The Gilroy Chamber of Commerce will honor four distinguished Gilroyans on Oct. 27 in ceremonies and a luncheon at Old City Hall restaurant.
The 11:30am-1:30pm event will recognize extraordinary contributions of veteran lawman Al Gagliardi, water district manager and local historian Jack Sturla, decorated veteran Lawson Sakai and influential business woman Susan Valenta.
Al Gagliardi grew up on a 10-acre farm located on the southwest corner of Monterey Road and Farrell Avenue with his brothers Sal and Mike and his sister, Eleanor, learning the prune business first-hand.
As it did with so many, World War II disrupted life for Al’s family. He and his brothers went off to serve. Tragically, Sal was killed in Germany and Mike died in a postwar auto accident. When his military duty was completed in 1946, Al returned to the farm in Gilroy. Prune orchards were on their way out, and Al began growing grain and cucumbers. Later, Al became a deputy sheriff and the family leased the farmland to a strawberry farmer, eventually selling the land in 1960s.
Al has been collecting prune box ends for 60 years and has quite a collection.
In addition to serving his community through law enforcement, Al was involved with the Gilroy Historical Society. One of his projects was the recovering of Gilroy’s now-restored 1923 Seagrave Fire Engine. Al has advanced the work of the Historical Society as a member and the go-to source of information about the past.
Al graduated Gilroy High School in 1942, and entered World War II in February 1943, where he served at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. AI won a medal for good conduct and a bronze star.
He served to protect Gilroy through his work as a deputy sheriff from 1948 to 1977.
“Al has a rich history of selfless service and commitment to the Gilroy community,” read his Chamber tribute.
Richard “Jack” Sturla
Up until the time Jack Sturla joined the Air Force just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was following in his family’s footsteps as a farmer. In 1943, after graduating from flight school in Santa Ana, Jack was assigned to Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, flying an A-20, an attack, light bomber, intruder and reconnaissance aircraft. One of Jack’s proudest moments was being chosen as leader of one of two 12-plane squadrons to raid a Japanese radio station 60 miles south of Jack’s base in New Guinea. Jack flew 52 combat missions during the war. After his military service, he returned home, where he met the woman of his dreams, Dorothy Nagle of Gilroy. They were married for 63 years, until her death in 2011. Jack passed away in 2014 at the age of 95.
In the 1960s, Jack became a board member of the South Santa Clara County Water District, which later became the Gavilan Water District. Over the years, Jack was a farmer, worked in the employment office, worked at the John Sherrer’s “Pieter-Wheeler” Seed Company, and then became manager of the Gavilan Water District before retiring.
Jack also advanced the work of the Gilroy Historical Society as a board member and was a wealth of information regarding Gilroy’s past. He shared his knowledge of generations of his family’s farming, including photos of his artifacts of Gilroy’s history, like the fence he rescued from Don Pacheco’s Rancho Ausaymas y San Felipe. He would tell about seeing smoke rising from Henry Miller’s burning mansion, and hearing that drunken cowboys accidentally started the fire. In many more cases, Jack could always be counted on to illuminate Gilroy’s past.
Lawson Sakai was born in Los Angeles in 1923. He graduated from Montebello High School, and attended Compton College in Los Angeles and Mesa College in Colorado.
On Dec. 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor), he tried to enlist in the military service and was rejected based on a government classification that he was an enemy alien because of Japanese ancestry. His family was evacuated to an internment camp in Colorado in 1942. In March 1943, enlistment opportunities opened up for Japanese Americans to serve in a segregated unit. Lawson immediately volunteered for 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was overseas from May 1944 until November 1945.
While overseas, he served in all of the 442nd campaigns in Italy and France, including the liberation of Bruyeres, France, and the rescue of the Lost Battalion, where he was seriously injured.
During the war he was wounded four times, and received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman Badge. In December 1945, he was discharged from the army. After leaving the service, he attended Pepperdine College and operated a travel agency in San Jose.
Lawson has been very active in the 442nd reunions. He recently led a group of 53 to Bruyeres, France for the 60th anniversary of the town’s liberation. He lives in Morgan Hill.
Susan Valenta has made a lasting impact on the community of Gilroy. Her most significant contribution was as CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years. She brought professional leadership to the organization that resulted in good business opportunities for the community. Her work led directly to the creation of the Gilroy Economic Development Center, Gilroy Welcome Center, Leadership Gilroy and the Gilroy Downtown Business Association.
In addition to her leadership at the Chamber of Commerce, she has worked tirelessly with the Gilroy Rotary Club. Susan served as the district governor, allowing her to visit many of Rotary clubs in the region taking the best of Gilroy to others and bringing back the best of other clubs to Gilroy.
Many leaders in the community serving today were influenced by Susan’s service, whether through her efforts at the Chamber or through the Leadership Gilroy program established under her watch. Prior to retiring from the Chamber of Commerce in late 2013, Susan was recognized by the Silicon Valley Business Journal as one of the most influential women in Silicon Valley.
For information about the awards luncheon, visit www.gilroy.org/events/?action=evrplusegister&event_id=63