If there’s one thing the neighbors were counting on, it was spotting Robert Raymond Planthold at 16th and Church Streets. Routinely, for decades, Planthold faithfully waited for the J-train to ferry him to his last town or activism, his distinct neon-yellow “Canadian” crutches under his arms.
“He represented a kind of political activism that made San Francisco a better city,” said friend and former assistant to the mayor Larry Bush.
Planthold, a renowned and honored activist for disability, transit and civil rights in San Francisco, died suddenly in his apartment on Thursday or Friday of last week. He was 73 years old. The medical examiner has yet to determine the cause of death or the exact date, Planthold’s sons confirmed, but it was likely a medical episode that triggered a meltdown.
Planthold was born on August 1, 1948 in St. Louis. At just 2 years old, he contracted poliomyelitis, underwent multiple surgeries and would use crutches for the rest of his life.
After graduating from Boston College, he headed west to San Francisco in 1971, according to local newsletter “Senior Beat.” His youngest son, Raymond, said Planthold had a brief stint at UC Hastings before returning to Boston in the mid-1970s. He finally settled permanently in San Francisco at the end of the decade.
Planthold was widowed once, then divorced. Robert — “not junior” — was born in 1984, and Raymond in 1985.
From then on, Planthold became entrenched in San Francisco activism, notably with Senior Action Network (now called Senior and Disability Action).
Half-brothers Robert and Raymond recall joining their father at meetings and demonstrations of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. “I remember playing under the tables a lot,” Raymond said.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, then a Senior Action Network organizer and Duboce Triangle neighbor, admired Bob’s weave between activism and fatherhood. “He had two little boys, and I saw him on the J with their sports gear, their little backpacks, and on top of that he had the energy and the heart to stand up for everyone.”
Hundreds of books filled the 16th and Planthold church apartment, mostly non-fiction. He often talked about trivialities to his sons: “He said that not many people know about it, but…”, recalls his eldest son, and he was affectionately nicknamed “Robert the Planner” by family members.
“Not even being specifically taught, but just living with him, I developed a sense of the impact of all the issues he brought up,” Raymond said.
His brother Robert agreed, saying his father set him on the path that led to his current job as the Illinois government’s freedom of information law supervisor. “I tried to make sure I wouldn’t do anything that my dad would look askance at.”
The ‘hammer’ and the ‘encyclopedia’
With or without his sons, Planthold often found himself at city hall, at busy intersections, or at one meeting or another. Her first-hand experience with a disability highlighted how society was not made enough for people with disabilities. Often, he warned his friend Larry Bush that the local Safeway was running out of electric carts and advised him to shop elsewhere.
From the 1980s, Pi Ra, the current Senior Disability Action Transit Director, recalled consulting with Planthold on the city’s first iteration of paratransit – before the American with Disabilities Act was made official. . Planthold’s ability to remember minute details and historical events, and his ability to succinctly explain those concerning politics, made him a go-to source for the media. For this reason, campaigners dubbed him The Hammer: “The Hammer didn’t leave the room until an elected official made a concession one way or another,” Ra said.
“Some people thought he was a know-it-all, but he do know it all,” said Jodie Reed, former executive director of Senior Action Network. “He was like an encyclopedia. His knowledge was essential to come to the proposals and it was necessary to know it.
In the early 1990s, Planthold joined the organization’s Pedestrian Task Force. He joined their Dirty Dozen “street theater” protests, in which elderly pedestrians pointed out insufficient crosswalk times by carrying targets on their backs in a “Death Race” themed protest. Ra said, “That was his fun side,” he added; it has not always been so. “Before he was a senior, we called him ‘senior-in-training’ because he was grumpy.”
Reed recalled a campaign for an ordinance that penalized cars parked at bus stops. Planthold pointed out that, when stuck, a bus could not “kneel down” to allow disabled people to board. He and other organizers placed fake hot pink parking tickets on all cars at bus stops around City Hall, and Bob unknowingly tagged the former Parking Enforcement chief’s vehicle.
“It gave us so much publicity that it helped us get the prescription,” Reed said.
Planthold was the source of a multitude of charter amendments, recommendations and ballot measures, as well as numerous editorials. Until the end, he advocated for the rights of people with disabilities and car-free public transit on JFK Drive, spoke about shared spaces and urged the restoration of bus routes in the event of a pandemic.
For decades, Planthold has informed other municipal departments. He was appointed to the Ethics Commission in 2002, where he served for two years as Vice Chairman and Chairman.
Bush said he approached Planthold to co-found the Friends of Ethics organization in 2011, which was made up of former ethics commissioners. Planthold could easily fish out wrongdoing, Bush said. “Other people may have just thought there was a cloud in the sky, but he would have seen thunderstorms,” Bush said.
He praised Planthold’s commitment to transparency and inclusive government, even as he rubbed others the wrong way. Planthold went on to co-found the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which he continued to serve with recommendations for disability access in the pandemic until his death. He has also served on the city’s Civil Grand Jury several times.
Sue Hestor, a land use attorney, would often offer Planthold a ride home from City Hall after various meetings. This homecoming included detailed discussions about housing and planning, similar to the carefully spaced notes he emailed her about other matters; how can they build affordable housing for the working class, for example?
“It’s a really important role that Bob played. He talked to people and he brought a serious issue to light,” she said. “He’s a very valuable friend to have. A very valuable person to have in town.
Those at City Hall knew him by name, and those who didn’t were soon confronted by his emails, letters and public comments. “If you didn’t know Bob, you weren’t doing your job,” Ra said.
In 2008, Mayor Gavin Newsom awarded Planthold the Beacon Award from the Mayor’s Disability Council. He also received recognition from Caltrain, CalTrans, SF Paratransit Council, Metropolitan Transportation Commission for service to public transit and disability advocacy.
Another honor came after his death was announced at the last meeting of the Supervisory Board. Together, the supervisors adjourned in a moment of silence.