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Who was Bill Soberanes, and why did he mean so much to Petaluma?

“He was one of the last great authentic characters,” Chip McAuley said, “in that he was truly himself. It was a period of time and a culture that had room for it – and allowed it.”|

Remembering Bill Soberanes

Who was Bill Soberanes, and why did he mean so much to Petaluma? This feature and others throughout this week’s issue will examine various aspects of the man known as “Mr. Petaluma” in a tribute to his centennial – he would have turned 100 on Oct. 19.

“Did you read Bill today?”

For decades, these five words were a Petaluma conversation starter.

Bill, of course, was Bill Soberanes, the Argus-Courier’s columnist from 1954 to 2003. From daily to bi-weekly to weekly, broadsheet to tabloid and back to broadsheet, Bill’s column was a constant. Many treasured it. Others, often newcomers, were puzzled by it. What kind of town was this, where the daily paper featured a rambling mishmash of frivolous oddities?

In 1997, a new publisher, from out of the area, called Managing Editor Chris Samson and Features Editor Dianne Reber Hart into his office. His question: Who is this guy and how soon can we get rid of him?

The editors were horrified, telling him that firing Bill Soberanes might result in a city-wide revolt and an avalanche of subscription cancellations. Bill, they explained, was “Mr. Petaluma,” one of the most beloved men in town.

And so Bill’s column remained in the paper until that bleak day in June 2003, when Publisher John Burns told the staff that Bill had died of congestive heart failure the evening before. The three main writers, Chip McAuley, Yovanna Bieberich and this reporter were given the honor of writing the obituary. It was a deadline day and in Bill’s 49 years with the paper, he never missed a deadline. His columns for the issue had been submitted the previous week. Our job was to talk with prominent locals, gather facts and photos and craft the piece – by the 2 p.m. deadline. At noon, word came down from Jim Ainsworth, head of the pressroom. He’d known Bill – everyone knew Bill. “For Bill,” we were told, “we’ll hold the presses as long as you need.”

^ ^ ^

On Oct. 19, 1921, Ed and Margaret Soberanes welcomed their fourth child, William Caulfield Soberanes. Billy, as he was known then, grew up on Petaluma’s old east side in the family home at 421 E. Washington St., part of a close-knit family of storytellers.

He attended St. Vincent’s Academy, where he was remembered by schoolmate Betty Cole as “a mischievous prankster who nervously ate through a pencil a day.” Local historian John Sheehy’s father, Bob Sheehy, regarded him as “something of a buzzing fly, firing off stray ideas and offbeat jokes with the rapidity of a machine gun.”

Local comedian-impressionist Chris Linnell had a different take.

“I think he had almost a genius IQ and people didn’t realize,” Linnell said. “Like Einstein, he couldn’t pay attention to mundane things because so much was going on in his head. He’d write in his notebook, but I don’t think he used the notes. I also think that’s why he talked so fast – because he was so exceptionally bright.”

When the United States entered World War II, Sobranes enlisted in the National Guard, then joined the Merchant Marine in 1943. Following the war, he held a number of local jobs, but nothing seemed right.

“The trouble with work,” he told a friend, “is that it stops a fellow from talking.”

One place where talking was the primary pastime was Gilardi’s Corner, Petaluma’s fanciest cocktail lounge, at Washington and Kentucky streets. It and Hotel Petaluma’s Redwood Room across the street, comprised “nightclub row” where the postwar smart set gathered for dancing, highballs and conversation.

Bill was drawn to this golden “in” crowd. He was, Sheehy said, an adrenaline junkie, right down to his rapid-fire speech patterns. He craved the spotlight, eagerly sought out prominent people and had something that would give him access: a camera. His first, bought when he was a boy, was a mail-order Eastman Kodak Brownie, the result of redeeming cereal box tops.

People, he knew, liked to have their pictures taken. From there, it was one quick step to having his photo taken with them: gilt by association.

“With the predatory instincts of a paparazzo,” Sheehy wrote, “Soberanes began covering sporting competitions, political rallies, theatrical events, music performances, parades, and even fires – any action scene that drew an audience, coaxing his way into some events, sneaking into others. As a charm offensive, Soberanes employed the curiosity of a journalist, making a point of learning a little about practically everything, just enough to ask seemingly informed questions of boxers, baseball players, rodeo cowboys, politicians, movie stars, labor leaders, poets, policemen, gamblers and outlaws.

“Once he photographed them, he posed to be photographed with them, like a hunter showing off his trophy kill. Those who refused his cameo request, he photo-bombed.”

