Harold Del Ponte died January 20, 2013, in Crescent City. The lifelong Del Norte County resident’s 96 years read like a local history lesson.
He was born December 31, 1916, delivered by Dr. Fine, the namesake of the bridge over the Smith River. Raised by Swiss immigrants who homestead 200 acres in Klamath, Harold received all of his elementary education in the one-room Terwah Schoolhouse in the Terwer Valley before attending Del Norte High in Crescent City.
After a couple of years at Humboldt State University, he obtained a degree in forestry from Washington State University. In a newspaper article during his fifth supervisor campaign, he credited his forestry degree as making him a better supervisor for Klamath during the “Redwood Park controversy.”
He worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Del Norte, Trinity and Plumas counties before being drafted into service during WWII. Harold remained in the Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force Reserves as a retired major for 35 years.
From a Humboldt State University publication, “The Humboldt News Letter,” dated November 6 1944, a small article appeared about Harold’s ability to integrate soldiers: “Capt. Harold Del Ponte (’34-’36) is at Biggs Field, in charge of communications maintenance on all aircraft assigned to that base. Has both white and colors soldiers in his section and is rapidly becoming an authority on race issues.”
After the Second World War, he returned to Klamath, and ran the family dairy farm.
Harold was the longest-running Del Norte County supervisor, serving from 1953 to 1973, representing Klamath during the devastating 1955 and 1964 floods and the 1964 tsunami. In the aftermath of disasters, he became the point man for recovery efforts in Klamath, where he owned the Hunter Valley subdivision, which he created, allowing people to live there while they recovered from the disaster.
One of Harold’s most involved and longest duties began in 1947, when a man from the National Weather Bureau walked into the Klamath post office inquiring where he could find a dependable soul to become Klamath’s next weather observer. The postmaster suggested Harold, who accepted the position assuming he would commit to it for a couple of years.
Fifty-five years later, in 2003, Del Ponte was given the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Benjamin Franklin Award for more than 20,075 weather observations. The award ceremony turned into a grand event honoring all the achievements of Harold’s life with more than 250 people in attendance and the Crescent City Council and Del Norte supervisors declaring the day “Harold Del Ponte Day.”
Harold never ran for political office beyond Del Norte, but he maintained close contact with many outside politicians to better serve his community. The strongest friendship being with former Del Norte supervisor and U.S. Congressman Don Clausen, who represented Del Norte from 1962 to 1982.
To this day, there is a Del Ponte legacy that beckons tourists from Highway 101 in Klamath with a giant yellow sign reading: “Tour Thru Tree.” Since 1976, Harold owned and operated one of only two redwoods in the state with tunnels large enough to drive a car through.
Harold asked two nephews, an engineer and a tree faller, if they would carve the tunnel into the tree. Offered compensation of either $600 or half the proceeds from tourists, the nephews took the cash up front, not knowing that the tree would draw thousands of tourists from across the globe.
Paralyzed from the neck down in a 2004 accident, Harold spent the final years of his life in the Crescent City Convalescent Hospital. He is survived by his wife Judy, his two sisters, Valeria Van Zanten, 99, and Rena Tryon, 92, and his daughter Lynn Russell and son, David Del Ponte; granddaughters Amy Anderson, Sarah Taylor, Stephanie Wyrobeck, and Carmen, Kathryn and Lesley Del Ponte; ten great-grandchildren including David Elerding, Theron, Keana and Olivia Anderson; Nate, Daniel, Carmela, and Gabbreila Gilbert, and Trinity and Steven Taylor; and was was preceded in death by first wife, Grace.
As a note of personal interest, Valeria was my third-grade teacher and the principal of Margaret Keating School at one point. She is also my sister, Deirdre’s Godmother. Harold and Valeria’s mother, Alice Del Ponte (1889-1987) taught me and all three of my sibling catechism lessons for our First Communions at their home near the entrance to the Klamath Glen.