For Liz Bass, public service in Tuolumne County has largely been motivated by a single interest: “Get the voices of people who are rarely heard out into the public discussion.”
The longtime educator and public official, interviewed earlier this week, says that philosophy has always followed her, whether she was working with youth in a continuation school or encouraging citizen participation on Sonora and Tuolumne County government.
Her career as supervisor capped more than 40 years of local public service that also included 10 years on the Sonora City Council and 23 years as a teacher and principal at Cassina High School.
She said she always tried to give a voice to youth, seniors and others in the community who might not otherwise feel empowered to speak up.
“The world is not just these narrow rows of elites,” Bass said during an interview at her home.
Bass moved to Tuolumne County in 1972. She was a single mother of two children — son Jim Atkins and daughter Catherine Atkins, a writer, who both went into education themselves. She also cared for her mother until she died in 2001.
She was living day to day after having put herself through school at San Francisco State. She was receiving government assistance when she saw an ad for a teaching position at Sonora’s continuation school.
“I cashed my last welfare check in San Mateo County, and I had two kids and a broken down car,” she said.
The school at the time was called Opportunity School, located in an office building in downtown Sonora above where the Candy Vault now sits.
She taught business, but quickly adopted history, sewing and other subjects.
As a continuation school, the classes were filled largely by students who had been in trouble or had fallen behind. When she started, Bass said, the style used at the school was more disciplinarian than she liked. So when the school moved to its current location at the Dome Campus, Bass used the gym to start physical education and tried a community garden to give the students a more-typical school experience.
She also took every opportunity to promote programs and projects at the school in local media and around the community. Bass said she received criticism on some of her ideas, largely from people who felt it wasn’t the right philosophy for the students — many with troubled pasts. She was often told things like, “you can’t save them all,” she said. Bass eventually retired as principal at Cassina High School in 1995, citing differences with the district superintendent.
But she said she wanted the students to “feel normal” when coming to school.
“I kept running into these brick walls and I kept getting around them. I came to be very clever,” she said. “There was such gratitude (from the students and parents). Such a good feeling.”
“What I was trying to do (at the school) was not save them, but save the rest of us from them,” Bass said. “I don’t want them to mug my mother.”
Bass attributes a lot of her personal philosophy to her childhood.
She grew up the daughter of a Chicago police officer. They often had discussions at the dinner table about human nature and how to improve people’s lives. A lover of books and writing, Bass said she grew up with a lot of interest in politics and world events — interests she continues to pursue today. She says her father had a “kill ’em with kindness” attitude, even as a cop.
The year before she retired from Cassina, Bass was elected to the Sonora City Council and started a decade tenure that included a two-year stretch as the first woman to be mayor of the city.
While on the council, Bass said many of her priorities involved getting community members involved in the process. She says she focused on infrastructure issues and to get people on committees. She helped form a traffic and parking committee that still exists today.
She said her role as a woman in leadership did come up occasionally. And she does say people “did come up and assume you have less power because you’re not a man.”
But it wasn’t until later that her possible impact as a woman on the council became clearer. Last month, during a special session of the county Board of Supervisors, Rachelle Kellogg said Bass “pushed” for her to take more of a leadership role even as she was “just a kid” when she started with the city. And Bev Shane, who is director of the Community Resources Agency, has called Bass a role model for women in the county.
“Liz has always been very supportive of women in leadership roles,” Kellogg said.
During her time at the City Council, Bass ran a radio program on a local station where she interviewed “everyone under the sun” inside and outside of local politics. She had no radio experience before hosting “Talk Back,” and says she quickly learned to speak concisely in the format and even work some of the controls.
“They thought my voice came through on the radio,” despite the lack of experience, she said.
Bass was elected as a county supervisor in 2004, representing the district that includes the city and some adjacent areas.
She continued to work on issues for some who don’t normally have a voice, championing affordable housing and working with seniors. While on the board, she was also instrumental in some long-term planning efforts, helped retool the committee system and founded a special commission for local students to advise the supervisors on county issues.
But one of her trademarks over the years, according to colleagues and other community leaders, was her civility. Local government and politics can be ugly, and Bass’ tenure involved personality clashes and instances where other leaders and community members did not always show respect in and out of meetings.
She was the subject of a recall effort along with Paolo Maffei in 2005, with one of the main issues being a vehicle registration fee.
Bass “did help bring back civility to this board room and is a real model for thoughtfulness,” County Administrator Craig Pedro said last month. “She thinks very deeply and very thoughtfully about everything that she’s done.”
Even though Bass is out of the public eye for a while, she’s still working on other things with the same spirit.
She’s leading a discussion group where she talks with local seniors about everything from daily occurrences to the meaning of life. And she’s currently working on a book of social studies curricula. It would be her second, as she had a writing textbook “Writing: One Day at a Time” published in 2001 by an Illinois publisher.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” she said of the interest she’s received from the same publisher.
“This is more me,” Bass said of her current efforts. “And I always wanted to be a writer.”