Ben DeBolt left wide legacy

School principal, opera supporter and local historian dies at 83

Mountain View community leader and educator Ralph Benjamin DeBolt is well remembered by former Mountain View schoolchildren as the principal who sang to them on a weekly basis. He was 83 when he died last week at the family home in Mountain View.

DeBolt, who was this reporter's grandfather, was a principal and assistant principal at several Mountain View schools throughout the 1960s and 1970s. After retirement he was a city commissioner, a cable access TV personality and a local historian, among other things.

A memorial service has been scheduled for Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at his church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Sunnyvale at 1112 South Bernardo Ave.

Until his death he was president of the Henry and Maria Holt Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which administered scholarships to promising young opera singers. A singer himself, he sang in the chorus in over 70 operas with the West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, where he was also a board member and then business manager for many years. He was close friends with Henry and Maria Holt, who founded the West Bay Opera.

But he will be remembered by most as the school principal of large stature, known as "Big Ben" to some, who had high standards and clear rules but made things fun through his singing and guitar-playing.

On Fridays "all the students got together and your grandfather was well-known to have a guitar in his hand," said Ernie Schmidt, now a planning commissioner in Redwood City. He clearly remembers DeBolt when he was principal of Klein elementary school, once located at Ortega Avenue and California Street.

DeBolt's days at Klein in the 1970s are fondly remembered by a group of alumni and teachers who still keep in touch.

"I think it was the best school in the district," said Audrey Wong, who was a teacher at Klein then. "It had some really rough kids and no vandalism. It was their place where they felt really secure so they took care of the school."

Wong said DeBolt was beloved and trusted because of all the ways he made his presence known to students, which included regularly handing out popsicles.

Rather than use the loudspeaker system, DeBolt would do the pledge of allegiance and the day's announcements with a large group of students around him. And Wong remembers the "joke of the day" when he would sometimes laugh so hard that he would turn purple.

For an hour every Friday he would lead students in singing traditional songs like "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" or the Klein school birthday song if someone had had a birthday.

"He was also a big man," Schmidt said. "To us he was absolutely huge."

"A lot of us could have gone in different directions," Schmidt said of his classmates. "Because of the high standards he held and insisted that teachers follow, a lot of us became good citizens and good leaders. If I could only bottle up your grandfather and literally just pour it over our educators right now that are trying to reach these young students. Your grandfather was the essence of what an educator should strive to be."

Klein was closed as student enrollment dropped in the late 1970s and is now the site of Klein Park. DeBolt also served as principal at Huff Elementary School, Castro Elementary School, Bubb Elementary School and was vice principal at Graham Middle School.

The larger community benefited from DeBolt's leadership style as well as he served on 14 boards and committees throughout the years, including the board of the Community Services Agency from 1976 to 1985.

Local historian

DeBolt had been president of the Mountain View Historical Association when the Navy decommissioned Moffett Field in 1994. The historical associations of Mountain View and Sunnyvale were contacted to help preserve the historical artifacts that were in various collections on the former Naval base. DeBolt formed the board of the Moffett Field Historical Society and served as its founding president. His naval experience and lifelong love of military planes and ships made him a natural fit for the job and he was proud of having been involved.

"He was a natural president of boards, anything he joined he was president," said his wife Carol Harris.

In 1988 he was a founding board member of Mountain View Community Television, on which he later had his own talk show, called City View. He interviewed local figures, from his fly fishing neighbor to the last surviving sailors of the U.S.S. Macon, the massive airship stationed at Moffett Field in the 1930s.

In the mid-1980s he was appointed to the downtown revitalization commission, and when major improvements were finished on Castro Street he proudly showed off what the city had accomplished to his extended family. At one point he also wrote a pamphlet, a walking history tour of downtown, which is still circulated.

Born in 1927, DeBolt grew up during the Depression in Santa Maria and spent his summers on his grandparent's farm in Lompoc. As a young man he was a supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt, had a fascination with airships and owned a hot-rod Ford Model T.

He was able to ride in a real airship for the first time in 2008, when the Zeppelin Eureka arrived at Moffett Field and his experience was recorded in the Voice. He was also a regular contributor to the Noon Balloon, a publication about airships.

He joined the Navy just as World War II was ending in 1945. He served for three years as an electrician on the U.S.S. Diphda, a Navy supply ship. He was the projectionist on the ship and faced unhappy sailors when he couldn't find a decent movie.

On the Diphda he sailed all over the Pacific Ocean to such places as Shanghai, Seattle, the Philippines and Point Barrow north of the Arctic Circle, all the while keeping a diary about his experiences. He'd make a point of exploring places while on breaks, met people at church functions, and hitch-hiked to cities all over the West Coast, visiting museums and movie theaters. He continued as a Navy reservist for 35 years, becoming a chief warrant officer.

