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A look back at notable Sonoma County residents who died this year

Robert Ellison in 2010.

PD File
Published: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:30 p.m.

Prominent citizens are often described as “towering figures” in the community.

Robert Ellison left an enduring mark on Sonoma County by forging towering steel figures that stand in public places from Petaluma to Santa Rosa — and places as far away as Providence, R.I. and Anchorage, Alaska.

Ellison, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at his Sonoma Mountain home on Sept. 9 at age 65, is among the county's notable residents who passed away this year.

Among the departed are two prominent jurists, three Pearl Harbor veterans and a woman who survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Some endured for decades, like wine pioneer Louis J. Foppiano who died in March at 101, while others passed prematurely, like rodeo star Broc Cresta, who died in July at 25.

Ellison's name may be unfamiliar to many, but his art is practically unavoidable. “Sun Zone,” a 14-foot-tall, three-legged piece reminiscent of ice cream cones, stands in front of the Sonoma County Administration Center.

“Arch Tworain,” a 28-foot cream-colored structure that weighs 8½ tons, stands along the entry road to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. The scissored “Renaissance” rested for years in Old Courthouse Square and is now at Cornerstone Sonoma.

Public art like Ellison's welded steel abstractions serve a purpose, said Harvey Charnofsky of Sebastopol, board president of the Arts Council of Sonoma County.

“It raises the awareness that art has a place of importance in our community,” he said.

It also translates into revenue for the local economy, Charnofsky said, asserting that visitors stay longer and spend more in art-rich places like Sonoma County.

Ellison, an ebullient and energetic man, offered a simpler explanation for why he shifted to steel after first working in ceramics.

“Every sculpture I've ever built is still in existence,” he said in a 2010 interview. “If I'm going to spend a lot of time and effort making these pieces, I want them to last forever.”

As a Sonoma County judge for 20 years, Joseph P. Murphy set a gold standard for running a courtroom in a fair, even-handed manner and for schooling a generation of young attorneys.

“He was the guy we all looked up to,” said Chris Andrian, a Santa Rosa defense attorney who started practicing law here in 1973, trying some of his first major cases before Murphy.

“Everybody was treated with respect, no matter what side you were on,” Andrian said. Murphy also demonstrated “enormous patience,” an attribute that Andrian said is “not a requirement” for sitting judges.

Murphy, an Irish Catholic, diehard Giants baseball fan and Democratic Party activist, retired from the Superior Court bench in 1984. He died of heart failure at his Santa Rosa home in March at age 89.

Jack DeMeo, a Santa Rosa attorney for 53 years, tried mostly civil cases in Murphy's courtroom and found him to be both witty and wise, as well as fair and honorable.

“I thought the world of him,” DeMeo said.

He recalled watching Murphy stride rapidly along Mendocino Avenue toward the courthouse, puffing on a long cigar and turning down proffered rides.

“He was a kick in the butt,” DeMeo said.

Rex Sater, another retired jurist, died in January at his Santa Rosa home after suffering several strokes at age 84.

Sater, a judge for 21 years, revolutionized family law in Sonoma County and eventually statewide by requiring couples to work out the terms of their divorce themselves, rather than depending on dueling lawyers and a judge.

Andrian, who attended Grateful Dead concerts with Sater, said his friend applied a “collaborative approach” to the law.

The Sonoma County wine industry lost one of its pioneers in March, when Louis J. Foppiano died of complications from pneumonia at a Santa Rosa hospital.

Foppiano, who took over the family-owned Healdsburg farm at age 13 and and continued running it into his 90s, lived to 101.

The grandson of an Italian immigrant who learned how to stretch a nickel during the Depression, Foppiano was among the first winemakers to shift from the generic jug wines that had been Sonoma County's staple to premium varietals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in the 1960s.

Foppiano's signature wine was petite syrah, which he began bottling long before it had broad cachet. “He was the individual who put petite syrah on the map,” said Anne Vercelli, a wine and culinary instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A founding member and longtime director of the Wine Institute, Foppiano was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's Hall of Fame in 2007.

Veterans of World War II are an increasingly rare breed, and Sonoma County's losses in 2012 included at least three men who were at Pearl Harbor: Don Blair, Gene Oliver and Frank Sennello.

Blair, 92, of Rohnert Park was aboard the torpedoed and bombed battleship USS Nevada on Dec. 7, 1941. “I could see blood all over the deck,” he recalled, upon emerging from the stricken ship's belly.

Oliver, 90, of Windsor was haunted by the “channel of hell” he encountered on Battleship Row, with living and dead sailors and burning oil on the water.

Sennello, 90, of Santa Rosa and a leader of the local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, helped pull oil-coated casualties and corpses from the water.

“He's one of the greats of the Greatest Generation,” said Bud Simmons, a Korea-era Air Force veteran and honorary member of the Pearl Harbor group.

Rose Cliver witnessed a much earlier calamity as a 3-year-old girl in Bernal Heights, watching flames from the 1906 earthquake consume downtown San Francisco.

Cliver was 109 and one of three known survivors of the earthquake when she died at a Santa Rosa retirement home in February.

She had shunned the annual celebrations of the event until 2009, when her family pushed her to participate. “She kind of liked her 15 minutes in the limelight but felt that everyone was making a big ado over nothing,” said her grandson, Don Stegeman of Modesto.

In contrast, Cresta, one of the nation's top rodeo steer ropers, died at age 25. Cresta, who grew up riding and roping on his family's 500-acre Mark West area ranch, was found dead in a trailer at a Cheyenne, Wyo., rodeo.

“The whole rodeo world is in shock,” said Kendra Santos of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Also shocking was the death of Steve Norwick, 68, at a Santa Rosa hospital in June, 12 days after he suffered devastating injuries when struck by a hit-and-run driver during his morning bicycle ride near Penngrove.

Norwick, a retired environmental studies professor at Sonoma State University, had joined the faculty there in 1974.

“He took a personal interest in each one of us, or at least it felt that way,” said Paula Blaydes, a geologist who was among Norwick's early students.

Most of what Dago Sotelo did as a youth soccer coach for 18 years was well under the radar, but it mattered to a legion of southwest Santa Rosa kids.

Sotelo, 57, died of a stroke in September at a Santa Rosa hospital, his room filled with people and a line stretching down the hall.

“If Dago hadn't come into my life,” said Alejandro Olvera, 21, one of his former players, “I don't know if I would be alive today ... or in jail. He was like my second dad to me.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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