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.