Community Portrait: Auburn’s Michael Otten a chronicler of history

By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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“When I do my tax return where it says occupation, I write volunteer,” said Auburn’s Michael Otten. Otten jokes but it’s not far from the truth. Otten is president of the Placer County Historical Society, a position he has held since 2005. This is one of the many volunteer posts Otten has filled since he retired. He is also a volunteer registered tax preparer for low- to moderate-income taxpayers, and participated in Project Auburn 2008. Other organizations and foundations Otten has been associated with over the years are almost too long to list. They include positions with the Placer County Library Advisory Board, Friends of the Library, Leadership Auburn Class of 2008, Placer County Visitors Bureau Board, Joss House Chinese Museum Association, the California State Parks Association and the California Lewis and Clark Trail Foundation. Otten stays pretty busy for a retired guy. Career-wise, Otten was a newspaper reporter who started as a copy boy for the Sacramento Union on Sept. 9, 1957, before he had finished high school. He remembers that date because Sept. 9 is California’s Admission Day. At the Union he did a little bit of everything. “These were the old days of hot type,” said Otten. Eventually he worked his way to reporter, covering the courts and political beats for most of his 40-year career as an award-winning journalist. Otten finished his career at the Sacramento Union as capital bureau chief. “I had decided I didn’t want to be an editor — too much sitting,” he said. “I liked to get out.” In the early days Otten’s job would require him to pick up press releases at the state capitol, and in those days he could park in the capitol’s basement. He covered Jerry Brown’s first governorship, and some high-profile court cases in Sacramento including the Symbionese Liberation Army’s (SLA) case in the early ’70s, which included the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, several bank robberies and two murders. Otten also wrote a capital political column. Otten’s interest in history could probably be traced back to one of his first writing assignments. “I was told to write the ‘Years Ago’ feature. This small section of the daily paper required Otten to research old news editions, digging up tid-bits of interesting historical events that happened in Sacramento’s past. Otten was born in Auburn. His father was a printer at the Auburn Journal for a time. His local family roots date back to the early 1900s when his grandfather established a 50-acre ranch in Roseville. Growing up, Otten worked summers on the ranch, harvesting almonds by hand. The family moved to the Sacramento area where Otten lived until he resettled in Auburn in 1995. Gradually Otten began volunteering in the Auburn area while still commuting to work in Sacramento. Otten loves the historical stories, “History really gets interesting when you get down to the individuals and how it came about, how changes were made, the stories,” Otten said. His goal as president of the Placer County Historical Society is to preserve our historical buildings. “People to this day still lament that we lost the Freeman and Orleans hotels in Auburn,” he said. In his 70s, Otten is trim and physically active and a regular at the gym. An avid runner, Otten has run more than 40 marathons and has paced runners during the Western States 100 Endurance Run. Otten is married, still lives in Auburn, and is a father, grandfather and great-grandfather.