Ron Stearn, a local icon who served on the Sonora City Council for 52 consecutive years, died Tuesday morning at his daughter’s home in Fairfax. He was 89.
The former five-time mayor earned his honorary title as “Mr. Sonora” for his historically long tenure in public service and as the longtime manager of the former Mundorf’s hardware store at 71 S. Washington St..
“He really was an institution to Sonora,” said current Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa.
Garaventa, 55, was only 2 years old in 1964 when Stearn was first elected to the council on a platform of bringing more much-needed parking spaces to the downtown area, a cause that remained one of his top priorities throughout his tenure.
The city added more than 600 parking spaces over the course of Stearn’s career, of which he took careful count.
Stearn’s popularity in the community was evident in the way he successfully campaigned for office. He was re-elected 12 consecutive times while never spending more than between $100 and $300 per campaign to purchase two advertisements in The Union Democrat.
“He was just a guy that everybody liked,” said former City Administrator Greg Applegate, who worked for the city from 1989 to 2010.
There is some debate over whether Stearn is the longest serving city council member in state history, because the League of California Cities stopped collecting that data years ago. He is at least tied with the late Talmage Burke, who served 52 consecutive years on the Alhambra City Council.
Stearn was never one to boast about his long tenure and popularity in local politics, however.
“He was a very humble man,” Applegate said. “He did it because he loved his community.”
Serving on the city council is essentially a voluntary position that’s only paid a stipend that never amounts to more than about $2,000 a year.
Stearn took pride of his near perfect attendance over the years, only missing five public meetings throughout the entire stretch.
His dedication and attention made him a useful resource for city staff and other council members.
At public meetings, Stearn would often recall votes the council had made decades earlier when it provided context for whatever issue was at hand.
“His institutional knowledge was helpful as a resource to put some of the projects and issues under consideration in a little different context than just in a vacuum,” said City Administrator Tim Miller, who was hired in 2010. “That knowledge of both the city and city’s history was helpful in evaluating what we’re doing.”
Jerry Fuccillo, who was hired as the city’s contract engineer in 1979, said one of Stearn’s best qualities as a member of the council was his practicality.
Stearn spent most of his time focused on the services he viewed as essential for the city to provide, such as parking, police, fire protection, roads, and sidewalks. At the end of each meeting, he would often provide a list of tasks for the city staff to check out.
“He always pointed out some little thing that should be addressed, like a crack in this sidewalk or a sign down over here,” Fuccillo said. “He would get things done. He would look around. He was almost like our street superintendent.”
Fuccillo was also among a group of friends who met with Stearn at 10 a.m. each day for coffee that included former Councilman Gary Anderson, Tuolumne Utilities District board member Jim Grinnell, and former Tuolumne County Sheriff Bob Coane.
Anderson said he viewed Stearn as a mentor.
“I consider him a real icon here in Sonora,” Anderson said. “He’s going to be really missed.”
Coane, who served as sheriff from 1987 to 1991, said that Stearn was his best friend and spoke to him over the phone in Fairfax two to three times a week over the past year and a half.
Though they rarely talked about local politics over the 35-plus years they met each day for coffee, Coane said one of the issues that nagged at Stearn was never being able to get enough votes for an extension of Greenley Road that would divert traffic off Washington Street.
Stearn’s beloved wife, Lorraine, his family, church and community were the most important to him, Coane said.
“I can think of a lot of times when he would tear up while talking about his wife, and she’s been gone for over 30 years now,” Coane said.
Stearn was born in Oakland in 1928 and first visited Sonora when he was 6 years old with his great uncle, the late Manuel Vierra, who lived off Shaws Flat Road. He was an only child and his father had left his Portuguese-American mother, Rosalie Vierra, shortly before his birth.
Rosalie Vierra moved with her son to San Francisco after getting remarried in 1930. When that marriage ended in divorce in 1943, Stearn convinced his mother to move them to Sonora because he liked the small town as opposed to the big city.
Stearn went to work for Carl Comstock’s gas station on Washington Street where the Bank of Stockton is now located, after graduating from Sonora High School in 1946.
He later attended California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo to purse a degree in aeronautical engineering, but returned to Sonora a year later when he could no longer afford the tuition.
In 1950, Stearn married his high school sweetheart, Lorraine. They had three children whom they raised in a home that previously belonged to Lorraine’s family.
Stearn’s wife died in 1988 after a 10-year battle with breast cancer. He will be buried next to her in the double plot he bought for them at Mountain Shadow Cemetery.
To cope with the pain of losing his partner in life, Stearn joined the Sonora Rotary Club and began meeting regularly with friends for coffee and breakfast.
One of Stearn’s trademarks was the 1962 GMC pickup that he drove around the city each day before moving to his daughter’s home in Fairfax over Labor Day weekend in 2016 due to health issues.
His daughter, Martha Nelken, said he remained active up to his death despite declining health. He would attend church with them every Sunday and quickly became embraced by the congregation.
“I can tell you he lived life to the fullest here with me,” Nelken said.
Nelken said she remembers growing up in Sonora mushroom hunting with her dad, fishing, camping, and hunting for ducks and pheasants. In a 2016 interview, Stearn referred to the years raising his family as the happiest time in his life.
In September, Nelken got to return the favor when she and her husband, Will, took her father on a road trip because he was a fan of author Zane Grey’s western novels as a child and always wanted to visit Wyoming.
“He told my husband and my husband said, ‘Let’s go.’ We had a wonderful time,” Nelken said.
The family traveled about 2,400 miles in 11 days, including stops in Squaw Valley, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Utah to see Stearn’s son, Ken, who lives in Salt Lake City.
Despite enjoying time with Nelken’s family, she said Stearn always believed he would someday get to return to his home in Sonora.
Nelken would bring Stearn to Sonora about once a month, where he would meet with his old crew for coffee and get a beer with friends at Servente’s or The Office.
“It’s been a wonderful year and a half,” Nelken said. “I’m sorry he had to leave his house, but my kids and grandkids were grateful he was here.”
Stearn is survived by his daughters, Martha Nelken, Laura Vandenberg, of Nevada City, son, Ken Stearn, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
The family plans to host an event in his honor in Sonora, though a date has yet to be determined.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.