With the financial aid of the GI Bill, he attended junior college in Santa Maria, majoring in science, and then attended the University of California Santa Barbara, where he received a bachelor's degree in education. He had always wanted to work in schools, taking inspiration from his father, a teacher who died when DeBolt was 13. He later earned a master's degree in educational administration from San Jose State University.

He arrived in Mountain View in the early 1950s after he was recruited to teach at Green Gables elementary school in Palo Alto. He and his first wife, the late Jacquetta DeBolt, bought a house on Laura Lane in the Monta Loma neighborhood and had two sons, Chris and Geoff DeBolt. They moved a few years later to a newly constructed home in Waverly Park on Franklin Avenue where he lived until Nov. 3, the day he died with family at his side.

He is survived by his sons Geoff and Chris, his grandsons Daniel and Jason, an employee of Google in Mountain View, his great-grandson Isaac DeBolt and the family of his wife Carol Harris: Cyrus Harris, Roxanne Boyle, Eric Boyle and Quincy Boyle.

In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to the Henry and Maria Holt Scholarship Memorial Fund, West Bay Opera, 221 Lambert Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94306.


Posted by Greg David, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 11, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I have fond memories from my school days of Mr. DeBolt being the friendliest school administrator ever. He touched countless lives of Mountain View kids and his legacy will not be forgotten.

Posted by USA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm

USA is a registered user.

He sounds like a good man. Sorry for your loss.

Posted by Honor Spitz, a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 2:43 pm

God speed, Ben!! You were bigger than life. You led by example. How fortunate we were to have known you, to have had you in our midst for so long.

Posted by Robert Weaver, a resident of North Whisman
on Nov 11, 2010 at 3:21 pm

I had the distinct pleasure of serving with Ben on the first Board of Directors for the then newly formed Moffett Field Historical Society. As a natural leader, Ben was the the obvious choice for president. His strong personality was the glue that held us all together and kept us on course.
Ben has left a great legacy in this community, and I for one will miss him.

Posted by Laura Macias, a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Nov 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I have heard many good things about Mr. DeBolt and appreciate the many fine works that he was part of in our community. My sympathies to the DeBolt family.

Posted by Bill Crawford, MVPD, a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Ben and I worked together at the then Klein School, at a time when policemen were only on campus if there was a problem. I attribute to him the original notion of a School Resource Officer, long before it was fashionable to do so!

What a great role model and leader.

Posted by Kristi Dees, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 11, 2010 at 8:23 pm

I remember Mr. DeBolt from Graham. I know my mom Dena Bonnell, adored him.He was a principle for many years while my mom when it was then the Mtn. View School District. I am so sorry to hear of his passing. He was always so nice especially after my brothers passing and then again when my mom died. He will be missed greatly.

Posted by Tedd Siegel, a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 10:24 am

I attended Bubb Elementary when Ben DeBolt was principal in the 70s. I still remember him very fondly.

Tedd Siegel (Jac Siegel's son)

Posted by Michele Sullivan, a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 11:49 am

I had the honor of working with Ben at West Bay Opera for two decades. One thing in particular I learned from him, to stay and live your principles when challenged instead of giving up and leaving, has served me well in so many areas of my life. Plus, I get to pass that on to my kids.

Posted by Luz Guerra, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 14, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I liked Ben a lot, and am very sorry to know of his passing. I first met him in 1967 when he was my Principal at Bubb School. Later, I taught at Graham, and he was the Principal or Asst. Principal there. He was always pleasant to work with... he was a very nice person. We were both classical music musicians, so, what fun to hear the strains of La Boheme and Traviata, coming out of his office after school. Also...several times I attended West Bay Opera....and saw him could tell that he loved it! I will miss him. .... Luz Guerra

Posted by Virginia Shea, a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2010 at 9:49 am

It was my pleasure and privilege to know Ben for ten years at our church. I worked with him on committees and sang with him in the choir. Everything about Ben was big -- his physical presence, his personality, his heart, and of course his beautiful tenor voice. In church now, it's hard to believe he won't be walking in at any moment. We miss him a lot, but how lucky we were to have him with us for so long.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I went to Bubb and remember him well, great teacher and a GREAT MAN.

Posted by D. Frances, a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2010 at 5:43 pm

D. Frances is a registered user.

I had the honor of meeting Ben DeBolt when Daniel brought him into the Voice office a few years ago. He was the coolest guy in the world, and seemed like he'd live forever.

I'm also touched by the fact that Daniel got to write his grandpa's obituary. He did a beautiful job of it, too.

Posted by Rick Cuevas, a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2010 at 7:36 pm

My family has been friends with Ben since the 60's, mostly through the West Bay Opera connection. Ben was a top-notch guy, and we will never forget him. Sincerely, The Anthony & Marie Cuevas Family, Palo Alto.

