Ed Dobb, writer, dies at 69

09/05/2019

Edwin Dobb, a prolific writer, an esteemed professor and a dedicated journalist, died unexpectedly on July 26 at age 69 of complications from a heart condition.

Ed, who lived in Bolinas for the last five years of his life, wrote both personal essays and longform investigations for prominent magazines, embracing a wide range of genres and topics. He also taught narrative writing and environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Writing was Ed’s passion. His self-taught language skills led to lengthy treatises that are lucid, knowledgeable and timeless. His reporting was meticulously researched and patiently crafted. He loved Bolinas because of its unique character, natural beauty and proximity  to the ocean, where he frequently enjoyed open-water swims.

Ed was born on April 17, 1950 in the former mining town of Butte, Montana to a middle-class family of Irish and Cornish descent. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked for Montana Power Company. The oldest of seven children, he graduated from Butte High School and attended the University of Montana-Missoula for one year before leaving town for New York, to try his hand first as a poet and then as a playwright. Although he lived in many places, his commitment to Butte never faltered.

In his mid-20s, Ed met Susan Barnes, a life partner with whom he enjoyed an experimental and tempestuous relationship.

In his essay, “A kiss is still a kiss (even if the sex is postmodern and the romance problematic),” published in the February 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Ed wrote about his love for Susan: “Imagine a face that seizes in an instant and captivates for a lifetime, a face whose power over me has not wavered in twenty years, and this despite enough separations to sink any ordinary romance many times over,” he wrote. “The unnamable force that animates all of us does so in [Susan] with exceptional intensity and fidelity. This is evident in her eyes, which possess not only the color of the sea but also its character—its hermetic depths, its storms and lulling tranquilities.”

His relationship with Susan was always turbulent, partly because of his view of romance as impermanent, but it did provide him with his two children.

When Ed fell in love with Susan, he also fell in love with her kids: Ezra, then 5, and Kate, then 3. Initially, he referred to them in conversation as his girlfriend’s children or his stepchildren, but eventually he called them his own. “My relationships with Kate and Ezra partake of eternity, the always-was and always-will-be, having remade the character of everything that came before while reshaping everything that came after,” he wrote in an essay published last October, titled “Nothing but Gifts: Finding home in a world gone awry.”

Kate and Ezra gave him three grandchildren each, and he thrived in his role as a grandfather. “The original blessing has multiplied again and again, as my relationships with Ezra and Kate have deepened, grown more complex and sometimes more contentious, giving rise to some of the most significant experiences of my life, experiences that both exalt and humble me,” he wrote.

Ed switched from plays and poetry to nonfiction in his mid-30s. He found a job as an intern at the now-defunct periodical magazine “The Sciences,” where he honed his self-taught writing skills. After working his way up to become editor-in-chief, he left the magazine at age 40 because he missed writing. As an independent writer, he published his well-regarded nonfiction in a variety of top-notch publications, including Harper’s, Readers Digest, Vogue, Discover, Audubon, and The New York Times Magazine. In the past decade, much of his work was published in National Geographic.

His writing contains both personal accounts and universal sentiments, and he borrows ideas from writers like Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida. In his personal essays, he mused on the art of modern travel, the limits of using physics to understand the universe, and an “ecology of indebtedness” that he felt governed the world. 

He wrote about witnessing a woman collapse onto the subway tracks in New York City, only to be rescued by two businessmen. The men who saved her boarded the train before she could learn what happened and thank them.

“Like the woman on the subway platform, we, too, awaken in the middle of our own stories, much of the action having already taken place, our characters forged, our fates largely settled,” he wrote. “As the anesthetic wears off, and we come to appreciate in agony and wonder that we aren’t the sole or necessarily the most influential authors of our lives, we are also given a glimpse of the scope of our inheritance—that who we are derives from all that was and is sustained by all that is.”

Ed was dedicated to the art of longform writing, encouraging publishers to include the genre in their mix. Always jotting down ideas, Ed filled thousands of notebooks with his notes. “His writing style developed through a pure commitment to being good at it,” Ezra said.

After 25 years away, Ed returned to Butte in 1993. He bought a windowed house atop a hill, where his writing career blossomed. There, he wrote “Pennies from Hell,” a condemnation of the toxic Berkeley Pit—a former copper mine in Butte—after its acidic waters killed hundreds of geese. He also co-wrote a documentary called “Butte, America,” about the same issue. His non-journalistic work included writing the accompanying text for two fine press books published in collaboration with a wood engraver and a fine art photographer.

Beyond his writing, Ed was also a daring and passionate open-water swimmer. He swam up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to Baja California, fulfilling his romantic relationship with the sea. He preferred cold water and swam into his 60s, wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. “Of all possible relationships with the natural world, immersion, I believe, is the most intimate—my skin, every inch of it and all at once, caressed by the sea,” he wrote.

Although Ed traveled and reported on events taking place worldwide, he was proud to call Bolinas home. There, he lived in a small house overlooking a meadow, just a short a bike ride from open water. “He wrote to me about the roses that grew in his backyard in Bolinas, as well as the cliffs, the birds, the ocean,” Susan said in an email. “He sent maps to show where he walked, and aerial views of the coast to let me know where he swam. He spoke with affection for the townspeople he met when he picked up his mail or groceries.”

Ed commuted twice a week to U.C. Berkeley, where he’d stay at the Berkeley Y.M.C.A. residence because of its swimming pool. “He liked that whole model of life, being able to escape to a remote little cabin in Bolinas,” friend and colleague Mark Dowie said.

Ed was adored by students and faculty at the university’s graduate school of journalism. Year after year, students would review his performance glowingly. “We all would read them because we envied them so much,” Mark said.

Edward Wasseman, the dean of the journalism school, wrote in an email, “Ed was a masterful teacher who had assembled a loyal and devoted community of writers who credit him with contributing in major ways to their own success. He also leaves behind colleagues who regard him as both imaginative and tough-minded, and who valued his warmth, his wit and his dedication.”

Mark, who enjoyed swimming or grabbing a beer with Ed, believes that Ed’s best decade was yet to come. “He had plans, he had projects, he had book ideas,” Mark said. One project, called “Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss,” featured a series of simultaneous exhibits, installations, performances and other cross-media events planned for multiple locations during the summer of 2021, all addressing the “suicidal” consumption of the planet’s natural resources. Ed dedicated the last two years of his life to recruiting artists and developing the vision for the project, meant to be a collective global exclamation of “Enough!”

About six months before he died, Ed had a pacemaker placed in his chest for an irregular heartbeat. In July, a heart attack brought him to the hospital, where doctors replaced the pacemaker. His death came as a surprise to friends and family when he suffered a fatal stroke while receiving care.

Ed is survived by his son, Ezra Lange, his daughter, Kate Barnes, his sisters Maggie Dobb, Ellen Simon, Debbie Dobb and Suzanne Dobb, and six grandchildren.

 

The University of California, Berkeley is hosting a memorial for Edwin Dobb at the journalism school on Oct. 12 from 2 to 4:30 p.m., and Ed’s family is hosting a memorial service at the Bayview Boat Club in San Francisco on Sept. 21 from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Donations can be made to the “Extraction” project at gofundme.com/in-memory-of-edwin-c-dobb.