May 29, 2023

At 90, Attorney Joe Coomes Has Plenty on His Plate and Mind

A tribute to friendship and ideas

By Ed Goldman

I get a lot of ideas from Joe Coomes. At 90, Joe is not only my best friend: he’s also my youngest one. This doesn’t mean I have that many BFFs who are older than he is, just that Joe still has a scampishness and intellectual prowess that would be the envy of many in any age group.

He and I meet for lunch or dinner about twice a month. If it’s dinner, we meet at a friendly Italian restaurant, Il Forno Classico, in Gold River, about 20 minutes from downtown Sacramento, (except on Fridays, when Highway 50 becomes overwhelmed with drivers heading to the south shore of Lake Tahoe while trying to figure out the new lane divisions, which I believe were designed by the State of California DPT (department of transportation and pandemonium)).  

Edgy Cartoon

Joe Coomes

When we meet for lunch, it’s usually at Scott’s on the River, a wonderful seafood restaurant owned by pal Alan Irvine. Scott’s is connected to the Westin Hotel, an elegant respite from the aforementioned downtown, across from the Sacramento Marina. 

Restless-minded Joe is the kind of guy who devours nonfiction books on everything from physics and urban planning to biographies and philosophy, making notes in their margins. He’ll often bring me a book he thinks I’d enjoy. In the past three weeks, these included a collection of supercilious raves and snide rants about Broadway musicals (loved it) and a book called “How to Get Ideas.” As he handed it to me over lunch he said, “I don’t think you need this but it might make you laugh.” It did.

Joe and I have been friends since 1977 or so. I’d come to Sacramento the year before to work for City Hall and he—the former city attorney—frequently appeared before the City Council on behalf of developer clients, whom he began representing as a shareholder of McDonough Holland & Allen, then the second-largest locally owned law firm in the capital. When that firm closed 13 years ago, he was swiftly adopted by Best Best & Krieger, a much larger firm, where he remains of counsel. (Did I mention he’s 90—and add that he walks much faster than I do?)

Our friendship began in earnest when Bill Berg, a guy I’d taught with at Cal State Fullerton, contacted me in Sacramento to say he’d accepted a new job, as a producer for the PBS TV station in Rochester, N.Y. He was putting together a panel discussion on a municipal topic—why some urban shopping malls fail and others succeed—and asked if I’d like to fly east to talk about Sacramento’s mordant K Street Mall, which had been built using redevelopment funding. At the time, the mall was closed to automobile traffic (not that anyone wanted to drive there, anyway) and featured concrete sculptures kids liked to play on that were obviously dangerous. (Did I mention they were “concrete”?) 

It sounded like a fun junket but I’d just started my job. So I went to my boss, City Manager Walter Slipe, whom I knew hailed from upstate New York and that his mom still lived there.  I thought he’d enjoy the gig—and that I, incidentally, would seem very cool for bringing it to him.

But Walt hadn’t been in his job very long, either—in fact, I’d been only his first or second hire—and thought it wouldn’t make for what we now call good optics for him to swan off on an expense-paid trip. So he recommended his friend Joe Coomes, whom he called “the unacknowledged father of redevelopment in California” (Joe has since been widely acknowledged as such). 

By that time, I’d seen Coomes speak on behalf of his clients at a dozen city council meetings and was convinced he won every issue he brought before the electeds by boring them with extensive details until they issued the legislative equivalent of white flags: unanimous approvals.

I called Bill and told him the situation but warned him that Coomes, if he’d be available, was so scary-smart about land use and financing that he’d make an already lethargic topic lethal for viewers—including the on-air panel. “Let me worry about that,” Bill said.

So I told Joe, he was delighted to do the show, and while Joe was flying home after the taping, Bill left me a voicemail, saying, “It’s about your friend Coomes.” I shuddered to call him back, fearing the worst had happened and Bill had lost his job for booking such an intellectual guest.

You can probably guess where this is going. Bill couldn’t say enough about how “entertaining, informed and gracious ” (his exact words) Joe had been. He thanked me profusely and we made plans to get together sometime when he was in California. This was 46 years ago and I just know he’ll call any second now.)

I told Joe about his rave review, we had lunch so he could thank me, and we became friends. Once our then-new wives met a year or two later and clicked, the camaraderie only increased, bringing with it love and laughter but also inevitable sadness. Holly, Joe’s ebullient wife, was at my wife’s deathbed in 2007. Four years later, I was at Holly’s.

The losses changed the dynamics of our friendship only in that we both now had someone we could talk to about being widowed—and eventually, getting on with one’s life, however diminished— who really got it. But as time went on, we began spending less time reminiscing and more time thinking about the present—and the future, which, when someone’s 90, is nothing if not inspirational.  

Anyway, you can blame Joe for my tribute to him today. After all, he’s the one who gave me that book on “How to Get Ideas.” It unintentionally gave me one: to write about a man still filled with them.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).