Mike Ayala

A photo of Erin Natter, of Los Angeles, with her father, Mike Ayala, of Sonora, who died on Sunday at 66 after battling COVID-19. 

Mike Ayala was known and respected by many in Tuolumne County for his years of service in law enforcement, local government, and nonprofit organizations prior to his death over the weekend from COVID-19.

Ayala was 66 when he died Sunday afternoon at Adventist Health Sonora after being admitted to the hospital on Nov. 28 due to worsening symptoms that were initially misdiagnosed and treated as bronchitis, said his daughter, Erin Natter, 43.

“He was actually in the best health he’s been in a long time, but he did have a history of asthma and history of bronchitis, which is what they were treating him for before they tested him and realized he had COVID,” she said in a phone interview on Monday from her home in Los Angeles.

Natter said she, her husband and their two children visited her father and mother in Sonora for Thanksgiving after first getting tested themselves in Los Angeles and confirming that they were negative for the virus.

They didn’t know Ayala had been sick before they arrived, though they could tell something wasn’t right. Natter asked if he had been tested for the coronavirus, but was told he was believed to have been suffering from bronchitis and was given antibiotics that had made him feel better at first.

“He had a terrible sounding cough, just awful,” she said. “My husband and I said we were very worried and maybe the medicine didn’t work because they were treating him for the wrong thing.”

Natter said she checked her father’s blood-oxygen level using a COVID-19 kit she brought with her and found it was below 90, which she said was a bad sign. He was admitted into the hospital on Nov. 28 as Natter and her family headed back to Los Angeles.

Ayala tested positive for the virus at the hospital and got progressively worse over the ensuing week, with his daughter saying that he only had enough energy to communicate with her via text message in his final days.

“Honestly, it was very lovely to hear his voice that way and be able to tell him that we love him and were pulling for him,” she said. “He was so sick that he basically only had the energy to talk to my mom for short periods of time.”

Natter said she and her husband had questioned whether they should visit for Thanksgiving due to how much the virus has been surging in Tuolumne County, but she said they felt safe that they wouldn’t spread the virus after receiving the negative results.

Ayala had not been suffering certain symptoms most often associated with COVID-19 infection, such as a fever and loss of taste or smell, which Natter said she believes led to a false sense of security.

“If there’s anything people can get from this, I think it’s to be aware that you can’t rule out this virus until you get tested,” she said. “You never know how people are going to react. One person has no symptoms and the other gets very sick. There’s so much unknown, and it reacts differently in everybody.”

Natter said she was now grateful to have shared those final moments at Thanksgiving with Ayala, whom she described as a devoted father to her and her sister, Heather Smith, of Fresno, grandfather to his four grandchildren, and husband to his wife of more than 40 years and high-school sweetheart, Nancy.

Ayala grew up in San Bruno where he met Nancy and started working for California Highway Patrol around the time that they found out they were going to have Natter, she said.

“I think going into the CHP was a way to have a steady job with good benefits and a way to take care of his family,” Natter said. “He really excelled there and enjoyed being part of that community.”

After starting as an officer in 1979, Ayala worked his way up the ranks of the state law-enforcement agency before transferring as a lieutenant in 1999 to serve as the commander of the Sonora-area CHP in Jamestown.

Natter said they lived in Modesto while she was growing up and would often visit the area for recreation. Ayala and his wife hoped to retire to Tuolumne County someday and saw the opportunity to do that by taking the position at the Sonora-area office, from which he retired in 2009.

“Even after his retirement in June of 2009, his service to the public didn’t stop. Lieutenant Ayala continued to help the community any way that he could,” the Sonora-area CHP said in a news release on Monday. “He was not only an outstanding Highway Patrolman but also a pillar in the community. He will be deeply missed. We would like to send our sincere condolences to his family.”

Ayala was deeply involved with the Kiwanis Club of Sonora and would often help others out with charitable projects of their own, said Ron Hamilton, who met Ayala 20 years ago through Sierra Bible Church in East Sonora.

Hamilton said he viewed Ayala as a mentor and looked up to the way he devoted himself to his work in the community, his family, and his Christian faith. They exchanged their final text messages on Saturday, in which Ayala told Hamilton to “be faithful and strong.”

“That is so like Mike, to be fighting with something and telling me to be faithful and strong,” Hamilton said. “That’s the kind of guy Mike was, he was a champion and cheerleader for anyone else.”

Ayala served as the executive director for the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce for three years to help the organization get on solid footing after a change in longtime leadership, before retiring from that role in 2016.

County Supervisor John Gray also served with Ayala throughout his 12 years in office on the Tuolumne County Transportation Council, with Ayala serving as chairman for much of that time and using his extensive knowledge of issues involving roads through his career in CHP to help with planning and overseeing projects.

“He just had a good common-sense approach to the decision making process,” Gray said. “He didn’t get upset and really had the community well being at heart.”

Ayala also worked behind the scenes on a number of political campaigns over the years to boost candidates that he believed would help to improve the county.

Former County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said he met Ayala when they were both thinking about running for office in 2010, with Ayala ultimately deciding to serve as Hanvelt’s campaign manager. 

“He was a good Christian man, he lived his Christianity well, and was a friend to everyone,” Hanvelt said. “He gave much more than he took, and you’ve gotta respect a guy who did the things he did in unselfish ways.”

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer said he became friends with Ayala over the years since he decided to run for office in 2012 and viewed him as one of the most honorable people he’s ever met. 

“He had unquestionable integrity and was a great human being who cared about people and cared about his community,” Rodefer said. “He wasn’t reticent at all to work hard for this community.”

Ayala is survived by his wife, Nancy, his daughters, Natter and Smith, sister, Lisa Ayala, and mother, Mary Ayala, of Sonora. Natter said the family currently doesn’t have plans for services and are determining what they can do under the current state of COVID-19 restrictions.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.

Recommended for you