By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline blog: When John Beahrs saw combat -- in World War II and the Palo Alto City Council chambersUploaded: Aug 16, 2013
The recent passing of John Beahrs of Palo Alto at age 100 elicited many memories of a man who lived a full life.
His experiences ranged from a loving marriage that spanned two thirds of a century to a retirement filled with family, as detailed in an obituary in this week's Palo Alto Weekly.
He saw military combat on the beaches of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, where he was beach commander -- an experience vastly more intense than the verbal combat he engaged in as a member of the Palo Alto City Council in the 1960s and 1970s.
In his public life on the council, he presented a blunt gruffness as he advocated policies to ensure a strong economy and a growing community -- which put him at odds with slow growth/no growth "residentialists" on the council in the mid-1960s and beyond. The split on the council, complete with personal animosities and even some exchanges of insults, occupied most of a decade. It is echoed today in the issues before the city relating to density, height, parking and traffic from new proposed developments.
But there is a lesser-known John Beahrs. Behind his gruff exterior there was a warmth, a bit of a twinkle that surfaced occasionally as a touch of humor or amusement.
With his young grandchildren, he was known to be a ferocious Big Bad Wolf to the point that when arriving at his home on Guinda Avenue they would enter cautiously, peeking behind doors to see if he was hiding, ready to pounce. Yet they also cuddled for grandfatherly reading sessions.
His City Council BBW persona reflected little of his deep range of community activities, from serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations serving seniors and people of all ages -- as detailed in the Weekly obituary (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=19377 ). His interests spanned health care, senior services and broader community well-being, complementing the community involvement of his late wife, Virginia, who died in 2005. Their marriage lasted two-thirds of a century, most of it spent in Palo Alto.
I knew Beahrs mostly as a young journalist for the former Palo Alto Times, covering the sometimes bitterly split council meetings and always angry election battles.
Then one day, about two decades after the 1967 all-council (some call it "recall") election I received a call from Palo Alto architect John Northway, then president of the Chamber of Commerce board, asking if I could put together a panel for the newly formed Leadership Palo Alto group. The panel, he said, should show what it was like on the City Council circa 1965-67.
Tough assignment, and I thought about it for a time.
Then I called Enid Pearson, also a blunt-spoken council member who often tangled head-on with Beahrs and others over growth policies and related issues. She agreed to be on a panel to describe what the council was like in the latter 1960s.
I said before she gave a firm answer I should tell her whom I was going to invite to be a co-panelist: John Beahrs.
A silence, then her response: "You want me to be on a panel with THAT man?"
Well, c'mon, Enid. You kind of liked John. He was always direct and you knew right where he stood on any issue." I said I'd like to see them try to recreate some of the sparks of the time.
The panel was great. They hammered away at each other just right, and it gave the young leadership students a glimmer of what life was like on the council at the time. And they stood around talking afterwards, about old times -- as tough as those could be.