A 2021 remembrance: The lives that left an enduring imprint on Sonoma County, North Bay

Their voices and spirits added to the unique anthem of this place. Today, surely, their imprints on our collective melody endure.|

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.

— Irving Berlin, 1927

The words are apt for many or all of the people of Sonoma County and the North Bay whose songs of life played out this past year.

Composer Berlin’s heartening lyrics ring as especially appropriate to at least four of the most accomplished local residents who died since Jan. 1: Don Green, whose love of singing sparked him to initiate the creation of the world-class Green Music Center; pianist and passionate Santa Rosa Symphony champion Norma Brown; former Sonoma State University performing arts director Jeff Langley; and pianist and ultimate hostess Lucille Gonnella, of Occidental’s landmark Union Hotel.

While these four and all of our other recently departed neighbors were with us, their voices and spirits added to the unique anthem of this place. Today, surely, their imprints on our collective melody endure.

Here are memories of some of the local people who in 2021 left the choir.

Don Green

Who knew that in addition to all else that he did, Don Green could sing?

The British-born telephone communications innovator had long perceived himself engineered only to savor the vocal music of others.

Green recounted in his 2016 memoir, “Defining Moments,” that on a Sunday in the 1960s he was singing hymns from a San Francisco church pew ― his wife, Maureen, might have said he was “bellowing hymns.”

Don Green looks at the color of a glass of Pinot Noir from his Black Kite Cellars at his daughter Rebecca Green-Birdsall's home in Glen Ellen on Wednesday July 28, 2010. (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat, 2010)
Don Green looks at the color of a glass of Pinot Noir from his Black Kite Cellars at his daughter Rebecca Green-Birdsall's home in Glen Ellen on Wednesday July 28, 2010. (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat, 2010)

How surprising, Don Green wrote, “when the woman in front of me half-turned and said, ‘You have a nice voice. You should join the choir.’”

He did. Maureen did, too.

Nearly 30 years later, Don Green soared as chief visionary of Sonoma County’s booming Telecom Valley. He and Maureen sang in the Bach Choir led by Bob Worth, then choral music director at Sonoma State University. The trio spoke of how badly SSU needed a performance hall designed for vocal music.

Don Green profited handsomely from the 1996 sale of public shares of his Advanced Fibre Communications, Inc. So he and his wife donated to SSU $10 million for what became the stunning $145 million Green Music Center.

At its 2012 grand opening, wowed by acclaimed pianist Lang Lang, Don Green told the crowd, “As the beer commercial puts it, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

He died in June at 90. Maureen Green died in the fall of 2020, also at 90.

Norma Brown

For decades starting in 1958, Norma Brown’s husband, Corrick, stood with baton in hand before the Santa Rosa Symphony and fine-tuned the music flowing from what he helped to lift up as one of the finest regional orchestras in the nation.

Behind the scenes, Norma Brown did pretty much everything else.

She managed the orchestra’s music library, lured in celebrated soloists and then made all the arrangements for their visits, set up the tape recorder at every rehearsal, you name it.

“She knew everybody in the orchestra, and not just to say hello,” Shirley Chilcott, a former Santa Rosa Symphony cellist, said earlier this year. “I can’t imagine anyone else being married to Corrick. She was the perfect wife for him because she did everything. All he had to do was the music.”

Of course, Norma Brown did music, too. Splendidly.

Discovering as a child that she loved the piano, she accompanied her church choir in Santa Cruz. She entered Stanford University at 16 and passed on Harvard to earn a graduate degree in musicology from Columbia.

While raising her three boys in Santa Rosa, Norma Brown worked behind the scenes to help the Santa Rosa Symphony grow and thrive while teaching piano and starting a chamber music series at the Santa Rosa Junior College. (Brown Family)
While raising her three boys in Santa Rosa, Norma Brown worked behind the scenes to help the Santa Rosa Symphony grow and thrive while teaching piano and starting a chamber music series at the Santa Rosa Junior College. (Brown Family)

She and Corrick Brown married in 1956. In 1958, both gave over their lives to the Santa Rosa Symphony and its charitable Symphony League.

Norma Brown died in May at 89.

Said Alan Silow, the orchestra’s president and CEO, “Without her, the Santa Rosa Symphony would not be what it is today.”

