Charles ‘Ozzie’ Osborne, 1919-2009

By Derk Richardson Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:39:00 PM

Charles Glenn “Ozzie” Osborne, proprietor of the legendary Elmwood Soda Fountain for nearly 40 years, died in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 29. He was 89 years old.  

Ozzie (he would never abide the formality of “Mr. Osborne”) had been receiving dialysis treatments for several years, and after a gradual, progressive physical decline, he ultimately succumbed to kidney failure. He had been hospitalized the week before his death but for his final days returned, with hospice care, to the house he shared in Palo Alto with Joy Sleizer, his wife of 13 years. 

As soon as word of Ozzie’s passing reached Berkeley, a makeshift shrine began taking shape on the east-facing window of the now-shuttered Elmwood Health & Mercantile (formerly known as the Elmwood Pharmacy) at the corner of College Avenue and Russell Street. A large reproduction of a photograph from Ozzie’s last day at the soda fountain in 1989 (shot by lunch counter regular Richard Nagler) served as the centerpiece, with other photographs, historic menus and memorabilia, and a sheet of spontaneously scrawled tributes, farewells, and memories taped to the window, and bouquets of flowers left in homage on the sidewalk. 

Ozzie’s corner of the world, to borrow from Whitman, contained multitudes. 

“This guy was a soda jerk,” says Osborne’s son Rory Osborne, 59, of Davis, “and yet he influenced so many people’s lives. I’d be traveling in Europe, or I’d be in a doctor’s office getting physical therapy, and I’d meet people who’d say, ‘You’re Ozzie’s son?!’ It was amazing.” 

“That was a big life,” comments longtime Elmwood resident Bruce Riordan, who remembers slurping “suicides” (a little of every flavored syrup plus soda water “jerked” from the fountain) after school and sitting at the counter watching the Giants play the Yankees in the 1962 World Series. After Riordan and his wife, Virginia, settled in the Elmwood in the early 1980s, they, like countless other baby boomers, regularly took their kids, Neal and Louis, to the soda fountain, where Ozzie’s humble fare included grilled cheese, tuna salad, egg salad and chopped olive, and chicken-pecan sandwiches, milk shakes, ice cream sodas, and egg creams.  

Born on Dec. 31, 1919, in Sacramento, Osborne grew up in Folsom, the son of a prison guard father and schoolteacher mother. He was the middle child of three, outliving his elder sister, Bernice, and younger brother, William.  

As Rory Osborne remembers, Ozzie briefly attended the University of California but never graduated. His college years were cut short by the onset of World War II, during which Ozzie served as a fighter escort pilot, accompanying bombers on raids and reconnaissance in North Africa, Italy, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union. One of his soda fountain menus featured a photo of Ozzie in his flight gear next to a plane, plus the motto “Live in fame or go down in flames.” 

After the war, Ozzie settled in Richmond with his first wife, Lois. There would be a second wife, Marilyn, and dancing/life partner, Ruth, before Ozzie met his third wife, Joy. Lois gave birth to two sons, Rory and Greg (now 62 and living in Silver Springs, Nev.), and Ozzie worked as a partner in Danny’s Drive-In on MacDonald Avenue. When the opportunity arose in February 1950, Ozzie took over the soda fountain that had been in operation in the Elmwood Pharmacy since 1921.  

Under his proprietorship, the soda fountain became the social hub of the neighborhood, a place where anyone could feel at home, even if you didn’t share Ozzie’s left-liberal politics. Rory Osborne notes that while his dad told scores of war stories, he was staunchly antiwar and distanced himself from veterans who paraded their patriotism. “By the time I graduated from high school,” Rory remembers, “he was more radical than I was.” Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Ozzie took part in marches, petition drives, public meetings, and electoral precinct walking, and was proud of having been arrested during demonstrations at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

In the early 1980s, the soda fountain became the launching pad for a movement that resulted in Berkeley’s short-lived commercial rent-control ordinance. With the pharmacy and soda fountain facing eviction by a prospective buyer of the entire corner building, local merchants and residents mounted a grassroots campaign that resulted in the passage of Measure I, an initiative that brought commercial rent control to the Elmwood business district. Although later nullified by state law, the measure opened a window for such local enterprises as Your Basic Bird and Lewin’s Metaphysical Books to condominiumize their buildings.  

“Ozzie just loved the idea of taking the law into our own hands and putting a commercial rent- and eviction-control law on the ballot,” remembers veteran rent-control organizer Marty Schiffenbauer. “He was an amazing petition-signature collector. The counter was a perfect place to get signatures, but I also remember working a movie theater line with him and what great fun he was having engaging people and convincing them to sign on.” 

On any given day at the soda fountain—which wasn’t formally called “Ozzie’s” until he handed the business off in 1989 to Robin Richardson, who operated it until 1998 with her business partner, Norm Shea—the mix might include local merchants, neighborhood characters, Berkeley politicos, kids on their way home from nearby schools, new and old friends seeking solace and advice, and the occasional homeless person finding brief respite on one of the 16 red vinyl stools, sipping a glass of water and often leaving with a free sandwich.  

The galvanizing force was Ozzie’s personality, a sometimes flinty, always compassionate admixture of strong opinions, curiosity, and generosity. He could make himself present for anyone. In addition to supporting social and political causes, his avocations included gardening (he was an early and avid advocate of organic horticulture) and round dancing (a cued form of ballroom dancing), both of which he practiced in retirement as long as his health allowed. Sober for 45 years, he served as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor for many younger people with substance-abuse problems. 

“He had room in his heart for almost everyone—except Richard Nixon,” says Sally Elkington, whose first visit to the counter in 1981 resulted in her working there until she graduated from law school in 1988.  

“We had many, many long talks—about relationships, school, parents,” Elkington recalls. “Oz had a great sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously. His advice was always sage and well rounded. He put things in perspective and helped me put my life in perspective.” 

On Oct. 19, 2008, Ozzie, in a wheelchair, escorted Elkington down the aisle in her wedding to Susan Lamb. As late as mid-January, he was making plans to attend the “Ozzie’s Valentine’s Day dinner,” an annual gathering of 30 or so former soda fountain regulars, family members, and friends.  

“I was on the phone with Caskey, my Ozzie’s Valentine’s Day date for the past 19 years, when I got the impulse to check my e-mails to see if there was anything about Ozzie,” says Marty Schiffenbauer. “And an e-mail from his wife, Joy, had just popped up with the sad news he had died. It felt as if Ozzie had planned that Caskey and I would learn about his passing at the same moment so we could share a good cry together.” 

Charles “Ozzie” Osborne is survived by his wife, Joy Sleizer; two sons, Greg of Silver Springs, Nev., and Rory of Davis; and four grandchildren, d’Artagnon (Darth), Steve, Glenn, and Katie. 

A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, 1140 Cowper St., Palo Alto, CA 94301. Donations in Ozzie’s memory can be sent to the landscaping fund at the above church or to InnVision, 974 Willow St., San Jose, CA 95125.