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Isaak, Petaluman who aided homeless, dies

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Mary Isaak, a tireless advocate for the homeless in Petaluma, died at her home early Saturday of congestive heart failure. She was 88.

Co-founder of the Committee for the Shelterless, better known in the community as COTS, Isaak's commitment to the homeless was recognized in 2004 when the shelter opened its new facility named in her honor -- the Mary Isaak Center.

Born Mary Booth in Eugene, Ore., on Oct. 23, 1919, Isaak spent much of her childhood on the University of Oregon campus, where her mother headed a women's dormitory.

She later received a music degree from the university and also studied English literature.

As a young woman, she moved to Berkeley, where she met her future husband, Georg Isaak, a graduate student at the University of California who also served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

After teaching for several years, Georg Isaak told his young family he was ready for a change.

"He said he was sick of the adolescent mind and moved us to Petaluma to raise chickens," recalled his son, Tom Isaak.

The couple raised five children on the 22-acre farm. When the economics of the poultry industry turned against the small farmer, Georg Isaak went back to teaching, and his wife gave it a try herself.

She opened a small school on the ranch, which she ran for a few years until her children were grown. She was also trained in social work.

In the late 1980s, she and Laure Reichek became increasingly concerned about the homeless problem in Petaluma and in 1988 decided to do something about it.

"They saw some people sleeping under a bridge and they were moved," Tom Isaak said. "They just rolled up their sleeves."

They founded COTS, which over the years has grown into an organization with a budget of more than $2 million and a state-of-the-art, $4.4 million center that has 95 beds as well as 33 transitional housing units.

Isaak was warm and easygoing, while Reichek was the hard-charger with a fierce intellect, Tom Isaak said.

"The two of them together were pretty darn dynamic," he said.

Isaak is survived by her five children: Tom and Bill Isaak of Petaluma, Molly Isaak of American Canyon, Natalie Knott of Martinez and Anne Isaak of New York, as well as five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services are being planned and likely will include a memorial at COTS.

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