Alice Rantos, 1933—2011

10/13/2011

Alice Rantos, an accomplished artist and homegrown garment maker who co-founded the first and only women’s knitting cooperative in Point Reyes Station, died on September 21 after a three-month battle with lung cancer. She was 78.  

A courageous single mother of four, Alice often worked three jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. “She was just a really great woman,” said longtime friend Betty Taylor. “One of the bravest I ever knew. Every job a man did, she just plowed right in and did it.” To her son, Chris, she was a model of tenacity and personal growth. “She went from welfare with four children to owning two homes and retiring early for her art,” he said. “She came a long way in life.”

Alice Amanda Buff was born January 15, 1933 in West Covina, California to Ernest, a baker known for his elaborate, towering cakes, and Olivia, a housewife. Art was a fixture in the family, but prior to Alice’s arrival was limited mostly to the men, including numerous uncles and both of her brothers. Ernest also loved to play the cello, which rivaled him in size.

Tensions between Earnest and Olivia ran deep, and they soon divorced. Alice took refuge in art classes, where she cultivated a marked deftness with a brush. But times were not easy, and she eventually found herself a young mother of four and mostly on her own.

In 1958, Alice took an entry-level job with General Telephone, and began working her way up through various promotions. Thirteen years later, after the state passed a monumental nondiscrimination law, she became one of the first female “switchmen.” It was a significant promotion, but Alice refused to see it as such. “I’m no bra burner,” she once told a Los Angeles Tribune reporter, “but women’s lib (sic) was a long time coming.”

Time off was spent camping with the kids, whom Alice taught to fish and hike.She moved to Novato in 1977, and nine years later to Inverness, where she retired to her knitting and her art. Though her skill was masked by modesty, Alice did find and enter into a network of local fiber enthusiasts, including Betty and Bonnie Chase, with whom she met regularly to craft and chat. “She had a great sense of humor,” Betty said.

In the early 90s, the group decided they wanted to market their goods, and began renting a small shop space in downtown Point Reyes, which they called Black Mountain Weavers. The idea was to run the shop cooperatively, with members sharing business expenses and duties, as well as profits. Betty stayed involved with the business, handling most of the bookkeeping and secretarial work, for well over a decade.

In 2004, Marlie de Swart took over management of the shop, renaming it Black Mountain Artisans. Alice remained a member, selling her wares through Marlie, but retreated to a number of individual fiber pursuits. She became enthralled with the soft, silky fiber of angora rabbits, and at one time reared a few dozen in her backyard.

She also began spending much time on the road, driving to Montana, where she owned a second home, and throughout much of the Southwest, whose rich Native American cultures inspired many of her subsequent designs. Her dogs were her co-pilots.
As Alice aged, the dexterity of her fingers deteriorated, forcing her to increasingly rely on an automated knitting machine. She became so skilled with the machine that she began dealing them to local knitters.

As an artist, Alice went through phases of preferred mediums, from knitted garments to silk-painted pieces to watercolors on canvas. But no matter the creation, flowers featured prominently.

Not one for making a fuss, Alice asked that there be no funeral or large to-do or memorial following her death. “She didn’t want any sirens or anything,” said her daughter-in-law, Sherry. Nevertheless, she will be remembered and missed. — Jeremy Blackman

Alice is survived by her brother, Paul C. Buff; children, Allyn, Rick, Lynn, and Chris; grandchildren, Cindy, Paula, Linda, Corey, Stacy, Jarred, Joey, Justin and Robbie; and her seven great-grandchildren.