Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Mendocino County DA David Eyster
by Steve Sparks, February 23, 2011
I had arranged to meet with David at his recently purchased home in the Ukiah suburbs but with construction underway there we decided to move to his downtown office. He was elected as District Attorney in November and in January he moved into a smaller office and out of “my predecessor’s huge office” which then became a conference room. This is where we sat down to chat.
David Eyster was born in the Detroit suburb of Livonia in 1957 to parents Charles ‘Chuck’ Eyster and Carolyn Rice. He is the family’s genealogist and so was able to go into some detail about his forefathers, the Eyster side of the family in particular. They were Lutherans who, as a result of religious repression, came to the States from Wurttemberg (now in Germany) in 1717 and settled in York County, Pennsylvania. There were lots of Eysters/Aisters/Oysters in the region but by the 1800s the name was settled as Eyster. The family worked mainly in agriculture but they were successful blacksmiths too so that by the time of the Civil War they had become well-to-do merchants and were the outfitters for the Union army — providing horses, uniforms and food.
As the West opened up, the family spread to Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. “By that time we were in a church called The Brethren, a sort of Mennonite Christian group. I have researched all this after getting a book that was 32 pages long on the Eysters from my mother following the birth of my son in 1993. I continue to check weekly obituaries and the Internet has opened up a treasure chest of information so that there now are a further four to five thousand pages that I have added.”
David’s great Grandfather, Peter, was in the Ohio Volunteers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and he had a son, Charles Centennial Eyster, who was born on July 4th, 1876 — hence the name. Charles later became a Minister and missionary working in and around Ohio’s low hill country. He had a son, David’s father, the youngest of four, who was born in Mineral Springs, Ohio in 1921 and the Reverend went on to become the local Director of the Red Cross and a ministered to Prisoners. He died in 1936 and so David never knew him.
As for the Rice side of the family, they were of Scottish descent and had also come to the States in the 1700’s. They were Sons of the American Revolution and had fought in the War of Independence, one of them being a piper who had led troops into battle. “My great grandfather was a merchant in Dansville, Michigan and when he died unexpectedly my great Grandmother moved with the children to Ann Arbor where she ran a boarding house that paid for the boys to go to the University of Michigan Dental School. My grandfather and his brothers all became dentists in Detroit and his daughter, my mother Carolyn, went to the University of Michigan too, studying to become a dental hygienist. One day my father, who was a traveling salesman for the Indiana Safety and Supply Company, was in the chair at the dentist’s office and my mother was assisting the dentist as his hygienist. That is how they met and they were married in Detroit in 1953.”
David has an older brother and sister, Tim and Nancy, with a younger sister Amy. They grew up for a few years in Livonia but when his father became the Mid-west sales manager he moved to the main office in Coshocton, Ohio, east of Columbus, south of Cleveland. “I attended kindergarten in Livonia but then entered 1st grade in Coshocton, a town about the size of Ukiah. I used to bicycle all over town and yet my Mom always knew where I was — mothers would talk to each other throughout the day and they knew every kid’s whereabouts — and what you were doing wrong. We would explore the old strip mines in the coalfields on the outskirts of town. We lived in a part of town that was known as ‘Heated Hill.’ It was at the top of hill that was too steep to drive up in the winter ice so they put in electrical heating lines under the road to melt the ice. It was a nice, middle-class neighborhood and my parents belonged to the country club where there was a swimming pool and snack bar I spent lots of time at. It was seen as important for my Dad to be there for his business and he and I played in ‘father and son’ golf tournaments and I had tennis and ballroom dancing lessons too.”
“I guess overall I had a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ sort of upbringing. I wasn’t spoiled but was certainly loved and had what I needed. My father was strict and we had to listen and anytime I was spanked I have no doubt that I deserved it. Then when my father was away on business, as he often was for two or three weeks at a time, my mother was almost as strict and not averse to giving us a whack too, although I never really felt it was arbitrary. We knew that if ever my parents made a request with a warning or threat attached, it would have to be obeyed because that would become a reality if we didn’t... We had our chores to do and my parents volunteered us to shovel the snow off our elderly neighbor’s drive — that was Grace and Clarence Miller and sometimes Mrs. Miller gave us a quarter for doing it — which was like a $100 bill to us in those days! It was a small-town mentality of helping and taking care of others...At school I was the Captain of the Safety Patrol and that gave me a sort of special status — a big deal back then. Then in 5th grade I started to play basketball and that became a big part of my life in the next few years. The whole town would watch the games it seemed and Coshocton High School had a good team for many years.”
