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Toolin’ Around Town: Ravenscroft and her life-long love of horses

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Liz Stonitsch Ravenscroft believes she grew up during the best of times.

Among her cherished memories in small-town Petaluma — where the population was 12,500 in the late 1950s — it was not uncommon to see riders on horseback clopping along city streets. Nobody seemed to mind, and nobody honked their horns.

“As teenagers, we’d saddle up our horses and ride all over town,” said Petaluma-born Ravenscroft, a lifelong equestrian who’s been riding since she was 10 years old. “I remember riding to town and hitching my horse, Babe, to a parking meter while I went into Tomasini’s Hardware on Kentucky Street. With friends, I rode behind the cemetery and out to Cotati. We even rode over to the Snack Bar and ordered food on horseback. My horse was my bicycle.”

Still riding at 76, Ravenscroft prefers arena jumping, a classic form of English riding, on her quarter horse, Pickwick, over the Western style she practiced with the Petaluma Junior Riding Club’s drill team, which performed at Petaluma’s 1958 centennial celebration. She gained experience riding in a field near her home called Liz’s pasture. After her father developed the property, it became the Lucky Store parking area.

Many changes have occurred since Ravenscroft’s childhood on Shasta Avenue, where her father, Gottfried Stonitsch, operated a lumber mill and her mother, Paula Stonitsch, along with rearing her daughters, Liz, Adrienne and Erika, taught at Petaluma High School.

Strongly influenced by her mother’s devotion to the Lutheran church, Liz attended St. John’s Lutheran School in Petaluma through the eighth grade, Redwood Empire Junior Academy for two years, and Concordia Lutheran, before transferring to Petaluma High for her senior year.

“You don’t know how grateful I am to my father for allowing me to attend Petaluma High School,” she said. “I remember him telling my mother, ‘If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my daughter.’ It was where I made many lasting friendships, including a group of fourteen classmates who still get together.”

Gottfried Stonitsch was five years old when he moved to Petaluma with his parents and sisters in 1921. His father, a sash and door craftsman, became a Skillman Lane chicken rancher. After displaying extraordinary talent in woodworking classes at Petaluma High, Gottfried apprenticed with a sash and door company before establishing his own business on Shasta Avenue in 1937.

In 1941, he and Oliver Arvold formed Stonitsch and Arvold Lumber Mill Works on Redwood Highway North (Petaluma Boulevard North), which became Stonitsch Lumber Co. upon Arvold’s death. The mill supplied lumber for the construction of Two Rock Army Base (now Coast Guard), the 1947 movie set of “The Farmer’s Daughter” and innumerable cattle feeders throughout Sonoma County. Additionally, he converted the former mill site and adjacent acreage into Town & Country Shopping Center. Entrepreneurial, Stonitsch raised Shetland ponies, sheep and cattle, dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and lambs.

“We had an assortment of animals and pets, but my mother would have nothing to do with any animal, especially after our pet ewe, Nancy ate a box mom’s peaches,” said Ravenscroft. “My mother was such a looming presence, she overshadowed everything else. She always offered encouragement, never saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ She was a person of influence. I looked up to her.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Paula Stonitsch majored in German and history at University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1939, the year she met Gottfried through her Petaluma relatives. After marrying in 1941, she taught as a substitute at Petaluma junior and senior high schools while working at Poultry Producers. She became a stay-at-home mother for her daughters until 1951 when she began a 49-year teaching career, teaching American government and German at Petaluma High.

It’s safe to say that no other teacher in the history of Petaluma High was as feared and respected, or left as lasting an impression as Paula Stonitsch. Her old-school, no-nonsense reputation was legendary. But everyone soon learned her intentions were sincere and well-meaning. Taking and passing her classes, although daunting, became a rite of passage for generations of PHS students.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, a former student of Stonitsch — as were Woolsey’s four children — was so deeply influenced by her teacher that when Stonitsch died, in December 2006, Woolsey read a tribute into the Congressional Record. In the tribute, Woolsey noted that even when teaching her own children, Stonitsch reminded them they must earn their grade like everyone else.

“Teachers like Paula Stonitsch offer a rare gift to our young people,” said Woolsey, “a gift that truly gives back to our country as these students grow up to become our citizens and our leaders. The generations who were fortunate enough to study with her will never forget the lessons she taught and the pride they learned.”

Following a similar path, Ravenscroft majored in German and history, with a minor in English at UC Berkeley. While married to former husband Dewey Ravenscroft, she taught history and government at Richmond Unified before switching to John F. Kennedy High in Richmond and Pinole Valley High School. She retired from PVHS in 2003, after 36 years of teaching.

Currently, Ravenscroft volunteers at Petaluma Adult School, where she assists instructors with teaching citizenship tests. She and her sister Erika go trail riding and horse camping, and she volunteers with Sonoma County Regional Parks mounted assistant patrol, “the eyes and ears of the rangers.”

Currently, she’s helping plan next year’s 60th reunion of Petaluma High’s Class of 1960.

(Harlan Osborne’s column ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week. You can reach him at Harlan@sonic.net)

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