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Glen Ghilotti, Petaluma construction company founder, dies at 59

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Glen Ghilotti, a hard-charging member of a prominent North Bay construction family who founded his own Petaluma-based firm and whose diverse interests included collecting antique tractors and running a commercial worm farm, died unexpectedly Sunday, March 25. He was 59.

Ghilotti was on his way back from Georgia, where he had just purchased a miniature train car for the train he was planning to install for his grandchildren on his family’s 49-acre Petaluma ranch and petting zoo. He pulled over in Oklahoma, went to sleep in a motel and never woke up, likely having died of a heart attack, said his wife, Genevieve Ghilotti.

Ghilotti had been working himself ragged as he led efforts at Team Ghilotti, the company he founded in 2007, to help in the debris removal effort underway in the county following the October wildfires.

Team Ghilotti, which is primarily involved in road building and site grading, switched gears after the fire and about 90 percent of its recent work was debris removal related, Genevieve Ghilotti said.

After months of grinding work, her husband said he needed a break. He found it in a 10-day solo road trip in his Peterbuilt flatbed pickup truck to retrieve a miniature railcar that was up for sale in Georgia.

“He was so happy. He was so excited,” Genevieve Ghilotti said. “His grandkids were coming out for Easter and he couldn’t wait to hide Easter eggs.”

Ghilotti spent about $45,000 in October to buy from Santa Rosa the aging C.P. Huntington replica miniature train engine that operated for decades in Howarth Park. He had plans to install a similar ride on his west Petaluma farm for his grandchildren and farm visitors.

The fires set that effort back somewhat, but in recent weeks it had all started to come together. He had located the railcar in Georgia, which he liked because it was shaped like a San Francisco trolley car, and had recently hired someone to design the tracks and two other cars.

Ghilotti grew up in a storied but fractured North Bay construction family. His father was Henry Babe Ghilotti, one of the four sons of James Ghilotti, who took over the San Rafael-based family business in 1950. That firm, Ghilotti Brothers, Inc, has since grown into one of the largest construction firms in the Bay Area.

The brothers in 1954 also established Shamrock Materials, which Babe Ghilotti eventually took over. In 1964, with Elmo Maggiora, he also formed Maggiora and Ghilotti, where Glen worked for years. In 2007, he formed Team Ghilotti, which Genevieve Ghilotti said gave him the freedom to be his own boss.

The firm performs a range of engineering construction, but focused mostly on roadbuilding. The company website calls Team Ghilotti a $25 million per year business. It described Ghilotti as “a respected community leader, estimator, project manager, boss and friend to his colleagues.”

From a very young age Glen Ghilotti had a card given to him by his father that allowed him to take a ride on any Shamrock Materials truck, fostering a love of heavy equipment that became at times an obsession, Genevieve Ghilotti said.

Ghilotti would spare no expense or effort to find, retrieve, rehabilitate and preserve historic Caterpillar tractors, assembling a large collection. He was planning a museum to display the tractors at the farm — an effort, along with the train, that will be completed, Genevieve Ghilotti said.

The couple purchased the former Canvas Ranch in west Petaluma in late 2016, renaming it Glenhill Farm and Gardens. They raise vegetables as well as babydoll sheep and cashmere goats. Ghilotti recently purchased a Bactrian camel for the farm.

Ghilotti also owned Mass Wiggle, which bills itself as the largest worm farm west of the Mississippi. The vermicomposting operation on Lakeville Highway feeds cow manure and other organic matter to millions of worms, which produced castings as a natural fertilizer.

“He wore many hats,” his wife said. “When he decided he was going to do something, it happened.”

Ghilotti was heavily involved in local philanthropic efforts, including the Miracle League of the North Bay, which seeks to build playing fields for disabled youth.

In addition to his wife, Ghilotti is survived by his siblings Patrick, Gary and Judy Ghilotti, son Kevin Ghilotti, daughter Jennifer Ghilotti, step-children Tom McCoy, Tina Studebaker and Jennilee Rodrigues, and three grandchildren.