Remembrance: William Newsom, 1934-2018

As told to Paul Wilner

William Newsom, right, with friends Jim Halligan, John Mallen and Gordon Getty.

When former U.S. Appeals Court Judge William Newsom died at his Pacific Heights home on December 12 at the age of 84, it was a deep loss for his family and wide circle of loving friends. But his life and career were a testament to public service and stead-fast values. Deeply involved in politics — his father ran former Governor Pat Brown’s first two campaigns for office, he was close to Jerry Brown, and he lived long enough to see his son Gavin elected to the governorship — Newsom wore his laurels lightly. His victories included leading the fight to ban mountain lion hunting, successfully suing the Bohemian Club’s all-male hiring policies, and serving on the boards of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club Foundation. After retiring from the bench in 1995, he managed his high school classmate Gordon Getty’s fortune, without ever losing the common touch of his Marina district upbringing: Family and friends came first, always.

His daughter, Hilary Newsom Callan, president and partner of the PlumpJack Group, remembers him here:

My earliest memories of my father date back to when I was very young — falling asleep at the banquettes of classic San Francisco restaurants, like Romano’s on Lombard Street, or at silent auctions for nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund. He also loved North Beach Restaurant, where we celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions, the Washington Square Bar & Grill, Enrico’s, Capp’s Corner and the Balboa Café — even before we took it over!

When Gavin started PlumpJack as a wine store in 1992, and then expanded into restaurants, part of the inspiration was our coming from a large Irish Catholic family who loved to gather, make merry and celebrate.

He had a close group of friends — including Gordon Getty, John Mallen and Jim Halligan, who’d been class-mates of his at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. His love of the environment came from his extensive travels — I remember trips to the Salmon River, the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. He even joined my husband, Geoff Callan, and me, on our honeymoon in Botswana in 2001, and joined us on a photographic safari.

One of his favorite books was Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell — that was the inspiration for my brother’s name.


— Hilary Newsom Callan

We grew up with an incredible array of animals, bunny rabbits, [a] guinea pig and a horse. We had an otter named Potter, who literally slept at the end of my parents’ bed and was very well-trained. Every night my father would hide his keys in the couch, and then Potter would slither over and retrieve them. When Gavin was born, Potter became jealous, and a little intimidating, so they ended up taking him to a wildlife sanctuary. My dad bought us a tarantula too, when we were quite young, but that didn’t last more than a couple of hours — I think my mother put her foot down! Right before he passed away, he said he wanted to get some-thing for the grandkids, so he ended up getting grizzly bear bundles from the World Wildlife Fund for all of them

He had an amazing library. Gavin was famously dyslexic, and my first years were at the French American Bilingual School, so we both struggled a bit. But eventually, I took up with some of his favorites … P.D. James and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves series. He was also a lover of poetry — I’m sure Gavin has an even lengthier list.

But I had a childhood filled with humor and limericks and conservation and politics — all of it. My parents divorced when I was very young, but I remember nothing but joy. He and my mother [Tessa Newsom] were best friends until the very end. They had a beautiful friendship that they worked very hard at, and it definitely made an impression on both of us about how to treat people, and how to be our very best selves. It’s something I’m very grateful for.

If he was friends with someone, they were friends for life. Loyalty, integrity and empathy were paramount to my father. Those are the qualities I aspire to every day. I know my brother does as well.

He was sitting next to my brother in Los Angeles when he learned that Gavin had been declared the new governor. He was elated and so very proud. We will be forever grateful that he was able to be with us on election night.

Editor’s note: Usually, we pay tribute to local legends we’ve lost in our annual A-List issue. But when we heard about Judge Newsom, we wanted to make space in our February edition to honor his remarkable legacy, which includes his son, our new governor, Gavin Newsom.

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