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Celebrating Chuck Williams as community center’s Muse

CHUCK WILLIAMS chats with Suzanne Brangham at Ramekins Friday night prior to the Muse celebration. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

CHUCK WILLIAMS chats with Suzanne Brangham at Ramekins Friday night prior to the Muse celebration. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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Chuck Williams, who founded the eponymous kitchen-products store on Broadway in Sonoma, was honored Friday night as the 2013 Muse of the Sonoma Community Center at a gala dinner and auction held at Ramekins Culinary School, Event Center and Inn.

Williams, who recently turned 98, appeared fit and cheerful while receiving non-stop attention from guests who sat with him for rounds of photographs, shook his hand and expressed awe at his longevity.

The annual fundraising event honors a person who has made significant contributions to the culture and heritage of the Sonoma Valley. Previous honorees include former Index-Tribune Publisher Robert Lynch; businessman, diplomat and Hanzell Winery founder James Zellerbach; socialite-philanthropist Alma Spreckles; Buena Vista Winery founder Agoston Haraszthy; food writer M.F.K. Fisher and Jack London.

Chuck Williams is the first Muse honoree to be alive and present for the event.

Williams’ original Sonoma store, which opened at 603 Broadway in 1956, was a tiny, 628-square-foot converted hardware store, stocked with kitchenware the former contractor discovered on an earlier trip through France. Believing American cooks lacked cookware on par with the sauté pans, soufflé dishes, cooking pots and chef’s knives found in Europe, Williams sought out the best, most innovative and well-made products to line the shelves of his store. From the beginning, he demonstrated a creative eye for optimal product display and selection and the store was quickly successful. After two years, friends convinced him to move the store to San Francisco to access a larger audience.

That store, too, was wildly successful and, in 1978, Williams sold it to Oklahoma entrepreneur Howard Lester, who took it public in 1983. Today, Williams-Sonoma has about 260 stores, but the company also owns Pottery Barn and other outlets with a corporate total of more 550 stores. Williams has remained closely connected to the company, making personal appearances and continuing to write, edit and oversee cookbooks well into his 90s. Williams’ hand has been involved in the production, at one level or another, or more than 100 cookbooks with sales of well over 10 million copies.

At Friday’s Muse event, male attendees were encouraged to wear dress shirts with ties and aprons, a Chuck Williams signature look familiar in the pages of countless cookbooks and magazine articles.

Net proceeds from the evening’s dinner and auction topped $140,000 said Sonoma Community Center Executive Director Toni Castrone.

“We couldn’t have been happier with the outcome,” she said. “It was fantastic. We’re all deliriously happy and we’ve all had to take some pretty serious naps.”

Castrone said Williams seemed to have a good time at the event, proclaiming into the microphone at one point, “Happy day!”

For more Muse photos, click here: