Even though former Sebastopol mayor Art Janssen has watched personal transportation evolve from horse and buggy to cars — his first being a 1913 Model T — he insists Sebastopol really hasn’t changed that much.
On Thursday Oct. 23, Janssen will ring in his 105th birthday, an occasion he will celebrate by having dinner with some friends and “maybe a couple glasses of wine.”
In 1938, Janssen worked for Bank of America (formerly Bank of Italy) and moved from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol as part of an inter-departmental transfer, a position he soon left for a job with better benefits at Metropolitan Life. He established himself as a prominent member in the community as director and treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce and through organizations such as the Masonic Order, Knights of Pythias and American Legion. It wasn’t long before the city council took notice.
“Some members of the council came to me and urged me to take Archie Butler’s place,” Janssen said. Butler resigned from his chair midterm in 1952, leaving Janssen to jump in and pick up where he left off.
In 1954, Janssen ran for reelection with fellow incumbent Al Schmidt and newcomer George Groves, distributing one-cent postcards for their campaign. At the time, the Sebastopol Times, predecessor of Sonoma West Times & News, reported on their candidacy, highlighting Janssen’s past successes on the council including his part in “obtaining a 40-hour week for city employees and getting the employee’s social security benefits.”
The caption for his campaign photo stated that, “I filed to run again because there are certain things and services I can perform to benefit the people in this community.”
Not only did all three candidates end up winning spots on the council, but Janssen also claimed the highest amount of votes, leading him to a landslide victory over the others. Jack Tough and Don Daveiro joined them to round out the council.
When it came time to elect a mayor, Schmidt jumped at the chance to throw Janssen’s hat in the ring.
Daveiro had different ideas though and nominated Tough.
“It went to a council vote,” said Janssen. “It had to be a majority decision and it came down to my vote making the final decision.”
And so Janssen secured his victory. Thinking back on what made him decide he wanted the responsibilities that came with the mayoral position, Janssen said, “I guess I was just over ambitious and trying to fill what I thought were the city’s needs.”
Once elected, his first act of mayor was to address the drainage issues that plagued downtown in the winter months. “It used to flood in front of Schmidt’s stationery store and the Sonoma County Bank,” Janssen said.
While the stationery store used to put out a few sand bags, it wasn’t enough to assuage the problem. Flooding was making a mess of the downtown area and Janssen looked to clean it up.
“The first thing I did was I went down to the highway department in San Francisco and struck a deal to improve drainage along Main Street and Bodega Avenue,” he said.
The city worked with the highway department and installed a drainage system that diverted water off the street and down past what was then Cheney’s Grocery Store and ending in Calder Creek.
During his time as mayor, Janssen faced many of the same issues the city government faces today.
“After the drainage, I had parking on the brain,” Janssen said. “It was very difficult to find parking and my wife Jaunita used to complain about it all the time when she’d come to town.”
Janssen worked with City Superintendent Cliff Shultz to address the problem. Together they started making plans to get a few parking spots between the library and what is now the senior center, but Janssen had his sights on making a much bigger impact. Knowing Hod Weeks owned a piece of property behind his hardware store informally dubbed “the plaza,” Janssen started formulating plans to create a more convenient downtown area.
“The wheels started going around and I thought, ‘plaza, yeah! That would be a good place to put a parking area,’” Janssen said. “That way people could park right behind the stores they wanted to visit.”
Janssen was also instrumental in establishing a veterans memorial in Sebastopol.
“I went down to the Board of Supervisors meeting and told them that we need a veterans memorial in Sebastopol,” Janssen said. When asked where he proposed they build it, Janssen replied “Well, we don’t have a river like Healdsburg, but we do have a piece of ground that used to be an old apple shed.”
He remembers one of the board members promising “Don’t worry Art, we won’t be able to get it up tomorrow, but we’ll work on it.”
Janssen was eventually promoted to manage the Metropolitan Life Eureka branch, an advancement that included managing seven agents and garnering a secretary. Leaving his home was a difficult decision, but the legacy he left through his time as mayor lived on in his absence, seeing the completion of nearly every project he had initiated.
Looking back on his time as Sebastopol mayor, Janssen feels pretty content.
“Everything that I had planned for got done,” he said.
In 1973 Janssen retired, moving home with his wife to a little apartment on Bosley Street in Santa Rosa. Now Janssen lives in a residential care facility in the same town he was born in 105 years ago.
Despite his failing eyesight, Janssen still reads several papers every week, keeping up on current affairs through use of an enlarger that magnifies the text for him. Following the actions of city council, he’s glad he no longer holds the position.
“You can’t make everyone happy,” he said.
Sebastopol resident Ann Conger met Janssen over 15 years ago when he would ride her charter bus with his regular tour group, Travel with Friends.
Now, almost two decades later, Conger is amazed by Janssen’s resilient vitality.
“The most amazing thing is how totally sharp he is,” Conger said. “The fact that he is actively working on walking again is amazing. He is still strongly alive.”
For whatever physical set backs he may have these days, Janssen’s mind seems sharp as ever, remembering dates and names with impressive clarity. Though currently battling issues with his foot, Janssen’s goal for year 105 is to walk again. He is currently making progress and is hopeful he will reach his goal.
With all his energy and clarity of mind, one has to wonder, to what does he owe his lasting longevity?
“I wish I could tell you,” Janssen said. “I wish I could tell you.”