Union Democrat staff

They may seem to be an unlikely pair: The Sonora Area Foundation's Mick Grimes and George Bailey, owner of the building and loan association in the Frank Capra film classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

But think about it: Grimes, the charitable foundation's executive director for the past 12 years, just might be Tuolumne County's answer to George Bailey.

At one point in Capra's timeless Christmas tale, Guardian Angel Clarence boosts Bailey's downcast spirits by showing him what a terrible place Bedford Falls would have become had it not been for the loans and good works of the building and loan.

No angelic magic, however, is necessary to show how Grimes and the Sonora Area Foundation have improved our own community. Instead, just hop into a car at the foundation's Cedar Road office and take a drive.

"It's one of my favorite things to do," said Grimes, narrating an imaginary tour from behind his desk.

One by one, we drive by projects which would not have been possible without grants from the Sonora Area Foundation: The Sonora Skate Park, Heaven for Kids playground, the picnic area next to the playground, shelves at the Carlo De Ferrari Archive, the message board in front of Sonora Elementary School and more.

"And we haven't even gotten off the Greenley hill yet," said Grimes, who will retire in May and turn the SAF reins over to Mark Bergstrom, the new director.

A few imaginary miles later we have passed the FieldTurf gridiron at Sonora High School, for which the foundation provided a half-million-dollar match. Then we were in Jamestown, checking out Railtown's renovation of Engine No. 3, partially funded by SAF. Next we passed the old jail, the improved youth center, the ATCAA Food Bank and the Humane Society shelter.

You get the idea.

Over Grimes' 12-year tenure, the foundation has made $8.3 million in grants. During the same period, swelled by bequests and investments, its total endowment has jumped from $8 million in 1997 to today's $28 million.

During the same period, the number of charitable funds administered by SAF has increased from 31 to more than 180. Today Tuolumne County residents willing money to a cause or setting up a family fund to help those in need don't think long before deciding where their cash should go.

"I probably realized it in 2002 or so," said Grimes. "It was like I didn't have to beat the bushes quite so hard to get money. As they say in the trade, we had reached critical mass."

He confirmed that the foundation's investments have taken a hit during today's tough economy. But 2008 was nonetheless a banner year: Gifts totaled a lofty $1.8 million and grants set an annual record of $1,689,000.

"The board to a person agreed that this is no time to shy away from our responsibilities," said Grimes. "I couldn't have been more proud."

On top of this, the foundation's Tuolumne County Profile, first released in 2005 and updated last year, serves as a barometer of community needs in dozens of areas, and shows the board where funds might best be invested.

Grimes, whose retirement will include trout fishing and travel with his wife, Lyn, has faith that Bergstrom and the board will meet the organization's future challenges and minimizes his own role in its past successes.

"It's not about me; it's about the foundation," he said.

But for a dozen years, Mick Grimes has been the man behind the Sonora Area Foundation and he deserves much of the credit for - with apologies to Frank Capra - the wonderful life it has helped build in Tuolumne County.