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Dairy patriarch, environmentalist Bill Straus dies at 88

JOE ESKENAZI

Bulletin Staff

Bill Straus' sense of humor was pitchfork-sharp, and it never deserted him, even in his darkest hours.

Waking up from a 1983 open-heart procedure that required the implantation of a pig's aortic valve -- which would have been a dilemma for his rabbinical ancestors -- Straus' first words were "oink, oink."

Yet it wasn't pigs but cows that were Straus' life passion. The patriarch of Marin's Straus Family Creamery succumbed to heart failure Sunday at age 88.

"He took care of people. He took people into his home. We had people staying here, kids who were lost, who had trouble at home. He was a mentor to them, a father figure," recalled daughter Vivien Straus.

"My father, who was very quiet, heard about a family who was destitute, and without them ever knowing it he filled their refrigerator with food. For months. He sent food packages to Europe after the war until the 1960s. He sponsored a lot of people who wanted to come to America and needed a sponsor. He didn't see it as something special about him. It was something you did as a Jew."

Straus was born in Hamburg, the son of one of the first German Jews to receive a Ph.D. in agriculture. Bill's father, Albert, died of influenza while serving in World War I, when his son was just 4 years old.

Following in his father's footsteps, the young Straus enrolled in a series of agricultural courses in Czechoslovakia -- which also earned him the visa he needed to enter British-mandated Palestine. Straus and his mother, Frieda, escaped to Palestine in 1936.

A committed Zionist, he was happy to settle in Palestine, but received a startling telegram three months into his stay: He'd inherited land in San Luis Obispo. And his relatives were drilling for oil on it.

Hopes of becoming a millionaire Jed Clampett-style drew him to California, but it was not to be. The land did not produce oil. In later life, Straus often told family and friends how "it's not good to have too much money."

Instead of becoming an oil baron, Straus attended U.C. Berkeley, graduating with a degree in animal husbandry in 1938. Two years later he purchased a small dairy farm in Marshall in West Marin with 23 milking cows he named after his friends and family (a tradition that ended abruptly when a relative objected to sharing her name with a cow).

Since the rural Marin of the 1940s wasn't overflowing with nice Jewish girls, Straus packed on the frequent flier miles courting his future wife. When he first flew to New York for a blind date with Dutch-born refugee Ellen Prins, he discovered she was, quite unexpectedly, in Amsterdam. Yet he returned months later, and the two decided to tie the knot after only 16 days.

Bill and Ellen Straus were married for 52 years, until she died of a brain tumor seven months ago as he stood by her bedside. In their five decades of marriage, the couple raised four children, built the Straus Family Creamery into a multimillion dollar business and saved thousands of acres of Marin farmland from development.

A committed environmentalist, Straus was committed to ecologically friendly farming practices. He was a founder of the Tomales Bay Association, which serves as a meeting ground for farmers and environmentalists.

Ellen Straus, meanwhile, co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980. Through the use of easements, the trust has ensured that 30 percent of the privately held land in the county -- some 32,000 acres -- will never be developed.

In 1994, the Straus' son Albert converted the family farm into the only organic dairy west of the Mississippi. Straus Family Creamery products, many of which are also kosher, are now sold across the country.

Bill and Ellen Straus maintained a Jewish home, though their country surroundings did call for some adjustments. Bill would occasionally excuse himself during Shabbat meals to chase down runaway cows that had meandered onto nearby Highway 1.

Straus is survived by his four children, Albert, Vivien, Miriam and Michael; and grandsons Isaac, Jonah, Reuben and Eli. A private funeral and memorial was held Wednesday.

Donations in Straus' memory can be made to MALT, P.O. Box 809, Pt. Reyes, CA 94956.

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