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Marilyn Kessler, former publisher, editor of The Ark left impact on community

Marilyn Beck Olson Kessler, the award-winning former co-owner, co-publisher and co-editor of The Ark, died Nov. 9 at a hospice facility in Springfield, Mo., following treatment for a broken leg after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85.

She began writing and editing news stories for The Ark — then owned independently by Tiburon resident James B. McClatchy of McClatchy publishing company fame — in the mid-1970s, covering the school board and writing features under then-editor Brad Breithaupt while also holding down a job as a substitute teacher in Sausalito and Mill Valley. After Breithaupt left to become publisher for Marin Suburban Newspapers, now Marinscope, Mrs. Kessler was named editor of The Ark.

The late Barbara Gnoss, one of the paper’s freelancers, became a co-editor, and the two women talked McClatchy into a pioneering arrangement — letting them job-share by rotating the duties of editor between them every four months. The rotation allowed the off-duty partner extended periods of time for travel and ensured each could have alternating Christmas holidays off with their families.

McClatchy was dubious, but the arrangement worked, and the two women kept it in place even after they bought the paper from McClatchy in 1987.

Mrs. Kessler and Gnoss were unusual not just because they had a job-sharing arrangement, but because they were a rare find in the newspaper world: women owners and publishers.

When Mrs. Kessler retired in 2011, the city of Belvedere honored her with its Spotlight Award, reserved for citizens who have made extraordinary contributions.

In 1998, she and Gnoss were named Tiburon Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Year.

In 2007, the Irish-Israeli-Italian Society in San Francisco presented its annual award to Mrs. Kessler. She and her partner had never heard of the organization and weren’t sure if someone was pulling a prank, but they showed up for the luncheon and found the award was real. The nominator had been a Tiburon man who was a fan of the paper.

In addition, The Ark won many California News Publishers Association awards under Mrs. Kessler’s leadership.

“Her real strength was her interest in the community and people in town,” said Breithaupt, who spent most of his career as a reporter and editor for the Marin Independent Journal. “She loved to write features about local people doing interesting things. She was great at it, coming up with ideas, turning in clean copy and, most of the time, close to deadline.”

He said Mrs. Kessler’s decades at the helm of The Ark reflected the paper’s responsibility in covering the Tiburon Peninsula. Often, he said, a paper will do a great job covering local cop news, fires and politicians while giving short shrift to features and stories; other times, small-town papers will just focus on the soft news.

“Marilyn made sure there was a healthy balance of both,” Breithaupt said. “She strengthened the paper’s foundation as a community newspaper, a foundation of hyper-local coverage of a small community that has enabled The Ark to grow at a time when other newspapers are struggling to retain readership.”

Gnoss died of cancer in 2009, and her husband, George Gnoss, and Mrs. Kessler sold their interests in the newspaper to Art and Alison Kern of Belvedere in 2011 .

“As co-owners of The Ark, she and my wife, Barbara, were perfect partners for more than 25 years,” George Gnoss said. “They had different personalities and strengths, but together were a formidable team, focused on putting out a much-loved and respected community newspaper.”

Mrs. Kessler was born Aug. 7, 1933, and grew up in Aurora, Mo., the only child of Phyllis Cannon Beck and W.D. Beck. She attended Drury College in Springfield and was the editor of her college newspaper, The Drury Mirror. After graduation, she married Jim Olson, a fellow student who then enlisted in the U.S. Navy and became a fighter pilot. His subsequent career as a United Airlines pilot took them all over the U.S.

Wherever they lived, Mrs. Kessler would seek out local newspapers, writing for the so-called “ladies pages” for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas and the Birmingham Eccentric in Michigan.

The couple settled in Tiburon in 1967, where they raised their daughter, Christina, before they eventually divorced. Mrs. Kessler was working as a substitute teacher in Mill Valley and Sausalito when she approached Breithaupt about working for The Ark as the paper’s Belvedere reporter.

After becoming editor, Mrs. Kessler would spend her Friday nights at Rooney’s Garden Cafe on Main Street — now the home of Salt & Pepper — designing a mockup of the next week’s newspaper over a cheeseburger and two glasses of white wine. Rooney’s renamed the burger after her: “The Marilyn Olson.”

Mrs. Kessler met the man she considered the love of her life, Anton D. “Dominic” Kessler, a part-time resident of Tiburon, and they were married in 1985. They moved to Belvedere. He also developed Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2001.

“When she met Dominic, she got this grin on her face that never left,” recalled longtime Ark freelance writer and photographer Diane Smith.

In early 2011, Mrs. Kessler sold her interest in the newspaper and retired, then, showing early signs of dementia, moved from her two-story townhouse on Belvedere Lagoon to Aegis Assisted Living in Corte Madera. After several months, her daughter moved her to a nursing home in Springfield near her own home and then to a nursing home in Aurora.

Mrs. Kessler had a decidedly relaxed approach to things, according to those who knew her. She didn’t let life or her job rattle her. She fretted about where the week’s news was going to come from but with a mock air of panic.

Mrs. Kessler embraced the supernatural and New Age trends. She would tell stories about a clock she inherited that she said was haunted by the ghost of a Civil War-era male relative who buried treasure on his farm because he feared marauders would steal it — and then died before he could tell anyone where he’d buried it. She had hunted for it in vain and loved to tell the story.

She also was famously spontaneous. One fall day, just after the crabbing season had begun, she and close friend Connee Tyler, the newspaper’s then-advertising director, got a yen for fresh crab, so they closed up the office and took the ferry over to Fisherman’s Wharf. They ate fresh crab off a paper plate from a waterfront stand and took the next ferry back to Tiburon, picking up the workday where they left off.

Former Belvedere Mayor Connie Wiley became close friends with Mrs. Kessler over the years, and they had breakfast together every Sunday morning.

“I really had wonderful conversations with her,” Wiley said.

Robin Scott Wray, a Tiburon native and now second-generation recipe columnist for The Ark, said she first met Kessler as a child.

“When she moved into our neighborhood I was 7 years old, and I knocked on their door and asked if there was anyone I could play with,” Wray said. “She thought that was cute. She always told me I was the first person she met in Tiburon.”

Marion Fitzgerald, longtime bookkeeper for The Ark, remembered Mrs. Kessler “loved driving around in her red Volkswagen Beetle” and “loved talking about her husband, Dominic.”

“She was in her good days a very active and exploring person, who loved trying and doing new things,” Fitzgerald said.

In addition to her daughter, Christina Robinson, Mrs. Kessler is survived by three grandchildren, Hayley Robinson of New York City, Walker Robinson of Byron Bay, Australia, and Wills Robinson of Los Angeles.

No services are scheduled. Her ashes will be scattered in Aurora and in Tiburon. Condolences may be sent to The Ark, which will forward them to her daughter.

Deirdre McCrohan has reported on Tiburon local government and community issues for more than 30 years. Reach her at 415-944-4634.

(Jocelyn Knight photo / The Ark 2011)

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