The public record is unclear about when Herb Golenpaul first attended a meeting of the Sonoma City Council – his wife, Tessa, thinks it was sometime around 2005 – but once he did, he quickly became a fixture, selecting a seat in the first two or three rows, close to the public podium where he frequently rose to lecture members of the council or question their decisions.
Golenpaul was brutally frank, strongly opinionated and sometimes factually wrong.
He was also painstakingly courteous, quick to praise when he felt praise was appropriate and refreshingly succinct, seldom exceeding the council’s three-minute public comment limit, even as other speakers sailed stubbornly past the time-out bell.
Herb Golenpaul died on Friday, Dec. 13, at the age of 92, and the feelings of many who knew him, or at least witnessed his ubiquitous presence in the council chambers, reflected both sadness and appreciation.
Former mayor and council member Joanne Sanders, who last visited Golenpaul two months before his death, confessed, “At first I thought he was just another gadfly, but he wasn’t, he really wasn’t. He was just a doll.”
Sanders added, “He would disagree with us a lot, but was respectful always.”
Current council member and former mayor Ken Brown had nothing but words of praise for Golenpaul. “Every city council in America needs a Herb Golenpaul. He was an institutional memory, he had a real caring for his city and for those governed it. He had a great sense of humor. He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He was an amazing guy. I feel grateful to have counted Herb as a friend.”
Sonomans familiar with Golenpaul’s biweekly appearance at City Council meetings can be excused for assuming that council proceedings were how he filled his time. In fact, Golenpaul was deeply involved in several parallel worlds, each of which could have occupied all the free time of the average retiree.
Since 1982, he had been a volunteer for, and eventually a board member of On Lok, the San Francisco nonprofit agency noted for pioneering healthcare services for senior populations.
And during the same time, he became a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the uniformed volunteer body of the U.S. Coast Guard charged with numerous non-combat, non-law enforcement roles, including seamanship training, vessel inspection, engine repair and countless other volunteer tasks.
Golenpaul was a member of USCG Auxiliary Flotilla 14, headquartered in Marin, and his impact on fellow auxiliary members was so profound, they produced a leather-bound book chronicling his contributions, complete with a proclamation detailing his 6,025 hours of service and nearly 50 awards, including the Presidential Unit Citation and the Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendation.
So beloved was Golenpaul by the Coast Guard that a Flotilla Commander proclaimed last July 10 to be Herbert P. Golenpaul Day.
His devotion to boats and the Coast Guard only emerged after a 1981 heart attack and subsequent multiple bypass surgery. During his recovery, his wife Tessa explained, he met another heart attack patient who had a sailboat and belonged to the auxiliary. That relationship led to his first sailing experience and he soon fell in love with boats.
“He was the kind of man, if he didn’t like something, he just wouldn’t go back. If he did like it, he would take it over,” Tessa explained.
The Coast Guard connection might have seemed counterintuitive given Golenpaul’s earlier years as an Air Force veteran, with service in both World War II and the Korean War.
At the age of 20, he became a signal corps inspector, then joined the Air Force following the outbreak of war, rising from private to 1st lieutenant, developing radar counter measures during the war in Europe.
Returning home after the war, Golenpaul worked as an electrician, and spent time on the new United Nations building being erected on the East River in New York City. He was called back to service during the Korean War, rose to the rank of major, winning three air medals as a pilot.
He mustered out in 1965, after experiencing a brief moment of history in a B-52 during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
During his years of military service, Golenpaul once wrote, he was able to attend classes at some of the nation’s most prestigious academies, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers and MIT.
When he mustered out of the military he worked in various industries in, as he alter wrote, “all facets of manufacturing.”
He was living in Southern California, but in Marin County on business in 1975, when he wandered into the piano bar at his hotel, positioned himself at the piano and started to sing.
“He had a very nice voice,” said Tessa, who by chance was sitting at a nearby table with a girlfriend. The girlfriend rose to talk to the singer, the singer came to the table and Herb and Tessa were more or less together ever after.
That despite the fact that Wales-born Tessa speaks with the meticulous, British-accented diction of a dutchess, while Herb sounded like “a country boy from Brooklyn,” which is both where he was born and how he described himself.
“I don’t know how you get where he’s been when you don’t even speak good English,” Tessa said with a bit of a laugh. “I mean, ‘ain’t’ was a regular part of his speech.”
Golenpaul’s outspoken if sometimes inelegant City Council comments won him a growing fan base and although he refused to become a computer aficionado, admirers set up a Facebook fan page to showcase his views.
One more important activity on Herb Golenpaul’s agenda was protecting the rights of mobile home park residents. As president of the Pueblo Serena Mobile Home Park Homeowners’ Association, Golenpaul organized and lobbied against efforts to convert the park to a subdivision. “He was an incredible man who gave to the community here with such love and dignity,” said 10-year next door neighbor Marge Novak. “Herb was fighting to save all the residents.”
Asked to describe Herb, Tessa pondered the question at length.
“He was a great supporter of the elderly frail. A great teacher of inexperienced sailors. He had the courage to tell the truth, even to those reluctant to hear it. He was a seeker of solutions and improvements. But he also loved the awards and the praise. He wanted me to watch the council meetings on TV, to see him there, but I didn’t always approve or agree with what he said.”
What emerges with surprising clarity in her mind when she thinks about it, is the fact that Herb Golenpaul “was constant. He took me where I needed to go. I could rely on him. He was tremendously good about sticking to his word, and that’s tremendously important to me. He was someone who doesn’t play around with promises.”
Herb died in his living room after insisting that he be in his own home at the end. He had been suffering from pulmonary congestion, his lungs filling with fluid, and Tessa said of his passing, “He was ready to go, he was definitely ready to go.”
The Dec. 16 City Council meeting was dedicated to the memory of Herb Golenpaul, who is survived by his wife, Tessa Fitzgerald, two daughters and a son, from a first marriage, and a community that admired and honored him.
Plans for a memorial service have yet to be announced.