A number of people from throughout the Napa Valley, including in St. Helena, are remembering Doug Ernst, a Napa Valley journalist for 33 years, who passed away on Dec. 11 after a brief battle with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 64. Ernst was editor and publisher of the St. Helena Star from 2004-2011.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, at the Hillside Christian Church, 100 Anderson Road in Napa.
Jeff Farmer and Don Fraser, both St. Helenans, attended the “First Annual Living Memorial of Doug Ernst,” which was held Dec. 1 at the Vintners Golf Course in Yountville.
Farmer said of Ernst, “The impression I had was he was always trying to get more information out of people than they wanted to give, which I guess is the mark of a good journalist. I would have to say he was pleasantly irritating.
“But the big thing, the big reason I’m here, is that 13 or 14 years ago he allowed my daughter, fresh out of journalism school, to be an intern for six months at the Star. And I still have a couple of the issues that she had headline stories on and it launched her career as a journalist.” He added his daughter, Liz Farmer, is a fiscal policy writer for Governing magazine. “And I’ll always be thankful to Doug for that.”
On hearing the news, Liz Farmer wrote, “I mailed Doug a letter about two weeks ago … it was mainly to thank him for giving me my first experience in journalism and fill him in a bit on the career I’ve had since. He really took me in and then tossed me out there to see what I would do. As I later found out, that’s the way I learn best and I told him as much.
“I don’t know if his family ever had a chance to read it to him, but I do know that at least they saw it and hopefully it made them smile.”
Don Fraser said he first met Ernst when he moved to St. Helena years ago, but he really got to know Ernst when he joined the St. Helena Rotary Club, “because he was a mover and shaker.”
Beyond that, though, Ernst, Fraser and newspaper columnist Chris Smith got together for breakfast. Ernst went to journalism school (San Jose State University) with Smith and the three had lunch together every other month for several years, Fraser said. “It’s a hell of a way to get to know somebody. People who get up and have breakfast at 7 o’clock in the morning are very special people,” he added.
The three would share breakfast either in Santa Rosa, Calistoga or Yountville. “We rotated,” Fraser said, adding, “You had to pick a place that other people would like. We moved all over the place, that was part of the fun of this group.”
The Star sent out an email on Friday, asking various people for their comments. The following are their responses in alphabetical order:
Doug Ernst’s recent death is a sad passing for all of us who knew him and who were influenced by his journalistic leadership as an editor and writer. We were lucky to have him in our midst — a fine editor, writer and a man who truly loved his family and our stunning valley.
There is no question, Doug’s smile and spirit will long hover here. Thinking of him brings swift memories … of his constant ability to come up with a contact for a story … of his keen editing skills that he wove through writers’ phrases … and his positive attitude.
What will be ever-etched in my memory about Doug is the gift he gave us all at the close of his life: the concept of his “First Annual Living Memorial,” (held on Dec. 1 in Yountville). While joining in that deeply loving experience of being with his close family, colleagues and friends who shared his inclusive way of being alive and happy for his “send-off,” Doug showed us all the way to embrace the inevitable.
Literary thoughts roam my memory — of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn observing their own funeral. And why not join with friends before death instead of leaving such a memorial to escape the star of the show? Doug set a path for us all with his loving in-person goodbye. He truly had the right idea: Celebrate life while living.
Doug and I had talked about the fact that my father suffered with ALS over many years. Sharing knowledge of the difficulties of that disease brought us closer, even closer than the written word. Learning that death visited Doug while he was still young was a harsh discovery that came, appropriately, via the pages of the Napa Valley Register. We cherish his memory and appreciate all he did with his outstanding life.
Local vintner and St. Helena community volunteer, Stacey Bressler said she was sad to learn of Ernst’s passing. She added, “I always enjoyed working with Doug. He was a good listener and cared deeply about this town and all of Napa Valley.”
Star columnist Tom Brown, who writes The Advising Dean, writes that Ernst reached out to him more than 10 years ago, following the publication of a Carolyn Younger feature about Brown. He said, “Some local folks thought I was an ‘advising dean,’ someone who advised students about college, while I actually had served for nearly 20 years as the Dean of Advising Services at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. Doug and I agreed that a column providing advice to aspiring college students and their parents would be beneficial to the St. Helena and Napa Valley communities and the occasional Advising Dean column was born.
“Following the massacre at Virginia Tech, Doug asked me to provide some insights about that tragedy and my column expanded to include related educational issues.”
Brown called Ernst “an encouraging editor” and added, “We became good friends — online, for the most part, as was the topic of my latest column. I was honored to attend his Living Memorial (on Dec. 1) and as I leaned down to whisper my ‘thank yous’ and best wishes in his ear, ever the gracious person, Doug, responded, ‘I want to thank you … ’”
Brown added that Ernst was “A good man gone too soon.”
