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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Gary Fazzino's depth of knowledge reached far beyond Palo Alto

Uploaded: Nov 1, 2012

I first met Gary Fazzino when in the early 1970s he took on the job of hosting the Monday night City Council broadcasts on Stanford University's student radio station, KZSU. I was then a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.

We sat next to each other at a large "press" table in the right-front row of the City Council chambers at City Hall, unlike the present setup where host Vince Larkin is tucked into a small cubbyhole in the rear of the chambers.

Fazzino never talked much about his "religious studies" major, or perhaps I just never asked. In any case, his interest soon shifted to "public policy," specifically the art of influencing such policy -- otherwise known as politics. He later racked up advanced degrees in that arena while winning election to the City Council for an extended education in practical politics. His test of real-world policymaking lasted about 18 years, in two chunks: 1977 (when he was just 24) to 1983 and 1989 to 2001, when he was termed out and was extra busy professionally as a vice president at Hewlett-Packard Co.

Along the way he developed a depth of knowledge that encompassed Palo Alto but went far beyond into regional, state, national and even international areas.

During his KZSU days, he and I never spoke publicly at meetings. We listened and observed, sometimes whispered a comment or quip about a topic dragging on, and wrote terse notes -- occasionally noting who on the council hadn't done his or her homework on some agenda topic that week.

Later, as I observed him on the council, I never spotted any lapse in his doing his homework, but perhaps he just covered those well. A diligent reading of the packets, sometimes weighing several pounds, could take hours.

As years passed and our roles changed, we stayed in contact in one way or another -- especially relating to our mutual interest in local history. Fazzino became recognized as the city's "unofficial historian," complementing the work of official historian Steve Staiger of the city library staff.

His expertise was on the early political history of the city, from its incorporation in 1894 into the 1960s initially -- the period when I began covering Palo Alto for the Times. At his suggestion, he and I collaborated on what became a chapter on political history in the 1994 Palo Alto Centennial book, edited (and written in part) by the late Ward Winslow, a former associate editor of the Times.

In recent months, Fazzino was compiling an in-depth history of all city elections from 1894 to the present. He sent it out for review to a number of former city officials -- former Mayor Frances Dias, former Councilwoman Enid Pearson and state Sen. Joe Simitian (a 45-year friend, since high school) among them. And he asked me to make editorial corrections and additions to prepare it for publication or distribution. It's still a work in progress, made really sad by Fazzino's passing this week.

Yet soon after we began work on the editing, in mid-September he seemed to have a premonition that a new round of chemotherapy and tests may not have a positive outcome. On Sept. 17, he emailed: "Jay, again I cannot thank you enough for all your help. If I for some reason fade quickly, please finish this project for me and take the credit!"

Not likely on the credit, I replied back, then demanded: "But what's this 'fade quickly' stuff? Are you telling me something? I hope not." Sadly, prophetically, he was. In a later phone conversation, he said was heading into a new round of chemo. I wished him well, but (as many others have expressed in Town Square, www.PaloAltoOnline.com) I couldn't envision Palo Alto without him, or think about the loss to his wife, Annette, and young twins.

Despite his years of public presence, Fazzino had a private side, one where he let out his inner humor and one where he was sensitive to his public image. He especially valued his privacy about his multiple myeloma cancer when it was first diagnosed in early 2010. He was deeply offended when a daily newspaper ran a headline saying he was near death. Surgery for a painful back condition, possibly related to the cancer, helped him enter a respite period of relative good health.

He was especially proud of his community recognition as a principal historian. For some time he held the record for a speaker turnout at the Palo Alto Historical Association's annual dinner. Once, when I was a scheduled speaker on "History's Mysteries" in Palo Alto, Fazzino called me a couple days beforehand. He said, with a chuckle, that I had surpassed his record -- but only by a handful of attendees. A surprise, as I didn't know anyone kept count.

A longtime Republican moderate, he was a bit miffed when a decade or so ago I "outed" him in the Weekly as a registered Democrat, after he'd changed parties due to the Republican Party's swing to the right.

And, as he acknowledged in a 2001 depth interview with former Weekly reporter/columnist Don Kazak and me, he was personally hurt by a long-ago column I'd written in the Times noting that he was often a final swing vote on a 5-to-4 voting council. I'd suggested that instead of a swivel chair he could be given a swing tied to the ceiling to make his swing-voting easier.

He abruptly changed his style, and began leading off the voting -- a pattern that spread to his leadership in many other areas, vastly increasing his effectiveness and legacy.

It is impressive, and touching, to read the many comments in Town Square. The range of his relationships and involvement is astounding.

He was one of those rare individuals who could operate in both his public and high-tech-professional roles and also be a real friend to many scores of people. He was deeper and more thoughtful about life than many realized, and most of all he was imbedded in a great love for his community, his family and, yes, good, well-meaning government.

*Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).*