Jim Harberson

Through his remarkable, 25-year run as a local elected official in Sonoma County, Jim Harberson achieved much.

The down to earth, North Carolina-reared gentleman and Vietnam veteran was clear about the accomplishment of which he was most proud: his leadership role in assuring the perpetual preservation of great, unspoiled expanses of Sonoma County land.

As a county supervisor, the former Petaluma City Council member was key to the creation in 1990 of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

“It was the first open-space district in the United States to be funded by a sales tax … it was a brilliant tactic to avoid the two-thirds majority on property taxes and to blunt opposition from property-rich, cash-poor ranchers,” wrote Richard Walker, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of geography, in his 2007 book, “The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Former Petaluma City Councilman Jim Harberson. Photo taken in Petaluma on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)
Former Petaluma City Councilman Jim Harberson. Photo taken in Petaluma on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (CRISSY PASCUAL/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)

“Open-space politics in Sonoma,” Walker continued, “has undergone a change of heart.”

Harberson said of his role in preserving from development more than 120,000 acres of Sonoma County land, “There aren’t many things you can say will last forever, but that’s one of them.”

The genial local legislator, engineer, teacher and to-the-marrow Georgia Tech fan died in January. He was 78.

Sally Miller Gearhart

In 2008, teacher and writer and lesbian activist Sally Miller Gearhart of Willits watched Sean Penn portray slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk in the film “Milk.” She liked the movie but knew, as many savvy viewers did, that someone should rightly have played her.

“I try not to pass judgment” about her character being scratched from the script, Gearhart said. “But that is what happened.”

Sally Miller Gearhart in Eugene, Oregon in 2013. (A. Kate Fritsch / Wikipedia)
Sally Miller Gearhart in Eugene, Oregon in 2013. (A. Kate Fritsch / Wikipedia)

Gearhart was teaching communications at San Francisco State College, the first open lesbian in a tenure-track position at a major American university, when in 1978 she joined with Milk to oppose California’s proposed Briggs Initiative. It sought to ban homosexual people from teaching and academic positions.

In a TV debate, the author of the initiative, state Sen. John Briggs, declared that while child molestation can’t be eradicated, “let’s cut our odds down and take out the homosexual group and keep in the heterosexual group.”

Responded Gearhart, “Why take out the homosexual group when it is more than overwhelmingly true that it is the heterosexual men, I might add, that are the child molesters?”

In the film, those lines are delivered by Milk.

Gearhart regretted not so much that she was left out, but that “Milk” didn’t acknowledge the feminist role in defeating the Briggs Initiative. She told The Press Democrat in 2009, “I feel like women were deliberately made invisible for an artistic purpose.”

Life went on and so did she. Until her death in July in Mendocino County, where she’d created a retreat in the woods for women, Gearhart continued to write and resist. She was 90.

Vince Harper

Food. Water. Clothing. Shelter.

Vince Harper
Vince Harper

Vince Harper knew what children need to survive. He toiled every day for decades to get underserved kids in Sonoma County what he knew was essential for them to have a chance to thrive.

Positive mentoring. Certainty that they were loved. Opportunities to learn and to better themselves and their prospects, and to contribute to their communities. Confirmation that they were seen and heard.

Harper was a constant, beaming presence on the streets and parks and alleyways and schoolyards of South Park, Roseland, Moorland, Bellevue and elsewhere that children of poverty in Sonoma County confront harsh realities and temptations. As the most public face of the nonprofit Community Action Partnership, he pursued every conceivable means of guiding young people away from gangs and despair, and toward lives of fulfillment and engagement.

“My happiest moments,” he said in 2020, “have been when youth I have worked with in the past are doing so well. Maybe the first person in their family to actually graduate from high school, and then graduate from college … really makes me proud and kind of helps me to feel that what I have done in the past has mattered.”

It certainly has.

Harper, said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, “was always very dedicated and passionate. And he just cared.”

Vince Harper died in November. He was 55.

Among his mantras: “Anyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”

Carlos del Pozo

Carlos Del Pozo was affectionately dubbed the “Pozole King” after organizing several Pozole Night fundraising events at Roseland schools. Photo courtesy of Vince Harper.
Carlos Del Pozo was affectionately dubbed the “Pozole King” after organizing several Pozole Night fundraising events at Roseland schools. Photo courtesy of Vince Harper.

