May 11, 1947-May 16, 2018
Palo Alto, California
Contact the submitter
Don Kazak, who joined the Palo Alto Weekly staff when the paper was launched in 1979 and remained for almost 30 years as a reporter and editor, died May 16 in Palo Alto from complications of hypertension. He was 71.
His death came just a month after his only sibling, Dolores Sobczak, was killed in a freak accident in Chicago, when she and their 97-year-old mother were hit by a car in a parking lot. The elder Kazak was seriously injured but is expected to recover, according to the family.
Kazak was a highly respected journalist who covered Palo Alto city government, breaking news, Stanford, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and many regional issues during his career with the Weekly. He especially enjoyed writing columns about people and issues in the community. He was a prolific writer and became well-known and trusted by Weekly readers over three decades.
Since his retirement from the Weekly in 2009, he worked with a wide range of local individuals writing their memoirs after extensive interview sessions done over many months.
"Don was a vital part of the Weekly's early success as we sought to establish our credibility and serious intentions," founder and Publisher Bill Johnson said.
"He was not only a talented reporter and writer but a deep thinker filled with curiosity about complicated issues, the motivations of people and the many unique qualities of the Palo Alto and Stanford region," Johnson said. "He never developed the cynicism about institutions and people that is common among journalists, and he always was drawn to the positive instead of controversy. And that made him a superb ambassador of a new publication seeking the support and confidence of readers."
Tim Clark, the first editor of Palo Alto Weekly, called him "the consummate reporter."
"In his first interview for a job at the Weekly in 1979, he pressed me about how the start-up Palo Alto Weekly was going to survive in the media market of the time. I felt like he was interviewing me for a story, not a job," Clark said.
Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong, who worked alongside Kazak for many years, recalled that he especially enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the profession with less-experienced reporters.
"Don was the classic old-school journalist who knew how to dig for facts. When I started covering land use, he showed me how to read environmental analyses," Dong said. "Even recently, in retirement, he gave me advice on covering Stanford's development issues."
A two-finger typist, Kazak loved his old Royal manual typewriter and was resistant to the conversion to computers. His colleagues always knew when he was writing because of his loud, two-finger keyboarding.
Kazak was born and raised in Chicago and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. He was a reporter and sports writer at Lerner Newspapers in the Chicago area before moving to Palo Alto in 1972. He was an administrator and counselor for the Palo Alto Drug Abuse program for three years before consulting for Santa Clara and San Mateo counties on public health issues and drug-abuse prevention until he became the first reporter hired by Palo Alto Weekly in 1979.
Kazak was a voracious reader of books and magazines on politics, culture and society and was the Weekly's longtime book-section editor. As a way to share the leftover books that had been sent him by publishers hoping for a review, Kazak used to lay the books out in a conference room one day a month and shout, "It's Book Day!"
"Then he'd smile as colleagues rushed in to paw through the piles of books, looking for good ones," Dong recalled.
In an obituary posted on the Chicago funeral home website, his family remembered his visits home and genuine interest in every one of his relatives.
"He'd ask each of us what we were up to, what was new in our lives or how we were doing. Don was an unpresumptuous man who had an infectious laugh that often ended in a giggle," his family said.
He also liked sharing music and lyrics with friends and was a passionate Chicago White Sox fan.
According to his niece, Mary Sobczak, Kazak and his sister enjoyed a mutual love of music and of Bob Dylan in particular.
"Somewhere, I can imagine a continued conversation between them about 'Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door,'" she said.
Joel Davidson, a longtime friend who worked with Kazak to start the Palo Alto Drug Abuse "Collective" in the 1970s, remembered Don for his love for traveling throughout the West Coast in his RV with his dog and finding a beautiful place to read, write and reflect.
In his farewell column in the Palo Alto Weekly on April 3, 2009, Kazak quoted from a Dylan song called "Three Angels" and said that Dylan's lyrics had a way of "making me see things differently than I otherwise would."
"Reporters tend to see the worst of things because that's our job. But we also see the humanity and kindness that people have, which goes a long way to help make sense of things."
"When I've met people for the first time or have taken calls from someone I don't know," he wrote, "there has often been an easy, assumed familiarity on the part of the other person because he or she may have felt they have known me through my writing. It's part of being in a community together."
In addition to his mother, Johanna, and niece, Mary, Kazak is survived by another niece, Karen Sobczak; a nephew, John Sobczak; three grand-nieces, and six great-grand-nephews and -nieces. A family service will be held in Chicago.
--Published in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 25, 2018
Tags: arts/media, public service