Even in the last weeks of his life, John Gonnella kept whistling.
“I could hear him coming 50 yards away,” recalls his brother, Tom.
âI was like, ‘How can I be more depressed that you’re sick than you are? Give me some of that, my brother.
A widely known and beloved Western figure – “he was the unofficial mayor of the city for years,” said Tom – John Gonnella died on November 20 after a three-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. He was 68 years old.
Gonella has twice undergone bone marrow transplant procedures at Stanford, where her relentless positivity exerted a useful and uplifting influence on her cancer colleagues, doctors told her family.
He was the longtime partner of Marci Ritch of Santa Rosa, whom he met in 2007. The two had previously been married once.
“Johnny always said he had no regrets, except that he wished he had met my mom sooner,” said Alena Wall, Gonnella’s de facto daughter-in-law and mother of two of her four grandsons. children, whom he adored.
In addition to owning and operating Occidental Hardware for over 30 years, Gonnella has served over 50 years with the city’s Volunteer Fire Department – 30 as Deputy Fire Chief, 20 as Director of Council administration – and two decades as a member of the Western community. Services district.
âFor a community to be a community,â said Tom, âyou need people like my brother. “
John and Tom’s four grandparents emigrated from Tuscany, Italy, to the West, Tom said. The two brothers worked at Occidental Hardware, originally owned by their father, Louis. In many ways, said their friend Pat Corcoran, Johnny’s “small town values ââand sense of community” made him, in some ways, “a throwback to a previous generation.”
This hardware store was a hub of the community when John owned it, said Corcoran, a place people visited whether they needed to buy something or not. “If we don’t have it,” Gonnella joked to customers, “you don’t need it.”
Sitting at his familiar post on the bench outside the store, Gonnella was a clearinghouse for information; a repository of facts, anecdotes and the history of the region.
Because everyone in town was related to him or someone he knew, “he knew everything that was going on,” Corcoran said.
âHe knew which trails to walk, where to fish, where to find mushrooms. He had walked these paths since he was a child.
John Gonnella was also the driving force behind the city’s excellent slow-pitch softball team, the Occidental Benders.
Even after moving to Santa Rosa ten years ago, Gonnella has never stopped walking 15 miles every Sunday morning to ring the bells of St. Philip the Apostle Church. When Sunday mass was canceled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alena Wall recalled, he was driving out and sitting in the parking lot, “just to be in that space.”
Gonnella also didn’t stop picking up boxes of produce at Andy’s produce market in Sevastopol, then driving them to Monte Rio and Occidental to distribute to the needy.
âHe was doing this until a week ago,â Wall said. âPutting others before himself was only part of the fabric of who he was.
âJohn was very keen on staying in the moment, reminding us that every day is one more day. Every day is a gift.
During his brother’s cancer journey, Tom added, âhe had the most courage I could imagine for someone in this situation.
“He was just a genuine, positive guy and if you knew him, he was your friend.”
You can contact editor Austin Murphy at [email protected] or on Twitter @ ausmurph88.