William Brand's typical day in the Oakland Tribune newsroom was anything but, and it went something like this:
He'd come in the door and rush to his desk, cell phone squeezed between shoulder and ear, interviewing an expert about electric cars or a weather forecaster about the latest storm or a police investigator about a murder, juggling his backpack on his knee, trying to pull his laptop from a tangle of computer cords and notebooks, knocking something off a co-worker's desk in the process, taking another call from his wife about their Chihuahua swallowing a 2-ounce bar of dark chocolate, running home to take the Chihuahua to the vet, probably interviewing 15 more people for another story along the way, cursing at the computer crashing, dropping his cell phone in the road, cursing some more, then at long last filing a coherent, eloquent, detailed, informative story right on deadline from his laptop while waiting at the vet's office.
"Bill was the original multitasker," said friend and fellow Tribune reporter Cecily Burt, who worked with Brand since 1992, some of that time sharing a closet-sized office in the Berkeley bureau. "Here was a guy who would come across as so scatterbrained, he'd have seven or eight screens up on his computer at one time, he'd be talking on the phone, and it would seem like he was so distracted. But he would somehow pull it all together and turn topics most people couldn't even understand into something fantastic."
A newshound extraordinaire, Brand had retired — for the second time — from the Tribune last fall but continued writing his popular beer column and blog called "What's on Tap" for the Tribune, the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times.
In fact, on the night of Feb. 8, he had just left the 21st Amendment Brewery and Restaurant on Second Street in San Francisco, where he had attended a food and beer pairing event for his blog, when he was struck by an N-Judah Muni train near Second and King streets around 9:10 p.m., the force of the impact knocking him into a nearby pole.
He died from his injuries early Friday morning at San Francisco General Hospital with his wife, Daryl, at his side. Authorities are still investigating the incident. Brand was 70, which amazed all who knew him as one of the most energetic, enthusiastic people on the planet.
"This is a terrible loss, not only for Bill's family, colleagues and friends, but for Bay Area journalism," said Tribune police-beat reporter Harry Harris. "Bill was one of the best, most real newspapermen I ever worked with in my 43 years at the Tribune. Bill was an aggressive reporter but also compassionate and sensitive. Whether it was big breaking news or the everyday stories papers need, if you had Bill involved, you always knew it would be solid and professional, just like him."
Indeed, Brand covered it all. He started at the Trib in 1981, writing about everything from earthquakes and fires to some of the many volatile demonstrations at People's Park in Berkeley. In 1996, at his editor's request, he hopped onto a plane and headed up to the backwoods Montana cabin of the man dubbed the "Unabomber." In 1999, he was part of a team of reporters sent to Columbine, Colo., to help the Denver Post with coverage of the tragic high-school shooting. That coverage ended up winning the Post a Pulitzer Prize.
For many years, he wrote about people and politics in Berkeley, then higher education at UC Berkeley, then the science-and-technology beat, writing about astronomical discoveries and solar power. Long before computers and cell phones were commonplace in news-gathering, he was one of the first reporters to embrace them, toting around all manner of gadgets.
"Bill was a newspaper veteran, but he was one of the first in the newsroom to understand how the Web held the potential to make us better journalists and storytellers," said Kevin Keane, executive editor of BANG-EB, the Tribune's parent company. "He was a great role model for the rest of the staff, and a wonderful man to boot."
On deadline, Brand was a frenzied blur. A small man with a mustache and glasses, he could drive editors crazy, calling in to add endless details and updates. For fellow journalists, he was the source of all sources. You were assigned a story on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.? No problem. Brand knew a Berkeley man who had been a lawyer and close friend of King's. You didn't know where to start for a retrospective on the Jonestown tragedy? Brand knew the man who had created a Web site for survivors and had the phone number right on his laptop.
Former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean was shocked at news of his death. "I really liked Bill a lot," she said. "We had a lot of laughs. Despite the fact I liked him so well, he was not soft as a reporter. He didn't let you get away with anything. Always accurate. He was at every council meeting. Reporting the news wasn't just words on paper for him. He really delved into stories to understand all the issues."
Brand was a journalist to the core. But he was also a cowboy.
He loved horses, having grown up on a ranch in Nebraska, riding in rodeos as a teenager. He and his wife owned horses at their Walnut Creek home, plus several dogs — as evidenced by the dog hair on his pullover sweaters when he'd come to the Tribune offices.
As recently as about 10 years ago, he was bucked from a bull at the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace during a media event. "He rode the whole eight seconds during the trials, but then they put him on a really rough bull after that, and he lasted about a millisecond," his wife said.
Brand was born in 1938. His father was a large-animal veterinarian, caring for horses and livestock, and the family had its own 500 head of cattle. After high school, he tried college for a few weeks but decided it wasn't for him, his wife said. So he joined the Navy, which he didn't like much better, but he did love all the travel.
After four years in the Navy, Brand married and had two children. He fell into his first news job at a paper in Nebraska City, Neb. Then another in Omaha, Neb., and then on to the Boulder Camera in Boulder, Colo. He and his family eventually came west, and Brand landed a series of jobs at the Alameda Times-Star and other local papers, then took a post as a news editor at the Contra Costa Times.
He and his first wife eventually divorced, and he moved to Matzatlan, Mexico, an area and culture that he loved, with his oldest daughter for a few years while doing some freelancing work. He returned to the Bay Area in the late 1970s.
Brand met his wife in October 1980 at a business lunch in Berkeley, but it took a few months before he invited her out on their first date. In typical "Bill" fashion, he got the schedule wrong, so they missed it. To make up for it, he told her he wanted to take her to his "favorite place." She was a little worried, but it turned out to be Fentons ice cream parlor in Oakland.
"I thought he was a keeper after that," she said. They married in April 1983, blending her family of two children with his, plus another daughter of their own.
The same week of their first date in January 1981, Brand started working at the Tribune. At one time, he wrote a column called "On the Home Front."
"Oh, it was so embarrassing," his wife said. "It was all about us. "... He even wrote about his vasectomy. That was a great one. It was humiliating, but fun."
In 1994, Brand started "What's on Tap" as a newsletter. It quickly became well-read by beer connoisseurs throughout the Bay Area, expanding into a regular column and blog.
"He had this real appreciation for craft beer that you don't get from most beer writers," said Shaun O'Sullivan, brewmaster at 21st Amendment. "He had an innocent approach. Not jaded. And he'd be talking to me, and his fingers would be flying on his laptop, like he was attached to it."
In addition to his wife, Brand is survived by his sister-in-law, Bonnie: his sons, Richard Brand and Zachary Walter; daughters Amanda Brand and Meredith Pollick; son-in-law Callen Pollick; and two grandchildren, Elianna and Zev. He was preceded in death by his brother, Richard, and his daughter, Audrey.
Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made in his name to the Contra Costa County Food Bank.
Reach Angela Hill at email@example.com.