When, several decades later, Linnell began impersonating Bill, “He loved it,” Linnell said. “I believe it made him feel he was finally getting respect, that someone thought he was a big enough celebrity to impersonate.”

In 1950, Bill began writing a gossip column, “So They Tell Me,” in the weekly Petaluma News. Over the years there was speculation about whether his column was ghost-written, possibly by his schoolteacher sister Margaret Soberanes. What’s more probable is that he was helped by his cousin, Nettie Rose Caulfield, a freelance writer.

The column’s style was based on that of popular San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, short, snappy gossip about locals. Caen’s idea wasn’t original: in the 1930s Walter Winchell had popularized it, turning journalism into a form of entertainment.

Bill used the column to promote his first big public campaign, building a second firehouse on the east side. In 1951, there were drawbridges on both East Washington and East D streets. If both bridges were up and a fire began on the east side, which had been growing rapidly since the end of the war, fire trucks had no quick way to move across town.

The campaign was a success, and after the bond issue for the new firehouse passed, he was honored at a banquet. During the dinner, he told a reporter, he learned the News was going out of business. But his column was picked up by the Press Democrat and expanded to three times a week. And in 1954, the Argus-Courier approached him.

At the time, Petaluma was a fractured town. It had been agriculturally based since its earliest years, when Petaluma Creek offered a way to transport produce from the county to San Francisco. Then, after the local invention of an efficient incubator in 1881, came the glory years as the town became, under the guidance of Bert Kerrigan, dynamic manager of the chamber of commerce, the World’s Egg Basket.

But by the 1940s, the chicken and dairy industries were declining as factory farms moved to cheaper, more centrally located land.

At the end of the war, housing was needed for returned GIs and their families. Tracts began to grow on the east side. Shopping malls were becoming a reality, and Highway 101 was soon to bypass the downtown area.

“For a budding promoter like Soberanes,” Sheehy wrote, “it was an opportunity. Despite his love of old-time Petaluma, Soberanes wasn’t interested in living in a museum; he relished the excitement of the new too much. He welcomed progress, even if it came at the cost of cherished historic landmarks.

“In the midst of this unsettling time, Soberanes celebrated in his columns all that was eccentric, wonderful, and unique about Petaluma. For longtime residents he provided reassurance that their small-town values remained intact, and for newcomers he provided help in making sense of the local idiosyncrasies, as well as a path toward acceptance – to be mentioned in Soberanes’ column was to have arrived in the clubby city.”

Bill was the right person at the right time.

He created and/or promoted a wide array of annual events. The wristwrestling tournament became the most famous, followed by the Sonoma-to-Petaluma Walkathon; the city’s centennial celebration in 1958; Whiskerino, Ugly Dog and Petaluma River Rowboat contests; the Old Adobe Fiesta; the Table Tennis Championship Tournament and the Harry Houdini Séance. In addition, he wrote about hundreds of smaller events, from bean feeds and bake sales to festivals and fundraisers. They were all part of his Boost Petaluma movement.

By the 1970s, he was calling himself a “peopleologist,” a person who studies people from all walks of life. And, as he continued being photographed with those he spoke with, he began to claim he’d been photographed with “more famous, infamous, usual and unusual people than anyone in the world.”

Bill’s niece, Kit Furukawa, said, “He was so interested in everything; had so many stories. I thought it was normal: that everyone’s uncle knew rock stars and scientists and celebrities. But now I look back on it and think, ‘Wow! That was amazing!’”

In his own way, Sheehy wrote, “Soberanes was rebranding himself with the times, which by the early 1970s were seeing the rise of a ‘new journalism’ practiced by writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, who included themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them.”

By now he was married and, with his wife Jane, lived in the house next door to the one where he’d grown up. After making his daily walking rounds around town, he’d sit on the front porch, pipe between his teeth, two-fingering out his columns on the typewriter, talking with anyone who dropped by and waving to cars that drove past, honking to get his attention.

“I thought he lived the ideal life,” reporter McAuley said. “He was consummately himself at a time uniqueness was still allowed in America and in journalism. That he could sit on his porch with his pipe, walk around town, get people’s stories; it was something to aspire to. I thought to be like Bill would be to achieve something great.

“He was one of the last great authentic characters,” McAuley continued, “in that he was truly himself. It was a period of time and a culture that had room for it – and allowed it.”

“The town had really changed by then,” Sheehy said. “A lot of things he’d loved were destroyed, but he found a way to embrace it.

“He had the ability to absorb change without resenting it, and still love the town as it grew. Recognizing that impermanence was part of it. He was his own kind of Buddhist Zen master.”

Katie Watts is a former features editor for the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

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