Former sport reporter Vince D’Adamo said Ernst first hired him in 1998, after he graduated from the University of Nebraska. D’Adamo said, “His decision paved the way for what I believe became a very successful career in sports journalism. Though I have since changed careers, I want to thank Doug for giving me that chance to shine in my hometown and throughout Napa County.”
D’Adamo said he was having lunch with Randy Johnson and Garrett Whitt when the idea of visiting Ernst came up. “I said absolutely. Let’s do it,” D’Adamo said. “Though it was not in his finest hour, I feel fulfilled that I had the chance to visit Doug” before his death. “Doug, I’m in no hurry to get where you are but I know we’ll meet again someday.”
Alan Galbraith, former St. Helena mayor, said Ernst was always inquiring how you were doing. “He was genuinely interested. And he wanted a genuine answer. He could see through a masking response. There was no point in trying. He got quickly to the heart of the matter.” Galbraith added, “He was a truly fine reporter, and friend.”
Mariam Hovanesian Hansen
Mariam Hovanesian Hansen is the research director for the St. Helena Historical Society. She said she will always remember Ernst’s voice on the phone. She said it was “calm, friendly, understated — he would say, “Hi Mariam, this is Doug Ernst. How are you?” I loved the sound of it. It made me calm.”
She added, “From the time he became editor of the St. Helena Star in 2004 he would talk to me about some St. Helena history matter. We had just formed the St. Helena Historical Society in 2002, and I was the second president of the board. Collaborating with the newspaper was new to me. Doug was always encouraging and supportive of the society’s efforts to preserve St. Helena history.”
Hansen said, “I am very sorry I could not attend the event to honor him.”
Longtime St. Helenan Gregory Hunter, said he first knew Ernst when he was a Register reporter. “After I had begun my second term on the St. Helena City Council,” Ernst told him he should run against incumbent Napa County Supervisor Mel Varrelman.
Hunter adds, “During his tenure at the Star I occasionally contacted him, usually via e-mail, regarding factual corrections or with constructive suggestions urging him to facilitate articles focusing on worthy locals, such as many longtime volunteers instead of flashes in the pan, as well as newsworthy local historical milestones. Resourceful, he queried me about distant past events, and appreciated my input.”
Hunter adds that Ernst was “always cordial, respectful, complimentary of my intelligence and knowledge of local history, and quick to respond to every candid e-mail. He was tenacious, as he made numerous requests of me to submit a letter to the editor and/or Guest Commentary, even willing to waive standard word limits as an inducement, but he never succeeded. I was unwilling to risk having any submission edited as I had been burned in the early 1980s. Doug grudgingly accepted my firm refusals.”
Hunter said he believed Ernst “tried his best to be a professional fair journalist just like Starr Baldwin was for half a century.”
Bonnie Long, a former city manager for St. Helena, said she has great respect for Ernst. “He was aggressive in the pursuit of truth when I was serving as city manager. Sometimes we were on opposite sides of the fence, but we were both respectful of the jobs we had to do.”
She added, “One of my favorite memories is when my husband John and I were hiking in Bothe (Napa Valley State) Park and ran into Doug and his wife Carolyn. It was a beautiful sunny day and there we were, enjoying the out of doors together. That’s how I want to remember him.”
St. Helena Rotarian Norman Mitroff said he first met Ernst in 2007 and adds, “I was impressed by the warmth, sincerity, and openness of Doug. As time progressed, what I saw is what I got. Doug was just that; an honest, down to earth, sincere person. He tells it as it is, however, in a way one could hear without being offended. This is an unusual attribute few possess which Doug has an abundance – when he speaks, one listens.”
Mitroff added he and his wife enjoy traveling and take a couple of major trips each year, always carrying his iPhone. “Without exception, each time we were overseas, sometime in the early morning, 3 a.m. or so European time, my phone would ring. Yes, it was Doug calling – he did not know we were out of town, it was 6 p.m. California time – and he would have a question. I will miss those calls – although my wife probably will not miss being awakened in the middle of the morning.”
Ernst was an active member of the St. Helena Rotary Club, Mitroff said, adding he “could be called upon to help – always without hesitancy – he lived the Four Way Test.
“Doug was an outstanding citizen; someone I am proud to have called my friend and shared time with.”
Rich Moran is another columnist Ernst recruited years ago to add his unique voice to the pages of the St. Helena Star. He said, “Doug Ernst was right out of central casting for a newspaper guy. He was kind and thoughtful and a good editor at the same time. He always reminded me that adverbs are not my friends. Journalism and I will miss him.”
Robyn Orsini was the events coordinator for the St. Helena Public Library from 2008-2015. She writes the following about Ernst: “Besides being such a professional in the newspaper trade, I appreciated his willingness to be vulnerable, even in writing. For example, he wrote about his struggles with diet and losing weight. It takes courage to do that. I’ll miss his compassion, ability to listen, wit, and humanness.”
“Doug Ernst was a kind and dear friend,” writes Betty Rhodes, who writes a column about senior issues for local newspapers. “Doug Ernst was one of the kindest, gentlest persons I’ve ever known.”
