Notable deaths in the central San Joaquin Valley in 2016

Family, friends honor Blackie Gejeian in Fresno

Family and friends gather for a Celebration of Life for Fresno auto icon Michael “Blackie” Gejeian at Valdez Hall at the Fresno Convention Center on Saturday, September 17, 2016 in Fresno.
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Family and friends gather for a Celebration of Life for Fresno auto icon Michael “Blackie” Gejeian at Valdez Hall at the Fresno Convention Center on Saturday, September 17, 2016 in Fresno.

The list of people with central San Joaquin Valley ties who died in 2016 ranges from civil rights leaders to farmers, young to old.

The Valley lost many who sought to right injustices and make opportunities for all, including Pauline Kimber, Jesse McDonald Jr. and Ben Benavídez.

There were tragic deaths, including officers on duty: Tulare County sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne (in a plane crash along with civilian pilot James Chavez) and Fresno County sheriff’s Sgt. Rod Lucas. And 29-year-old Mireyda “Mia” Barraza Martinez, who died in a car crash.

The year started and ended with the death of a Petrucci: Dino Petrucci, of the Madera Petrucci family, died on Jan. 4; Vince Petrucci, of the Fresno Petrucci family, died on Dec. 27. The two families are not related.

Here are some of the notable Valley people who died in 2016:


▪ Dino Antonio Petrucci, 85, farmer/teacher/owner of Petrucci’s Catering, Jan. 4.

▪ Pauline Kimber, 81, co-founder and former editor of the California Advocate Newspaper, civil rights activist, author, Jan. 7.

▪ Harry Topoozian, 101, World War II veteran and raisin grower, Jan. 10.

▪ Adrian Loza, 29, El Premio Mayor food truck operator and winner of the 2015 Fresno Grizzlies Taco Truck Throwdown, Jan. 23.


▪ Don Warkentin, 69, former West Hills College Lemoore president, Feb. 1.

▪ Leslie Bassett, 93, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer born in Hanford, Feb. 4.

▪ Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, and James Chavez, 45, civilian pilot for Tulare County Sheriff’s Department (both in on-duty plane crash near Springville), Feb. 10.

▪ William Ronnie “Bill” Griffin, 75, former coach at Washington Union and Clovis high schools, educator and school district superintendent at Washington Union, Clovis High, Madera Unified and West Fresno Elementary, Feb. 12.

▪ Mearle Heitzman, 94, owner of the legendary Mearle’s College Drive-In in Visalia, Feb. 27.


▪ Vaness Alexander French II, 49, Mendota High chess coach/mentor, March 1.

▪ Alma Garza, 68, veteran on-air personality at Radio Bilingue, March 9.

▪ William “Bill” Patnaude, 78, Fresno architect who designed the new City Hall, March 11.

▪ Gary Brown, 76, retired police chief (Chowchilla and other cities in California and Oregon) also recognized for his efforts to promote cowboy music and poetry, March 16.

▪ Jesse McDonald Jr., 90, retired barber, civil rights leader and co-founder of Fresno’s African American historical museum, March 18.


▪ Ben Benavídez, 69, civil rights leader/former president of the Mexican American Political Association, April 4.


▪ Lt. Col. Vang Chou, 78, Royal Lao Air Force/founder of Merced Lao Family Community Inc., May 4.

▪ Valerie Bender, 60, retired journalist/former Fresno Bee editor and Merced Sun-Star publisher, May 6.

▪ Msgr. Edwin James Petersen, 82, Roman Catholic priest, May 3.

▪ Don Norrby, 77, former Kingsburg Joint Union High School District superintendent/coordinator of construction, May 12.

▪ Maria L. Gutierrez, Univision’s former senior vice president and regional director of local media, May 19.

▪ Cruz Floriano Rios Jr., 97, World War II veteran who took rare color photos of the period, auto mechanics instructor/gas station owner, May 25.

▪ Jewell M. Williams, 82, activist for Native American issues and longtime lobbyist for Native American health care, May 29.


