s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Last farewells


The year unspooled, tying past to present to future. Lives closed — to age or illness, in violence or despair. Death launched a manhunt. It spotlighted an industry's change. It marked a community's pain and a generation's fast vanishing. It gave notice that U.S. wars go on.

A wine baron died. So did Sonoma County's most generous philanthropist. Dozens of World War II veterans passed on, their era receding yet further.

Billionaire Kendall-Jackson winery founder — and racehorse owner and breeder — Jess Jackson died in April at age 81. He left behind one of the world's largest wine companies, and the industry he helped shape lost a weather-vane.

"Above anything else, we would watch what Jess was doing, because he was always ahead of the curve," said wine business consultant Eileen Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

Former Press Democrat publisher Evert Person, who gave $40 million to local causes, died in March at age 96, leaving a legacy that stretched from performing arts to hospitals, community centers to museums, higher education to organizations that work with troubled youth.

"For 60-plus years, here was someone who felt that it was a duty and an obligation and a privilege to make sure that your community got better every year," said Andrea Learned, vice president of development at the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital Foundation.

At least 60 North Coast World War II veterans died in 2011. One of them was James Harris of Lucerne, who as a teenager in the Navy pulled wounded and dead sailors from Pearl Harbor's oily waters, He died in January, at age 86.

Other ties to the war era ended this year. Yuka Matoba, uprooted with her family from Healdsburg in 1942 and sent to a Colorado internment camp, died in January in Sebastopol at age 106.

For others, death arrived in untimely fashion, surrounded by tragedy and lingering questions.

A civic leader was murdered in the woods. A paralyzed teenager died in a car crash. A politician's husband killed himself. A 10-year-old boy fell to cancer. A 14-year-old girl died at a sleepover.

Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo, 69, was gunned down by Aaron Bassler in August as he inspected timberland. After 36 unnerving days at large, Bassler, 35 — who had earlier also killed 45-year-old Matthew Coleman, a land manager — was himself shot dead by SWAT officers who caught up to him on a lonely forest road.

"I've got so many friends in Fort Bragg who are breathing easier. Today's a good day," Melo's son, Greg Melo, said after Bassler's death was announced.

Petaluma teenager Danny Cox chronicled online his treatment and difficulties after he broke his neck in a Lake Tahoe diving accident. He died in October, at 19, when the truck he was driving crashed into a tree near Novato. Authorities said it was suicide; his mother said his broken neck killed him. "Absolutely," she said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane's husband, Peter Kingston, took his own life at his family's Santa Rosa home in January. He was 56.

"I want people to realize that this is a disease," Zane said later, speaking about the depression to which Kingston succumbed. "It's not really a choice. My loving, kind, compassionate husband would not have chosen to hurt me or our family or loved ones. He was not in his right mind."

David Fallon Drew of Santa Rosa fought cancer for eight years and underwent 11 surgeries. He died in March, at the age of 10.

"You get courage from a kid like this," said his father, Patrick Drew.

Authorities are still trying to determine why Rincon Valley Middle schooler Takeimi Rao, 14, died at her house during a summertime sleepover. Initially, alcohol poisoning was suspected, but that was cast in doubt in November when tests showed she had a low blood-alcohol level.

In the year the Iraq War was ended, the war in Afghanistan took the lives of three more North Coast men, bringing to 17 the number who have died in the two countries since 2002.

Navy SEALs Jesse Pittman, 27, a Willits native, and Darrik Benson, 28, of Angwin, were among 30 servicemen and eight Afghans killed in a helicopter shot down in August. James McLaughlin, 55, of Santa Rosa, was killed in April when an Afghan pilot opened fire at a military compound near Kabul. The retired Army lieutenant colonel was a civilian contractor training Afghan helicopter pilots, work he'd also done in Iraq.

McLaughlin's son, also named James McLaughlin, said the family had braced itself for bad news throughout his father's career in war zones.

"You know it's a possiblity and you cherish the time you have," he said.

As the year passed, the register of the North Coast's storied agricultural past grew smaller.

About 2,000 mourners attended the April memorial for Mitch Mulas, head of a family that has farmed dairy cattle and grapes for five generations. When he died at 82, he was still chief of the Schell-Vista Volunteer Fire Department he helped start.

Jim Modini, a rancher and preservationist descended from Sonoma County's earliest European settlers, died at age 94. So, too, in December, Stanley Johnson, at 80. Cerebral palsy forced the Yorkville sheep rancher into a wheelchair from childhood, yet until he was 77 he ran the 2,200-acre ranch where he was born.

Younger men who worked the land also died. Mike Lee succumbed to a heart attack in May at age 66. He and three family members bought an old Kenwood jug winery in 1970, when the county's chief crop was prunes. The winery became Kenwood Vineyards, and Lee became a mentor to dozens of top North Coast winemakers.

The county's agricultural roots always have intersected its politics, as personified by Ignazio "Ig" Vella, who died in June at 83. He grew up in the cheese trade, took over the family business in the 1980s and turned it into a small empire in California and Oregon.

The lifelong dairy industry advocate was as well known for his political reach as a three-term Sonoma County supervisor, manager of the Sonoma County Fair and a 12-year Sonoma planning commissioner.

Communities across the North Coast lost leaders in 2011.

Santa Rosa Junior College's student body vice president Kory "Kevin" Ryan died in October at age 61 after undergoing oral surgery. He had been active on campus in areas from gay rights to picking the next school president.

"He was the person who would always fight for people who didn't have a voice," said Amanda Swan, the SRJC student body president last year.

Cotati Councilman Robert Coleman-Senghor died at age 70 of a torn aorta. The Sonoma State University English professor was a frank, opinionated politician. A former Marine, he refused to take the pledge of allegiance during meetings and once called for an investigation into whether he had violated the city's ethics rules.

Doris Murphy, a social worker, co-founded the Occidental Center for the Arts and Occidental Community Council and helped establish lunch, transport and health care programs for seniors in the west county. She died in March at 101.

Sebastopol's first female mayor, Gwen Anderson, died in March at age 80. She won office in 1978 and was credited with being the driving force behind the city's Bodega Avenue firehouse as well as its network of one-way streets. Once she proposed installing plastic trees to save landscaping costs; only days later did she inform council colleagues she'd been joking.

Rohnert Park lost the woman who gave it its moniker, The Friendly City. Reba Roberts, who died in July at age 77, helped start the city's third business, Roberts Pharmacy. She also helped prepare hundreds of young women for Junior Miss and Miss Sonoma County pageants. Never slouch or chew gum, she told them, never say "you guys" or "you know."

Roberts suffered a cruel financial and emotional loss in her later years, when she invested her life's savings with Michael Rosen, a longtime friend and Rohnert Park developer turned swindler. He steered one of the county's most notorious Ponzi schemes, in which 117 investors lost about $6 million buying phony deeds of trust. He also died this year, in April, at age 64, in what authorities said was a suicide.

The year closed with the death of one of the world's oldest people.

Elsie Rich fled Vienna in 1938 ahead of the Holocaust. She and her husband settled on a chicken ranch near the present-day Costco store on Santa Rosa Avenue. On Thursday in Santa Rosa, she died at age 110.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.