happy ones. Maybe the grimmer parts of her youth — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl storms that required wrapping her face in a scarf as she walked to school — were the foundation of all that determination.

At any rate, she took her “pioneer woman” role very seriously, as I discovered to my chagrin, when I wrote in an April 1 column 38 years ago, in a list of nonsensical news, that Helen had decided not to run for re-election because she believed “a woman’s place was in the kitchen.”

I can still hear echoes of her “Gaaayeee!” on the telephone. She hadn’t read as far as the “April Fool” part. And I never wrote another such column. Lessons learned.

She wasn’t the first woman to run for supervisor. That distinction belonged to Ruby Jewel Codding Hall who ran with a campaign slogan — “It’s time to elect a woman. The Board of Supervisors are the housekeepers of the county” — that was bold, despite being considered in today’s terms, “retro.”

Ruby didn’t make it past the primaries, losing to Bennett Valley rancher James Jameson. That was 1936, the same year the teenage Helen Browning left the North Dakota farm.


WHEN HELEN took her seat, 40 years later, she had her critics, mostly male. They said she took too long to make a decision. She sometimes delayed the vote because she wanted to be sure she understood. She was well aware some considered this a flaw, but she persisted. She would rather be criticized than do the wrong thing.

It wasn’t long before she had earned the respect of her colleagues, particularly the Ks — Brian Kahn and Eric Koenigshofer, the two youngest members of the board EVER. They not only respected her, they loved her.

When Kahn comes to town from his Montana home he has been known to call upon Helen, bringing flowers.

They all have “Helen stories.” Ernie Carpenter’s is among my favorites. He and Helen were the committee that oversaw completion of the then-new jail, and one day were on an inspection tour, walking the cell block as they talked, when a voice rang out from one of cells, saying “Is that YOU, Helen Rudee?”

Ernie was astounded. Helen smiled and said nothing.

Others were sometimes surprised that this grandmotherly little woman had such a wicked sense of humor. She had a “shtick” she did about the difference between men and women making a presentation that could reduce a roomful (of women) to helpless laughter and multiple nods of agreement. I doubt very much any of her male colleagues ever saw it.


AS A CANDIDATE, she was an outside choice. There were women in town who were far more strident about the relatively new notion of women’s rights than she was. But she opened the door. And you might say the world rushed in. She was followed closely by Helen Putnam, a much more polished politician who had served as Petaluma’s mayor for four terms who had been elected the first woman president of the League of California Cities.

After “The Helens” knocked holes in the wall, then came Janet Nicholas and Valerie Brown from the Sonoma Valley and other viable women candidates — not successful, but certainly not afraid to try. It all culminated last year with the first women’s majority board.

So now, as Helen hoped, we are growing closer to the end of the debate about women’s roles. It would seem that the question of whether a woman is as capable of governance, of performing the same governmental miracles as any man, and yes, of making the same mistakes, has been answered.

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