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Roy Memeo, longtime owner of Mendocino Avenue service station, dies at 91

Roy and Jan Memeo in 2010

CHRIS SMITH,

Roy Memeo, a lifelong Santa Rosan who for decades delighted patrons of his family’s north Mendocino Avenue service station and then of a do-it-yourself car wash around the corner on Lewis Road, demonstrated to his future wife on the night they met just what sort of man he was.

It was 1949 and Memeo, a cheery and musical World War II veteran, noticed Jan Freeman at The Grove, a swinging dance spot in Guerneville.

“He danced with me a couple of times, then asked to drive me home,” she recalled.

She told him he could, but he’d have to bring along her friend, Joyce Nierson, too. Memeo said that was fine, that in fact a buddy, Jim Perillat, would ride as well.

The two young women grew nervous when Memeo took Bennett Valley Road to Holland Heights and a well known lookout and make-out spot.

Jan Freeman pressed against the front passenger door, putting more distance between her and the ex-Navy Seabee she scarcely knew.

Memeo parked and he and Perillat stepped from the car, sidled up, snapped their fingers — and serenaded the disbelieving women.

“I think it was, ‘Down By the Old Mill Stream,’” Jan Freeman Memeo said. With the song completed, Roy Memeo drove her and her friend home.

Roy Albert Memeo died Feb. 7 after short period of failing health. He was 91.

One of four sons of immigrants from Italy Giuseppi and Maria Memeo, the Santa Rosa High School graduate was a proprietor in the car repair and gasoline business from 1951 until 1994. He was best known as the friendly fellow who’d do anything for customers of his and his brother Al’s Union Oil station at Mendocino Avenue and Lewis Road, where the Safeway station is now.

The Memeo Bros. Union Service opened in January 1963 and boasted five service bays.

“That was big for those days,” Roy Memeo said in a 1997 interview for a personal biography one of his daughters commissioned.

In 1967, the Memeo brothers expanded their business with the purchase of Oscar Scruggs’ gas station, garage and Hertz dealership on Santa Rosa Avenue. Roy Memeo loved working on cars and having nearly everyone in the small town come in at one time or another for gas or repairs.

But not all was well.

The Memeo brothers became aware that they and other independent garages were subjected to unfair disadvantages by the repair shops run by auto dealers. Roy Memeo recalled in his biography that General Motors and Ford and other carmakers would not provide service manuals to independent garages, only to dealerships.

The inequity prompted Memeo to build strength through numbers with the creation of the Independent Garage Owners of Sonoma County.

Memeo said it and an allied statewide organization won some victories as they advocated for an even playing field in the auto repair business.

For decades, the business provided Roy Memeo a stage and a good living for his family, and a bushel of stories.

He recalled in his biography the day millionaire developer Hugh Codding drove in and sheepishly said he needed gas but wasn’t carrying any money. Then there were the hippies who, in the ’60s and early ’70s, would buy just enough fuel to get them to the communes at Morningstar or Wheeler ranches.

Memeo loved music and dancing and parties with his many friends and his family. For decades, he played drums in the Drum and Bugle Corps of Santa Rosa’s Theodore Roosevelt Post 21 of the American Legion.

The 1944 graduate of Santa Rosa High also was a regular among the senior-most alumni of the landmark school who met for a monthly meal at Willie Bird’s Restaurant. They call themselves the Old Farts Club.

Memeo had the distinct idea that the large oil companies were out to put independent stations out of business when he took part in a lawsuit against Union Oil in 1994, accepted a settlement and walked away from his Mendocino Avenue station.

He wasn’t doing well with retirement when a friend who owned the self-service car wash just up Lewis Road asked him to manage it.

Memeo took the job and worked it for 13 years, until the car wash was demolished to make space for a new fire station.

Memeo says in his biography that car-wash customers often would recognize him and tell him they appreciated the service they received for so many years at his and his brothers’ service stations.

“We had honesty and integrity,” Memeo said. “We learned that from our mother.”

The last surviving Memeo brother, he was in palliative care when he died Feb. 7 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

“He did not want to leave me,” said the dance partner he first sang to in 1949. “He was priceless, and I loved him dearly.”

In addition to his wife of 67 years in Santa Rosa, Memeo is survived by his daughters, Tina Ostrander and Cheri Tamo, also of Santa Rosa, and four grandchildren.

A celebration of his life is at 11 a.m. March 3 at First United Methodist Church, 1551 Montgomery Dr. in Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.