Ted Eliot, Sonoma County conservationist and retired diplomat, dies at 91

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Earlier this week, Ted Eliot lay in bed recuperating after minor surgery and reflected on the meaning of a man’s life. It was an unusual moment of introspection for the former diplomat and fervent conservationist.

Eliot wasn’t one to ruminate, his daughter, Wendy Eliot, said. He was a doer. But on that day, confined to bed in a convalescent hospital, Eliot looked back over his 91 years with the question, “What is the purpose? What is it all for?” He settled on a simple answer to a big question: “To be of service.”

By that definition, Ted Eliot had more than met his purpose when he died Thursday at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital of a heart attack. He was a longtime resident of Sonoma, but recently moved to Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa.

Eliot served for 30 years in the U.S. foreign service and State Department, including a post as ambassador to Afghanistan. He served on and headed a multitude of boards both corporate and nonprofit, from the San Francisco World Affairs Council and the World Peace Foundation to the Planning and Conservation League of California and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In Sonoma County, along with his late wife, Pat, he will be best remembered as one of the region’s most vociferous and effective advocates for conservation, open space, public access and environmental protection.

“We all shared the thought that the purpose of life is to leave the world in a little better shape than we found it. I was able to tell him clearly, you accomplished that,” said Wendy Eliot, who followed her parents into environmental service as conservation director for the Sonoma Land Trust.

Not long after buying a parcel on Sonoma Mountain in the 1980s, Ted and Pat Eliot, who died in 2016, joined the effort to pass ballot measures that set up the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. In 2006, Ted Eliot co-chaired the Measure F campaign that extended a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the district for another 25 years, drawing support both political and financial. He later served on the district’s advisory committee.

The Eliots had a deep passion for the outdoors, and Sonoma Mountain in particular. Pat, who grew up in Marin County, spent several summers on Sonoma Mountain working at the Jack London ranch exploring its reaches by horseback.

The couple traveled the world to posts in Germany, the Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But they resolved to return to Pat’s beloved Sonoma Mountain, buying 50 acres in the upper reaches of Diamond A in Sonoma in the late 1970s and then moving to Sonoma in the mid 1980s.

“The deal they made was it was her turn,” Wendy Eliot said. It became what amounted to a second career of service on a local level.

The Eliots placed a conservation and trail easement on their property and then spent years persuading their neighbors and other landowners to do the same by either selling or donating land for the creation of what eventually became a public trail across Sonoma Mountain. It leads from the county parkland east of Rohnert Park to Jack London State Historic Park and then beyond another 2 miles, ending in a loop at the Eliot’s property. The last leg is called the Eliot Family Trail. It was a hard-fought victory for the couple.

“He convinced them it was the right thing to do, that they weren’t going to lose their privacy and it was not going to intervene in their quality of life,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Sonoma Valley. She met Ted Eliot years ago walking precincts and the two became “instant kinsmen.”

“He absolutely understood how important it is to bring people together, and also to convince them about the appropriateness of working together to achieve a common vision,” Gorin said. “And he was persistent. He had a spine of steel. We needed his key leadership at a key time to move people forward and defuse some of the anxiety.”

He drew on his diplomatic skills to negotiate but stood up for his principles.

“You never wanted to be in Ted’s crosshairs, but he was always on the right side. Once you acknowledged it he was your friend again. He wasn’t going to just tell you what you wanted to hear. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. But then he’d shake your hand,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

Eliot was deeply involved in efforts to preserve Sonoma Developmental Center for open space and public access. And he served three, three-year terms on the board of the Community Foundation Sonoma County. In the last few years, he continued to serve on the board of the foundation’s Sonoma Valley Fund.

“I spent my whole career in philanthropy and people think of philanthropy in terms of the generosity of giving money away,” said Elizabeth Brown, president and CEO of the Community Foundation Sonoma County. “That is something Ted did. But I feel he embodied this larger notion of philanthropy, which is the love of mankind. He had a generosity of heart and contributed his time and his expertise and his energy. He was giving of himself until the very end.”

Eliot also was an avid birdwatcher, a love rooted in his New England boyhood in a family of outdoorsmen who spent summers camping.

“He had this list he kept of all the birds he saw,” Red Eliot said. “He would fly off to Antarctica or Australia or God knows where on birding trips. Over the course of his life, he recorded more than 4,000 species of birds. Just a few months ago at 91 years old, he went to Columbia for 10 days of bird watching in the mountains.”

His passion led him to serve on the advisory board of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and locally for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, now known as Point Blue Conservation Science.

“I always thought a diplomat meant someone who facilitated finding common ground between adversaries,” said Ellie Cohen, the former CEO of the Petaluma-based Point Blue. “But I found out with Ted a diplomat also leads a good fight. If he found something he saw that was inappropriate or plain wrong in terms of birds or conservation or ecosystems he did not give up.”

Theodore L. Eliot Jr., was born in New York City in 1928 to an old Boston Family. His great grandfather, Charles W. Eliot, was president of Harvard University for 40 years. His grandfather headed the national Unitarian Universalist Church. His own father, Theodore Eliot, came to California to work with American President Lines and Matson in 1946. The young Eliot attended St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and entered Harvard at 16, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He joined the State Department in 1950, persuading his redheaded girlfriend, Pat Peters, who he met on a dock while sailing on the San Francisco Bay, to marry him and join him on his first assignment in Sri Lanka.

The next 28 years took the couple to hot spots like the Soviet Union and to Washington, D.C., where Eliot served in higher-level positions. His son, Ted Eliot III, said his father considered a highlight of his career serving as assistant to Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon during the Kennedy administration. From 1963 to 1966, he was economics officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Eliot also held positions as executive secretary of state under William Rogers in the Nixon administration.

In the 1970s, he lobbied for an appointment as ambassador to Afghanistan.

“He understood and enjoyed history. It was a crossroads and had always been in the center of global politics,” Ted Eliot III said. “Although it was a small place, it had immense interest for him.”

It was a risky assignment. He was forced to check his car for bombs and take different routes to work. His successor, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and killed a year after the Eliots left in 1978.

Eliot at the time took a job as dean and professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and then made his way back to California in the mid-1980s, working with the Asia Foundation in San Francisco before settling into a new life of volunteer service in Sonoma.

“He was a guy who never did anything by half measure. He was all in. And he wanted everyone else to be all in,” Wendy Eliot said. “He had an ability to think big about the things he wanted to do. He could hold that vision doggedly and persistently and push toward it until he got it done and bring a whole bunch of people with him. He was working on the side of the white hats.”

Wendy Eliot said the family will plan a memorial service within the next few months. Her parents’ ashes will be scattered together at a beloved place in Sonoma County.

“The beauty of open space absolutely spoke to him on a visceral level,” Wendy Eliot said. “He would say, ‘I’ve traveled the world and I’ve seen gorgeous places. But I’ve never seen a more gorgeous place than Sonoma County.’ ”

Eliot also is survived by daughter Sarah Schnitger of Glendale; son Peter Eliot of Cadillac, Michigan, who recently bought his parents’ property on Sonoma Mountain; two sisters, Joan Sappington of West Linn, Oregon, and Mary Hagerup of Troy, New York; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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