About 14 years ago when Bob Baltzer and Tom Reitter were on TV defending our urban-growth boundary against Pardee Homes, I became a fan of Bob and Tom. I remembered how sprawl had nearly destroyed Los Angeles right after the Second World War. Now as I watched TV, a very well dressed and articulate woman was representing Pardee and making what seemed a well-rehearsed case for putting a housing project in the hills north of Livermore. On their side, Bob and Tom didn’t seem to have rehearsed anything, and were simply talking informally about why they thought this project was a bad idea. My wife, who was watching with me, said, “Heavens! Your side is losing!” I, on the other hand, suspected the things that made her think Bob and Tom were losing were things handing them a victory. Their authenticity seemed to resonate. The project got canceled.
Pardee’s effort to portray Bob as an evil genius of great wealth who was quietly running and ruining Livermore amused me. When later I’d enjoy accusing him of being an evil genius and ask him where all the money was, Bob would chortle and his eyes would sparkle. This was a clue.
During the following eight years, I never saw Bob angry with anyone. As his health declined, he never even seemed cranky. He was such a unique person, it took a while to acquire a sense of him. Though he had a warm regard for everyone, he never seemed taken in by anyone. He reminded me of Chaucer. He didn’t get disillusioned because he had no illusions to start with. Surprises from others simply stirred his curiosity and his sense of humor.
Bob was a caretaker all his life. He entered the Air Force in 1945 when he was 17 — the earliest age at which he was legally allowed to do so. The time he spent there was Bob’s “college.” When he graduated after 16 years, he came to LLNL, where he was given notable responsibilities in the Lab’s program of laser-research-and-development. When he retired in 1987, it was into a kind of emeritus status with some supervisory role still connecting him to the Lab.
In retirement, Bob was disinclined to settle for his careers as soldier and scientist. While he’d always been interested in serving America by working in its defense, his lively sense of irony never let him believe one could bring peace to the world simply by intimidating it. He knew that communities don’t come into being and prosper without caretaking.
Bob wanted Livermore to be a cultural oasis, as well as a center for science. This meant he cooperated with others to defeat a number of agendas he felt were incompatible with that. Importantly, it also meant he cooperated with others to develop programs he felt enhanced community and the amenities of life. This was not running and ruining Livermore, as Pardee charged; but it was leadership. He and the Friends of Livermore helped establish a well-supervised expansion of our vineyards. He and they recruited support for the transformation of First Street into the delightful street it is today. Particularly he was interested in seeing Livermore become a haven for the arts, and he ardently backed the creation of the Bankhead.
True, he also backed the creation of a larger, regional theater — and this has something to do with his return to public consideration now. So far as I know, the last letter Bob wrote to The Independent was a commendation of the City Council and Mayor Marchand on March 29, 2013, in which he commended them for their support of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center, whose board of directors was chaired by Philip Wente, and their continuing attempt to secure funding for a regional theater. Due to the recession, the California legislature had voted to close down the redevelopment funding on which the regional theater was premised. Bob was commending the City Council and LVPAC for making a last-ditch effort to hold onto the redevelopment funding. This was not at all just a personal agenda of his, but one fully shared by the Council and LVPAC. Later in the year, on November 8 or thereabouts, a judge ruled definitively that the fund was closed, and this judgement canceled all remaining prospects at that time for a regional theater. A month later, on December 3, Bob died.
That he would be resurrected now—as a ghost trailing the regional theater in his wake—would greatly amuse Bob. I do think though there’s a kind of intuition in play. Those now haunted by the ghost of Bob Baltzer do, I think, surmise correctly that he’d be no fan of the present plan of the City Council for our downtown. He’d almost certainly regard it as squandering a marvelous opportunity to foster community feeling and activity among us. And in another way too his critics both of the past and of the present have not been entirely off the mark: Bob was—after perhaps Don Roberto himself—arguably the richest man who’s ever lived among us here in Livermore.