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As president of the Sonoma County Fair Board, one of the things Ralph Bettinelli enjoyed most was riding shotgun on the Budweiser Wagon, making a grand entry with the Clydesdale horses on Farmer's Day.

He also was a fixture at the 4-H replacement heifer sale at the Sonoma-Marin Fair, tapping his cane to fetch the highest bids for a program that gives kids experience with raising dairy cows.

Bettinelli, 75, a longtime Petaluma dairyman and past president of the Sonoma County Fair Board, died on a trip in Scotland, as a result of heart complications.

He was on his way to the Edinburgh Royal Highland Show to see one of his granddaughters compete in a dairy judging competition.

Bettinelli was hospitalized for a week in Glasgow and died June 28 after undergoing surgery for a torn aorta, according to his daughter, Kim Jones of Santa Rosa.

A third generation dairyman, he was raised on the family farm on Adobe Road in east Petaluma.

A horseman as well, he liked to do business on his word and a handshake.

Bettinelli "didn't have much polish, but what he said, he usually took his time and he meant it," said his lifelong friend Jesse Amaral of Petaluma.

"I used to kid him (that) he was born 100 years too late. He liked the old time ways of doing things," said Amaral, whose friendship with Bettinelli went back to their days together in the long gone Bliss Grammar School on Casa Grande Road.

Bettinelli could typically be found on weekday mornings shaking dice over coffee at Ernie's Tin Barn on Lakeville Highway. He also liked to play cards.

Born to Egidio and Mary (Keechler) Bettinelli, he had two sisters and a brother and worked on the farm growing up.

He dropped out of Petaluma High School and joined the Army for two years, stationed in Hawaii.

In 1959, he married Connie Moreda, who was also from a large dairy family.

In the early 1960s, they started their own dairy on Wilfred Avenue, between Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, before returning to the 300-acre home ranch in Petaluma in 1972.

"They worked their fanny off, the two of them. They milked cows, did everything themselves. They came up the hard way. Nothing was given to them," Amaral said.

"The two of them must have done the work of four people," he said adding that he used to jokingly ask the couple "how did you have time to get five kids?"

Connie Bettinelli died from cancer in 1996.

All of their children were active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, exhibiting livestock at the Sonoma County Fair.

As a teenager, Bettinelli had exhibited Guernsey cattle at the fair.

He would go on to serve 15 years on the fair board, including one year in 2008 as president.

A member of the Sonoma County Grand Jury in 1987, Bettinelli, an avid hunter, ran afoul of the law a few years later when he and several of his family members were accused of fraudulently obtaining multiple hunting licenses, in order to skirt regulations on the shooting of mule deer.

He pleaded no contest, was fined $1,000, ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and banned from hunting for two years.

In 1994, Bettinelli was again in the news, charged with polluting a creek with cow manure. It was a time when prosecutors vigorously pursued dairy ranchers to keep waste out of waterways.

Other dairy ranchers had been charged with pollution, but Bettinelli was the only one who insisted on going to trial. The case pitting milk cows against the environment drew news coverage throughout the Bay Area. But a few hours into the trial Bettinelli settled, agreeing to a $7,500 fine.

Beyond his occasional clashes with authorities, Jones said her father "had a way with people," and they were drawn to him because he treated people fairly and with respect.

"He always had a pretty good story and was a good listener as well," she said.

He was also an active member of Petaluma Elks Lodge 901, Petaluma Rotary and Sonoma County Trail Blazers, a men-only riding group.

In addition to Jones, survivors include his longtime companion Kathleen Doyle of Helena, Mont.; daughters Roxanne Bettinelli and Dawn Bettinelli Sullivan of Petaluma and Rochelle Beeson of Potter Valley; son Egidio Bettinelli of Penngrove; eight grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.

A funeral mass will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. James Catholic Church, Petaluma.

Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Parent-Sorensen Mortuary and Crematory, Petaluma.

Entombment will be at Calvary Cemetery, Petaluma.

In lieu of flowers, contributions are suggested a favorite organization. or to the Ralph and Connie Bettinelli Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Exchange Bank, 2 E. Washington St. Petaluma 94952.

— Clark Mason

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