Gaye LeBaron

A tribute to Gaye LeBaron appeared in a special supplement to The Press Democrat on March 18, 2001. The supplement, "Stories Well Told: 8,000 columns and counting" is available to borrow from the Sonoma State University Library [F 868 .S7 S855 2001]. What follows is an excellent introduction to the life of Gaye LeBaron.

VOICE OF THE COMMUNITY

BYLINE:    TIM TESCONI
Published on March 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Press Democrat


Photograph courtesy of The Press Democrat

For someone who's Sonoma County's most recognizable woman, Gaye LeBaron has always been a reluctant celebrity, more

LeBaron is gracious when strangers start talking to her like she's an old friend. But she confesses that after a tiring day at work she would sometimes take her tiny, white-haired mother shopping to thwart casual, supermarket conversation.

"When we got in line at the check-out stand I would tell her, 'Start talking and don't stop,' " LeBaron said. For LeBaron it wasn't always easy being Sonoma County's best known columnist, leading historian and a pillar of the county's power structure.

More scholar than center-stage character, LeBaron was headed for a life in education when talent and circumstance sidetracked her to The Press Democrat and a career that would span 45 years. During nearly a half century as a columnist, LeBaron personified The Press Democrat, becoming what newspaper colleague Pete Golis describes as "the closest thing to a celebrity that we have in Santa Rosa." Friends say LeBaron is basically a private person, somewhat shy and sensitive to the personal attacks occasionally hurled by ruffled readers.

"She'll put an armor around her so she doesn't get her feelings hurt, but she's a very caring person," said Ken Blackman, retired city manager of Santa Rosa and a longtime friend.

Above all, say friends and colleagues, LeBaron is dedicated to her job, realizing the public spotlight was part of the trade-off for the weird and wonderful stories she traded back and forth with loyal readers. LeBaron returned the community's affection in her more than 8,000 columns. In an era of journalistic cynicism, LeBaron wrote about people, even kooky characters like "Town Marshal" Pepper, in a respectful way and without the slightest sense of condescension.

That's because LeBaron possesses a rare gift, a genuine interest in people and their stories. In even the smallest stories, she saw the larger truth. In her typical self-deprecating way, LeBaron gives the credit to the sources who kept the stories, sad and funny, rolling in for what she calls an incredible ride at The Press Democrat. "I've had the best readers in the whole world because they've fed me information for all these years," LeBaron said. "They've told me the people stories that really make a community column."

She commented on things that make us angry, like the homes rising on the ridges around Santa Rosa, and the seasonal beauty of Sonoma County -- mustard in spring vineyards and, in the fall, the brilliant yellow of the ginkgo trees along McDonald Avenue.

"Gaye can't go anywhere without someone coming up and saying "hi" or telling her how much they liked her column," said Golis, The Press Democrat's editorial director and one of LeBaron's best friends. He's been with her at lunch and at community gatherings when people flock to her like starlings on grapes. "She's always amazingly gracious. She stops and listens no matter how busy she is," Golis said. "She appreciates the attention in a sense, but also is embarrassed by it. She realizes it's part of the territory."

Inch by column inch, said Press Democrat executive editor Catherine Barnett, LeBaron earned a place in our homes and collective consciousness, a welcome guest whose wit and wisdom defined the vast region she considers her backyard.

"Gaye's celebrity is unusual because it is based on credibility. Readers trust her to tell them the truth about what is going on in their community," Barnett said. "The depth of her commitment to this place is palpable and readers respond to that." For her part, LeBaron said she will miss the people but not the deadlines. She will have more time for her family and, particularly, her grandson, Trent, who is 4. She will continue to write two Sunday columns a month for The Press Democrat. She will work from her home, a Codding-built house of 1946 vintage in east Santa Rosa. Gaye and her husband, professional photographer John LeBaron, have lived in the house for 40 years and it reflects their interest in art and local history.

"Organized clutter," LeBaron said.

It's an eclectic mix of vintage photographs, family heirlooms and Sonoma County memorabilia, including a marble slab from the old courthouse.

"Over the last 40 years the house has been through several remodels. It's home and we're here to stay," LeBaron said.

It's a comfortable and welcoming home, the site of many Press Democrat, community and neighborhood parties over the decades. Holidays at the LeBarons' usually include people, young or old, who would otherwise be alone - all part of the couple's inclusive and generous nature. "When we have the time we like to entertain informally," LeBaron said. "We never wait until our house is perfect because it will never be perfect." John doesn't get near the stove but Gaye LeBaron loves cooking, preparing a gourmet meal with the same ease that she researches and writes her columns and history books. She said one of her favorite things on a winter weekend is to make a soup or stew from scratch while watching a sports program on TV. In spring and summer she loves to garden, keeping a constant splash of color in the pots lining the deck and patio.

