Nello Bassignani, who grew up in one of early Santa Rosa's Italian vegetable-farming families and cultivated himself into the town's friendliest and best-dressed butcher, died in his sleep Monday night or Tuesday morning.

Just seven weeks ago, he and many friends and members of his large family celebrated his 100th birthday in grand fashion.

Only a few people closest to him knew that he was diagnosed with heart disease about 18 months ago. Born to be a bartender, he volunteered to pour at back-to-back events last Saturday and Sunday nights at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.

"That was his home away from home," said his daughter, Sandra Bassignani.

She said a few people in attendance at the weekend celebrations remarked that he didn't seem his nimble and effervescent self. But he didn't utter a word of complaint, and back at his longtime home near Memorial Hospital on Monday he took the day slowly.

His granddaughter and live-in assistant, Vikki Ramponi, said that when she found him in his bed Tuesday morning he looked completely at peace.

"He went his way," she said. "He did it on his terms; he really did."

Bassignani's death may mean the end to the Drum and Bugle Corps of Santa Rosa's Theodore Roosevelt Post 21 of the American Legion. Though he wasn't a military veteran — he was too young to serve in World War I and by WWII had a wife and family — he served as the dwindling musical group's drum major.

"He kept it all together," said longtime friend and fellow Drum & Bugle Corps member Roy Memeo. "I don't know of anybody who would take it over."

Also questionable is whether, without him, the Santa Rosa old-timers who called themselves the West Third Street Gang will continue to meet for lunch at Sam's For Play cafe on the second Friday of each month.

"He kept it going," said Bassignani's younger brother, Peter Bassignani, 95. "He'd call everybody that Thursday."

And every morning, without fail until this past Tuesday, Nello Bassignani phoned Peter Bassignani to say hello and catch up.

"I lost a wonderful brother," the younger Bassignani said. "He was a good person to everybody."

Nello Bassignani was born in west Santa Rosa's Little Italy neighborhood on Oct. 26, 1912. As a child he helped run the vegetable garden his immigrant parents farmed on leased land that today lies beneath Dutton Avenue, west of Railroad Square and the West End district.

Eager to make some money for nice clothes and a car of his own, he went to work at 16 delivering groceries for Louis Tonelli's Pershing Market. He later moved to the town's original Pacific Market, where owner Quinto Furia taught him to be a butcher.

"You know what they paid when I started in meat?" he asked during an interview with The Press Democrat in October. "Twelve dollars a week."

That was decent money in the hard times of the early 1930s. A drummer, he also made a few bucks as a young man by playing in a band that performed at Grange halls and clubs throughout Sonoma County.

Music and dancing were passions he shared with the former Mary O'Halloran.

"She was a good dancer," Bassignani said in October. "We used to go down to Lena's and dance."

The couple married in 1936 and moved into the house between Sonoma Avenue and Montgomery Drive that would be home to Nello Bassignani for more than 75 years.

He worked as a union butcher at several Santa Rosa markets before he created his own business, Nello's Meats. Some of his happiest working days were those when he operated an independent butcher counter at Ray's Food Center, a market at Hearn and Dutton avenues that was operated for decades by his nephews, Raymond Lazzini and the late Joseph Lazzini.

Bassignani retired at age 66 in 1978. He traveled with his wife, who died in 1998, and stayed active tending bar at events at the Veterans Memorial Building, picking and selling walnuts and entertaining his legion of friends, his seven grandchildren and his seven great-grandchildren.

"Oh, he enjoyed life," fellow drummer Memeo said. Granddaughter Ramponi observed, "Grandpa loved flirting with the ladies, all the way to the end."

Funeral services are at 10 a.m. Wed., Dec. 19, at Daniels Chapel of the Roses. A reception will follow in the main auditorium of the vets' building.

— Chris Smith