She tells how she started to write her column, when she crossed paths with Ernst. “Years ago, when Doug was the editor and publisher of the Star and The Weekly Calistogan, I happened to see him at an event, approached him, told him how much I enjoyed his stories in the Star, and asked if he had ever considered a column for seniors, one that would talk about issues of interest for seniors. He was very kind and gracious, heard me out, and said he’d give it some thought.
“The next thing I knew, I received a call from The Weekly Calistogan asking me to send a sample of what I had in mind. Happily, I was hired and wrote a column called Life with Joy, for several years.”
In the years that followed, Rhodes said she would ask Ernst for his advice on various issues. “He always made the time to help me out. Through that time, we developed a friendship that I have always cherished.”
Jake Scheideman is a longtime St. Helena businessman. He said, “Doug was one of the most positive people I knew. When we were in Rotary here in St. Helena, he was always so enthusiastic and positive about everything we did. He was a huge fan of the Fire Department here and so positive regarding our efforts here. On a personal level, Doug just never stopped smiling. He was never without a compliment and a smile, I loved running into Doug because he would always brighten up my day with his kind words and big smile. He will be missed and we can all take a lesson from Doug, to be kinder to others – every day.”
Julie Spencer, the executive director of St. Helena’s Rianda House, said she remembers Ernst’s twinkle in his eyes and his wry smile, which “appeared often when we would sit and chat about Rianda House, about the wellbeing of seniors that is often forgotten.”
She added Ernst was generous in giving space for seniors in the St. Helena Star and encouraged “us to tell our story by looking at it from different perspectives,” additionally, “to be clear, concise and have fun. “ Spencer said that Ernst’s “lessons were many, friendship kind and your number of years with us far too brief!”
U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) spoke about Ernst on Monday, calling him a “great guy, who really cared about our community.” Additionally, he added, Ernst was a “real force in regard to the news in the valley for many, many years,” in both newspapers and later at Napa Valley College. Thompson said, “He was just a delightful man, whose loss is really hard on all of us.”
John Tuteur, assessor-recorder-county clerk for Napa County, “Doug Ernst was a stellar example of the dedicated, fair and persistent journalists that have been the tradition throughout Napa County with few exceptions for the 40 years I have been dealing with the media.”
Kristine Waldenburg, proprietress of Lolo’s Consignment, said she and Ernst had a running joke about writing letters to the editor, when he was the Star’s editor. “He encouraged me to write, though I had often been reticent about expressing my views that publicly.”
She added that she “gave him grief about a holiday column he had written, about going to all the shops in St. Helena, giving them a plug. Somehow(!) he had missed Lolo’s and of course I asked if we were ‘chopped liver.’”
Waldenburg said that in Doug Ernst, the community “has lost a good man.”
Anne Ward Ernst
The former editor of The Weekly Calistogan, Anne Ward Ernst, said, “When I first accepted the job as editor of The Weekly Calistogan, I was told that people may assume that I am related to Doug Ernst, who by that time was the former publisher, because my married name is Ernst.”
She added, “We are not related, but I did enjoy calling him ‘Dad’ and plenty of people thought he either was my father or some other relative. We would tease one another along those lines. I would ask ‘Dad’ if I could borrow the car. ‘Dad’ would tell me ‘no’ because I forgot his birthday. We may not have been blood-related, but I’m proud to have had the pleasure of getting to know him and call him Dad.”
Garrett S. Whitt
Longtime Star sports freelancer Garrett S. Whitt wrote to tell of his favorite memory of Ernst was “when he shared with me an early draft of his book a number of years ago.” The book, called “Willi and Pauli: How Faith and Love Beat the Nazis” is a biography of Ernst’s father, William Ernst and mother, Pauline.
Whitt adds, “I am so happy the finished product was able to be released before he (Ernst) passed away last week. It will serve as a loving and lasting tribute to his family, and its history. It will be a great source of pride for future generations as well as countless friends and colleagues to savor and enjoy.
“The highest compliment you can pay someone is to say they enriched the world around them and left it a better place than when they found it. That is certainly true of Doug Ernst.”
Former Star features editor Carolyn Younger said she’s been thinking a lot about Ernst these past few days. “The gathering for him before his death showed how highly his friends regarded him, how much they cared. It was truly heartwarming.”
Ernst was boss of both the St. Helena Star and The Weekly Calistogan from 2004 to 2011. Younger said taking the reins of those papers was not an easy task, “even with his years of experience. But he did his best to encourage the strengths of his staff, to listen to their concerns, to be fair.”
Younger added that over the years “we talked about a number of things, especially during those dreaded annual evaluations, and what became clear to me was how much being a ‘newspaper man’ meant to him. He had a reporter’s instincts (in the best sense of the word) and there were times when I’m sure he would have traded his editor’s chair for a reporter’s notebook and a chance to write a top-of-the-fold, front page story.“