Sonoma remembers Dr. Rolf Olness

Dr. Rolf Olness and his "former spouse and best friend" LeeJay Olness, in this photo taken at Sugar Bowl ski resort in about 2002. (Submitted photo)


“Not Doc!”

The succinct, heartfelt reaction to the sudden death of Dr. Rolf Olness, 72, was typical of the hundreds of comments on Facebook and in personal conversation throughout Sonoma this week, as the town attempted to come to grips with the shared loss of the longtime physician.

“He was such a great doctor. Gave great advice to my family. Loved him so much!”

“Will miss that great smile and twinkling eyes …”

“What a sad day in Sonoma.”

Olness had been practicing medicine in Sonoma for over 40 years, and though he had reduced the size of his practice in recent years he continued to be fully engaged with care for the community and beyond. Just on Aug. 1 of this year, he took over as sole medical director of the skilled nursing department at Sonoma Valley Hospital, a role he had shared with Dr. Clinton Lane for the previous eight years.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Melissa Evans, director of the Skilled Nursing Facility. “He enjoyed life. He had great compassion for others. He was fun to work with. He saw them every day, it didn’t matter who it was. He would take every patient and take care of them.”

Evans said Olness came into the hospital every day between 8 and 8:30 a.m., but when he didn’t show up on Tuesday morning she became concerned. She last saw him the previous afternoon at a regular treatment team meeting.

In addition to his role at the hospital, Olness had a private practice on Perkins Street in Sonoma, where he saw patients of all ages, many of whom he had known for years. One of them Janet Clark, who had an appointment with Dr. Olness at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25; but when he didn’t show up she and the staff became concerned. “I was the only patient there,” said Clark. “They said they couldn’t reach him, and sent me home about 10:30.”

About noon, when Evans arrived from the hospital to check on Dr. Olness, she was met at the door by the staff and a man who was introduced as a neighbor of his. “They told me he had passed away,” said Evans.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office received a “coroner call” at 10:55 a.m. to Lovall Valley Road, and about an hour later the Sonoma County Coroner arrived at the remote location, where Dr. Olness’s 2010 Toyota SUV had been found in a steep ravine off his narrow driveway.

It was a road he had driven literally thousands of times, since he moved there in 1976. He was headed uphill, toward the house, sometime on Monday evening, possibly during that evening’s rain, when he went off the road. The Coroner’s office was to conduct an autopsy on Thursday to determine cause of death, as there was no visible trauma.

Olness grew up in Williston, North Dakota, “where they’re doing all that fracking,” said LeeJay Tunkis Olness from her Sonoma home. She said he went to medical school in Galveston, then did his residency in Queens Hospital in Honolulu where she met him. He went into the Navy in 1972 and was given duty at the naval hospital in Yokosaku, Japan. They were married in Yokohoma on March 2, 1973.

When he left the service LeeJay talked him into moving to Sonoma, where she had grown up. “I was pregnant with our daughter and insisted we find a home — I told him we’re not going to be on the road!” she said. When she told her parents, local realtors Lee and Marian Tunkis, that they were moving to Sonoma, they said – “What a great idea.”

“His mother said, ‘Can’t you come back to North Dakota?’ And we both said, ‘No.’”

Describing herself as “his former spouse and best friend,” LeeJay Olness said they first lived in a house in town before moving to Lovall Valley when their daughter Kara was born. Though they separated in 1988, they remained fast friends and traveled together frequently. “Everyone still thought of us as a couple,” she said simply.

Their travels took them to Europe, Hawaii and Mexico many times, including Cabo San Lucas nearly every year and several times to Patzcuaro, a Sonoma Sister City.

In addition, Olness had done several medical projects overseas, including a mission in the 1990s with Lions in Sight director Dr. Wayne Cannon, to provide eyeglasses to victims of the Bosnian War. “They’d go to all these poor places, Mexico, Chile, Argentina — but the war zone thing made the biggest impression on him, about how appreciative people were.”

People were always appreciative of Rolf Olness, too: “He treated everyone with dignity and helped others who were in need,” said Mrs. Clark, the woman who waited in vain for her appointment earlier this week. “His greatest asset was compassion.”

“He was really the best doctor I ever had,” said William Spencer, “a great doctor, humorous, and a friendly gentleman.” Like many in Sonoma, Spencer stopped going to Dr. Olness as his regular physician in 2013 when the doctor joined a “concierge” group called MDVIP, which requires an annual fee but promises extra services and access.

Still, he had about 600 patients on his rolls — in addition to the post-acute patients at Sonoma Valley Hospital in the skilled nursing facility. He was voted the hospital’s Physician of the Year in 2011 for, “Outstanding compassion, quality and delivery of medical care to the Sonoma Valley Hospital patients and families.”

Kelly Mather, current CEO of Sonoma Valley Hospital, said, “He was an iconic figure in Sonoma and beloved by several generations of Sonoma families. Everyone in our community loved him and he had the respect of the entire physician community.”

In Sonoma he freely shared his skills in many ways: He also worked with local high school athletes assisting Dr. Robert Geiger in giving free physicals to football players. His own daughter, now Kara Reyes, went to Sonoma Valley schools, and now so do her two young sons with Ricardo Reyes, Joaquin and Benicio.

But he was also a sportsman, a fisherman, golfer, and fan of the Giants and 49ers and a player of fantasy football – “all that guy stuff,” said LeeJay Olness. According to his family he had been to the Little Dry Creek Duck Club near Gridley, in Butte County, just the previous weekend.

“I think what most people say about him is that he’s really giving,” said his former spouse and best friend on Wednesday, still speaking in the present tense. “He didn’t turn people away from his practice. He tried to take care of everybody.”

“We’re still stunned,” she said on Thursday. “He was larger than life in our eyes.”

The family is planning a memorial service, but hasn’t yet decided a location large enough for the many friends, patients and colleagues of Rolf Olness.

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