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Ruth Lombardi, 95, on her ‘great life’ in Petaluma

Ever since family patriarch Nazzareno and his wife Anna — together with their son Joseph and daughter Palmina — moved to Petaluma 70 years ago, closely followed by sons Geno and Dovilio (Dovey) and their young families, there has been a Lombardi family-operated business in these parts. Working closely together, the cohesive Lombardi clan staffed a once popular downtown men’s clothing store and Lombardi’s Market, in Cotati.

Following a delightful conversation with 95-year-old Ruth Lombardi, who is the last surviving member of the original generation of business-minded and family-oriented siblings and their families, I’ve become aware how vital the combination of business and family can be.

A native of Stambaugh, Michigan, a small community that later consolidated with the mining town of Iron River, Ruth was one of three children. At times, during the Great Depression, life was challenging and money was short. The iron ore mines closed, food was rationed and work was provided by the WPA. Fortunately, Ruth prepared for the future by attending business school in Chicago. A future she never could have imagined began one night while she was visiting a bowling alley in Iron River, when she was asked by a handsome stranger, Geno Lombardi, if he could buy her a beverage.

“It just hit me. I knew by his voice that it was meant to be,” said Ruth, who was 19, of the instant attraction that drew the endearing couple together. At that time, Geno and his brother, Joseph, were managing Geno’s Men’s Store in Iron River. But his entire family, including his parents, two brothers and sister, were planning to move to California where they wanted to go into the restaurant and cabaret business. When the move was completed, in 1947, the family shared the same house together, on Vallejo Street in Petaluma.

In 1948, the family operated a restaurant and tavern on Main Street called The Tropics. Several years later, Geno opened The Men’s Store at 129 Main St., on the previous site of the Dairy Bar Soda Fountain. Geno and Dovey ran the clothing store, which became Lombardi’s Men’s Store, specializing in casual and work clothing for men and boys. Ruth did the sewing and the alterations, and for years she pegged the pants of nearly every style-conscious teenage boy who purchased a pair of Levi’s from the store. Lillian Lombardi, Dovey’s wife, worked as a sales clerk, and his sister Polly (Parker) was designated the bookkeeper. Joseph Lombardi, who enjoyed the grocery business, ran Lombardi’s Market.

For many years, an attraction that drew curious onlookers of all ages to Lombardi’s was the eye-catching display of detailed, hand-crafted wood carvings of the Old West that lined its walls. The intriguing collection began when retired railroad worker William Caldwell started bringing carved carts and wagons, buffalo and cattle, goats, dogs and chickens to the store. Highlighted by a carved 20-mule-team pulling a borax wagon, the collection grew to 109 carefully crafted pieces, before Mr. Caldwell passed away. Following the closing of the apparel store the Lombardi family donated the entire collection to the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, which is planning to feature it in a future exhibit.

When the brothers started buying their own family homes, they continued to stay close together by purchasing a group of adjoining properties that occupied the same block along Vallejo St., Marin Way and Averye Way. After buying five of the six homes that sat on one block, the Lombardis removed the backyard fences and built a structure behind 704 Marin Way, which they called the “Cantina,” where every festive family event and holiday celebration was shared together.

“It’s been a great life, what we had together was really wonderful, I’m so grateful,” Ruth says of the years she enjoyed with her father, her life together with her husband and extended family, and the fulfilling enjoyment she shares with her daughters Patsy and Sue.

When she and her husband were building their rural “retirement” home, they were sure to include a woodshop where Geno, who passed away in 1999, refinished antiques and built homemade furniture. The home also provides a showcase for Ruth’s antique clock collection, which started through a family friendship with Clock Shoppe owner Hank Simoni.

After the closure of the men’s store and the market, the Lombardi family continued its business ties in the community through Ruth’s daughter Sue, who, together with her husband, Don Larsen, owned and operated LarsEngines, and her nephew Lee Lombardi, who’s made a name for himself with Lombardi’s Barbeque Deli.

In good health and fluent in three languages (Croatian, English, Italian), the ever-optimistic Lombardi relishes her time spent with her daughters, her grandchildren and great-grandson.

(Harlan Osborne’s column ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ appears every two weeks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net)