Longtime Bee columnist and war hero Eli Setencich recalled at memorial (video)

The Fresno BeeAugust 23, 2014 

Funny and bright, longtime Fresno Bee reporter Eli Setencich was recalled Saturday as a beloved journalist and war hero to many throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.

About 200 people gathered in Fresno to pay tribute to his life -- one that family and friends said was marked by adventure, humor and kindness.

"If any of us would have made a tenth of the contribution that Eli did, we could have called it a life well-lived," said Jim Boren, executive editor of The Bee, who gave Setencich's eulogy.

Setencich had a 41-year career with The Bee. His work included a weekly column, "Through a Glass Lightly," and later a three-times-a-week column that he continued until his retirement in 2002.

The memorial at St. Peter the Apostle Serbian Orthodox Church drew many prominent Valley figures, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, former Congressman Rick Lehman, and Diana Dooley, secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency.

Dooley said Gov. Jerry Brown called Setencich in April on his last birthday, when he turned 90, to wish him well.

"The governor really respects the kind of journalist that Eli was and the kind of person that he was," said Dooley, adding Setencich had a lot of integrity. "So it was more than just a professional respect. There was a personal fondness that Jerry had for Eli."

The memorial also drew many veteran Bee journalists, including former publisher Ray Steele and former executive editor George Gruner.

Setencich -- a "dashing" reporter who traveled to assignments in a Porsche -- introduced himself when Boren was starting at The Bee at age 19.

"Eli lit up the room," Boren said, "and you always knew that he was looking for an opportunity to deliver a one-liner. He did it in person, in columns and in letters to the editor after he retired."

Stephen Shipe said his grandfather was patient, stoic and "huge to me ... far beyond physical stature. ...

"He'd give copious amounts of his time listening to other people talk about themselves," Shipe said. "He was truly interested in what others had to say -- things that most people couldn't bear to sit still for. He would make the waiting room at the doctor's office a social event for everyone there."

And during trips to the market, Setencich liked to ask strangers questions that seemed far too personal, Shipe said. "But not one time did I see discomfort in others. He had a magical charisma that made people want to answer whatever absurd thing he may have asked them."

During the memorial, Costa presented Setencich's daughter with two Distinguished Flying Cross medals -- the highest honor a pilot can receive. Setencich flew 142 combat missions in World War II.

As he presented the second medal, Costa choked up as he said, "Amy, this is a Flying Cross that I so much wanted to present to your father, for a job well done and for a grateful nation. For all that he did and exhibited to make America safer for generations to come."

When Paul Loeffler first interviewed Setencich for Hometown Heroes Radio, Setencich didn't mention those awards. Two words sum him up, Loeffler said: "Humor and humility, and he had both of them at the highest level."

Since his death, Setencich has been lauded by many, including the city of Sanger and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Costa called Setencich a "quintessential Valley boy" -- born in Sacramento and raised on a farm in Sanger. He also worked in radio and television before joining The Bee.

Lehman said he was a true wordsmith, holding a special ability to call out misdeeds with humor and without putting his point of view "way out front."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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