Jeff Craemer likes to buy big things—really big things like fireboats, printing presses, and locomotives. He also likes to write big checks, and Friends of China Camp is the beneficiary of a stack of them.
Jeff heard that kids had set a fire that burned down the public restroom at Bullhead Flat. “I’ll take care of it,” he said simply, reaching for his checkbook. The weather-beaten kiosk at Back Ranch Meadows needed to be rebuilt. “Let’s get it done,” Jeff said. Utility trucks? Power tools? No problem.
This generosity and support comes from a modest, unassuming man. Most mornings and evenings, he drives through the park in his boxy Ford van. It’s a no-frills vehicle crammed with rolls of wiring, cables, and assorted tools. These are the trappings of Jeff’s trade: fixer, builder, designer, historian, mechanic, scholar, news hound, handyman, surveyor, and collector of everything, including stamps, rare books, and printing presses.
“I like to stay active,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”
And go he does, helping and supporting along the way. The 74-year-old philanthropist, Friends of China Camp’s largest donor, supports many organizations. According to FOCC Executive Director Martin Lowenstein, Jeff is “an affable, kind, generous man to many organizations. He makes peoples’ dreams come true.”
Jeff and his wife, Celeste, have been married 40 years. He started volunteering by delivering meals for Whistlestop (now Vivalon), a job he loved. Over the years, he’s been a major donor and hands-on participant in many Marin-based organizations, including the Marin History Museum, Marin Public Library (contributing to the historic newspaper archives), the museum at San Quentin State Prison, San Rafael Fire Foundation, Mount Tamalpais State Park, and, of course, China Camp. It’s not surprising that in 2019, after decades of philanthropy and service, he was honored as San Rafael’s Citizen of the Year.
Ernie Stanton, a longtime China Camp volunteer who often chats with Jeff at the Village Cafe on Saturdays, also gives Jeff a big thumbs up.
“Jeff is a soft-spoken guy who knows how to get consensus. He works with rich people, working people, mayors, all kinds of people,” Stanton adds. “Jeff is always sincere, never has a hidden agenda. He goes way above and beyond to help people.”
Long-time newspaper man with deep Marin roots
For generations, the name Craemer has been linked to the newspaper business. In 1937, Jeff’s grandfather, Justus, was a buyer and eventually publisher of a local paper that in 1948 became the Marin Independent Journal. His father, Jack, was named managing editor the following year, and owner and co-publisher in 1966. Jeff grew up in the business, learning everything from how to set type to selling advertising.
He was raised in Greenbrae at a time when there were more cows than people there. When he was 7 years old, he had his first epileptic seizure, and was in a coma for 5 days, losing 40 percent of his vision and 90 percent of his motor abilities. Over the years, he’s had 29 operations, including one to remove a brain tumor.
But Jeff doesn’t dwell on the many health emergencies he has survived. “I am extremely disabled,” he explains. “But the good lord has given me a wonderful life and friends. People helped me a lot,” he adds. “Now I help them.”
Jeff recalls visiting the park as a child before there was a Peacock Gap—or paved roads. He also has witnessed the seismic transformations in newsrooms with changing technology and the swift take-over of many independent newspapers. Because of his seizures, he couldn’t get a driver’s license until he was 30, but he was able to get a license to captain a 21-foot boat, which he took out onto the bay and up the Delta.
He reads five newspapers a day and takes every opportunity to talk to park volunteers and visitors about history. For this loquacious man with an easy laugh, who jokes that he was once 6’5” and now 5’9”, history is no mere hobby. Knowing it, preserving it accurately, and making sure it is accessible to all is one of his bedrock values.
And he’s got more plans for preserving and protecting China Camp. Big plans. He means it when he says simply, “I’ll take care of it.”
—by Janet Wiscombe