Late last January, Vince Harper prepared to bid a happy farewell to Carlos del Pozo, a dear friend and fellow pillar of Community Action Partnership Sonoma County programs that aim to protect and advocate for youth.

Instead, it broke Harper’s heart to have to say goodbye. Del Pozo was a day away from retiring from CAP and moving to New York to join his wife and one of his daughters when, on Jan. 28, a traffic collision on Highway 101 in central Santa Rosa took his life.

“He was so empathetic,” Harper said at the time. “One of the things I appreciated a lot about him is his willingness to go where families are and not to make families come to him.”

As manager of CAP’s Padres Unidos program, Del Pozo worked with parents eager to assure that their kids don’t become involved in gangs and destructive behaviors. He was a source of light at CAP for 25 years.

Though Del Pozo avoided the spotlight, he was the quiet star of the community dinners at Roseland Elementary School that featured pozole, a brothy Mexican soup, and raised dollars for families served by the school and by Padres Unidos.

Del Pozo was 58.

Yvette Fallandy

Yvette Fallandy spoke French beautifully. And she, for certain, spoke her mind.

Yvette Fallandy (Family photo)
Yvette Fallandy (Family photo)

The native of Santa Monica earned a doctorate in French studies at UCLA in 1957, then became a professor. Sonoma State College was in its infancy when she came on board to create a French studies program.

Fallandy became the college’s first female vice president for academic affairs, and she made her presence known. She forcefully opposed a move by college trustees to name as Sonoma State’s new president an ally of S.I. Hayakawa, who’d suppressed student protest at San Francisco State.

Fallandy also stood up as a leader in the opposition to SSU President Peter Diamandopoulos, who resigned in 1983 following three censures and a faculty vote of no confidence over his management abuses and widely observed tendency to tyranny.

A lifelong Catholic, Fallandy was, too, an ardent critic of the church for sexual abuse by priests and other leaders, and the church’s conservative stance on a host of social and human rights issues.

Her description of a colleague was fitting for Fallandy, as well: “Brilliant as was her mind, it was the least of her: her courageous honesty, her absolute refusal to compromise what she deemed right, her tickling ready wit, her perceptive compassion, her active generosity to all, and her unflagging loyalty to her friends made her a woman among women.”

Fallandy died in January at the age of 94.

Colleen Combs

Colleen Combs loved to see the look that came to the faces of visitors to her renowned Green Dog Rescue Project in Windsor.

Instead of the customary rows of chain-link kennels, the Green Dog shelter boasted a huge, open area alive with dogs that roamed, played, sniffed or lounged on old sofas. The oftentimes abused, neglected and traumatized animals were moment-by-moment taking cues from the pack.

“The pack helps to put dogs back to a natural state, because the pack won't tolerate certain behaviors,” Combs explained. “The pack itself helps rehabilitate them.”

Green Dog Rescue Project executive director Colleen Combs greets about 100 rescue and day care dogs in their free range dog care business in Windsor. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Green Dog Rescue Project executive director Colleen Combs greets about 100 rescue and day care dogs in their free range dog care business in Windsor. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Combs attracted national and even international acclaim for her mostly cage-free approach to saving rescued dogs that otherwise risked being euthanized or deemed unadoptable because of aggression or other troublesome traits.

Combs observed that shelter dogs largely or entirely confined to kennels can be made more stressed by the isolation. Her innovations in pack socialization saved the lives of a great many dogs and changed the minds of more than a few humans.

She died in March at 57.

Merle Rossmann

Fortunate are those who recall waking up morning after morning to the elegant, learned and trusted voice of Merle Ross.

Merle Rossmann
Merle Rossmann

The broadcaster, whose actual, off-air name was Merle Rossmann, surely could have been a success in any radio market anywhere. But fortunately for Sonoma County, he landed at Santa Rosa landmark station KSRO in 1959 and decided it and its community fit him perfectly.

Over the course of nearly four decades, Rossmann did everything at KSRO. The Lodi native and veteran of World War II covered elections and breaking news. He trained and inspired green, young reporters and, alongside friend and funny man Jim Grady, he called the action at prep and college games up and down the state. And, he launched the new days of countless awakening listeners by sharing with them what was going on in their world.