In 6th grade, when David was twelve years old, his father was offered the job as Western Sales Manager and his parents made the decision to move. “In many ways my parents did not like the fishbowl aspect of living in a small town so they were fine with the move, although coming from very conservative, stable, small-town Ohio and moving to northern California in 1969 was a very brave move on their part. We settled in the East Bay in the town of San Ramon by Dublin, before moving to nearby Danville a year later. It was a cool place to live, an area where various celebrities and sports figures lived although they were on top of the hill why we lived down in the Valley. It was still quite rural at that time with walnut groves in Crow Canyon where the big corporate offices are now. I attended Charlotte Wood Junior High and once again rode my bike everywhere — it was safe to go far and wide in those days, we had no fear.”
At the age of thirteen David joined the Boy Scouts, a pursuit that he considers was invaluable in terms of building his character and providing him with many of the skills and experiences from which he has benefited on may occasions since. “My father told my older brother and me that if we were to do anything that he wanted us to do, it would be for us to become Eagle Scouts. We both eventually did... Scouting gave us many skills and a structure to our young lives. By the time I was fifteen I was a camp counselor at summer camp and teaching younger scouts all the skills of rowing, canoeing, camping, hiking etc, and I was a member of the national Rifle team, in which nothing less than bulls-eyes would do. Overall I was in the scouts for five years and I believe it’s something you have to get done before sports and girls take over, otherwise those other two activities will take over and you’ll never get it done.”
Sure enough, by the time he was a senior in high school, David had moved on to both girls and, particularly, sports. He was the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team at San Ramon High School. “I was 6’1” and 170 pounds and we were given honorable mention in the preseason Top Ten East Bay poll that year. We lost to the number one team but then won the rest of our preseason games. It looked good. Then we lost every regular season game by five points or less! Incredible. It was certainly character building but very frustrating obviously. My claim to fame was that I led the team in technical fouls! We had a good team, no stars, and it was a good experience. Lots of discipline and values were instilled that season — life skills, if you like.”
David was a B+ student and found high school generally quite easy. “I probably could have done better at school but it was important to have fun and I probably did things on the weekends that I shouldn’t have, but we were always discrete — unlike a lot of the kids these days... Meanwhile, I was accepted at U.C. Santa Barbara — it was just expected that I’d go to college, my family had all gone and it was not a case of ‘are you going to college?’ but ‘where are you going?’ “
He graduated high school in June 1975 and began his pre-Dental studies that fall. “I loved chemistry and, as I mentioned earlier, my mother’s side had all been in the dentistry profession — it was the Rice legacy! However, once at college I found that I really didn’t like the subject at all. I spoke to a counselor and he advised that I try out other subjects. I did some Political Science classes and not only enjoyed them but got all A’s. I told my parents that I wanted to switch to law and they were fine with it. My father had graduated from Kent State at 16 and I remember vividly walking around the UCSB campus with him during my freshman year and the conversation we had. He told me there were more opportunities to learn from at college than just those in the classroom. His expectation was that I was to take advantage of them all — to have fun; there were social experiences to be enjoyed too. He told me to not miss out on the ‘life education’ available. I followed his advice.”
David lived in dormitories all four years at college. In his sophomore year he was the co-Chair of his dorm and in his junior year he became the President of the Residents Hall Association, responsible for scheduling multi-dorm events, speakers, entertainment, dances, movie nights, etc. “I ran for Student Body President but lost — probably a good thing, besides we had a great ‘defeat party.’ Then in my senior year I was the Resident Assistant for my hallway in the dorm. I continued to play basketball but it was clear I’d be a bench player on the college team at most so I concentrated on intra-mural ball instead. We had a great team, probably competitive with most junior colleges and I averaged 24 points a game over my final three years. I had lots of fun at college but not enough credits as a result. I was therefore planning to do a fifth year when the registrar informed that I had actually achieved enough to graduate. That was a great disappointment to me! I hadn’t applied to graduate school or anything so when I graduated in June 1979 a month later I took a clerk position at the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. I carpooled to work from the East Bay with Richard Dean (the Clerk of the Court), Marcie Green, and David Schmitt — three high level court people. That didn’t hurt as it turned out.”
