Mountain View Voice

News - November 12, 2010

Ben DeBolt left wide legacy

School principal, opera supporter and local historian dies at 83

by Daniel DeBolt

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 Escuela and California Streets.

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 [http://www.mv-voice.com/news/show_story.php?id=957 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.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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