Two Lives in a Small Town

The following, in Shonnie Brown’s “Neighbors” column, appeared in The Healdsburg Tribune, our local weekly, on February 9, 2012. [Most of the images were not in the original.]

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Ann, born and raised in Casper, Wyoming, has the dubious distinction of attending high school with both Dick and Lynne Cheney and participating in student government with Dick. Dick, who Ann recalls as being “good looking” back then, wrote “I’ll be your friend forever” in Ann’s yearbook.

Ann attended a Catholic college in Denver and then got married — resulting in a breakup and three kids. She returned to college, putting herself through law school, and then became a New Jersey prosecutor. She moved to the Bay Area in 1984 and took the California Bar exam. The fact that her former firm had represented Johns Manville, a major defendant in asbestos litigation, rather directed the rest of her career in law.

Steve grew up in Oxnard, California, going to Harvard as an undergraduate and then to Harvard Business School. Early business credits include working on the Apollo Moon project for IBM and involvement in the creation of the first fax machine in 1970. In the early 1970s, events conspired for an entire self-reinvention (left brain to right), taking Steve (after a divorce and three kids) to Hollywood, where he moved in with his two single brothers, Lanny and Doug. All three worked zealously at screenwriting.

“We lived on tortillas, beans and ‘used vegetables’ way past their prime, earning a combined income of $4,000 per year writing scripts,” Steve tells me. “In 1979, Lanny wrote The Earthling, which starred William Holden and Ricky Schroder. In 1981 Lanny and I wrote the script for Backtrack with Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper. Because Hopper rewrote and ruined so much of it, we took our names off, but then an Internet fan put our names back on. I can sure tell some stories about the amusing terrors of filmmaking.”

From 1986 to 1994 Steve worked once again out of the left side of his brain — as an investment banker in San Francisco — but he did take one last stab at filmmaking. While living in Marin, Lanny directed and Steve wrote, produced and acted in the movie, Heartwood, shot in Willits — starring Hilary Swank and Jason Robards. One night he attended the Marin Theater Company, not realizing that it was singles night. He was seated between two strange women. When one of them fell asleep, a conversation ensued with the other. So, he asked Ann for her number.

“I’ll give you a call, but it won’t be for several weeks because I have to go to Hollywood to work on my movie,” was Steve’s parting line. But he did return and eventually moved in with Ann in the city.

“When I convinced Ann to retire, we asked ourselves why we should continue living in San Francisco,” Steve recalls. “So we came up to Wine Country, explored everywhere, ultimately found Healdsburg and moved here in 2002.”

Their house, on University Street, has the ambience of an upscale Tahoe cabin. It is surrounded by giant redwoods, Douglas firs and walnut trees. Joe Puccinelli, former owner of B&B Lounge, once lived behind them, and Emma Gromo, wife of former Healdsburg grocer John Gromo, lived next door. Though the tax rolls show that their house was built in 1952, Emma told Steve and Ann that it was built shortly after she moved there in 1926. It’s a lovely spot, and to them a destination for their combined eight kids and 10 grandchildren.

“When we arrived in 2002, we had no idea what we’d do or who we’d meet,” Ann remarks. “But we are struck by the level of volunteerism in Healdsburg. Within four months I went to the museum and became a receptionist. Then Al Loebel snared me and I went on to be VP and then president of the Museum Board. Al didn’t know me, but thought I was ‘under-utilized.’

“I then discovered AAUW and became involved with the hiking group and with Tech Trek, an organization which sends seventh grade girls to a science and math camp at Stanford. Now I’m involved in finding houses for the home tour.”

Ann’s heart lies with PSST! (Public School Success Team) — a local, women-led organization committed to increasing the number of students graduating from the public school system. Steve tutored fifth and sixth graders through PSST! and Ann, a big sister to a wonderful seventh grade girl, says that she gets as much out of the relationship as she gives.

Both Steve and Ann are deeply committed to projects they love. Steve is actively involved in the Summer Science Program, a highly respected residential enrichment program in which selected high school students from around the world study college-level courses while they are tracking near-earth asteroids on two summer campuses.

“I attended the program in its second year in 1960 and it changed my life,” Steve tells me. “In 1999 another alumni and I rejuvenated the program. I gave a presentation to our local Rotary and they wanted to send a kid from Healdsburg. Even with the intense competition, local boys Dylan Scott and Raven Clayborn have both gone. My involvement, now as a trustee, has made my kids proud.”

Steve recorded in 2002 a CD of children’s songs. He sang, and Grammy Award-winning younger brother, Doug, did the music. The album (My ‘Magination) has, according to Steve, the kind of music that parents don’t get tired of.

Steve’s current passion is Cheesie Mack. Ronald Cheesie Mack is Steve’s 11-year-old self who is writing a series of three books for Random House. Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything came out last year. It’s really Steve’s way of making science fun by “stealth intelligence.” Cheesie is funny and smart and loves to follow his curiosity in a way that teaches without preaching. Kids write to Cheesie online and often ask, “Who the heck is Steve Cotler?”

“I’m having a ball going around the country promoting the book,” Steve says. “It’s written for 21st century Internet savvy kids. I read only two pages when I visit a classroom and then I fill up a blackboard with what kids have learned about Cheesie and his pal Georgie. My goal is to teach a love of reading and learning and to support kids in being smart.”

At the end of our interview, Steve tells me: “Both Ann and I went through cancer in 2009 and really appreciate where we live and the time we have.” Then he adds, “My mission now is to do good deeds.”

“I would say it a bit more modestly,” Ann suggests.

“Well, I can’t help it if my nickname in college was ‘irrepressible,”” Steve tells us.


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Shonnie Brown is a local author and memoirist who is interested in fostering connections between people and their community. Shonnie writes personal and family histories through her business, Sonoma LifeStories, and is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be reached by e-mail at or on the web at

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