The Passing of Bill Kortum: Dean of the local movement for Coastal Protection and Open Space

Here’s a few pieces of an article taken from a much larger article about the whole Kortum family. It was written by Chuck Lucas, and was posted on Caring Bridge. This gives a good idea of the depth and breadth of Bill Kortum’s contributions to our County.


Bill had graduated from Petaluma High School and entered the Merchant Marines during WWII. After he left the lure of the sea he enrolled in the Santa Rosa Junior College. He soon headed to U.C. Davis and pursued a career in veterinary medicine and graduated in 1952. Bill was working with Karl on the Ely Rd. ranch’s barn, (which Bill constructed as a high school project) when Jean brought her good friend, Lucy Deam, whom she met while a student at Pomona College, to the ranch to visit. Lucy’s father was a Naval Academy graduate and a Navy pilot when he met his wife in Pensacola at the air station in1924. Lucy was a history major at Pomona and was up visiting friends in San Francisco when Jean suggested she come up to Petaluma to paint some fences on the ranch. Bill and Lucy were married in 1953. They have three children, Frank a federal prosecutor, Sam an economist with the University of Chicago, and Julie who is an occupational therapist.

For two years after getting his DVM he was in the Army Veterinary Corps. serving in Oakland. After his discharge he came back to Petaluma and worked with Dr. John McChesney in a practice on Petaluma Blvd. North. After that internship he opened his own practice in Cotati in 1957, the Cotati Veterinary Hospital, catering to both large and small animals. There, he treated everything from cows, horses, snakes and dogs to lions. The Cotati location was close to all the dairies in the county.

Bill would become the President of the Cotati Chamber of Commerce. Cotati was unincorporated at the time and one of Bill’s first civic projects was turning an empty field into La Plaza Park. He was also on the School Board. Mull that over the next time you go to the Accordion Festival or the Farmer’s Market. Bill was one of the founders of the City of Cotati and led the fight for incorporation.

In 1960 PG&E decided that the Bodega Headlands would be a perfect location for a nuclear plant. Perfect, unless you think it might be a bad idea to place a large nuclear plant directly on top of the San Andreas Fault. Seriously, the San Andreas Fault? Yes.

But PG&E hadn’t counted on the Kortums. Karl contacted his friend, Petaluma historian Ed Mannion, who wrote an article about the power plant in the Argus-Courrier. The big breakthrough came when Karl wrote a letter to the Chronicle and took it to Scott Newhall. Newhall was skeptical at first because PG&E was, as Bill put it, “the Hometown Boy” that was too big to criticize. But Newhall printed it and then promptly left town to avoid the wrath and possible firing by his publisher. The power of the press prevailed and when the State Public Utilities Commission, which had the authority over whether PG&E could build there of not, received 1,500 letters in protest of the plant the plan was scrapped.


Bill was concerned about the effects of leaking wind borne radiation upon the vast pastures of the county and that the cows would eat the grass and the by product of the radiation, Iodine 131, would enter the milk and that parents would stop their children from drinking milk.

At that time there was a smaller nuclear plant up in Eureka. The Bodega site, aka “The Hole in the Head”, was to be five times larger. Bill contacted a veterinarian in Eureka and asked him to harvest the parathyroids of any cows that had died or been slaughtered. They sent the parathyroids by Greyhound bus to a lab in Berkeley. They came back positive for the presence of radioactive Iodine 131. When PG&E learned this they gathered the farmers together and told them there was nothing to worry about. Not true. The Eureka plant was to be the model for the Bodega site but the plant leaked so bad that the Atomic Energy Commission shut it down.

In the LeBaron interview Kortum recollects about the balloon experiment that Dave Pesonen did: he put cards in balloons that said, “If this were radioactive you would have been contaminated”. People found them as far away as the Sacramento Valley.

Bill’s neighbor across Rt.116 from the hospital was famed trumpeter, Lu Watters, often called the father of West Coast Dixieland Jazz. He had retired from the music business and turned his attention to geology, lecturing at SSU. His major area of study was the coastal earthquake faults. He returned to playing music with the Turk Murphy Band at anti-nuke rallies and wrote “Blues over Bodega”. Karl and Newhall had become good friends and Scott called Karl after he had heard the song on the radio in his commute to work and said, “You’ve won. Soon as you get music, you’ve got a populist issue going and you’ve won”. They did win and thanks to them PG&E, PUC and the State backed down on their proposition to build on the country’s most notorious and disruptive faults. As we’ve seen in the Japanese earthquake of 2011, it’s not wise to place nuclear power plants on faults.


In 1957 the State Department of Education announced that it was looking for a new state college site, preferably in Sonoma County between Santa Rosa and Petaluma. As the Cotati Chamber president Bill began to offer up potential sites. The first site seemed to be good choice. It was an abandoned WWII emergency airstrip in Cotati, but that site was rejected because it was in a flood plain.

The Chamber proposed another site along 101 which is now the Gallo vineyards but the State said it was too hilly for consideration. The next morning Bill was in the office of realtor Joe Dorfman to elicit help for choosing a new site. They discussed numerous possibilities and found only one that seemed to fit the bill. It was the property of Forrest Benson on East Cotati Ave. and Petaluma Hill Rd. Joe picked up the phone and called Benson. Benson was willing to sell. Bill went home and Lucy composed a telegram to the Public Works Board-the same board that a day earlier had rejected the hill site: “Have new college site, will call with further details”. On March 2, 1960 the decision was made to buy the Benson property. Soon bumpers were covered with stickers that said, “Cotati is right for the college site”. With the new college the area attracted students and faculty that brought a new awareness of the environment, culture, music and new ideas to the community.


In 1967 Governor Pat Brown floated the idea that Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Oregon become a scenic highway. Bill Kortum and Shirley Rush were appointed to the Sonoma County Committee. At the time designer Larry Halpern was working on the Sea Ranch development, and he told Bill, “Look you guys, it’s just not going to work”. He said that because the various counties and cities control all the land use. Kortum remembered those words. Bill sold the educational value of the tide pools to the education community and eventually the State came up with the funds and bought the 3,000 acres and created Salt Point State Park.

In 1963 a division of Castle and Cooke bought coastal land and created the master plan for Sea Ranch. Sea Ranch encompassed over ten miles of pristine coastline that would have become inaccessible to the public. At that time, of California’s 1,300 mile of coast, only 100 miles of it were open to the public.

Sea Ranch met immediate opposition that resulted in major changes to California law. As governments tend to do, hearings were held. A group of activists organized and tried to do something about opening up the coast to the public. Chuck Reinhart came up with the name, Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tideland or COAAST. In 1967 they proposed an initiative and spent $1,500 for an ad. Castle and Cooke spent $40,000 and the initiative went down to defeat. Then, as now, it seems that money will influence people to vote against their own interests. Then two Assemblymen, Dunlop and Sieroty, held hearings and they came to Bill and asked him if he would organize a planning commission for the entire coast of California. So Bill organized a coalition of groups and the California Coastal Commission, of which he was chairman was born. That morphed into the California Coastal Alliance of which Bill was also chairman. Once again they were fighting the money of the big boys who were fighting to keep them at bay.

Another initiative, Prop 20, was proposed and after that a young, Jerry Brown, then the State’s Attorney General, created a stir when he disclosed the amount of money the big boys were using to defeat Prop 20 and the initiative passed with 55% of the vote. Shortly after that, Bill ran unsuccessfully for Congress against long time incumbent, Don Clausen.