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By Bill Yenne
Paul Kantus, Noe Valley's beloved archivist and a lifelong Noe Valley neighbor, died on Nov. 4, 2008. As his wife Edith Kantus said, "Although he traveled far and wide, he always called Noe Valley home."
The man whom Friends of Noe Valley member Eleonore Gerhardt described as "an incredibly dedicated and generous person" was born in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1926. Except for his time away at sea, he lived all of his nearly 83 years in the Noe Valley house where he grew up.
An engineer, film buff, and eager student of history, Paul was known throughout his life for sharing his talents with his community. In fact, the word "generous" came up every time I asked people how they remembered Paul. To this sentiment, Bob Roddick, of the Noe Valley Association, added that Paul was "a wonderful individual with a great sense of humor."
"Agreeable" was another word friends and family used. If you asked Paul if he would do something for you, his stock reply was: "Oh, sure." Paul's lifelong friend, Asta George, told me that she had never seen him mad. Come to think of it, none of us had.
Paul was the only child of Julius and Emmy Kantus, both of whom fled Estonia during the Russian regime. Julius had left Estonia to avoid service in the Russian czar's army. "He stowed away on a Norwegian barkentine around 1905, during a time of revolution across Russia," Paul told Larry Beresford in a 1986 interview for this paper. Paul went on to say that his father bought a house on Douglass Street in Noe Valley. As Paul remembered, "Pop dug out the basement, jacked it up, and put it on a foundation."
Paul attended Alvarado Elementary School, James Lick Middle School, and Mission High School. Some of his fondest childhood memories centered on the movie theaters that flourished on 24th Street in the 1930s, including the Palmer and the Noe.
Asta George knew Paul when they were both kids growing up in the neighborhood. When her family moved to Cazadero, Paul came up in the summers. "Our parents were friends before any of us were born," she explained. "Paul was like a second brother to me. He was a city boy, but he loved coming to the country. He was a fun person, always filled with lots of interesting tales."
Because Julius was a machinist, Paul was attracted to life aboard ship and trained as a merchant seaman. He found a job as a lowly wiper in the engine room, persevered, and eventually became chief engineer. He sailed on freighters of the MooreMcCormack Line on their South American run for 18 years, and with the States Line between the West Coast and Japan for five years. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1953, and as an ensign in the U.S. Navy from 1954 to 1964. In 1980, he left his career at sea and joined the San Francisco Department of Public Works Department, from which he retired as a supervisor in 1990.
It was during his time at sea that Paul developed his love of movies. "I still like going to the movies," he told Larry Beresford. "That's how I met my wife." Paul and Edith were married in 1973. As Edith put it, she "loved film as much as he did."
"Going to sea, we'd rent films for entertainment," Paul recalled. "I started bringing films from my own collection--which now includes over a hundred features." He enjoyed showing films for the passengers and crew, supplying them with the adventures and romances of dashing movie heroes.
As Edith said, "Any crew member who left the ship before the end of a serial was sworn to secrecy as to the identity of the real villain."
Paul especially enjoyed the adventures of Laurel and Hardy, and he joined the Bay Area Laurel and Hardy enthusiast group known as the Sons of the Desert. As he told the Voice with a grin, "We meet every other month and wear fezzes."
His love of film extended to filmmaking, and he took a course in this subject in Santa Cruz, where he tried his hand at directing.
In retirement, Paul happily turned his attention to his hobbies. In addition to film, these included photography and a love of books. He also enjoyed Eric Gattmann's world affairs classes. "He'd become a fervent supporter of Barack Obama," his teacher said.
He was a member of Friends of the Library and Friends of Noe Valley, as well as president of the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, another important Noe Valley organization.
"He was there for his city and his neighborhood," Bob Roddick said. "Whether it was painting out graffiti or representing East & West during the formation of the Noe Valley Community Benefit District, he was there. He was an important and integral part of the neighborhood."
While he was a warm and charitable man, and a devoted husband, Paul's lasting legacy, his gift to the neighborhood, was the Noe Valley Archives. As Carol Small of the Noe Valley Library said, "He was a kind and gentle man dedicated to preserving the history of Noe Valley."
Paul spent nearly three decades collecting and preserving stories, photographs, documents, news clippings, and other memorabilia related to Noe Valley's history. My own book, San Francisco's Noe Valley, would have been impossible without my having Paul's work as the strong shoulders on which to stand.
He shared the collection with me, and with the library on History Day, and he frequently shared it with the Noe Valley Voice. "Paul was always happy to run over at the drop of the hat with an old photo," said Voice editor Sally Smith. "We owe him so much."
For many of us, a favorite memory of Paul is chatting with him at Herb's, where he liked to stop each morning for a cup of coffee and an English muffin. When the cafe closed last year, Paul took up his routine at Toast Eatery, Herb's replacement on 24th Street. When Eleonore Gerhardt asked him how he liked the new place, he said that he did, adding, "What's great is that they give you marmalade."
A memorial service for Paul Kantus was held at the Noe Valley Ministry on Nov. 29. Everyone at the gathering agreed that Paul, our generous neighbor and friend, would be greatly missed.