A modestly great man
After covering Ig Vella, on and off, for more than 30 years (and being the target of both his searing criticism and his generous praise), after writing about him as a county supervisor, as a county fair board director, as a citizens advisory board member and as one of America's consummate cheesemakers, after sharing lunches on a picnic table at the edge of the parking lot at Vella Cheese, I struggle to think of another public figure in this county whom I respected, admired and liked more than Ignazio Vella.
Ig never minced words with me, and that was one reason I came to love the man - he always said what he thought, and when he would sometimes lean forward in one of his signature vests and tell me, "Boy, that was a dumb-ass question," on later reflection I would often say to myself, "Well, you know, he's right, that was a dumb-ass question."
Interviewing Ig made you sharpen your tools, hone your mind, do your homework and prepare for more than a superficial Q and A. And while I didn't always agree with Ig, I never stopped respecting him or his grasp of issues and facts. I always believed his positions were taken free of political influence and I doubt he ever cast a vote or argued a position just because it was politically expedient.
Ig preferred to be bipartisan, rejected labels and insisted all politics is local. He told me his cardinal rule for success in local government was, "Take care of your own and fix the damn roads. It's that simple."
Ig didn't swear a lot, at least not in my presence, but when he did the words were perfectly chosen and passionately said.
He was trained in a Jesuit university, was guided by logic and history and you never, ever wanted to argue history with Ig unless you came extremely well-prepared.
He also had a renegade's wit, a tendency to like tweaking the nose of authority even when he was part of that club.
In his later years, he shifted his fulltime focus back to making cheese, and while he didn't brag, he took great pride in the ribbons and medals that covered the walls of the family business his father, Tom, started 80 years ago.
In 2006, Ig received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cheese Society, and a survey of cheesemakers determined he had won the most national and international awards over the previous decade. That included the 1995-1996 U.S. Cheese Champion award for the company's Special Select Dry Jack, the first non-Wisconsin company to win it.
I look back at long discussions with Ig about politics, religion, society and Sonoma as a sort of Socratic dialogue, more about sharing ideas than reaching conclusions. Ig never thought he knew it all, but he always wanted to know more.
He was an ironically modest man, and if I had taken the time to tell him, "Ig you may be modest but you are at least a modestly great man," I'm sure he would have waved his hand as if swatting a fly and said, "Oh bull whacky" - or something stronger - and changed the subject.
But he was, and I will miss him greatly.