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