When the employee in charge of the court’s computer records quit, Richard Dean asked David to step in and learn the very unique system that was in place. He was soon in charge of the programs and over-seeing the data input of the 9th Circuit’s computer system. “I was living with my parents in Danville and commuting in each day to the court building at 7th and Mission. I also traveled to wherever the appellate panels were held in the 9th Circuit — to both Portland and Los Angeles. I was responsible for taking the briefs, setting the court up, and keeping track of the minutes and time, etc. I was kind of a gopher and it was all about business, although it was a lot of fun. However, my parents had instilled in me the desire to meet or exceed the achievements of the previous generation and they wanted me to go to Law School. Plus, with my new experiences in court, I had decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I had met two senior judges at work — Alfred Goodwin and Otto Skopil, and they had taken an interest in me, recommending I apply for Williamette University College of Law in Oregon. I took some tests and applied. It is the oldest university west of the Mississippi, an Ivy League-looking school, and I was accepted to join their 100th centennial class and headed for Salem, Oregon in August 1980.”
David was kept on as a consultant by the Court in San Francisco to answer any questions they may have had and he checked in every week. Williamette has a reputation for producing courtroom trial lawyers and offers a very rigorous three-year course. At the end of his second year, David took on a temporary job as an environmental law clerk in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland. “I was selected out of a group of clerks by the Assistant US Attorney, Tom Lee, which was an honor. He is an extremely capable attorney, not flamboyant, kind of quirky.”
David graduated in May 1983 and decided to return to California where he took a job as law clerk with the law firm Kiernan and Finnegan in their Marina District office in San Francisco. “I was offered a job there because the big attorney there was David Schmitt — from the car pool I had been in, and so I returned to the city and moved back in with my parents.”
In October 1983, David was socializing in San Francisco’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ section of the Marina District with friends from his high school days. There was an altercation with some drunken rugby players from the University of Southern California, up in the Bay Area for the Cal/USC football game. At one point David was trying to settle a dispute outside a bar when he was suddenly blindsided with a tremendous punch to the face. He went down but chased after the perpetrator, down alleyways, in a taxi ride when both of them got in the same cab, across the City to Union Square, and eventually getting two cops’ attention by grabbing the guy in the street and shouting ‘Help, police!’ After explaining what had happened to the cops, they found cocaine in the guy’s pockets and arrested him. Meanwhile David’s mouth had been continually filling up with blood throughout this whole sequence of events.
“The cop who saw me first said ‘Oh my God,’ and immediately called the ambulance and I was rushed to hospital. That one punch had broken my jaw in four places — it had basically shattered my face. It turned out he was the President of the USC Rugby Club. One of my friends who had tracked me down to the hospital had to finally pluck up enough courage to call my Dad. Apparently he phoned and, when my Dad picked up, my buddy Mike said, ‘Hi, Mr. Eyster’. My Dad knew right away something was up and said, ‘Cut the shit, Mike, what’s going on?’ I was in the hospital for a week and had to have jaw reconstruction surgery. The guy was convicted of felony battery and sentenced to 180 days and restitution for hospital bills.”
With his jaw wired shut, David was on liquid foods and lost a lot of weight. He could hardly talk and had to leave his job as a result. However, in 1984 he passed the Bar exam and started to apply for jobs from Orange County in southern California up to Mendocino County. The Mendocino DA at the time, Vivian Rackaukas, interviewed him and although he had never been to Mendocino County before, when she offered him the job he accepted. On October 26th, 1984 he started as the Deputy DA in the then-underachieving Family Support (aka ‘Deadbeat Dads’) Division of the Mendocino County DA’s Office.
Part 2 of this interview with David Eyster will appear next week. To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com.