Bob Sollen Passes at 97

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Bob Sollen Passes at 97
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Bob Sollen in 2014, at age 92. Photo by Melinda Burns


Sept. 29, 1921 – May 10, 2019

By Melinda Burns

He was the dean of local journalists, the Boswell of the environmental movement. But Bob Sollen, the Santa Barbara News-Press reporter who covered the 1969 oil spill in the Channel – a disaster that blackened local beaches from Goleta to Ventura and was dubbed “the environmental shot heard ‘round the world” – never took much credit for his pioneering work.

“I never dug out any information,” he told me once, in his unassuming way. “It just flowed into my desk faster than I could report it.”

Sollen worked at the News-Press from 1963 to 1985, a period of rising prestige and influence at the paper. He started out as a copy editor, but after taking part in a Vietnam War protest and being quoted in print, he was transferred to a “low-profile” job covering offshore oil.

On January 29, 1969, a day after the blowout of an oil well in the Channel owned by Union Oil, Sollen got an anonymous phone call.

“The ocean is boiling around Platform A,” the caller said. “Thousands of tons of oil are headed for the beach.”

Sollen broke the news under the headline, “Offshore Platform Mishap: Giant Oil Slick Spreading In Santa Barbara Channel.” Within a week, waves thick with oil were crashing soundlessly on local beaches. For months, as the oil welled up from the ocean floor, and even after the well was plugged, Sollen pounded out front-page stories on the futile cleanup (they were using straw); helpless efforts to save the birds (thousands died); token visit of then-President Richard Nixon (he vetoed the Clean Water Act), and a demonstration on Stearns Wharf, in which a polite but determined crowd evicted Big Oil from the waterfront.

“A well-dressed crowd came out on a Sunday afternoon to a protest picnic along the shore,” Sollen recalled years later in a piece about that historic protest. “They got word that the oil industry was bringing equipment in to start loading and unloading. They all stood up, the women in their best Sunday dresses and the men in their suits and ties, and stood in front of the truck, and said, ‘No further.’”

Marc McGinnes, a Santa Barbara public-interest lawyer who co-founded the Community Environmental Council after the spill said, “Bob’s reportage assisted the community in finding a voice that was more than ‘get oil out.’ We claimed the right to defend our environment.”

Sollen had seen it all coming. Two months before the black tide sullied Santa Barbara’s beaches, he launched his new beat with a five-part series about the threat of an oil spill during the offshore drilling boom in the Channel – and won a national award for conservation writing from the Scripps-Howard Foundation for his prophetic warning.

“It’s late and many concerned citizens have a sinking feeling that oil drilling activity in the Santa Barbara Channel, with all its potential for pollution, is running ahead of the progress made in coping with the possible damage,” the series concluded.

In 1985, I was hired by the New York Times, then the owner of the News-Press, to take Sollen’s place, as if anyone could. I was daunted by the mountain of prose he left behind, stuffed into envelopes in the newspaper morgue and still fresh in the minds of a sophisticated citizenry. Sollen was not a flashy writer, but he was thorough, and when he retired, the county Board of Supervisors passed a proclamation praising him for “putting into plain English the complex and technical jargon of science, industry and government.”

In his so-called retirement, Sollen had a second career as a book author, college lecturer and planning commissioner. He drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of the local oil industry and his bulging filing cabinets to write, “An Ocean of Oil, A Century of Political Struggle Over Petroleum Off the California Coast.” It covered the spill and the host of federal, state and local regulations that followed in its wake.

In 1996, Sollen donated the manuscript of his book and 23 boxes of clippings, articles, memos, notes, scrapbooks, maps, government reports, and photographs dating back 100 years on the oil industry to the Davidson Library at UC – Santa Barbara.

Between 1985 and 1999, Sollen taught a course at UCSB in environmental studies, a pioneering program that was created in the wake of the oil spill. He served on the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission from 1989 to 1991 and on the boards of several environmentalist nonprofit groups, including the Citizens Planning Association, Los Padres Sierra Club chapter and Environmental Defense Center.

Sollen was born in Menominee, Mich., a town of abominable winters – “a place that was certainly not my choice,” he said. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1948 with a B.A. in political science and journalism. During his senior year, Sollen created a stir by dropping out of journalism and writing a column for the student paper, The Daily Cardinal, slamming the vaunted J-school as “stagnant and obsolete.” State and local papers picked up the story, and within six weeks, the director was demoted.

In 1970, Sollen married Tomika (“Tomi”) Shibutani and they traveled through the U.S. visiting her scattered relatives, sending dispatches to the News-Press under gloomy headlines (“Environmental Crisis Evident During Reporter’s Auto Trip.”) In 1996, the Sollens were honored as Local Heroes by the Santa Barbara Independent and the Environmental Defense Center.

Sollen planned to write an autobiography entitled, “Out of Step 40 years: Struggles of a Dissident Journalist,” but he never got past his first 20 years. He grew weary of the nostalgic observations of the anniversary of the oil spill as some kind of turning point in people’s relationship with the planet; he had long since turned his attention to climate change and the upsets it would bring. Sollen began even to object to the use of the word “environment,” which he viewed as a vague non-word. The entire ecology of the planet, not simply its environment, was at stake, he insisted.

“We are still addicted to treating nature abusively through over-consumption, greed, control, management, arrogance, and living for the day,” Sollen said at a local forum in 2009. “These are at new levels of intensity in the history of homo sapiens.”

Sollen remained a reader of the News-Press to the end, but he was dismayed by what had become of the once-venerable institution.

“This publication doesn’t know Santa Barbara,” he said. “They have no feeling for the significance of events. It’s an alien paper now.”

