Leveling the Playing Field
An Alcalde couple creating opportunities for others.
If Kimberly and Simon Blattner had not been jointly chosen for Sonoma’s highest honor, either one of them could have been (and should have been) chosen separately. They are both serial givers.
Which would have been both very right and very wrong.
The Sonoma City Council’s own press release admitted as much, when announcing the Blattners had been selected as Alcalde and Alcaldessa for 2020.
Honorees are nominated by Sonoma Valley citizens, and one of the Blattner nominations, the city’s press release revealed, stated that, “When discussing the breadth of their contributions, it was realized that each of them individually would qualify for nomination as the 2020 Alcalde.”
Sonoma’s annually selected Alcalde (or Alcaldessa) serves as honorary mayor, presides over the Fourth of July festivities and assorted other activities, and takes possession for one year of a stately, silver-headed cane.
Typical nominees are known for their voluntary community service, although being overly known may be a handicap since self-promotion is considered a disqualifying quality. Other important attributes are nonprofit and community project leadership; consistent behind-the-scenes good deeds; and a high standard of moral and ethical values.
The nominee(s) have to reside in the City of Sonoma or Sonoma Valley, and may be either an individual or a couple. Eight prior honorees have also been couples, most recently including Ted and Pat Eliot, in 2017, and Les and Judy Vadasz in 2013.
Nominating either Blattner separately would have missed half the magic of a synergistic relationship that has nourished nonprofit organizations and community causes for more than 30 years, both in San Francisco and Sonoma Valley.
Between them, and sometimes successively, they have provided leadership, guidance, vision, funding, and fundraising to La Luz Center, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, the Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma Valley Fund, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, the California College of the Arts, the City of Sonoma Community Services and Environment Commission, Impact100, Presidio Hill School, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the SFMOMA Docent Council, the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County, Enterprise for High School Students, the American Jewish Congress Western Division, the San Francisco Local Development Corporation (which Simon founded to develop minority businesses) and, more than likely, a few more organizations and causes overlooked in the flood of professional and financial philanthropy.
For two people who between them have transited multiple marriages, disparate careers, and different geographies (she grew up in Oregon, he in Lima, Ohio) it seems both remarkable and somehow fated that they would end up together.
As Kimberly tells the story, “My sister knew Simon socially, for probably eight years, before we met, and told me for eight years that this was the man for me. But I wanted to have more children and he was 12 years older, and I knew he had three children already grown. So I thought, ‘No, I don’t need to meet him.’ And then they had this dinner party and, literally, we sat next to each other, and probably talked for three hours, and we both went home and broke up with the people we were going out with.”
But that first meeting wasn’t enough to close the deal on marriage, and Simon wasn’t inclined to go there. “I didn’t want to get married again because I had managed to do a very poor job of it the first couple of times. I thought that was enough.” So during “a special dinner,” Simon asked Kimberly to live with him instead. Her answer?
“Are you kidding me? I have a house, a job, and a kid. I’m not going to live with you.”
And then she went a step further. “I said to Simon, ‘It’s pretty easy as a woman, if you want to get somebody interested in you, to be fantastic and flirtatious and sexual and all those things that you want a woman to be. But I want somebody to love me for none of those reasons. I want someone to look at me and love me when I’m at my worst, when I’m looking horrible, when I’m pissed off, when I’m this, when I’m that, whatever. That’s when I want someone to love me.”
Not long afterward, Kimberly was at Simon’s in San Francisco, having to prepare for a social function of his she didn’t want to go to, after a hard day when one of her Sonoma students was expelled from school. She had her hair in rollers, she was in the shower and really feeling down.
Simon, who unbeknownst to Kimberly had already bought a ring, suddenly realized, “Whoa, wait a minute, she’s pissed off. She’s in the shower. She’s not looking good. She’s all of this…”
Simon goes to the bathroom and says, “Turn off the water, I have to talk to you.”
Kimberly says, “I’m taking a shower.”
Simon persists, “Turn off the water, I have to talk to you.”
Kimberly turns off the water and opens the shower door. She’s naked. In curlers.
Simon says, “You are the most beautiful, fantastic woman I have ever met in my life. Will you marry me?”
Kimberly and Simon had similar passions, including politics (he had a degree in political science from Northwestern University and once marched with Martin Luther King), both liked the outdoors and both were sports fans, although Simon says, outside of tennis, he wasn’t much of an athlete. He also had an almost visceral attraction to paper—archival paper, artisan paper, paper books—and was deep into a 35-year career as president and CEO of Rittenhouse Paper Company in Chicago, which was, among other things, the biggest manufacturer of fax paper in the world.
