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Each time someone greeted Jesse Love and asked how he was, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers and one of Sonoma County's most admired Pearl Harbor veterans and men of God would respond the same way.

He smiled his 10-megawatt smile and replied, "Happy, thankful and blessed!"

Love, a founding member and 60-year pillar of Santa Rosa's landmark Community Baptist Church, died Wednesday evening after several months of failing health. He was 91.

Love's smile and gratitude endured many hardships, among them the discrimination the African-American man faced upon enlisting in the Navy at age 17 in 1939 and, a few years later, upon settling in the nearly all-white town of Santa Rosa.

"He was always a gentleman. Kind, gentle and helpful," said Vivian Coffee, a longtime friend and the widow of late Community Baptist Church pastor James E. Coffee.

Love "was not a fighter," she said. "He tried to get along with everybody. He was always trying to see the good in everything."

Another old friend, Carole Ellis, the Sonoma County educator and human rights advocate, said, "If you didn't know his last name, you could have guessed it.

"This man was love."

Jesse Love worked more than 20 years as head housekeeper at the former Community Hospital. In his private life, he was senior deacon of his church and chaplain for several veterans groups, including Theodore Roosevelt Post No. 21 of the American Legion.

For decades, the mere sight of him pulling up in the white-over-blue Pontiac Catalina he purchased new in 1972 brought joy to ailing veterans and members of the Community Baptist congregation, and to servers at his favorite Santa Rosa restaurants and markets.

Widowed since the death in 2000 of Victoria Ruth Love, whom he adored for 56 years and cared for 24 hours a day through a long decline at the end of her life, Love often shopped or ate out in the company of his longtime caregiver, Catherine Ybarra.

She relished seeing people greet him as a local celebrity and elder, and listening as he offered them his favorite pieces of fatherly advice.

Love would counsel, "Enjoy your life while you're young."

"Eat well, and save money," he recommended often.

And, "Most of all, love your family."

Love was born in 1922 in Grace, Miss., and grew up in Greenville. His parents, Roosevelt and Irene Love, were sharecroppers and his grandparents had been slaves.

He enlisted in the Navy and aspired to become a mechanic, but because he was black his only option was to cook and clean in the messman's corps. He followed orders but repeatedly challenged the system that severely limited African-Americans' opportunities in the military.

"I considered myself fighting two wars during those days," he told Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron in 2001.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Love was a 19-year-old cook at Ford Island Naval Air Station, inside Pearl Harbor. He recalled to LeBaron the blasts of bombs and torpedoes dropped by Japanese planes, and the three horribly burned young Americans he helped to wrap in clean linens.

"They were in their skivvies and they were covered with black oil and they had blisters on their bodies the size of walnuts and marbles."

Following the attack that drew America into World War II, Love served in the Pacific aboard the seaplane tender USS Curtiss and other ships. A series of stateside assignments concluded with his arrival in 1942 at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station southwest of Santa Rosa.

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Soon he met and fell in love with the former Victoria Ruth Pearson. They married and upon Jesse Love's honorable discharge in 1945 decided to settle in the city.

Love would grimace upon recalling the Santa Rosa landlady who told him he needed to move out because he was too dark to blend in with the neighbors.

"That was my first encounter with what I left in Mississippi," he told LeBaron in 2001.

He worked as a warehouseman at the late Max Barlas' feed store for 14 years, and when the poultry industry declined he became a housekeeper at what was then called Sonoma County Hospital. Through most of his 24 years at the facility, which became Community Hospital and then Sutter Medical Center, he worked as chief housekeeper.

In 1951, Love joined other members of Santa Rosa's small African-American community in founding the Community Baptist Church. The following year he became a deacon. The church hired James Coffee as its pastor in 1963.

Vivian Coffee said her late husband looked to Love for wisdom. "He loved Jesse Love," she said.

Intensely proud of his military service, Love also was a charter member of the Santa Rosa-based Chapter 23 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

"He was my brother," said the group's president, 95-year-old Herb Louden of Petaluma. "Jesse was the only person I knew who said he prayed for me every day."

For years, Love was known throughout California and beyond for his work and chaplaincy with several veterans organizations and also the Free & Accepted Masons.

Earlier this week, fellow Community Baptist Church deacon Roy Burgess visited Love at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. As Love slept, Burgess said, "There aren't too many people I can say I see God in. And he's one of them."

"God didn't miss when he named him."

Love is survived by his son, Winfield Love of Los Angeles, sisters Irene Conner of Saginaw, Mich., and Rosie Cox of Greenville, Miss; seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Visitation is from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, at Daniels Chapel of the Roses. Services are at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 4, at Community Baptist Church.

Interment will follow at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.

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