One of the last times I saw Bob, fragile as he was, he told me, “I still have a story I want to write.”

Melinda Burns, a former senior writer at the News-Press, is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara.

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PitMix May 17, 2019 02:13 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

I wish the news business was still the same so that people like Bob and Melinda could do their wonderful work and reach wide audiences. It seems more critical than ever. I subscribe to the LA Times just to support the good stories they are able to do, which seem fewer and fewer as time goes on. Is there anything I could subscribe to here in SB?

sbrobert May 17, 2019 01:20 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Thank you Melinda Burns for a most informative and thoughtful tribute to our local hero Bob Sollen. Is there any information yet on a memorial event or celebration of life event?

gnusman May 17, 2019 12:46 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Hi Melinda, what a great tribute to Bob, thanks so much for introducing his legacy to new generations. Bob and I worked in tandem on so many oil stories despite the fact that we worked for different outlets. Neither of us saw it as competition but cooperation on an often difficult and complex subject. He was like that. Always a bird dog, careful with his prose in order to be fair to both sides but with an eye toward an often dangerous and polluting industry damaging the ecosystems that had an overabundance of money and power which tried to lord it over the 'locals'. Or as Don Cornett of Exxon once said when he lost the Supervisors' vote over requiring air quality controls, "My favorite view of Santa Barbara is through my rear view mirror." Well, good riddance Don Cornett. Exxon's still here but considerably weakened, ironically (partly) due to the Plains Pipeline blowout at Gaviota! Oil industry, hoisted by its own petard. I have dug out Bob's essay on 'environment' versus 'ecology' and intend to reprint it in the next (June/July) issue of Condor Call, the Sierra Club's newsletter. In his 'retirement' he was always generous in calling up and asking "do you have room for ...." Of course, Bob, we always had room for your excellent reporting. RIP my friend and colleague, John Hankins

biguglystick May 17, 2019 10:27 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

What a sad loss for our community, and indeed the world. It's so important for us to look at how we live and reduce, reuse and consume less. We have exactly 30 years according to science, to turn this ship around or all is lost for our children and grandchildren, not to mention all the species that are going extinct at breakneck speed. R.I.P. Mr. Sollen, what a wonderful man you were, and how very important your work is.

[email protected] May 17, 2019 09:16 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

This man had a purpose as many from his generation... It’s always difficult to hear the loss of these amazing spirits, that have paved what little of the path that we still have, if we don’t change the way we produce, consume and waste...

Bird May 16, 2019 12:47 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Thank you very much for this warm description. I agree with Red Creek, Ginger 1, and the other thoughtful words. I did not know Bob Sollen well, nor Tomi, but I have missed her kindness, her gentleness and interest in the world around her. I've often thought how much Bob must miss her! Interesting, his comment about the commemoration of the oil spill. I felt exactly the same, although I went to the thing at the Arlington, wondering at how it seemed we were celebrating the devastation that blowout wrought even though we were honoring, I knew, the birth of the environmental movement. So to speak --- there definitely were many quiet people who lived ecologically pure lives before 1969) of the broad-band caring for the environment. Indeed, it is the ecology of the planet that's at risk. If, indeed, this is the early stages of the 6th Extinction, as seems likely from the recent reports, Bob Sollen's papers, hopefully being digitized at UCSB, will be an important note of its early days.

Red Creek May 16, 2019 09:04 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Thank you Melinda Burns for your thoughtful and accurate representation of Bob Sollen. You both represent the best of journalism. We need writers and thinkers like you to patiently acknowledge what is happening in our world, and most importantly, what to do about it.

ginger1 May 16, 2019 10:07 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Indeed. Thank you, Melinda. Bob and Tomi were two of the nicest, kindest people I've met in SB. I feel honored to have known them.

Ahlia May 16, 2019 08:55 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

What a wonderful tribute to a man who devoted his life's work to the "ecology" of our Mother Earth. What a lasting impact he made on the awareness of so many people. Generations of children across the globe are taught to love and protect our planet. Every time we reduce, re-use and recycle, we are making conscious choices for a healthier world to live in. Thank you Bob Sollen for a life well lived !

All Sides May 17, 2019 12:53 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

BIG-Probably a child playing with a parent's computer.

biguglystick May 17, 2019 10:25 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

I have to wonder just WHO in the world could downvote that comment?

Soccer-Fan May 16, 2019 08:22 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

I remember Bob Sollen very well in the 60's and 80's. Always a household name his writing and support, through the dark oil spill days - and much more - was gratefully appreciated. Rest in Peace Bob.

a-1591153512 May 16, 2019 06:55 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Melinda Burns, good job. Your obituary of Bob Sollen was the best obit I've ever read, and I've read many thanks to my passion for genealogy. You made me sorry that I didn't know Mr. Sollen or his work. Thank you. Both.

mtndriver May 14, 2019 08:56 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Hard to overstate the importance of the writing he did back then in the N-P. A real reporter and a fine man. RIP.

Factotum May 14, 2019 07:55 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Was Bob the original Angry Poodle? Back when this was an anonymous pen name.

gnusman May 17, 2019 12:50 PM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

he definitely was never the Angry Poodle, that was and is Nick Welch, another local treasure. Too bad his own paper (Independent) can't name him a Local Hero, but we can!

a-1591153512 May 14, 2019 02:48 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

Most heartfelt condolences to Tomi. Bob was not only a wonderful writer, he was a true gentleman and self-effacing to his core. It is sad news to hear of his passing.

REX OF SB May 16, 2019 07:50 AM
Bob Sollen Passes at 97

FACTOTUM: No, I think the Angry Poodle was always Nick Welch. @2:48 AM: Tomi Sollen died in 2016.

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