Kimberly had moved to Sonoma in 1981, then went through a divorce a year later. She and Simon, she says, “were both married the first time when we were 21, and what did we know at 21? We were just not accomplished adults yet.”
She had a political science degree from Stanford, where she captained the women’s swim team, and then got a master’s degree in elementary and secondary education at UC Davis. Kimberly had been teaching American Government earlier, and following her divorce she applied for a teaching job at Sonoma Valley High School but was told, she says, ‘Well, the theater teacher is on maternity leave and they’ve just started the next production. Can you put on Oklahoma?’ I said, ‘Of course I can put on Oklahoma.’ But, of course, I couldn’t.”
Showing the creative ingenuity and determination that have become hallmarks of her nonprofit work, she promptly took the production stipend, some $300, to hire a local theater director to direct the production while she managed it. “So,” says Kimberly, “for each of the theatrical productions we had for the next five years, I hired somebody so the kids had this great experience of all these different approaches, which was really great. And probably, by the end of five years, I could have directed a play myself.”
Kimberly taught English at the high school until 1990, the last three years as chair of the department.
Simon, meanwhile, had developed this deeply personal interest in paper. That happened, according to Kimberly, following what amounted to an intervention by some of Simon’s friends. “When he got a divorce from his second wife in San Francisco,” she explains, “he was a complete mess and didn’t know what to do. His friends said, ‘You need to go and see a therapist.’ So, he goes to the therapist, and the therapist said, ‘You need to get out of your head and into your body.’ So because he owned a paper-making company, he looked on the web and he found out that Magnolia Editions (a fine arts studio in Oakland), taught a paper making class through the California College of the Arts. So he took the paper making class without one iota of knowledge that he had any artistic talent, and he became a fantastic paper-maker.”
“A whole new side of his life developed in the art world that would have been completely unknown to him. And it’s been fantastic in terms of the art museums and other art things that we’re involved in,” she adds.
Ask him what it is about paper and Simon immediately smiles. “Oh, it’s very tactile. It’s absolutely fantastic. And my ambition was to make the best Japanese hand papers in America that you could print on.”
Eventually, Simon created his own fine arts and print studio, called “Eastside Editions,” published a number of handmade books, and recently published his own book detailing how he fell in love with paper, printing, and artists’ books. Titled Libros de Artista, the bilingual book profiles 15 contemporary artists’ books from Mexico.
The paper making experience led to a nearly decade-long relationship with Magnolia Editions, an even longer relationship with the California College of the Arts—where he became chair of the board, and where he recently was honored with his name on an apartment-style student housing complex for more than 200 students in San Francisco. Simon developed the property himself to provide below-market-rate housing to CCA students so they wouldn’t be competing in San Francisco’s inflated housing market.
Among his numerous other activities, Simon maintains a small but profitable real estate development business, primarily to fund his and Kimberly’s philanthropic activities.
“One of the reasons I’m still working,” he says, “is to give a lot of money away.”
The primary focus of that giving, he says, at least as of November 16, 2016, is the Sonoma Valley. That’s when a national election convinced them, as Kimberly explains, “that there wasn’t very much impact we could have at the national level, and what we wanted to do is start in our neighborhood first and see how things could expand.”
It should be understood that neither Blattner grew up rich. Kimberley’s father, a standout Stanford football guard who played without a helmet during the 1940s—including two Rose Bowls—became gradually incapacitated, alcoholic, and eventually couldn’t work. He died at age 50, clearly suffering from what we now know as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) caused by football concussions.
Simon’s father owned a department store and was well off until the business collapsed. Both Blattners worked their way through college, Kimberly with an athletic scholarship. And they have clearly done very well for themselves. Which is part of what drives them. Explains Kimberly, “One of the real themes Simon and I have, in terms of the community, is that we really feel a tremendous sense of privilege. It’s always my mantra that we’re aware of being born white in the United States to highly educated parents, so we were already on third base. So every organization that we get involved with, we basically see missed opportunities for other people, and we want to make sure that everybody else has the same opportunities we had.”
Adds Simon, “The two of us want the community to be less ‘us and them.’ Other people don’t have any access to health care. I can go anywhere I want. So we’re trying to level the playing field in everything we do. We can’t do everything, but we can make it better.”