Kirke Comstock, former Palo Alto mayor, dies

He loved open space and worked for its preservation

Former Palo Alto councilman and mayor Kirke Comstock, who presided over the City of Palo Alto during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, has died, according to his family.

Comstock, who was known as a "residentialist" in the city's first wave of quality-of-life struggles in the 1960s, died of Alzheimer's disease on Aug. 23 in Saratoga. He was 86, his brother-in-law, Richard Brand, said.

Comstock was responsible for many of the city's open space jewels that Palo Altans enjoy today. He negotiated with the Lee family to purchase the land that is now Foothills Park, which was one of his proudest achievements, Brand said. He was also instrumental in the formation of Gamble Garden.

A life-long lover of the environment, Comstock and his wife, Dorothy Brand Comstock, were on the board of the Committee for Green Foothills, which helped to save many Midpeninsula open space areas from development, his son, William Comstock, said.

"He just loved open space," his son said.

Comstock was born in Michigan on June 6, 1930, and grew up in Albion. He was the oldest of four children and the only boy, according to his son.

He attended the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering in the early 1950s. While there, he met his wife-to-be, Dorothy, and they married on the campus on June 11, 1953. Soon after, they moved to San Mateo. Comstock began working at United Airlines, and he became director of an engineering group redesigning aircraft interiors. The couple moved to Palo Alto in 1955, raising three children.

Comstock became interested in city politics in 1961 and 1962 when Santa Clara County wanted to turn the old Oregon Avenue into a four-lane freeway with just two cross streets at Middlefield and Louis roads. The original plan called for removing 107 homes and effectively splitting the city in two, according to news reports at that time.

The residentialists lost that fight -- the city council approved a compromise plan that became the current Oregon Expressway -- but Comstock's appetite for local politics was whitted, and it became a life-long passion.

Comstock and fellow residentialist Phillip Flint won the election for city council in 1963, becoming part of a group of residentialists on the council that by 1965 included Byron Sher, Enid Pearson and Edward Worthington.

A pro-growth City Council seemed to embrace every proposal to turn the town into a metropolitan center, Comstock told the Weekly in 1994 during the city's centennial.

"They had so many plans to make this place great. They wanted to turn the baylands into a huge industrial park and build housing all the way to Skyline," Comstock said.

Sher, who went on to a long career in politics, including as a state senator, said he met Comstock during the Oregon Expressway dust-up and became, along with Pearson, a "residentialist," fighting for the city's preservation and against rampant development.

Comstock was admired for his abilities to govern with an even temper and to bring disparate sides together as a council member and as mayor, Sher said.

"I have an extensive remembrance and fondness for Kirke," he said from his home on Thursday.

"He was one of my oldest and closest colleagues and friends on the Palo Alto City Council. He was my mentor and he tutored me about issues when I was elected to the council in 1965," he recalled.

Sher said he was a great admirer of Comstock's "ability to compromise on difficult issues, and to work with all members of the council and differences of opinion."

"I was in politics for 40 years, and among all of the people I met, I considered Kirke one of the most outstanding, gracious and thoughtful people," he said.

Their families were also close. "Socially, he was a great companion and very knowledgeable on issues on the city and the world," Sher said.

William Comstock recalled that his father taught him to always sit down and listen to the other guy's side of the story. He also had a maxim related to local politics.

"The trick to community politics is to be able to get away with declarative statements," he told his son.

"He was never an angry politician," William said.

During the late 1960s Comstock faced some challenging times. He was one of several liberal politicians and citizens whose properties were bombed by right-wing extremists. Comstock was seen talking to members of the progressive Midpeninsula Free University after a council meeting, his son said.

In 1968, a pipe bomb containing nails and buckshot exploded against the front door of his home. The family was not at home at the time. While police were conducting an investigation, he received a telephone call.

"Keep it up and you'll get more of the same," he quoted the presumed bomber as saying, in news reports at the time.

He also faced a recall election in 1967, along with the entire City Council after so-called "establishment" supporters attempted to re-stack the council, which was mired in gridlock between the two opposing sides. Comstock and Pearson survived the recall; the other residentialists did not.

Comstock retired from United Airlines in 1999 after 44 years. By that time he was no longer active in Palo Alto politics, having served on the council for 14 years. He had moved to Portola Valley Ranch. In the 1990s, he began public service in Portola Valley town government, first serving for five years on the planning commission. He was first appointed, then elected, to serve as a councilman in 1999. He became that town's mayor in December 2000, retiring from local politics in 2003, according to The Almanac.

His son said he didn't know where his father got his love of politics. Perhaps he was influenced by his grandfather, the Michigan governor, or his maternal grandfather, who was a judge in Kansas City, Missouri. But Comstock couldn't wait to get the council packet and would immediately sit down to thoroughly read it, his son said.