Rossmann died in April. He was 92.

Gerald Haslam

Author and 30-year Sonoma State University professor Gerald Haslam wrote once that as a child of the oil and farm fields of California’s vast Central Valley, he knew nothing of the Golden State’s beaches and movie studios and glamour.

“I decided,” he wrote, “to write about the version I knew: rural and small-town, distinctly multiethnic, blue-collar, and deliciously sensual … but not very prestigious. I called it the Other California.”

Haslam would garner acclaim for his 21 books, all of them set in California or the West. Friend and fellow writer and former SSU professor Jonah Raskin wrote that Haslam “probably introduced more people, through his anthologies, to the literature of California than anyone else in his generation.”

Haslam died in April. He was 84.

Jeff Langley

Jeff Langley
Jeff Langley

Music was what made Jeff Langley tick. The native of Ukiah wrote music and performed and celebrated it in the company of artists such as Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger.

Langley had studied and also taught at The Juilliard School, created theatrical works for the stage and directed entertainment at Knott’s Berry Farm when, in 1997, he came to Sonoma State University as a music professor and director of the school’s Center for Performing Arts.

He’d arrived at SSU at an ideal time: It was in 1997 that choir singers and music lovers Don and Maureen Green offered the college $10 million for the creation of a world-class music venue

Langley was all in on the hugely complex project that produced the Green Music Center. It was a natural fit for him to become its inaugural artistic director. He was integral to the center up to his retirement in 2014.

“He was the first to give credit to everybody else and none to himself,” said SSU music department chair Andy Collinsworth. “He didn’t seek the limelight. It was all about service.”

Langley died in November at 70.

Lucille Gonnella

For as long as most aficionados of Occidental’s famed Union Hotel can remember, one of the best parts of dining there was encountering Lucille Gonnella.

She grew up in the place, and she charmed it. As a young woman, the former Lucia Panizzera passed on an opportunity to study at Stanford University. Instead, she helped her parents, Carlo and Mary Panizzera, run the landmark restaurant.

The Panizzeras both died in the late 1970s. Lucille Gonnella stepped up to operate the restaurant along with her husband, Dan “Mahoney” Gonnella.

Recalled a granddaughter, Gien Gonnella, “Making torta for the first time without her mother caused tears to stream down her face — tears of sorrow and tears of frustration as the rendering lard burned.” But Lucille persevered.

Lucille and Daniel Gonnella stand in front of their family home in 1949. (Gonnella family)
Lucille and Daniel Gonnella stand in front of their family home in 1949. (Gonnella family)

For decades, she cooked and she greeted Union Hotel guests, and delighted them at the piano. She especially catered to Puccini operas.

She died in January at 90.

John Gonnella

It’s been a while since John Gonnella lived in Occidental, but his death in November was a harsh blow to the west county town even so.

Once regarded as Occidental’s unofficial mayor, Gonnella was a treasured fixture on the town’s fire department for 50 years. He was for much of that time a pillar also of Occidental Hardware and was indispensable to the slow-pitch softball team, the Occidental Benders.

And he was kin to Lucille Gonnella’s husband, Dan, who died in 1992. Though John Gonnella moved to Santa Rosa about 10 years ago, he remained a cherished and essential part of Occidental.

“For a community to be a community,” said his brother, Tom Gonnella, “you need people like my brother.”

Johnny Gonnella was 68.

Ralph Harms

Marathon runner and workout junkie Ralph Harms chose to live like precious few other 85-year-olds. He chose to die like even fewer.

As chronicled in August by Press Democrat columnist Kerry Benefield and photojournalist John Burgess, Harms decided as an aggressive cancer spread through his body that he would not continue taking prescription drugs and declining.

“I feel like garbage with this medication,” Harms said this past summer. “I just decided I wanted to end this whole thing.”

In July, he drank a cocktail of apple juice and the lethal, prescribed medications allowed for use by certain terminally ill patients by California’s End of Life Option Act.

Harms was 85.

