It was the 1950s: Mt. Everest was conquered, Elvis and Disneyland became household names and Susanne Steinmetz went to work for the city of Gilroy in 1952. She was 15.
A descendent of city founders, its namesake and of Jose Francisco Ortega, one of the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay, Steinmetz would remain a city employee for 45 years, including 41 as city clerk. The youngest person ever in the post, she held it till her retirement in 1997.
At the time of her death, she still was part-owner of 900 acres of one the original Spanish land grants in the Diablo Mountain Range.
A mother of four, Steinmetz died March 23 after a short illness. She was 79. She will be remembered at a celebration of life on Saturday, April 23 at 1 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 74 W. Sixth Street, Gilroy.
Steinmetz made her mark on city affairs with her dedication to its efficient running and on her children for her devotion to them.
She always said the city came first, but her family knew they came first, according to her daughter, Jill Steinmetz.
“My mom was a very giving and loving person, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for somebody,” said Steinmetz, 46.
“No matter how busy she was she would stop to help anyone. She never had a mean or bad thing to say about anyone; she’d always say ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.’”
For Rhonda Pellin, who worked with her for nearly 20 years and succeeded her as city clerk, Steinmetz was a mentor.
“She was always willing to answer questions and help me learn whatever I needed. She was just always happy, always had a big smile on her face,” said Pellin, also retired and a Hollister resident.
If someone needed to know anything about the city’s history, all that institutional knowledge, Steinmetz was the go-to person, Pellin said.
“She was an excellent employee, very detailed, a team player, the kind of person you wanted to work with.”
Steinmetz was one of the few people who worked in all three of Gilroy’s City Halls since what’s known as the Old City Hall at Sixth Street and Monterey Road was built in 1905-06.
She began there as a part-time office worker, then moved to new headquarters at what is now the auditorium at Sixth and Church streets, then to the current City Hall at Seventh and Hanna streets.
She was born to Daisy Eddys Thomas and James Benjamin Thomas of Carmel Street on February 12, 1937. In the 1940s, her father served on the City Council.
Steinmetz graduated in 1954 from Gilroy High School, where she and her second husband, Gary Steinmetz, were a few grades apart and barely knew each other, according to Gary, a former Gilroy merchant and a resident of Coarsegold, California, for the past 16 years.
After high school, she attended San Jose Junior College and the UC-Berkeley, at one time contemplating a career in dental hygiene.
Instead, she worked summers for the city until she left college and went full-time in 1956 at the age of 19, the city’s youngest city clerk and the first after the position went from elected to appointed.
At 21, she married Leonard Payne. They had no children and later divorced.
On Jan. 19, 1967, she married Gary Steinmetz. On June 3, 1969 twins Jill and Jayne were born. Two years later, on October 7, 1969, twins Tym and Thom were born.
The unusual spelling of the names was the couple’s idea, except for Jill, according to her former husband, who wanted Jyll instead of Jill.
“I lost that one,” he laughed Monday. They remained friends over the years; he was with her near her death in Gilroy, her family said.
“My mom thought [the twin girls’ names] would have looked like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that’s why I got the normal spelling,” Jill said.
Margaret Wolford of San Martin was seven years younger than her sister, Susanne.
She recalled her sister’s cooking and beautiful long fingers, which made her a terrific church organ player as a young woman at the former St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Alexander Street.
“She loved to cook wild game and she used to say ‘give me a teacup of juice and I’ll make a great gravy.’ She was well known for her gravy,” Wolford said.
“She’d cook for an army if she had to,” Gary Steinmetz said.
And it came close to that on holidays, apparently.
“My most favorite memories are holidays when she would cook and all the family would gather at her house,” Jill said.
“And she was so very respected; my brothers have their same friends that they have had 40 years and each one of them still to this day addresses my mom as Mrs. Steinmetz, not one of them ever called her Susanne even when she insisted they do so. My mom had a heart of gold, I really miss her,” Jill said.
After her death, her children found out she’d had a storage locker for nearly two decades that no one knew about. Part of its trove was a huge collection of newspaper articles about the city and her family, Jill said. They’re still going through it all, she added.
She was a big sports fan, too, and crazy about the cartoon character Betty Boop—her favorite Halloween costume. She loved country singer Merle Haggard and animals. She was particularly proud that her basset hound was related to one that was on TV.
“She’s probably up there in heaven bending Merle Haggard’s ear—if Haggard’s up there,” Gary Steinmetz quipped on Monday.
Steinmetz moved to Oregon after retiring and was there when she became ill last year. Not wanting to alarm anyone, she kept it from most of her family until she returned to South County and sought help at Stanford Hospital.
“She would give up everything for us, we were her whole life; I just remember always being with her, she was just a wonderful person to be around,” Jill Steinmetz said.
“And she was a fighter, she didn’t want to die, she just held on as long as she could.”