And although he was offered all kinds of career opportunities if he moved his family to New York or overseas, he couldn't see moving his family from the Bay Area.

"He just loved this place. He was more interested in his political career at the community level," his son said.

William Comstock recalled that his father had a disarming sense of humor that came naturally. And he was a kind person who spent a lot of time with him.

"I, of course, miss him dearly," he said.

Comstock is survived by his wife, Dorothy ("Dottie") Brand Comstock, of Saratoga; son William Comstock and daughter-in-law Debra Nichols of Carmel; daughter Kristen Pugh and son-in-law Mark Pugh of Los Gatos, and daughter Karen Comstock of New Haven, Connecticut; sister Betty Wilson of northern California; sister-in-law Carol Malcolm and brother-in-law Richard Brand of Palo Alto, and granddaughter Katherine Comstock.

A celebration of his life will be planned at a future date. The family asks that donations in his memory be made to Committee for Green Foothills, 3921 E. Bayshore Road, Palo Alto, 94303.


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24 people like this
Posted by Hal Plotkin
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2016 at 9:11 am

Kirke Comstock was more than a great mayor and conservationist. He was also a very good, kind and brave man. He was a big help to me on many occasions. Kirke was unfailingly generous, humble, modest and wise. My deepest condolences to his wonderful family and my thanks to them for sharing him with us for so long. He helped me on many occasions. He was a truly remarkable man. It was a privilege to know him.

14 people like this
Posted by winter
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:06 am

A man I never knew but knew about. He called himself a proud Residentialist. I hope many read this article to see what he did under that banner. He created much of what we treasure most in Palo Alto and a reason we want to live here.

We must learn from his efforts and example, insisting that we add more parkland if we add more development,;that we protect the parks and open space we have, and protect our trees. We must understand that we are here briefly, but all I named is here for the ages, unless we are blinded with hubris and think we are the most important thing ever.

I was at a meeting yesterday and got word of Kirk's passing - we, for what it was worth, dedicated the meeting to him. I then happened to watch the Sunset from Foothill Park last night - thank you Kirk. As we drove home through the twilight, passing deer by the lake, told our friends how grateful I was that Palo Alto down-zoned our foothills decades ago, saving them from most development, but not from us.

13 people like this
Posted by Joel Davidson
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:15 am

Kirke was a fine human being. He helped to create a controversial drug treatment program in the seventies which help to give responsibility to the rebellious youth of the Peninsula. A delight to work with and for.

9 people like this
Posted by Betty Jo
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:35 am

Kirke Comstock.

When thought and smart, hardworking and fun are not enough praise, we resort to that simple phrase “A good man.”

He was a citizen in the truest sense of the word; a man who devoted both time and talent to making Palo Alto a better place. His cooperative and open persective was both effective and far sighted. We are all the beneficiaries of the contributions to our city by this special man.

Heartfelt condolences and gratitude to his family.

10 people like this
Posted by Admirer
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:51 am

We need more leaders like that today.

11 people like this
Posted by Helen Jones
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2016 at 12:19 pm

In addition to all Kirke's other contributions to Palo Alto, he was one of the first mayors in the state to establish a committee to make Palo Alto accessible to all its residents. As a woman with a disability, I was proud to serve on that committee and, thanks to Kirke's Comstock, we were one of the first accessible cities in California--before ADA!

15 people like this
Posted by Naphtali Knox
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 26, 2016 at 1:26 pm

My condolences to the Comstock family. Kirke Comstock was a gem, and owonderful to work with to work with. Shortly after I was hired as the new Palo Alto planning director in 1972, I attended a city Council reception at the Comstock house. At one point Kirke came up to me and said, "I want you to do three things for Palo Alto." OK I said, waiting. "First, I want you to rebuild the planning department completely. Right now, they have no credibility." OK I said, I can do that. "Second, we need you to give us a comprehensive plan for the city. Several earlier attempts have failed." OK I said, I can do that. "Third, I want you to keep Palo Alto the way it is." After a slight pause I said, “Will you take two out of three?"

2 people like this
Posted by Frank Linn
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2016 at 9:20 am

To Dorothy Comstock
Dear Dorothy
I'm so sorry to learn of Kirke's illness and death. Kirke was president of my Albion High School in 1948. He was the first person that I met in Albion. One Sunday morning, Kirke came to our house in Albion and introduced himself and welcomed me to the High School class of 1948. He invited me to spend Sunday afternoon with him and his sisters, Betty and Nancy, which I happily accepted. We spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at the Comstock's cottage at Duck Lake north of Albion where they taught me to play bridge with them. I will miss him but with the fondnest memories. All the best to you and children!
Yours truly, Frank

4 people like this
Posted by Virginia Saldich
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

I hope we continue to have voices like Kirke Comstock's in city development issues. It is voices like his which have given us the community that everyone wants to live in. Why would we ever tamper with that? Virginia Saldich

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