Ig Vella passes away
IG VELLA was a county supervisor, county fair manager and most of all, an award-winning cheesemaker.
Ignazio "Ig" Vella, a native son of Sonoma, award-winning cheese-maker, former county supervisor, county fair manager, Sonoma planning commissioner and Sonoma Valley advisory commission member, passed away peacefully at his home on Thursday, June 9 at 6:45 p.m., he was 83. Ig's wife Sally was at his side.
Ig Vella was born in Sonoma in 1928, educated in Sonoma Valley, and spent two years at Sonoma Valley High School before transferring to San Rafael Military Academy where he was chosen valedictorian of the class of 1946. His transfer to the military academy, he confessed in later years, was expedited by some overly exuberant teenage behavior.
He played very good baseball at SVHS and San Rafael Military and, looking back years later, said he was good enough for semi-pro ball. But Vella leaned toward academia and earned his bachelor's of science degree in history at Santa Clara University, graduating magna cum laude in 1950, and was the class salutatorian.
He then attended the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidate School, graduating 16th out of a class of 647, earning a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the USAF, and served during the Korean War. Following the war, he returned to Sonoma and worked for a time in the family cheese business with his father, Tom. He then worked as executive assistant to the president of the Sonoma Mission Creamery in San Francisco and was active in the California Cheese and Butter Association, serving numerous terms as its president and as its representative in Sacramento. An avid baseball fan, he coached a local Babe Ruth Baseball team for several years.
Ig was best known in recent years as the man responsible for some of the best Dry (Monterey) Jack anywhere. Vella Cheese, started by his father, Tom, was a regular winner of many national awards during Ig's tenure and the special select dry Jack, made by Vella's senior cheesemaker, Charley Malksassian, was voted 1995-96 U.S. Cheese Champion - the best cheese in America out of more than 800 entries. Vella himself was honored in 2006 with the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cheese Society.
He was also a respected community leader, serving on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors from 1964 to 1975, and then becoming manager of the Sonoma County Fair. Later, he became a member of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission from its inception, following his 12 years of service on the Sonoma Planning Commission.
It was his many years of community service that earned him the honor in 2006 of being the only living Sonoman to have a bridge named after him. The Ig Vella Bridge, spanning Sonoma Creek at Riverside Drive and West Napa Street, will forever be a solid monument to one of Sonoma Valley's most solid and hard-working citizens.
As a younger man, serving as a supervisor and later as fair manager, Vella was known for the sharpness of his wit and a biting tongue. Not one to suffer fools, he was often blunt, caustic and impatient, while also recognized as highly intelligent, a consummate student of history and a gifted speaker. Upon his departure from the county board of supervisors, Robert Lynch, the late publisher of the Index-Tribune said of Vella, "... The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors never had a more capable member ... No county public servant devoted more time and effort to his job. No supervisor did his homework better or was more knowledgeable about his district and all facets of county government ... His strength and recognized leadership on the Board of Supervisors were great assets to Sonoma Valley and the First District ..."
Brian Kahn, now a Montana public radio host, was first appointed to, and later elected to Vella's seat on the Board of Supervisors, and remembers his predecessor fondly. "Ig was a great help to me, when I first got appointed, to get the lay of the land," said Kahn. "He knew it better than anybody. He was a highly intelligent, tough guy, a good supervisor. You didn't push Ig around. He did a good job and he helped me, for which I will always be grateful,"
Vella left the board of supervisors in 1975 to become fair manager, succeeding James Lyttle, another Sonoma Valley resident. The fair grew and prospered under his direction, and in his fifth year as manager he was named the "Best Manager on the California County Fair circuit."
But his management style ruffled many feathers within the large fair board of directors. Publisher Lynch said, "... He (Vella) was his own man and didn't care who knew it." Following a ticket fiasco involving a premature sell-out of tickets to a Willie Nelson fair concert, which attracted negative press and resulted in Nelson canceling the show, Vella found himself sideways with a narrow majority on the board who voted to fire him in 1981.
In spite of the controversy, Vella returned to Sonoma and his family cheese business as a respected public servant, often sought out for his insight and advice on local planning and government-related issues, and before long he was asked to serve the first of several terms on the city planning commission.
During dedication ceremonies for the Ig Vella Bridge, then-Sonoma Mayor Doug McKesson observed that, given the familiarity most people have with the honoree, the new structure should simple be called, "the Ig Bridge."
First District Supervisor Valerie Brown, speaking at the same ceremony, credited Vella with being instrumental in her political career and said that the bridge naming, "honors the work that he's done and the man that he is."
And even former city council member and onetime Vella political nemesis, Bob Cannard, called the bridge naming "a great honor for a great Sonoman."
Cannard further quipped that, "some people might object to living on Ig Vella Street, but I don't think anyone would object to running over him on a bridge."
When it came his time to speak, Ig credited Sally for prodding him into a political career. "She hasn't always agreed with me," Ig confessed, "but she originally backed me."
Then, paraphrasing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's description of his political nemesis Clement Atlee, Ig, a Churchill fan, said of himself, "I shall remain a modest man with much to be modest about."
While Ig Vella was widely regarded as a wise and thoughtful man, most who knew him would disagree with his self-assessment. He did not live a modest life and his achievements will honor him long into memory.
A viewing will be held at Duggan's Mission Chapel, 525 W. Napa St., on Thursday, June 16 from noon to 5 p.m. A Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday, June 17, at St. Francis Solano Church.