Don Von Raesfeld, arguably the single most influential person on Santa Clara’s road to electric power self-sufficiency, died suddenly this week at St. Clare’s Church during Easter Mass. He was 96.
“In my history of Santa Clara, he is Mr. Santa Clara,” said former mayor Gary Gillmor. “He did so much for the city that people don’t know. If it wasn’t for him and his knowledge of electric power, we would have lost our [federal hydro] power allocation, because it wasn’t guaranteed. We wouldn’t be the city we are today without him.”
Von Raesfeld combined a pragmatic, rather than ideological, vision for public administration with a command of detail and a talent for getting things done. But the three-decade veteran of the City didn’t see it as brilliance.
“They were just common-sense decisions,” he told The Weekly in 2005.
He was key in persuading the City to increase investment in its electric company, instead of simply selling the infrastructure to PG&E, as other cities were doing. Under his leadership, in 1965 Santa Clara persuaded Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall to grant 75MW of Central Valley Project hydropower to Santa Clara’s publicly owned electric utility.
This led to creation of the Northern California Power Association (NCPA) in 1968, under Von Raesfeld’s leadership, to leverage municipal power companies’ purchase, transmission and generation abilities. The city remains the principal member of the agency.
Santa Clara began generating its own power in 1980 for the first time since 1903, and in 2005 opened the 147MW gas-fired Don Von Raesfeld power plant near Central Expressway. Von Raesfeld also fostered the City’s investment in solar power by getting a federal grant for a solar installation at the community recreation center in the 1980s.
But Von Raesfeld’s legend status doesn’t rest on his transformation of Santa Clara’s electric utility alone.
He formulated a strategy to use redevelopment bonds and special assessment districts to finance infrastructure development on the undeveloped Northside. This made the area attractive to developers building spaces for an exploding tech industry.
“We were under terrible pressure to put housing north of Bayshore ,” said Gillmor. “But he was against that.”
Events proved Von Raesfeld’s prescience.
“Silicon Valley came down from Palo Alto,” said Gillmor. “One year we were the leading City in California for industrial development.”
For a long time, business-to-business sales tax was Santa Clara’s largest single revenue source and only the real estate boom of recent years nudged it into second place.
Von Raesfeld’s vision led to construction of the once-fabled International Swim Center and the City’s convention center. He steered the City’s purchase of Great America in 1984, preserving the park as an entertainment attraction. He would also have built a City civic auditorium to bring concerts, theater performances, and other events to Santa Clara, but voters refused to approve the project.
The late Congressman, Norm Mineta honored him in the US House of Representatives in 1987.
“Overseeing a community whose population has increased by more than 50%, Von Raesfeld was instrumental in making Santa Clara a modern city set in the heart of Silicon Valley, while maintaining the heritage and charm for which the Mission City is known,” said Mineta.
One of the keys to Von Raesfeld’s achievements was a unique partnership with Santa Clara’s charismatic former mayor, Gary Gillmor.
“When I was elected mayor  I was a Kennedy Democrat and he was a conservative Republican,” said Gillmor. “I wanted to spend and he didn’t. He kept the City sound and taught me a lot about finance.
“We were a great team: He had the facts and I had the bullshit,” Gillmor added with a laugh.
Kidding aside, from gaining the all-important hydropower from the federal government to getting new freeway exits in Santa Clara from Sacramento, Von Raesfeld supplied the policy details and Gillmor supplied the salesmanship.
Donald Von Raesfeld was born in 1926 in San José and grew up in that city, attending Saint Mary’s Grammar School and Bellarmine Preparatory. He graduated from Santa Clara University in 1948 with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. He married Celine Clara Higgins, and together they raised nine children in the City of Santa Clara.
After graduation, he worked for the California Water Service Company for about 10 years and left to become Santa Clara’s water superintendent in 1957. He became Director of Public Works in 1959, and in 1960, was appointed city manager.
During those years, he and his wife Celine ran Coast to Coast Hardware on Franklin and Monroe Streets, where his many children spent weekends working.
After retiring in 1985, he ran for City Council and served one term from 1988 to 1992. He was a 22-year member of Santa Clara Rotary — with a perfect attendance record — served on the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce board, and was a member of Santa Clara University’s Board of Fellows.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in Don Von Raesfeld Sr.’s memory may be made to Saint Clare Church, 725 Washington Street, Santa Clara and Saint Jude Children’s Hospital.
A visitation will be held on Tuesday, April 25 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Lima Family Mortuary Santa Clara, 446 North Winchester Blvd., with a Rosary from 7 to 8 p.m.
A funeral service will be held at Saint Clare Church, at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 26; followed by a reception from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at Fiorillo’s restaurant, 638 El Camino Real in Santa Clara.
NCPA has a video about Von Raesfeld’s role in creating the agency, “The Driving Force” at www.ncpa.com/about/history/50th-anniversary/.