State government lost a respected spokesman last month when William L. “Bill” Rukeyser retired after 19 years of on-again, off-again service.
Rukeyser was Director of Public Affairs for the State Water Resources Control Board where he dealt with the mother of all California political issues – water quality and rights.
Over the years, he had worked for the state Public Utilities Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Education and for former Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti.
At Education, he served under Bill Honig at a time when the Superintendent of Public Instruction was charged with four felony counts of steering state contracts to his wife’s firm. Honig eventually resigned and the charges were downgraded to misdemeanors.
“That wasn’t fun,” Rukeyser recalled of the months he spent trying to defend Honig. “He had been a lawyer before he had been a teacher, and it was testimony as to why you shouldn’t be your own lawyer. In his view, he had done nothing wrong.”
Like many state spokesmen, Rukeyser came to state government from the news business. He worked for public broadcasting stations covering the Capitol and also served stints with a television station in Ottawa and as news editor of KRON-TV in San Francisco.
Most memorable, however, was his freelance coverage of North Ireland’s religious war in 1971-72. Among other battles, he covered “Bloody Sunday” on Jan. 30, 1972, where British troops killed 14 unarmed protestors and injured many more.
“I watched Bloody Sunday unfold from both sides of the barricades, first behind Army lines and then under Army fire,” Rukeyser said.
“Each of my photos brings back intense memories, but the image that is still the most memorable and horrific is the only one I did NOT take that day,” he continued.
He saw the bloody body of a protestor named Bernard McGuigan sprawled on the ground and reached for his camera.
“I thought of the additional pain that bloody image would cause his family,” Rukeyser reflected. “I put my camera down and walked on.”
Rukeyser continued to cover the violence for several months until one morning in Ulster when he went to his door to get his morning mail. There was a letter telling him and his wife Alison to be out of Ulster by the week’s end “or you both will be found hanging from a beam.”
“You have been writing and filming some real dirt about the Protestants … and trying to peddle it to A.B.C., N.B.C., N.Z.B.C. and others,” the letter continued. “We don’t shoot(,) we hang them like the dogs they are.”
Rukeyser consulted with an Irish colleague who assured him that the threat was genuine. He and his wife were gone the following day.
Back in California, Rukeyser also worked on political campaigns including the one that defeated Prop. 36 in 1984, a Howard Jarvis sequel to Prop. 13.
He’s proudest, however, of his work for some Bay Area Audubon Society chapters that sought to save Bair Island from being developed as another Foster City. It is now part of the Don Edwards San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge.
As to what’s next after a storied career, Rukeyser will have grandchildren to visit and recently earned a private pilot’s license. He and his wife, an anthropology professor, also plan to tour petroglyph sites in Western states.
He also may pick up occasional work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency where he was once lead spokesman for the recovery effort after Hurricane Dennis hit Mississippi in 2005.
Whatever is ahead for Rukeyser, it’s bound to be interesting. (Contact: WilliamLRukeyser@aol.com)