By Tim Tesconi
Larry Bertolini, the elder statesmen of Sonoma County agriculture who was a pivotal figure in farming and education for more than 50 years, is being remembered by generations of county residents for his voice and vision during a lifetime devoted to building community and urban-rural relationships.
“Larry Bertolini provided the thread that knitted the urban and rural communities of Sonoma County together. A man of integrity and quiet dignity, Larry was a respected leader who bridged the cultural and communication gaps between farmers and business leaders, city and country people. He was genuine and beloved,” said Tim Tesconi, community relations coordinator at Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a longtime friend of Bertolini’s
Bertolini, the founder and president of Western Farm Center, died April 22 after being in failing health for the last several years. He was 85. A celebration of Bertolini’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 20 at the Haehl Pavilion on the SRJC campus.
For decades, Bertolini was a fixture at SRJC, the Sonoma County Fair and, of course, Western Farm Center, the unique feed, seed and pet emporium that he and his brother Lou founded 45 years ago. Known as the “farm in the city,” Western Farm Center, located at 21 W. Seventh St., is the place where the varied lifestyles in Sonoma County come together for everything from chicken scratch to gourmet doggie dinners and horse bridles to hog mash.
Bertolini was the maestro of Western Farm Center, which is a blend of Wine Country charm, old-world values and new age trends, particularly, when it comes to pampered pets. Western Farm Center’s customers range from McDonald Avenue matrons in Mercedes to old cowboys in banged-up pickup trucks. Everyone gets the royal treatment no matter if they are wearing filthy blue jeans or a Chanel suit.
The news of Bertolini’s death brought tributes and fond remembrances from those who knew him and understood – and valued - the impact he had on Sonoma County.
“Larry was always the go-to-guy when the Sonoma County Fair, Farm Bureau, 4-H, FFA or other groups needed help, whether it was donating straw for a Rose Parade float, providing baby chicks and ducklings for Ag Days or a barbecue team for a fund-raising event. Larry believed in giving back to the community that he was so much a part of,” said friend Saralee McClelland Kunde. She worked with Bertolini when she was an employee of the Sonoma County Fair and in later years as a volunteer and advocate for agriculture and farm youth.
Kunde and many other former 4-H and FFA members remember Bertolini’s deep, rich voice as the announcer at the Sonoma County Fair’s junior livestock auctions. It was a role he performed for more than 40 years, spanning three generations of livestock exhibitors. Bertolini’s baritone voice was as much a part of the auctions as the frenzied bidding and squealing pigs.
But Bertolini’s community connections and contributions reached beyond agriculture into the larger community as well. For 17 years he served on the board of trustees of Santa Rosa Junior College, which last year named the $40 million Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center in his honor. For decades, Bertolini was a sports announcer at Santa Rosa Junior College. He helped found the Bear Cubs Athletic Trust and the SRJC Alumni Association as well as many other programs and fundraisers for the college.
“Larry was one of a kind. No one was more devoted and dedicated to Santa Rosa Junior College than he. A wonderful man with a heart of gold, Larry dedicated years supporting SRJC in so many ways,” said Terry Lindley, vice president of marketing for American AgCredit and a SRJC trustee. Bertolini and Lindley served several years together on the SRJC board of trustees.
“The Board of Trustees of Santa Rosa Junior College will all miss Larry very much but the loss will be felt even more by the students and future students of the college who will miss his voice and his vision of the future,” said Lindley.
Steve Olson, who retired from a long career as an educator and dean at Santa Rosa Junior College, knew Bertolini through his association with the junior college and through their work together as advocates and volunteers for Sonoma County agriculture, farm youth and the fair.
“Larry's passing leaves a huge void in the support system for agricultural education in Sonoma County. I can't think of another person who has given as much to 4H, FFA, SRJC Agriculture or the enlightenment of non-farm kids seeking to learn more about where their food comes from,” said Olson. “Larry was not only a great spokesman for agriculture but also gave generously of his time, talent and resources. He took many young men and women under his wing as employees at Western Farm Center and taught them the value of hard work, importance of good customer service and the important role a local business should play in community service.”
Olson said he hopes Bertolini’s life will inspire others to get involved in giving back to the community and working to keep agriculture part of the Sonoma County landscape.
“Larry served as a role model to me and many, many others involved in agriculture - the best way we can honor Larry is to carry on his legacy of volunteerism and generosity,” added Olson.
Bertolini was born April 3, 1927 to Stella and Aristide Bertolini, who raised vegetables on a 22 acre truck garden along Santa Rosa Creek in west Santa Rosa. In the days before the Golden Gate Bridge and refrigerated trucks, Santa Rosa residents got their produce from the Bertolinis and four other farm families, the Imwalles, Bertolis, Bassignanis and Locatelis. Imwalle Gardens on West Third Street in Santa Rosa is the only surviving vegetable farm.
“We used to peddle vegetables door-to-door around town,” Bertolini once said an interview about his early life on the farm. “We’d pick them one day and deliver them the next.”
Bertolini said it was the sense of farm and family that compelled him to dedicate so much of his life to preserving Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage and supporting young farmers.
“I always wanted to be involved in Sonoma County agriculture and do my part to help keep land in farms and ranches,” Bertolini said in the interview. “I actively support the 4-H and FFA programs and agricultural education because I believe it’s the best way to ensure we have the next generation moving into agriculture.”
Bertolini was honored by many groups and organizations during his lifetime. In 1995, he was named the “Friend of Sonoma County Farm Bureau,” an award that recognized for his many contributions to the organization and agriculture and farm youth. Later, he was inducted into the Sonoma Count Farm Bureau Hall of Fame. He also was named Friend of Sonoma County 4-H and has received the Harvest Fair award for a “Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture,”the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership in Agriculture Award, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s Spirit of Sonoma County Award and many other honors and awards.
Bertolini is survived by his wife Roseann Bertolin; daughters, Toni Spencer of Idaho, Debbi DeBruin of Santa Rosa and Vicki Jackson of Vacaville; his brotehrs, Louis, Ernest and Bob Bertolini, all of Santa Rosa; sisters, Rita Gondola, Delia Bondi and Mary Dowdall, all of Santa Rosa and by seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
Bertolini’s family suggests memorial contributions to the Santa Rosa Junior College Student Scholarship fund or a favorite charity.