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Bill Lynch: Brian Kahn made our Valley a better place

Brian Kahn, died last week while on a hunting trip with his wife, Sandra, near Lewiston, Montana. He was 73. I regret that most of my fellow Sonomans never knew him, primarily because he moved from the Valley to Montana to become the executive director for the Montana Nature Conservancy in 1989.

In my half-century of covering our community, I never met a more positive and effective civic leader. He truly believed in a government of, by and for the people and did a remarkable job of living up to that ideal when he became Sonoma Valley’s representative on the County Board of Supervisors.

And most remarkably, he began that service in local government at the tender age of 29 in 1976 when he was appointed Sonoma County’s 1st District Supervisor by Governor Jerry Brown, filling a vacancy left when Sonoma’s Ignazio Vella resigned.

At first, many old time residents were skeptical, primarily because of his youth. It wasn’t that they didn’t know him. They watched him grow up here. Many recall him as a tenacious little catcher for Sonoma Valley Little League’s Tigers, bright and personable even as a youngster. At Sonoma Valley High School, he was a track and tennis star and class valedictorian.

At UC Berkeley he majored in political science and lettered in boxing for the Cal team. He spent a year working on a cattle ranch in Montana before entering Boalt Law School, graduating in 1973. He was admitted to the bar the same year. In addition to studying law, he was the head coach of the Cal boxing team from 1970-73. He worked for a short period for the UC chancellor before moving back to Sonoma County in 1975.

His predecessor, Ig Vella, had been the youngest supervisor ever elected to the county board, and Brian became the youngest to ever serve on the board. But it wasn’t his youth that made him remarkable, it was his leadership style, obvious intelligence and practical approach to addressing issues.

From the beginning, he actively sought input from all avenues. In fact, it was this quality that made him so admired and respected. At a time when Sonoma County politics was a hothouse of petty bickering and grandstanding, Brian was a breath of fresh air.

He had the most unique quality, rarely seen in a politician – he listened, not simply passively, but intensely. People who met with him came away feeling that they’d been heard and understood. And over the years, I watched him grow even more effective in communication as he honed his skills at asking the right questions and then separating the wheat from chaff in the answers he got.

I think it is this quality that I missed most when Brian decided not to seek another term as supervisor, and although he spent several more years here as a resident, the community had lost him as its representative.

In his short tenure as supervisor he accomplished many things, not the least of which was the establishment of the Sonoma Valley Regional Library and Maxwell Park. After that he became an author, and filmmaker, earning a prestigious award for “One Thousand Cranes,” a documentary film in Russia about efforts to preserve the Siberian crane.

But I think the year he spent working on a cattle ranch in Montana after graduating from UC Berkeley opened his eyes to possibilities, especially the wildness, that our Valley could not offer, including world-class fly-fishing. When Montana’s Nature Conservancy called, there was no way he would say no.

So he and Sandra left their hometown, moved to Helena. And there they both earned many more friends and admirers. In addition to his work at the Nature Conservancy, Brian authored more books, and became the producer and host of a radio show aired on more than 30 public and private radio stations in the Rocky Mountain West.

The years passed, and I saw him a few times when he visited the Valley. He had Parkinson’s disease, and that might have slowed him down, but only a little.

Today, if you were to ask me to describe the kind of person that our country needs most in leadership and public service, Brian Kahn would be the example I would use for that person.

If you want more information about Brian, the Helena newspaper ran an excellent obituary: helenair.com. Chris Smith of the Press Democrat also wrote an excellent article on Brian’s work as a county supervisor (see page A1).

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