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LeBARON: Sonoma County political pioneer Helen Rudee turns 95

Helen Rudee in her Santa Rosa home, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. Rudee was the first woman on the county board of supervisors.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 8:28 a.m.

I suppose you could say that she's the Grande Dame of women's politics in Sonoma County. But no one who knows her would use that term to describe Helen Rudee.

Even as she approaches her 95th birthday, it's clear that she's not the Grande Dame type. If we were casting an actress to play her in a biopic, it would be Angela Lansbury, not Maggie Smith.

Helen, the first woman elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, didn't cut her teeth on the trappings of political power like Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a congressman. Nor did she grow up planning to be a political activist.

She grew up on a farm in the Great Plains, five miles out of the very small town of Anamoose, North Dakota. She has a painting of Anamoose — the whole town — on the wall of her study. That's how small it was/is.

And if you doubt that she's a farm girl, just enter a cow-milking competition with her at the county fair. I did that once. She smoked me.

I interviewed Helen for a video history six years ago. When I decided to catch up on things last week, I thought it would be a short session. Two hours and 15 minutes later I left, chuckling over stories told, with enough notes to write a short book and a firm of belief that this is, indeed, a remarkable woman.

For starters, she is the “poster person” for the beginnings of women's politics in Sonoma County.

In 1976, she was the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors. In her 12 years in office, her quiet determination and her refusal to be angered or dissuaded by opponents — or newspaper editorial writers who didn't think a woman could do the job — earned her a leadership role in this new “movement. ”

Growing up in a houseful of brothers, she says, is where she learned to hold her own.

“I had five older brothers. And when I came to San Francisco to live with a great aunt and go to school, I had five older male cousins. “I always felt like I was the cat's meow.“ And she learned never to let them intimidate her.

“I was well-prepared for the Board of Education,” she says, referring to her first foray into local politics. Her appointment and subsequent election to the Santa Rosa Board of Education put her with four strong (these days one might say “macho”) men. Only one chauvinist put me down,” she recalls. He only lasted one term.

Born in 1918 on that North Dakota farm where her family raised “just about everything — except ducks and geese. My father thought they were messy.”

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.

The former Helen Browning came to Santa Rosa not once but twice — first in 1940 as a recent graduate of Stanford School of Nursing and as a new bride. Her physician husband, Ford Shepherd, was a resident at the county hospital. Bill Rudee, who would spend his professional life as a general practitioner in Santa Rosa, was in the same resident class.

Nearly 20 years later, after World War II, when Ford became ill and died at age 42, bachelor Dr. Bill Rudee courted and wed his friend's widow, bringing her and her four children back to Santa Rosa.

The Parent-Teacher Association was Helen's springboard to politics. She became active as soon as her oldest was in school and, in the 1960s was asked by Santa Rosa's superintendent, Lloyd K. Wood, to be moderator for a series of parent-teacher panel discussions.

When Alice Zieber resigned from the board, Helen was appointed. Like the women before her, she was promptly designated board clerk. She accepted this secretarial role — for a while. But before her 10 years ended, she had taken her turn as board president.

Just as PTA was her entry into the politics of education, so the school board provided impetus to look beyond, to the politics of local government.

She unseated the short-term Third District incumbent in '76 despite the men who patted her on the head, figuratively, and said, “You're a nice girl, Helen, but I can't vote for a woman.” The Press Democrat editorials said pretty much the same thing.

Her determination got a boost when her opponent, at a town meeting, suggested that a man in his 40s had a lot more energy than a woman nearing 60. Helen was 58. And mad.

She walked her district, which included almost all of Santa Rosa and some of Rohnert Park. And she won.

She served with the two youngest members ever, Brian Kahn and Eric Koenigshofer — “I had children older than they were.”

Once again, all those brothers and cousins paid off. In her 12 years on the board she worked happily and productively with her colleagues, including Nick Esposti and Ernie Carpenter, and later, “the other Helen” Putnam, former mayor of Petaluma.

The board faced not only the contentious issue of a new General Plan but a lawsuit requiring a new jail. Helen and Ernie Carpenter were the jail committee. It took a long time and a lot of money — some $60 million before it was finished, she recalls, adding “And now it's too small again.”

Someone challenged her at the time about the cost, pointing out that Marin County built a jail at the same time for $10 million. Helen remembers that her response went to the charge that Marin had priced its working class residents out, creating a commuter class in southern Sonoma County.

“People go to jail where they live, not where they work,” she said.

We also laughed about the long ago day when she and Carpenter were on a fact-finding tour of the old jail with Undersheriff John Sully. As they walked the cellblock, a voice from a cell they had passed called out, “Is that you, Helen Rudee?”

She didn't look back to identify the voice. “But Ernie will never let me forget that,” she says.

She and Carpenter had another mutual issue. Helen was determined to — and did — upgrade Santa Rosa Avenue, filling ditches, putting in lights, widening the lanes. Carpenter was accomplishing the same upgrades on Sebastopol Road.

Among the factors were prostitutes that worked both of these streets. “Ernie would send his girls over to me and I'd send them back,” she laughs.

In the “Rudee years” on the board, the political stock of women was rising all over the country. Sonoma County assumed a leadership role with the advent of the Women's History Project that led to National Women's History Month, celebrated each March.

Helen also was deeply involved in the Women's Political Caucus in the Bay Area and in the formation of the county's Commission on the Status of Women.

Widowed again in the 1990s, she remained active as a speaker in great demand on such matters as education and health care, underlying the larger women's issues. In 2000, she was part of a group of 20 women who went to Washington with founder Molly McGregor to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Women's History Project.

Helen told me in 2007 she was going to drop out of all those things. But when we talked last week, she had just been part of a panel for teenage girls, on careers and self-esteem. And she mentioned a lunch she'd had with McGregor, comparing notes on progress.

Now, covered in laurels, she will turn 95 — still walking 12 blocks a day while listening to her favorite authors on her IPod, still riding her exercise bike through the evening news.

She doesn't miss public life, she says, but she did admit that, after that panel last week, near Steele Lane, she drove home past the county administration building, thinking of the hard work and the good times.

“A nostalgia trip,” she said.

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