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David Colfax – An Intellectual Who Had Contempt For A Lot Of Things But Not His Family Or The Land Where He Lived

David Colfax, a former Mendocino County Supervisor, educator, and expert in data analysis, did not hesitate to show his contempt for critics, and people in the political arena who did not do their homework.

Colfax considered himself an intellectual, and in general he expected the deference typically accorded to a man who had obtained a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago and taught at the prestigious University of Connecticut and later Washington University in St. Louis.

Colfax was known to be cantankerous, abrasive, and blunt to excess, according to friends and neighbors in the Anderson Valley where he died on Nov. 12 in the ridgetop house he built with his own hands 50 years ago. Colfax was 87.

“It was his sanctuary,” said Micki Colfax, his wife of 64 years.

David Colfax set aside his academic interests in 1973 and designed and built the five-room family home on a remote 47-acre parcel in the hills above the valley floor. There the couple, surrounded by an estimated 8,000 books, homeschooled their four sons, and tended goats and a fertile garden to help support themselves in the early years of their personal back to the land experience.

“David designed, milled lumber, and built this house. He was truly a renaissance man,” said Micki Colfax. In the early years, the family house was without electricity, running water, or telephone service.

“We still enjoy the same view of the hills and redwoods facing west to Gualala as we did the day David chose the site for our home,” said Micki Colfax.

David Colfax may have shown his ill-tempered side sometimes in public, and during his 12 years in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, but at home his wife said “he was a loving, and devoted father” to his four sons.

“We are a very tight family. We are Colfax strong,” said Micki Colfax.

The Colfax family garnered national attention when three of their four homeschooled sons were accepted into Harvard and Yale. 

The individual successes of all four sons is remarkable since they never attended school and were all taught at home.

Dr. Grant Colfax left Boonville for Harvard, became a Fulbright scholar, and later served as chief AIDS adviser in the Obama White House. In 2019, he became Director of Health for San Francisco, overseeing a public health agency with 8,000 employees and a $2.3 billion annual budget.

Brother Drew Colfax graduated with a master’s degree in biological anthropology as well a law degree from the University of Michigan, and then went on to earn a medical degree from Harvard Medical School specializing in emergency medicine. Colfax eventually returned home to Mendocino County to specialize in emergency care at hospitals in Ukiah, Fort Bragg, and the Anderson Valley health clinic. During the Covid pandemic, he was a regular on the local public radio station where he addressed public health concerns.

A third son, Reed Colfax, is also a Harvard graduate where he graduated cum laude and then went onto earn a law degree from Yale University. He is a partner in a nationally recognized civil rights law based in Washington, D.C.

A recent online profile described youngest brother Garth Colfax as a ‘computer geek’ who lives in Sacramento and works with developmentally disabled people.

David Colfax told an interviewer that the mixed background of the brothers suggests the family’s homeschooling methods and not genetics accounts for the academic successes.

Colfax told the Associated Press that his sons “are not geniuses; rather they are highly motivated and enjoy learning.”

Mary Schmich, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a profile of the Colfax family after eldest son Grant was admitted to Harvard, a milestone that garnered publicity nationwide.

Schmich wrote that the appeal of the Colfax story to the public went beyond their success in college admissions.

“Not only did they drop out of ‘The System’ and then have their kids win one of the highest prizes – keys to the Ivy League kingdom – but they also raised children who learned to love, honor, and obey Mom and Dad even as they read John Dos Passos, solved algebra problems, and milked goats.”

Schmich concluded that in a “world of punk, crack and rock, that impresses a lot of people.”

The Chicago journalist described Colfax, then age 50, as a man who retained an air of “enfant terrible” with a “curmudgeonly streak.” The description resonated with Mendocino County neighbors, and former political associates of David Colfax.

“Colfax was a difficult man, no doubt,” recalled Editor Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Yet the two men and their families were close for many years.

“I will say, though, when we were friends, he was a great drinking buddy. Nobody ever said he was stupid or boring,” said Anderson.

Micki Colfax, a former high school English teacher who graduated from Penn State, met her husband when she was 18. David Colfax was born in 1936 and grew up near the steel mills in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was the first in his family to attend college.

The couple was described by writer Schmich as “city intellectuals who headed for the hills only after fate forced them out of tamer places.”

Micki and David Colfax believe that his involvement and multiple arrests during Vietnam War protests and other political issues led to his being denied tenure at Washington University in St. Louis. The couple became convinced he became “blacklisted” in academic circles. 

The couple lived briefly in Berkeley before landing in Mendocino County in 1973, where they bought 47 acres on a remote ridgetop five miles from Boonville. Besides the family home, the land has a secluded cabin that Editor Anderson once jokingly described as the area’s only “Marxist intellectual guest house.”

Micki Colfax acknowledged her husband’s blunt nature sometimes led to trouble.

“But he was one of a kind,” she said. “His soul is here with me, and for that I am grateful.”

Drew Colfax said his family plans a public celebration of his father’s life next Spring. Memorials to the Anderson Valley Housing Association, P.O. Box 341, Philo, Ca., have been suggested.

One Comment

  1. Jonesy December 1, 2023

    One of the most fascinating men in one of the most fascinating places… well done raising your sons

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