Sebastopol chooses Greg Jacobs as its newest “Local Who Makes a Difference”

The Sebastopol City Council announced the newest “Locals Who Make a Difference” awardee at its August council meeting, choosing retired district attorney and long-time swim volunteer Greg Jacobs.

Jacobs spent a lot of time at Ives Pool when he was a kid in the 1950s and ’60s. He played there as a child and later, when he met his wife Kathi during his last year at Analy, they worked together as lifeguards at Ives before Jacobs went off to Stanford. During college summers, he coached the Sebastopol swim team, the Sea Serpents, and worked as the pool manager at Ives.

That was more than 50 years ago, and Jacobs still spends a lot of time at Ives Pool, where, for the last 14 years, he’s run Sebastopol Rotary’s Learn to Swim program, which provides swimming lessons to about 400 second graders every year.

 Learn to Swim

The Learn to Swim program is a massive effort, which involves recruiting, organizing and training around 100 volunteer swim coaches, who show up twice a week for a month in late spring to teach kids how to swim. 

The program has doubled in size since Jacobs took over, and now students are bused in after school from 10 Sebastopol-area schools, accompanied by their teachers and as many parents as Jacobs and the teachers can press into service.

“It takes a lot of time,” Jacobs said, “I don’t mind it as long as I have help.”

He’s quick to credit those helpers, giving a shout out to his Learn to Swim co-chairperson Rick Wilson and Wilson’s wife Cindy Carter, who manages the program’s database.

“Another Rotarian, Iris Lovelace, sends out permission slips to every school and makes sure we get every kid signed up with permission from their parents,” Jacobs said. “Then she spends the first two days at the pool making sure all the kids are in the right skill group.”

Children come to the program with all different skill levels, “from beginning-beginning to swim team,” Jacobs said. Parents are asked to rate their child’s swimming ability on the sign-up form, but according to Jacobs, “You don’t know how good they are until they get there.”

“The program is especially important for economically disadvantaged children, particularly Hispanic children, who might not otherwise learn to swim,” he said. 

Jacobs works throughout the year recruiting volunteer swim coaches, and he is on hand every day during the program to make sure things run smoothly.

 A focus on helping children

Jacobs, who was born in Sebastopol, has a long history of volunteering in the community. He’s active in another Rotary program called Overcoming Obstacles, which awards scholarships to Analy, El Molino and Laguna high school students, who’ve overcome serious difficulties in their young lives.

For the last two years, he’s also mentored students at Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa. In the past, he has served on the boards of the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center and the Sebastopol Park and Rec Commission.

Jacobs said he’s always had a soft spot for children’s issues, but as a district attorney, that sometimes meant he took on the most difficult work. 

“As a DA for 35 years, I would handle the child molestation cases and the rape cases because nobody else wanted to do it, and I really felt somebody needed to work with the kids that were victims,” he said.

He was also on the Child Death Review team, which met every month to review the circumstances surrounding the deaths of children in Sonoma County to see if they could improve county programs as a way of preventing more deaths in the future.

“We addressed the drowning issue by getting the county to put up more warning signs at the ocean and river and also got a county-wide swim safety program,” he said.

 Funny, you don’t seem like a DA …

Jacobs started out as a deputy district attorney in 1974 in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and finished his career there in 2008 as assistant district attorney, the No. 2 position in an office with over 50 attorneys.

Over the years, Jacobs, who got his law degree from Hastings, handled a variety of cases from traffic violations to death penalty murder trials. He won several state and local awards for his work, including the California Bar Association’s Prosecutor of the Year in 2005.

In the mid-90s, Jacobs found himself in the national spotlight as the prosecuting attorney for the Polly Klaas case. Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her home during a sleepover with friends in 1993 and assaulted and murdered by career criminal Richard Allen Davis.

“I think that case made me even more concerned about kids,” Jacobs said. “You get that way after you have your own kids, of course, but this case had such a profound effect on so many people, especially children, and brought up so many issues of child safety. Since then I can barely read a news article about a kid who gets hurt or kidnapped. It’s hard for me to accept.” 

Still, he loved his work in the district attorney’s office, especially working with long-time District Attorney Gene Tunney, who was elected to five terms from 1974 to 1994.

“Tunney was the strongest DA in the state, not only politically, but intellectually. And then after that we had changes every two terms, and the office got more political. There was a lot of back-biting and crap like that. I was more of a loyal team guy — like why aren’t we all pulling together?”

Looking back, Jacobs said, “I didn’t always say the right thing in the office or in court. I didn’t always make the right decision. But I tried to avoid playing games. My reputation was more for preparation and putting on an honest, teaching-like approach to a judge and a jury. I think jurors don’t like to see people beaten up on the stand or pushed around.”

Jacobs, who comes across as affable and friendly, said people often tell him that “you’d don’t seem to be the type of person who would be a district attorney” — by which they mean, he doesn’t seem like a jerk, he said with a laugh.

Jacobs said he was inspired to become an attorney by watching Perry Mason as a kid.

“I still watch it when it comes up on reruns,” he said, fondly naming off all the characters in the show.

 The third act

Now that Jacobs has retired, he keeps himself busy with volunteer work and with all the interests he put on hold while he pursued his legal career.

He plays the trumpet in the Sebastopol Community Band (an instrument he first learned as a student at Pinecrest Elementary). He and his wife also play in the Petaluma Adult Education band, and Jacobs plays in a small jazz ensemble as well. 

He also enjoys hiking and birding with his wife.

“We had a hooded oriole in our backyard this year, and we enjoyed watching a pair of red-shouldered hawks raising their young along the West County Trail,” he said.

But his favorite pastime these days is fly-fishing.

“Fly fishing is a passion. I learned from my dad as a kid, and over the last 30 years, I got into it more and more,” he said.

Now he goes fly fishing as often as he can, usually in Northern California, but he’s also got a trip to Montana planned with some Sebastopol friends later this year. 

 A banner year

In September, banners honoring Jacobs’ contributions to the community will line the streets of downtown Sebastopol.

Jacobs credits several people for the amount of time he’s spent in public service and volunteering over the years, including his father (who was a Sebastopol city councilman, as well as the local dentist) and his old swim coach Norm Stupfel.

“Norm was one of the significant adults in my life when I was a teenager,” Jacobs said. “He took time away from his business to coach me, and he wrote letters to Stanford for me. He did a lot for me.”

Jacobs also credits his wife.

“My wife is just as active in the community as I am, except she does most of her volunteering in Graton,” he said. “Her support over the years is what has allowed me to do this.”

“I feel really honored by this award,” he said. “And I’d like to thank the city council for thinking of me.”

Feeling inspired by this profile of the newest “Locals Who Make a Difference” awardee? Want to help out? Volunteer as a Learn to Swim coach. Contact Jacobs at gjacobs48@gmail.com or Rick Wilson at chefrickeywilson @yahoo.com.

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