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Off Deadline: Kirke Comstock survived rough-and-tumble politics, and a bomb

Passing of former Palo Alto mayor closes long-ago chapter of intense politics

The passing last week of Kirke Comstock -- a former mayor of both Palo Alto and Portola Valley -- closes a long-ago chapter of rough-and-tumble politics, primarily relating to growth and traffic in Palo Alto with some broader themes.

Yet the intense non-local politics of the late 1960s and 1970s included a crudely fashioned bomb that tore through the front door of his Palo Alto home and destroyed an antique grandfather clock. No one was injured from the blast, later traced to a neo-Nazi terror/intimidation group targeting liberals and peace activists.


Jay Thorwaldson
Undaunted, Comstock continued his core commitment to promoting environmental, open-space and social-betterment causes.

Yet even during the roughest years Comstock stayed a quiet-spoken man with firm convictions, an open honesty and accessibility to constituents and the media -- a model that political combatants today might emulate nationally and heed locally.

He died of Alzheimer's disease Aug. 23 in Saratoga at age 86.

I knew him primarily in my capacity as a city-beat reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, covering Palo Alto city government from 1966 to 1978 -- spanning the early years of the slow-growth movement on one hand and the anti-Vietnam War (and other) demonstrations.

When I was assigned the Palo Alto beat in early 1966, Comstock was part of a six-member "residentialist" minority on the 13-member City Council, opposing a so-called "establishment" majority that was conservative and generally pro-growth.

That minority stemmed from the explosive-growth 1950s, when a 15-member council voted consistently (14-to-1, with Councilwoman Mildred Corcoran opposed) for housing and business/industrial expansion. The council met every other week.

In 1961, Robert Debs, known for his fiery opposition to traffic and growth, was elected, supplanting Corcoran's lone vote. He was followed in 1963 by Comstock and Phil Flint, and in 1965 by Enid Pearson, Byron Sher and Ed Worthington. They began calling themselves residentialists and caucused regularly on Sunday afternoons to discuss how to resist upcoming growth-related items.

One strategem was to attempt to slow down council meetings and prevent the merger of future agendas, which required a two-thirds vote.

This created a fictitious situation in which the council needed to complete the agendas for prior meetings before tackling the current agenda. Thus at a real-time meeting in June or even July the council might be "officially" meeting in May.

There was name-calling, such as "kooks," by some establishment council members and supporters. The establishment members in turn disliked being called "establishment" and tried an alternative, "balanced community," with mixed success.

Here's one sample of the times:

Councilwoman Frances Dias was elected by the council to be the first woman mayor of Palo Alto in 1966 (something of a social comment itself for a city formed in 1894). She immediately vowed to bring the council up to date on its agendas. Easier said than done.

Things reached a peak at a meeting Dias scheduled for Halloween night 1966. Only the seven establishment council members showed up, and waited. Then Debs entered from a side room of the council chambers, now the auditorium of the Palo Alto Art Center. He read a prepared statement that said the minority members would not attend because they needed to accompany their young children trick-or-treating.

Establishment Councilman Bob Cooley responded with a shout: "Shove it, Debs!" Debs invited him to step outside, and a fist fight was averted only when City Manager George Morgan, an ex-Marine, jumped between the two men as they reached the door, too narrow for all three to get through. I always wondered who might have won that match, compact Cooley or hefty Debs.

That was the local scene. Yet even in that environment, Comstock kept a light touch, such as sponsoring a kite-fly day at Foothills Park as part of his campaign for the council. Only he and establishment Councilman Ed Arnold consistently attempted to reach out toward the other side -- both were excoriated by hard-liners on their own sides for doing so.

The broader scene involved a move toward gun control that was supported by Comstock. A College Terrace resident told the council that if anyone came to get his guns they would get them in pieces, as bullets in the belly.

That person later turned out to be one of the nine people arrested for being part of the secret terror/intimidation group that had bombed the Peace Center in Palo Alto, smashed the windows of Kepler's bookstore and then-neighboring Midpeninsula Free University (MFU) on El Camino Real in Menlo Park. Fear spread.

One day I received a phone call from a young man involved with the MFU. He said he had something for me. We met outside on the street, and he gave me a single-spaced multi-page letter from a Joe Dobiss, who had infiltrated the group. I was pledged to secrecy because the police had a copy.

The letter detailed those in the group, with names, driver's license numbers, addresses, kind of weapons (with serial numbers), and brief personality sketches.

It turned out the Palo Alto police had interviewed the writer, deemed him unreliable and discounted the letter, a police lieutenant informed me, breaking my vow of silence.

Impressed with the detail of the letter, I called the Menlo Park police chief to ask what he thought of the letter.

"What letter?" he replied. It was never shared.

I agreed to share it if I was kept abreast of the investigation if one ensued.

I was kept informed, and group members were arrested on Valentine's Day night 1969.

I later visited one member in jail and he shared additional stories, and I became friendly with an older member who hadn't been told of the bombing plan for Comstock's home and had charges dropped.

Through it all, Comstock maintained his beliefs and a kindly openness, an achievement in itself worthy of note these days.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 2, 2016 at 2:18 pm

"The broader scene involved a move toward gun control that was supported by Comstock. A College Terrace resident told the council that if anyone came to get his guns they would get them in pieces, as bullets in the belly.

That person later turned out to be one of the nine people arrested for being part of the secret terror/intimidation group that had bombed the Peace Center in Palo Alto, smashed the windows of Kepler's bookstore and then-neighboring Midpeninsula Free University (MFU) on El Camino Real in Menlo Park. Fear spread."

Please provide the name of this person, Jay. I assume it is public record, because you mention it publically.


Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 4, 2016 at 4:40 pm

Ms. Frances Dias later served on the City of Santa Rosa Planning Commission; this article in the Kenwood Press notes she served as the mayor of Palo Alto twice:
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by just a kid then
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 4, 2016 at 8:43 pm

Not sure if I'm following here:

The PA police saw the letter and ignored it.
The MP police saw the letter and it caused them to arrest a bunch of people.

Is that right?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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