The LeBarons also have had a home at Bodega Bay for more than 30 years, giving them deep connections in the coastal community as well as Santa Rosa. Since the late '60s the beach house has been the gathering place for a group called the Bodega Bay Eating, Drinking and Debating Society, a dozen family friends and their offspring who divide into teams for football in the sand over Thanksgiving weekend.

It was through her columns that LeBaron, the wife, mother, friend and neighbor, became a public figure and local celebrity. But to LeBaron's way of thinking, celebrities are movie stars, not someone who toils in daily journalism writing about the meek and mighty and the big and small events that define a community.

"You know," she said in her contemplative way, "it wouldn't have happened years ago because we weren't such a celebrity-minded society. Today, columnists, athletes and disc jockeys become celebrities."

LeBaron's star status was firmly set in 1988 when The Press Democrat did an exhaustive search to identify the 10 most powerful people in Sonoma County. LeBaron came out second in the survey, behind wealthy financier and philanthropist Henry Trione of Santa Rosa. LeBaron emerged as the county's most powerful woman, reflecting the influence of her daily column. LeBaron admits her job got a lot tougher because everyone assumed she really did have power.

"Things changed markedly for me after the power series," said LeBaron. "I felt I was being pulled in 20 different directions because there was this perception of power. Of course, the power thing was all smoke and mirrors."

Although ambitious and energetic, LeBaron, born in Humboldt County, didn't set out to be the most powerful woman in her adopted home of Sonoma County. Heck, she didn't even set out to be a reporter and columnist, it just happened, she says, because she was in the right place at the right time. Those who know her would add, yes, and you're a gifted writer, extremely intelligent and possess a tremendous work ethic and natural born curiosity.

Always bookish, LeBaron had every expectation of becoming a school teacher because, growing up in the '40s and '50s, that's what women did when they sought careers outside the home. LeBaron was raised in a small town along the Eel River in southern Humboldt County, growing up a country girl in what she said was a bucolic setting. "It was a great place to be a kid, living in the redwoods and along the river," said LeBaron. "In the summertime, I lived in the river."

Her family moved to Sonoma County when she was 14, settling in Boyes Hot Springs where her stepfather, John Notley, ran a small hardware store. Her father, Guy Andrews, died in 1942 when she was 7. Her name was derived from her father's first name, a point of pride for LeBaron.

Her father was a barber by trade but an artist by avocation. He painted landscapes and sold them from a gift store adjacent to his barber shop in the town of Redcrest. He also loved to sing and recite poetry, with at least one of those passions passed to Gaye. "I can't sing, but I love poetry," she said. After graduating from Sonoma Valley High School, LeBaron attended Santa Rosa Junior College and then the University of California at Berkeley, on scholarship, graduating with a degree in English and history.

Even after three summer internships at The Press Democrat starting in 1955, LeBaron figures she would have taken a high school teaching job in Redding if a reporter's position hadn't opened at the paper in September of 1957.

The main reason she took the job and stayed in Santa Rosa is she had fallen in love with The Press Democrat photographer John LeBaron, a dashing bachelor and fourth-generation Sonoma County resident who zipped around town in a sports car. She was 18 and he was 25 when they first met at Santa Rosa Junior College. Only Gaye remembers the first encounter.

"John doesn't remember the first time. It was while I was a student at Santa Rosa Junior College and John was on campus as a Press Democrat photographer," said LeBaron. The couple married in 1958 and worked together at The Press Democrat until John LeBaron left the paper in 1968 for a position at SRJC. He was a photography instructor at the college until his retirement in 1997.

John and Gaye LeBaron have always been each other's greatest supporters, each secure with their own professional talents and place in the community. They are one of Sonoma County's most recognized and respected couples.

"I've been very, very fortunate in having a husband like John. He doesn't have an envious bone in his body," LeBaron said. "There are not many husbands who would have put up with me and my life." It was a life of long hours at the office, deadlines and nights and weekends spent at social and community functions, everything from parades to wine auctions and historical lectures to charity balls. John, an award-winning photographer who has been honored by the arts community, said he was always proud of Gaye's accomplishments and never covetous of the attention she receives or the power she commands.

But Gaye still bristles at the insensitive people who would come up to John and say, "You must be Mr. Gaye LeBaron."

"That would be one of the few times I'd really get mad because that's just preposterous," said LeBaron, "John has is own identity." In her early days at The Press Democrat, LeBaron worked as a general assignment reporter, covering everything from local politics to the county fair. It gave the young reporter a grasp of the way things worked in Sonoma County and the people who pulled the strings. In those days the newspaper didn't have a regular columnist but allowed beat reporters the chance to be a columnist for a day under the "Reserved For" heading.

