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Robert Parmelee, noted attorney and historian, dies at age 92

Robert Parmelee, a longtime Sonoma attorney with an encyclopedic knowledge of local history, died Aug. 30 of an apparent heart attack. He was 92.

Parmelee practiced law in Sonoma for nearly a quarter century, but was known around town almost as much for being an unofficial “city historian” as he was for his legal acumen.

“He kept his fingers on the pulse of Sonoma Valley,” said Sandi Hansen, a friend and fellow local-history buff.

Robert D. Parmelee was born in San Francisco on March 18, 1929, to Eva and Frank Parmelee. He graduated from Balboa High School and went on to earn an economics degree from UC Berkeley. Following service for the U.S. Army in the Korean War – and a stint stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska — Parmelee enrolled in Berkeley’s Boalt Law School, graduating with his law degree in 1956.

Upon graduation, Parmelee, his wife Nancy and their little boy Mark – the first of three children — moved to Santa Rosa, where Bob served as the deputy district attorney for Sonoma County for two years before partnering in the Sonoma law firm of Judge Ray Grinstead. Grinstead’s practice was based on First Street East out of the old Poppe building, named for the family of Grinstead’s wife Emily Poppe, which had administered the estate of Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s family.

It was there that Parmelee encountered a wealth of historic Sonoma documents stashed in the building – property records, legal documents, old newspapers – a trove of local histories that eventually came to fascinate Parmelee, whose growing legal practice only added to his blossoming knowledge of longtime local families and estates.

As Parmelee’s reputation as a trusted local attorney grew, so did his historic collection – his assemblage of photos, manuscripts and other Sonoma memorabilia became known as the “Parmelee Collection.” And the book he published in 1971, “Pioneer Sonoma,” remains one of the most comprehensive books on early Sonoma Valley history available.

The Index-Tribune typeset and composed “Pioneer Sonoma,” according to former I-T publisher Bill Lynch.

“Bob was a close friend of my father, Robert Lynch, and for many years my dad worked with him on historical editions and local-history-related stories in the Index-Tribune,” recalled Lynch. “I remember him as someone who I could also go to if I had a question about our Valley’s early history. It was always a fascinating conversation and I learned something new every time.”

Parmelee was part of the production team and a primary historical source for “Call of the Valley: The Enduring Lure of Sonoma,” director Julie Morrison’s and archivist Sandi Hansen’s 2019 documentary about preserving the rich beauty and historic legacy of Sonoma Valley.

Hansen described Parmelee as her “late-in-life mentor.”

“We just clicked,” said Hansen, who met Parmelee when she worked for the Depot Park Museum when he served on the nonprofit’s board of directors. “Part of it was the mutual interest we had in Sonoma Valley history.”

Parmelee later asked Hansen to help him organize his vast trove of historical documents and Sonoma Valley memorabilia. “His office is a museum — flags and maps and thousands of documents and papers and photographs,” said Hansen. “He had the most incredible stuff.”

The two also shared a love of trains, said Hansen. His knowledge of rail history nearly equaled that of Sonoma history.

“He called me his buddy,” said Hansen. “And he was my buddy, too. There’s nobody like him.”

Parmelee’s voracious curiosity about his hometown accompanied a voracious curiosity about the world beyond. He and Nancy took their children on adventures to the Panama Canal, Alaska and boating the Thames in England. After retirement, the Parmelees took to cruising exotic ports – eventually visiting all seven continents – but always returning to the town he knew best, and that best knew him.

He seemed to know everybody in town, recalled Hansen. And many felt a close connection to him.

Nancy said his many friendships were inevitable. “When you live someplace for 60 years, you’re going to know everyone,” she said. But what made him beloved was that “he was always there for us.”

The Parmelees have lived the past few years at a local retirement community. Nancy told the Index-Tribune that Bob had always resisted moving to an assisted-living unit at the community, but their family kept urging him to accept the extra help.

“But, finally, on Monday morning he said he was ready to move,” Nancy said. And the family came to move him to a new room. After dinner on his first night in assisted living, he asked daughter Janine to make up his bed. When she returned to his wheelchair to fetch him, he was gone. On Aug. 30, 2021, Robert Parmelee, too, passed into Sonoma history.

Robert Parmelee is survived by his wife Nancy, children Mark (Katie), Lori and Janine (Phillip) and grandchildren Jay (Megan), Jaren, Elaine and Scott.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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