by Bill Snyder
Nearly every room in the Berkeley home Patricia Yollin shared with long-time partner Paul Chinn was filled with hippos of myriad types, shapes and sizes. She had come across a psychedelic stuffed hippo on a visit to Chicago years ago and “became a bit obsessed. We have hundreds” said Chinn.
Yollin, a veteran Bay Area journalist known for graceful writing, thoughtful editing, and a quirky and generous personality, died on Feb. 22 after a short struggle with cancer. She was 69.
Chinn announced his partner’s death on Facebook. Within hours, dozens of tributes were pouring in. Typical was a post by Tyche Hendricks, who worked with Yollin at two newspapers and KQED:
“Such a tremendous loss! Pat Yollin was a great mentor, editor and friend to me at the Examiner and Chronicle and at KQED. Her intelligence, curiosity, beautiful prose, journalistic instincts and ethics, her amazing ability to tell a story, her humor and pithy insights, her sense of justice, her quiet leadership, and her impressive fount of good gossip — are irreplaceable and will be terribly missed.”
Yollin’s career path was similar to that of many Bay Area journalists, and it mirrored the wrenching changes the news business has undergone in recent decades. She started at the Hayward Daily Review, then part of a small, suburban chain. She moved to the San Francisco Examiner when it was a Hearst-owned afternoon daily slugging it out with the San Francisco Chronicle.
When Hearst sold the Examiner and purchased the Chronicle, Yollin, along with much of the editorial staff, moved to the morning paper, only to take a buyout a few years later when the Chronicle began hemorrhaging money. A period of freelance work led to a temporary job as an editor at KQED, a gig that became permanent when “KQED saw just how skilled she was,” said Dan Brekke, a friend who first worked with Yollin at the Examiner and then at the public broadcasting station.
Yollin wore a number of hats at the Examiner, working on the on the night copy desk, the city desk and a stint as a reporter. This was a time when women were just gaining recognition in Bay Area newsrooms, but Yollin had no problems dealing with her male colleagues. “She was funny, and she was tough,” Brekke said.
And quirky as well. Yollin wrote a popular column known as the “Phantom Commuter” and, true to its name, the author was anonymous. When she appeared on KQED as the phantom, she disguised herself with a big floppy hat and a red mask.
Whether writing or editing, Yollin had the respect of her colleagues. “It was a joy to edit her stories because I never had to work hard and I always learned something,” Bill Burnett, a former Examiner editor, said via Facebook.
Yollin had an eye for an offbeat story. While on vacation in Vancouver, a place she and Chinn loved to visit, the couple came across Michael Hallatt, who was selling goods from Trader Joe’s at his own store, goods he purchased in the U.S. and brought to Canada in his white van. When the giant retailer sued him, he changed the name of his store to Irate Joe’s.
Yollin was freelancing then. She pitched the story to the Chronicle and was rewarded with the assignment. The story was replete with details, such as a comparative list of prices between Trader Joe’s and Irate Joe’s, and the time Hallatt had to disguise himself as a woman to smuggle his goods across the border.
As a freelancer, Yollin was instrumental in starting the Guild Freelancers unit. She was always ready to volunteer, whether helping to plan an event, preparing publicity materials or putting in long hours on-site at a multi-day event, says Rebecca Rosen Lum, a co-founder of the freelance group. “Pat was very dear – funny friendly, supportive and generous with her considerable talent and expertise,” she says.
Yollin’s illness came on suddenly. She began noticing symptoms last fall. In December, she was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a very rare and aggressive cancer of the bile ducts and liver that usually goes undetected until it’s in advanced stages, Chinn said.
Yollin wanted to fight her cancer, but a series of health reversals made chemotheraphy impractical. When she realized she would soon die, Yollin insisted that she and Chinn, who had lived together for 26 years, marry to simplify the legal and financial complications that inevitably accompany death.
“She always said she couldn’t picture herself as someone’s wife,” Chinn said. But they married at the office of the Alameda County Clerk on Jan. 13. Eight days later, Yollin suffered a stroke. Hospitalization and then hospice care soon followed.
“We had a really good life together,” Chinn said.
Yollin was from Philadelphia, where she attended a Catholic school through high school. She attended Northwestern University, earning a degree in political science and government.
Her survivors besides Chinn include nieces Jennifer Yollin of San Francisco and Julie Berk of London, and a nephew: Guy Yollin of Seattle.
Said Chinn, “I know lots of you will want to do something in Pat’s memory. Please consider a donation in honor of Patricia Yollin to the Chaparral House skilled nursing facility in Berkeley — https://www.chaparralhouse.org — where Pat spent her last few days and received genuinely loving care.”
Yollin did not want a formal funeral, but Chinn said he might organize a small event for close friends later in the year.