LeBaron was a frequent guest columnist, publishing her first column on Nov. 23, 1959. She became The Press Democrat's permanent community columnist after her first child, Suzanne, was born in 1961. Son Tony was born in 1964.

Except for a break from 1970 to '74 to be a full-time mom, LeBaron wrote her columns - six a week at one time - until her retirement in January. She said her goal was to write a general interest column that was topical and timely.

LeBaron mastered the art, never becoming preachy or predictable in the long-running column that changed as she and the community changed. Her column had broad-based appeal because LeBaron is interested in so many things, as knowledgeable about baseball as classical music. She was as much at home at a Portuguese festival as a black tie charity dinner. All was column fodder as LeBaron deftly pulled back the covers to shed light on people and events that were part of the county's cultural dimensions.

Even as a child, LeBaron was curious, investigating the how and why of things, fascinated by the towering redwoods and the rivers that ran through them. And always the people, with all of their human foibles.

"I was always interested in everything around me," LeBaron said. "Curiosity is a prime requirement for a journalist." Democratic and down to earth, LeBaron can converse with a vineyard worker as easily as wine baron Jess Jackson. Her strength, say her editors, has always been her take on the common man and her ability to hold her own with the power brokers.

LeBaron's long view was that she was enriched by dealing with the everyday people who are the backbone of the community, people like the late Paul Mancini, the Santa Rosa farmer who grew the sweetest prunes on the planet and who became known through her columns.

By her own admission, LeBaron grew into the job, finding the authoritative voice that has become her hallmark over the last 20 years. In the early years, her column was a chatty, community bulletin board, heralding pancake breakfasts at the grange and the comings and goings of "Mad King" Hugh Codding, who was a favorite subject for more than 40 years.

"The column changed as I changed. It used to be really innocuous. I never wrote about issues," LeBaron said.

Over the years LeBaron took firm positions on such issues as preserving the Carrillo Adobe and putting the brakes on even the notion of building a bridge over Spring Lake. She railed against lining the banks of Santa Rosa Creek with concrete and how Highway 101 divided east and west Santa Rosa. She wishes she had been more vocal in efforts to save the old California Theater from the downtown redevelopment project and wise enough to know how devastating the loss of the old courthouse would be to the heart of downtown Santa Rosa.

LeBaron doesn't believe the classic old courthouse should have been saved, because its ancient construction would have made it a deathtrap in an earthquake. But she believes a grand public building should have replaced it, to give the city a focal point.

Even among hard-bitten reporters and editors, LeBaron is admired not only for her writing skills but for her grasp of news and her stable of sources. She frequently broke major news stories or shared tips that would land a story on the front page of the next day's paper.

Prue Draper, one of LeBaron's assistants over the last 20 years, said LeBaron was the best boss she ever had, a brilliant journalist who cared deeply for the people and the community.

"She was not one to flaunt her fame in any way, which I think made her so approachable to so many people," Draper said. "She was just as considerate of some little old lady who called to chat as she was members of the old guard who called with column items."

LeBaron's historical columns on Sunday often put news events of the day into the perspective that time and distance can provide. She loves history, particularly Sonoma County's history and the county's transition from one of the nation's leading farm counties to world-class wine region and high-tech center.

"You have to know where we've been in order to know where and what we are," LeBaron is fond of saying. It's the philosophy that guides her.

LeBaron along with co-authors Joann Mitchell, Dee Blackman and the late Harvey Hansen, published a two-volume history of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. She spent decades researching and writing the books, considered the definitive history of the county. The first book, "Santa Rosa, a 19th Century Town," ending with the 1906 earthquake, was published in 1985. "Santa Rosa, a 20th Century Town," published in 1993, begins with reconstruction following the earthquake, the boom years following World War II and ends in 1955.

LeBaron says she has no plans to write the third volume of Santa Rosa's history. But she may pen a book, an autobiography of sorts, about writing a community column in a small town for a small, daily newspaper. She already has the title, "Say Something Soothing About the Earthquake."

The title comes from a memo written decades ago by former Press Democrat editor Art Volkerts of Sebastopol. The editor's memo was prompted by a doom-and-gloom book in the '50s that predicted an earthquake was going to cause California to fall off the continent and slide into the Pacific. "Caller sez people in old folks homes getting nervous. Can you say something soothing about the earthquake?" Volkerts wrote in the memo to LeBaron.

"And of course I did write something soothing, " said LeBaron, "something to the effect that the book was fiction and we're just scaring ourselves."

Like the wizard of Oz, LeBaron was always there to calm our fears and provide the answers to our questions. "Writing a column is kind of like going out and doing the impossible every day," LeBaron said. "Every time I'd finish one I'd say, 'Another miracle.' " And so it was.