Posted by Lana Kimball, a resident of Waverly Park
on Nov 17, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I was privileged to teach first and second grade under Ben at Castro School in the 80's. He was larger than life in the children's eyes for sure. The students loved him and so did I.
He was relaxed and approachable , but always in control and in charge. He was a great leader and a wonderful role model for kids. I shall never forget Ben and we will all deeply miss him.
I remember my husband , Ron, (then a Mtn. View Fire Captain), used to bring the fire engine onto the Castro playground dressed up like Santa Claus while playing Xmas tunes on his saxophone. He and Ben would visit each classroom and hand out candy canes. The kids loved it. I will never forget Ben.


Posted by Whitney Campbell, a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2010 at 12:04 am

I sang with Ben for three decades with West Bay Opera, and served with him on the board of the H&M Holt scholarship foundation.

He was truely one of the 'greatest generation'; no matter how the years go by I'll always feel he was our 'Adult Supervision' and in our current turmoil wonder how we'll get by without leaders of his stature, in spirit more so than his {admitted great) height. Whit.

Posted by Brad Hogle, a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2010 at 8:39 am

So sorry to learn of this and my sympathies to you, Daniel, and all of your family. My dad and your grandfather taught together for many years and I was privileged to have him as my principal at Bubb School. I still remember as I'm sure lots of students do, him playing the guitar and us singing "Today's the day... election day...". And when my dad passed away several years ago, Ben gave the eulogy. We've lost a great person in the community.

Posted by Norene Hogle, a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm

My son, Brad, just sent this to me. My sincere sympathy goes out to you, Daniel, and to Chris, Geoff, Carol and all the rest of your family. Ben and my late husband, DeWitt, grew up together in the Santa Maria area and were friends. It was fortunate they both ended up in Mtn. View School District where this friendship could continue. Ben was all the things everyone else has mentioned. He was indeed "larger than life" by his size and all of his other accomplishments. He related marvelously to children and adults, alike. He helped me greatly in the service my family had for DeWitt in 1998 in Mtn. View; I shall never forget that. It is a sad time for all of us, but his spirit lives on in the hearts of many people.

Posted by Joel Marcus, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm

I just found out about the passing of my old friend, Ben Debolt. It was my honor and priviledge to know and work with Ben when I was Dean of Students at the Old Awalt High School, now Mouintain View High School. Ben's two sons, Geoff and Chris were also students there. Ben was not only my good friend but I looked up to him as a mentor. He was so kind and generous to everyone he met. There was never a time he wouldn't be there to help me when I had a question or problem about either school or at times, his boys. He helped me form the Awalt Motorcylce Club. This gave a lot of our students a chance to go to Hollister and ride and bond together. I have never heard anyone say anything negative about Ben, as there was never anything negative about the man. We will all miss him. May he rest in peace. So many people were touched by who he was,what he believed in and the way he led his life. I will forever be grateful for his friendship and will remember him always.

Posted by PA Native, a resident of another community
on Feb 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I was in Mr. DeBolt's class in the 50's at Green Gables in Palo Alto. I remember that he was a nice man who used to entertain the class by inviting us to play mock "What's My Line" complete with "sign in please". He played the show's host and I remember that it was lots of fun (unlike many of the rote learning activities of the day which weren't that much fun!). I am sorry for the family's loss. I have good memories of him.

Posted by CappySings, a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2013 at 12:20 am

Thanks to this man's HOLT scholarship fund, I have been able to take my career in opera to the next level. I did a Google search to find out more about the man who left behind such a generous donation and love for the arts, and I am so honored and happy to have come across this newsletter! Thank you to Benjamin and his family for everything you do!

Posted by carl martineau, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:18 pm

i was reading a program bio
for a symphony performance
in the east bay tonight and
it mentioned that the soloist
had performed with west bay opera ..
upon reading this
i imediately remembered
ben debolt who had also
performed with west bay ..
after googling his name
i came across this obituary
and memorial page ..
elsewhere on the web
i found that his wife jacquetta ..
who i knew as joice ..
had preceded him
in dearly departing
a few years earlier ..
i met both of them
in the spring of 1972 ..
i was 19 then ..
i met joice first ..
she picked me up hitchhiking
on el camino real
southwest of embarcadero
in palo alto one day ..
she was very kind and social ..
and some time quite soon
had me over to their home
in mountain view ..
ben was always very kind
and friendly ..
we discussed classical music a lot ..
and both of us admired
edwin "ted" flath very much ..
ben and joice were both
very kind .. open minded ..
open hearted people
when i knew them ..
it 's very sad to find out
they 're both gone ..

carl martineau
berkeley california

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