On Carl Nolte’s first morning of semi-retirement in January, he peered out the living room window of his Bernal Heights home and spotted in the distance the 9:01 a.m. J Church, the streetcar that has dropped him off a block shy of the Chronicle Building, Monday through Friday, for years.
“See ya,” he muttered.
The downtime didn’t last long: Hours later, Nolte was roaming the waterfront interviewing sources for Native Son, his popular column that’s appeared in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle for more than a decade.
Nolte, 85, bristles at the word retirement the same way his predecessor Herb Caen despised “Frisco.” Like the late columnist Caen, he feels an obligation to capture San Francisco’s every move, weaving the present into a narrative that invariably touches the past. Nolte’s column isn’t going anywhere, nor is his newsroom desk, but he’ll be stopping by less often — which will take some getting used to for a newsman who’s been at the paper since 1961 and used a total of five sick days
“HERE’S WHY PEOPLE STICK WITH THIS: IT’S KIND OF ADDICTIVE, LIKE SMOKING OR DRUGS OR DRINKING.”
“Here’s why people stick with this: It’s kind of addictive, like smoking or drugs or drinking,” Nolte admits. “Every time you do something, something better turns up. You get to talk to the president of the United States if you’re lucky — and Jerry Brown, if you’re not.”
Wry humor aside, Nolte’s met Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and went on the campaign trail with presidential candidate Walter Mondale. When asked about the current president, Nolte calls out his own profession. “The media’s hostility toward Trump has been damaging to the media’s credibility,” he says. “We’ve never had a president like him, but they’re not handling it well.”
But in Nolte’s column, politics take a backseat to his own backyard.
Born Carlos William Nolte (“My father was in a Spanish mood,” he quips), he’s a fourth-generation San Franciscan on his German father’s side and inherited the Irish-San Francisco connection from his mother, who hailed from County Kilkenny.
At an early age, Nolte fell in love with the trinity that is the City, the Bay, and Marin County, influenced by his family’s pilgrimages from its home on Potrero Hill to the Mt. Tamalpais cabin his father purchased for $185 in 1930. They’d take a streetcar to the Ferry Building, a ferry to Sausalito, an electric tram to Mill Valley, and finally, make a two-mile trek up the Dipsea Stairs.
Today, Nolte still swoons at the sight of the Ferry Building — especially on Tuesdays at noon when the sirens from the city’s outdoor warning system go off — and celebrates every birthday at the Mt. Tam cabin, making the entire 18-mile journey from the city on foot, gout be damned.
He owns two cars, including the yellow ’65 Plymouth Barracuda he bought new, and two boats — one named “Sailor Girl” for his wife, Darlene Plumtree. But he does his best sightseeing when walking. “There’s a surprise around every corner,” he says. “I’ve lived here forever and I’m still surprised.”
John Konstin, the owner of John’s Grill, who’s known Nolte since childhood, calls him “one of the best classic writers around. … You start off reading the first paragraph and you don’t want to stop.”
But even Konstin was surprised by the response to Nolte’s column on the restaurant’s 110th anniversary in December, noting, “It brought so many people in, young and old, who didn’t know us.”
Nolte’s the former CEO and chairman of the board of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship. He’s written books on San Francisco, the Gold Rush and the submarine USS Pampanito. At 65, he returned to school on a Chronicle fellowship at UC Berkeley and at 69 was a war correspondent embedded with troops in Iraq.
When Nolte was 82, he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of San Francisco, in 2016. His latest venture: joining the Marin County Fire Department as a volunteer, logging 8-hour shifts at the fire lookout.
But it’s the column that’s made him a local celebrity.
According to Nolte, Native Son was an idea posed to him by former Chronicle editor Ward Bushee.
Bushee recalls, “The thing everybody knew was that Carl was probably the best writer in the room in terms of voice of San Francisco. He’s developed in his career almost a poetic style to writing. What he does with Native Son is what Herb Caen did in his Sunday column. He would take a part of the city and explore it and write a beautiful essay.”
“And unlike a lot of columnists who sit in their office and write columns, he goes out and reports columns,” Bushee adds.
“Columnists are kinda funny,” Nolte admits. “These other people all write about their families and themselves. It shouldn’t be about me. It should be about the city.”
Even with extra time on his hands, Nolte remains focused on his mission.
“Never say semi-retired,” he says. “The only thing people hear is retired.”