Two days before his death. Ralph Harms built a house just a few blocks from an entrance to Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa 36 years ago to be near its running trails. Two days before his scheduled death with dignity, Ralph takes one last fast-paced long walk around his chosen spot. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Two days before his death. Ralph Harms built a house just a few blocks from an entrance to Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa 36 years ago to be near its running trails. Two days before his scheduled death with dignity, Ralph takes one last fast-paced long walk around his chosen spot. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Chet Galeazzi

On June 12 of 1922, Chester “Chet” Galeazzi was born in the great house of stone on Sonoma Highway in east Santa Rosa built by his grandfather, Massimo Galeazzi. The Stonehouse stands still as a historic landmark.

Galeazzi appreciated stonemasonry but chose to go into beverage distribution, founding the Eagle Distributing Company in 1958 and, later, Eagle Transportation Company. He distributed Anheuser-Busch products until he sold Eagle Distributing in 1989.

He loved Sonoma County and quietly did much for it, including helping to turn a former church into the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

Galeazzi died in July, shortly after his 99th birthday.

Bob Stone

Lifelong Santa Rosa resident and Santa Rosa High School Class of 1954 graduate Bob Stone provided all sorts of community service that most folks didn’t know about. But many couldn’t help but know about his Clydesdales.

For decades at Christmas, Stone gussied up as Santa, hitched one of more of his magnificent horses to a wheeled sleigh and brought smiles to many at the holiday parade in Petaluma and in any number of Sonoma County neighborhoods.

The Eagle Scout, former manager of his family’s Stone Furniture Company and a longtime broker with Sonoma Properties died in mid-December. He was 85.

Rose Gaspari

Not everyone who celebrates a major birthday in Santa Rosa can expect to sit in the front yard and watch a boisterous, just-for-them parade pass by. But not everyone is Rose Gaspari.

People who loved Gaspari arranged the parade in June of 2020 because she was 106, she’d lived in Santa Rosa since 1936, and those who regarded her as special included the generations of golfers awed by her through the unmatched 80 years that she belonged to the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club.

She turned 107 shortly before her death in July.

Del Tiedeman

Even at age 100, tears would come to Del Tiedeman of Healdsburg upon recalling what he witnessed as a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot on D-Day and throughout the liberation of Europe.

But there were only smiles on Veterans Day of 2020 as Tiedeman boarded at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport the reconfigured 1942 Douglas DC-3 owned by Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane of Benovia Winery.

Del Tiedeman, 98, piloted a C-47 with paratroopers on D-Day during World War II. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Del Tiedeman, 98, piloted a C-47 with paratroopers on D-Day during World War II. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Tiedeman had flown such a plane in 1944. He was offered the pilot’s seat of the Spirit of Benovia, and once aloft was invited to take the controls.

“He jumped right in,” said chief pilot Jeff Coffman. “He made a couple of turns, 360-degree turns, like he’d been doing it all his life.”

Tiedeman died in April at 100.

Eduardo Lepe

Care to imagine Eddie Lepe in a state of bliss? Picture him setting a Mexican feast before a team of famished kids who’d just played their hearts out on a soccer pitch.

Topping the list of what Lepe loved most were his family, his Lepe’s Taqueria restaurant in Santa Rosa and youth sports — particularly soccer.

He was 51 when he died in August.

Pete Foppiano

Candidate for supervisor in the 4th district of Sonoma County Pete Foppiano, Monday, April 28, 2014.   (Crista Jeremiason/The Press Democrat, 2014)
Candidate for supervisor in the 4th district of Sonoma County Pete Foppiano, Monday, April 28, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason/The Press Democrat, 2014)

Healdsburg native Pete Foppiano discovered leadership at a tender age.

As a teen he was believed to be Sonoma County’s youngest-ever Eagle Scout, and he was just 30 when he was first elected to the Healdsburg City Council. Twice he occupied the mayor’s chair.

Foppiano’s love of politics and of people shone through while, in recent years, he provided insight and color to Steve Jaxon’s talk show on KSRO.

He died in June at 67.

Tim Alexander

For more than 35 years, people who carried shoes or a purse or a belt or whatever into Tate’s Shoe Service in Santa Rosa couldn’t be certain when proprietor Tim Alexander would finish the repair or alteration.

But Alexander would complete the job, and he wouldn’t charge much, and he’d leave the customer sensing they were in the presence of an old soul and a craftsman who loved and was proud of his work.

The revered cobbler died in November at 67.

Chris Smith is a retired Press Democrat reporter and columnist. You can reach him at csmith54@sonic.net.

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