Obituary for Rob Elder, editorial page editor of The San Jose Mercury News and well-known member of the Sea Ranch community
Robert Laurie Elder (June 23, 1938 — December 27, 2020), the longtime editorial page editor of The San Jose Mercury News and a well-known member of the Sea Ranch community, died peacefully Sunday after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and other health issues. He was 82.
He was a writer of books, editor of newspapers, landscaper of beautiful gardens, chef of gourmet meals, and happy lounger in the sun with cats.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Elder grew up working for the family business, Elder’s Bookstore. He attended Washington and Lee University and received a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University.
He was a crusading civil rights reporter for The Nashville Tennessean under the tutelage of editor John Siegenthaler, writing exposes about racist housing and hiring practices, interviewing leaders such as John Lewis, and going undercover to work in dangerous migrant labor camps. When he left that job, a leader of Nashville’s civil rights community, Ed Shea, told The Tennessean, “His deep empathy for humanity’s underprivileged and disenfranchised is great indeed.”
In the 1970s, Elder worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald, where he tirelessly covered the case of George Curtis, a young African-American man shot by police. Curtis was imprisoned after seven white police officers testified that he was a sniper during a riot. But Elder investigated the case, found other police officers who said Curtis was innocent, and Curtis was freed. Elder won Florida’s top journalism award for 1973 for his articles.
After a year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford University, Elder worked at The San Jose Mercury News under Publisher Tony Ridder and Editor Larry Jinks, also Miami Herald alums. Elder rose to the role of editorial page editor, where his columns and editorials helped to shape the booming Silicon Valley tech world in the 1980s and ’90s. He hired a then-unknown writer named Joanne Jacobs, who went on to become a syndicated columnist, served as an advisor to Santa Clara County’s Momentum for Mental Health, and kept readers apprised of the life and times of his ancient Siamese cat, Herbie.
When he retired Elder relocated to the Sea Ranch community north of San Francisco, where he wrote several books about the area. There he met his wife, art historian Jacquelynn Baas, painted and drew, and created a spectacular garden. He and Baas, also a leader in the Sea Ranch community, hosted parties at their seaside home, welcomed their children and grandchildren, and frequented local eateries St. Orres and Trinks. In 2017, 52 years after he covered political dissent as a reporter, Elder protested the policies of President Donald Trump at an Inauguration Day rally in the nearby town of Gualala. He enjoyed reading, cooking, entertaining, and gardening. During his last years, he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease.
He leaves Baas; two sons, Mark and Jeff Elder from his first marriage to Elizabeth Sherman; four grandchildren, Toby, Violet, Brooks, and Ashton; a brother, Randy Elder; and sister, Marilla Arguelles. Friends can donate in his memory to the non-profit Redwood Coast Medical Service.
Rob Elder left a legacy of helping the downtrodden and celebrating those around him. When he left his job as a civil rights reporter in Nashville, a community leader named Joe Kelso said, “On behalf of the ghetto community, we’re sorry you’re leaving. But you left us with a lot, and we thank you.”