If there’s one thing neighbors used to count on, it was spotting Robert Raymond Planthold at 16th and Church Streets. Routinely, for decades, Planthold faithfully waited for the J-Church train to transport him to his latest city or activist engagement, 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 mayoral aide Larry Bush.
Planthold, a renowned and honored disability, transit and civil rights activist in San Francisco, died suddenly at his apartment on Thursday or Friday of last week. He was 73. The medical examiner has not yet determined a cause of death nor the exact date, Planthold’s sons confirmed, but it was likely a medical episode that triggered a collapse.
Planthold was born on Aug. 1, 1948, in St. Louis, Missouri. At barely 2, he contracted polio, underwent multiple surgeries and would use crutches for the rest of his life.
After graduating Boston College, he headed west to San Francisco in 1971, according to the local newsletter Senior Beat. His younger son, Raymond, said Planthold had a brief stint at UC Hastings before returning to Boston in the mid-’70s. He finally settled permanently in San Francisco by the end of the decade.
Planthold was widowed once, and later divorced. His son, Robert, “not junior,” was born in 1984, and son Raymond in 1985.
From then on, Planthold became ingrained in San Francisco activism, most notably with Senior Action Network (now called Senior and Disability Action).
Half-brothers Robert and Raymond recall joining their father at Sunshine Ordinance Task Force Meetings and protests. “I remember playing under the tables a lot,” Raymond said.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, then an organizer with Senior Action Network and a Duboce Triangle neighbor, admired Bob’s weaving of activism and fatherhood. “He had two little boys, and I’d see him on the J with their sports equipment, their little backpacks and, on top of that, he had the energy and heart to advocate for everyone else.”
Hundreds of books filled Planthold’s 16th and Church apartment, mostly nonfiction. He’d talk trivia to his sons often: “He’d say, ‘Not a lot of people know this, but … ‘” his older son recalled, and was affectionately dubbed “Robert the Planner” by family members.
“Without even being specifically taught, but just by living with him, I developed a sense of the impact of all the issues he brought up,” Raymond said.
His brother Robert agreed, stating that his father set him on the path that led to his current work as a supervisor to the Illinois government’s Freedom of Information Act. “I’ve tried to make sure I wouldn’t do anything my dad would look askance at.”
The ‘hammer’ and the ‘encyclopedia’
With or without his sons, Planthold was often found at City Hall, busy intersections, or one meeting or another. His firsthand experience dealing with a disability highlighted how society was not adequately made for disabled people. Often, he warned his friend Larry Bush that the local Safeway had run out of electric carts, and advised him to shop elsewhere.
Beginning in the ‘80s, Pi Ra, the present transit director for Senior Disability Action, recalled consulting Planthold on the city’s first iteration of Paratransit, before the Americans with Disabilities Act became formalized. Planthold’s capacity to remember minute details and historical events, and his ability to succinctly explain those regarding policy, made him a go-to source for the media. For this reason, activists dubbed him The Hammer: “The Hammer did not leave the room until an elected official made a concession one way or another,” Ra said.
“Some people felt he was a know-it-all, but he did know it all,” said Jodi Reid, a former executive director of Senior Action Network. “He was like an encyclopedia. His knowledge was essential for coming to proposals and you needed to know that.”
In the early ‘90s, Planthold joined the organization’s pedestrian task force. He also joined their Dirty Dozen “street theater” protests, during which elderly pedestrians would underscore insufficient crosswalk times by wearing targets on their backs in a demonstration themed “Death Race.” Ra said, “That was his fun side.” But he wasn’t always so. “Before he was a senior, we called him a ‘senior-in-training’ because he was cranky.”
Reed recalled a campaign for an ordinance that penalized cars that parked at bus stops. Planthold pointed out that, when blocked, a bus couldn’t “kneel” to enable boarding for the disabled. He and other organizers deposited bright pink fake parking tickets on all the cars in bus stops around City Hall, and Planthold unknowingly tagged the vehicle of the then-head of Parking Enforcement.
“It got us so much publicity that it helped us get the ordinance,” Reed mused.
Planthold was behind a slew of charter amendments, recommendations and ballot measures, as well as many editorials. Until the end, he advocated for disability and transit rights on car-free JFK Drive, spoke on Shared Spaces and urged the reinstatement of pandemic-severed bus lines.
For decades, Planthold informed other city departments. He was appointed to the Ethics Commission in 2002, where he served two years as vice-chair and chair.
Bush said he approached Planthold to co-found the Friends of Ethics organization in 2011, which was composed of ex-Ethics commissioners. Planthold could fish out wrongdoing easily, Bush said. “Other people may have only thought there was a cloud in the sky, but he would’ve seen thunderstorms,” Bush said.
He commended Planthold’s commitment to government transparency and inclusion, even if it rubbed others the wrong way. Planthold later co-founded the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which he continued to serve with recommendations for disability access in the pandemic until his death. He also served on the city’s Civil Grand Jury multiple times.
Sue Hestor, a land-use attorney, often offered Planthold a ride home from City Hall following various meetings. That ride home usually came with detailed discussions on housing and planning, akin to the carefully spaced-out notes he’d email her on other issues: For example, how can they build affordable housing for the working class?
“This is a really important role Bob played. He talked to people and he illuminated a serious issue,” Hestor said. “That is a very valuable friend to have. A very valuable person to have in the city.”
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 bestowed Planthold with the Mayor’s Disability Council Beacon Award. He also received recognition from Caltrain, CalTrans, the SF Paratransit Council and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for his service to transit and disability advocacy.
One more honor came after news of his death, at the last Board of Supervisors meeting. Together, the supervisors adjourned in a moment of silence.