Late Tiburon mayor, supe Denis Rice helped create Old Rail Trail, save Ring Mountain
Denis “Denny” Rice, a former Tiburon mayor who also served on the Marin Board of Supervisors and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Congress, died July 19 in Hampton, N.H., after a long illness. He was 90 years old.
Mr. Rice’s civic career began when he was elected to the Town Council in 1968. He served one four-year term, taking two turns as mayor. In 1976, he was elected to represent Southern Marin on the Board of Supervisors, where he also served one four-year term.
In 1992, Mr. Rice ran for U.S. House of Representatives as one of nine Democratic candidates but lost in the primary to progressive Lynn Woolsey, who went on to serve in Congress for 20 years.
Mr. Rice was born July 11, 1932, in Milwaukee, Wisc., to Cyrus Rice, a newspaperman, and Kathleen Timlin Rice. His first job delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel before school, which brought him to the attention of an admissions director who helped him get a full scholarship to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school for students in grades 9-12.
He went on to attend Princeton University, also on scholarship, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public and international affairs. He was named to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was on the varsity swim team; in 1951, his first year at the school, he broke the freshman record for the 440-meter freestyle event.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1955 and was promoted to first lieutenant in the artillery before his honorable discharge in 1957.
Mr. Rice went on to earn a law degree in 1959 from the University of Michigan, where he was editor of the Michigan Law Review, was elected to Order of the Coif and was named to the International Legal Honor Society of Phi Delta Phi.
He started his career as an associate at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, where he worked until 1961, when he left to help turn a small tax boutique, Howard & Prim, into a full-service nationally recognized firm, Howard Rice.
He moved to Tiburon that same year.
The firm grew, becoming Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. It merged in 2012 with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, and Mr. Rice became senior counsel there.
His practice included litigation, corporate, securities, information technology and banking law.
He chaired the Asia-Pacific subcommittee of the American Bar Association’s international business law committee and its committee on business financing. He was founding chair of the California State Bar committee on cyberspace law.
In 2009, the state bar presented him with its lifetime achievement award in business law.
In semi-retirement, he remained affiliated with the San Francisco Bar Association, American Judicature Society and American Intellectual Property Law Association.
In 2013 and 2015, Best Lawyers publication named him San Francisco Lawyer of the Year; he had been listed among the best lawyers since 1985 and was named a Northern California Super Lawyer every year from 2004 to 2009.
In later years, much of his career was devoted to giving speeches for different legal conferences throughout the world, including in Poland and Russia, said his wife, Pamela.
Jonathan Hughes, head of Arnold & Porter’s San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices, said Mr. Rice was unique in that he was an accomplished tax practitioner and trial lawyer as well as a well-known business litigator.
“He was interested in big ideas and regarded by some of his peers as a maverick,” Hughes said.
During his time on the Town Council, among other things, Mr. Rice helped negotiate the acquisition of the railroad right of way along Tiburon Boulevard by the town, which became the Old Rail Trail multiuse path.
William Lukens of Tiburon worked with Mr. Rice at the Pillsbury firm, often commuting with him to San Francisco on the ferry.
Lukens called Mr. Rice “a very respected lawyer” and said he greatly admired Mr. Rice’s negotiation skills.
“Denis was an unusually talented guy, very intellectual, very cerebral, but in an understated way, because he could communicate with everyone,” Lukens said. “He got things done, quietly. He was a very effective politician.”
Mr. Rice was among those who helped form the volunteer Committee to Save Ring Mountain, working to acquire and preserve the land as open space throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While a supervisor, he sought pension reforms, requesting a financial analysis that reportedly exposed a $35 million funding gap that, according to a board resolution, has saved the county $2 million each year since 1980. He went on to become a founding member of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans.
Mr. Rice also teamed up with then fellow Supervisor Barbara Boxer to block a commercial airport at Hamilton Field and to investigate Synanon, which exposed child abuse and a weapons cache at the drug-rehab program turned cult.
Before becoming a supervisor, he advocated for Marin City residents to be included on the Marin Housing Authority and later served on the Marin City Community Development Corp. from 1981 to 1984.
In a rare political misstep as supervisor in 1979, with local real-estate values skyrocketing allegedly due to an influx of Iranians fleeing the revolution in Iran who were moving to Marin and buying homes, Mr. Rice proposed a county ordinance that would ban “foreigners” from buying local homes. He said their willingness to pay high prices for homes was inflating the local market. That proposal went nowhere.
As late as 2018, he was still involved in politics — unsuccessfully seeking a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives — and in open-space preservation, testifying along with others in Marin Superior Court who were trying to establish that pedestrian easements had been created on trails on the privately held Martha property on the Tiburon Ridge because of longtime use. That effort ultimately failed, as a judge sided with the property owners.
Mr. Rice previously served on the boards of the Marin Symphony, the Marin Theatre Co., the Marin Conservation League, the Digital Village Foundation and the Planning and Conservation League, the latter for 25 years.
Always the athlete, he continued to compete into middle- and old age. He swam in long-distance races for the Olympic Club and other venues. He participated in the Escape from Alcatraz swim many times until 2005, his wife said, as well an open-water race that required competitors to swim around the entire perimeter of Angel Island. He also won a swimming race from Oahu to Molokai.
He and fellow Tiburon resident Don Pickett founded the original Tiburon Triathlon, and he was a member of the South End Rowing Club and Pacific-Union Club.
Former Tiburon Mayor Andrew Thompson met Mr. Rice when he was a boy because his father and Mr. Rice were friends, and the teenage Thompson swam laps with him at the Tiburon Peninsula Club. He considered him a mentor.
Former Town Councilmember Al Aramburu also considered Mr. Rice a political mentor, said the late Mr. Aramburu’s wife, Margit.
“He encouraged him to get involved in town politics, and Al was elected to the Town Council after Denny left. Then, when Denny ended his time on the Board of Supervisors, Al succeeded him,” Margit Aramburu said.
Mr. Rice was twice divorced before marrying Pamela in 2007. They moved to New Hampshire in 2013; Mr. Rice enjoyed going to Phillips Exeter Academy alumni events and traveling with alumni groups.
He also loved the opera, and he was an accomplished watercolorist, Pamela said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Rice is survived by two children from his first marriage, Tracy Harding of San Rafael and James Rice of San Francisco; two grandchildren, Jacqueline and Jessica Rice; three stepchildren, Josh, Shane and Gabriella Baron; and two step-grandchildren, Madison and Kendall Baron. His sister, Deirdre Rice, died in 2003, and his brother, Michael Rice, died when Mr. Rice was still a boy.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Memorial donations may be made to World Central Kitchen via wck.org/donate or at 200 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 7th floor, Washington, DC 20001.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.