▪ Helen Chavez, 88, wife of Cesar Chavez/retired Farm Worker Credit Union, June 6.

▪ Bryan Robinson, 41, former Fresno State and NFL football player, June 11.

▪ Robert “Bob” Creasy, 36, Fresno theater actor/director, June 17.

▪ Mark Watte, 64, Tulare County farmer and one of California agriculture’s leading advocates, June 17.

▪ Clifford Howard Davis, 87, owner of Davis Advertising, June 18.

▪ Vance Stanley, 81, champion football coach at Fresno High School and Fresno City College, June 21.


▪ Della Ann Wathen, 90, CEO of Wathen Family Builders, July 19.

▪ Floyd Hyde, 95, former Fresno mayor, undersecretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development, attorney, federal lobbyist, July 26.

▪ Marvin Arnold, 84, retired Fresno stockbroker who presided over his own “going-away” party weeks before his death, July 30.


▪ David Provost, 86, retired political science professor at Fresno State, Aug. 6.

▪ Gregory Henry, 51, principal of Sierra Pacific High School in Hanford, Aug. 22.


▪ Michael “Blackie” Gejeian, 90, Fresno auto show icon and hot rod legend, Sept. 2.

▪ Sam Iacobellis, 87, Fresno State alumnus, “Father of the B1-B bomber,” aviation industry leader, aerospace engineer, Sept. 3.

▪ Deborah Anne Manning, 66, teacher and co-owner of Petunia’s Place bookstore, Sept. 6.

▪ Oklin Bloodworth, 66, children’s musician, Sept. 11.

▪ Seymour “Sy” Mack, 94, retired geology professor at Fresno State, Sept. 15.

▪ Harold “Hal” Tokmakian, 89, former Fresno County planning director and Fresno State professor, Sept. 20.

▪ Jean Shepard, 82, pioneering female country singer with roots in Visalia, Sept. 25.

▪ Jim Simonian, 72, Fowler farmer/business owner, Sept. 26.


▪ William Bradley “Brad” Bolling, 66, advertising company owner, Oct. 15.

▪ Norman Strauss, 98, owner of longtime Fresno business Strauss’ Apparel Shop, Oct. 15.

▪ Kenneth Conn, 82, retired Tulare Superior Court judge, Oct. 16.

▪ Dean Nicholson, 92, former Sanger High coach and teacher, Oct. 23.

▪ Leo Gallegos Jr., 75, longtime political and business consultant, Oct. 30.

▪ Harold “Hal” Best, 94, director of institutional research and management professor at Fresno State, Oct. 31.

▪ Sgt. Rod Lucas, 46, Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, training accident, Oct. 31.


▪ Duane Furman, 89, founding superintendent of Madera Unified, Nov. 12.

▪ Mireyda “Mia” Barraza Martinez, 29, aspiring poet, teaching associate/graduate assistant at Fresno State, Nov. 20.

▪ Henry Lemay, 83, retired veterans hospital engineer, Korean War veteran and singer at many patriotic events, Nov. 30.


▪ Doug Harrison, 59, local attorney, adventurer, extreme hiker, former missionary and military pilot, Dec. 2.

▪ Sammy Lee, 96, Fresno native, world-class diver, first Asian-American to earn Olympic gold, Dec. 2.

▪ Burl Walter Jr., 83, retired Reedley High band director, teacher and Fresno State professor; musician, Dec. 5.

▪ A. Vernon Conrad, 90, farmer, retired three-term Fresno County supervisor, Dec. 10.

▪ Mark Hayward, 65, longtime Immanuel High teacher and coach, Dec. 18.

▪ Steve Sunderland, 63, first fire chief of Tulare County, Dec. 22.

▪ Ben Amirkhanian, 101, founder of the William Saroyan Society, Dec. 24.

▪ Vincent E. Petrucci, 91, founder of viticulture and enology programs at Fresno State, Dec. 27.

Compiled by Ashley Gravano, Fresno Bee librarian. 559-441-6128