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Walter Fanning, Hero of East Brother Lighthouse

Walter Fanning, without whom the East Brother Lighthouse preservation would not have succeeded, died last week at age 99. Walter was a modern renaissance man, bringing multiple skills to the complex and difficult rehabilitation of Richmond's best known historic landmark.

When the first couple running the Bed and Breakfast inn, which generates income for the island's preservation, split up in 1980, Walter stepped in and helped run the operation, thus becoming the third generation of his family to actually be a lighthouse keeper.


Walter delighted guests with authentic stories of lighthouse history and recipes his grandmother Kofod actually prepared at East Brother 60 years earlier. A favorite was grandmother Kofod's stuffed cabbage.


Walter remained an important part of the volunteer team that maintains East Brother well in to his 90s, ceasing only when he could no longer climb the ladder to the dock. Even after that, he was frequently consulted for his detailed memory of technical items.

Walter Fanning - lighthouse keeper

Friday, December 12, 2008

Walter Fanning, born at Yerba Buena Island lighthouse, be...

Walter Fanning, the third generation of his family to work at Bay Area lighthouses and a key member of the group that restored the facility on East Brother Island, died Dec. 5 at a Moraga convalescent home. He was 99.


Mr. Fanning was born in 1909 in the lighthouse keepers' quarters on Yerba Buena Island, where his immigrant Danish grandparents served as lighthouse keepers. His mother, who lived with her parents at the lighthouse, met his father there while he was serving as a lighthouse radio operator for the U.S. Coast Guard.


After his grandparents were transferred to the East Brother Island lighthouse, Mr. Fanning spent much of his childhood there, fishing for rock cod off the dock, skating around the cistern and blowing the old diaphone foghorn.


"East Brother and Yerba Buena islands were the loves of his life," said his daughter, Susan Montague of Oakland. "He loved the history of them. They were very dear to his heart." When he was in his 70s, Mr. Fanning became lighthouse keeper at the East Brother Island facility.


Mr. Fanning graduated from UC Berkeley in 1934 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and joined the Navy. While in the service, he met Jane Dempsey in Hawaii and the couple married in 1938. They settled in Oakland's Crocker Highlands neighborhood, where he lived for the next 68 years.


For years, Mr. Fanning operated the Oakland Machine Works, which opened in 1953 and still makes parts for ships, rockets, bridges and other military and government projects.


After he retired, Mr. Fanning devoted much of his time to lighthouses, including the East Brother Island lighthouse, which had fallen into disrepair after the Coast Guard automated the foghorn and light in the 1970s.


When he became its keeper in the '80s, he helped restore it, devoting countless hours restoring the ornate Victorian woodwork, fixing the old foghorn and doing other chores. He also served on the nonprofit board that now runs the lighthouse.


"He was a mainstay of the whole restoration process," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, who serves as the East Brother board president. "He was a sweet, humble guy, but he couldn't stand people who wouldn't jump in and do whatever needed to be done. Because that's the way he always did things."


Mr. Fanning also helped restore the Coast Guard lightship Relief, now anchored at Jack London Square in Oakland, and served as an officer with the U.S. Lighthouse Society.


In addition to Montague, Mr. Fanning is survived by his daughter Nancy Fanning and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of Oakland.


A memorial service will be held Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at Lakeside Temple of Practical Christianity, 144 Athol Ave., Oakland.


Donations can be sent to the Walter Fanning Memorial Fund, East Brother Light Station Restoration, 117 Park Place, Point Richmond, CA 94801.


E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page B - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle