Ken Christopher joined friends and family at home the afternoon of July 28, celebrating the 4,000 volunteers who poured in countless hours to make Gilroy’s annual celebration of cloves and community a success.
The 41st annual Gilroy Garlic Festival was well on its way to be one for the record books. Christopher had noted an increase an attendance on the first day of the festival, historically the slowest day. Big celebrity names also drew in hordes of people to Christmas Hill Park, capped off by a performance from Grammy-winner Colbie Caillat on July 27.
“We were so excited,” said Christopher, the executive vice president of Christopher Ranch, which donates more than two tons of garlic to the festival annually. “We thought we just pulled off the most incredible weekend ever.”
At the party, Christopher was approached by a longtime friend and employee of Christopher Ranch, excited about the future of the festival. “She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Kenny, this is magic,’” he said.
Then, just before 6 p.m. on July 28, Christopher’s life shattered, like so many others that night.
A gunman broke into the festival grounds, killing three people and injuring 13 others before he shot and killed himself after being shot multiple times by police.
“For three days, the festival served as a homecoming,” Christopher said in an interview. “For three days, your only concern was what time do you want to go to Gourmet Alley, or when you want to get that celebrity autograph.
“That innocence is gone—for now.”
Shortly after news of the shooting broke, Christopher posted his thoughts on social media. The post reached more than 200,000 people, he said, many expressing their love and support.
“That’s what inspired me,” he said. “I need to find a way to grow from this and help others.”
Christopher said in the coming weeks, the ranch will be investing in various media with messages of hope and encouraging those affected by the incident to reach out to appropriate counseling.
“There is no right or wrong way to grieve,” he said. “However you’re hurting is OK.”
He encourages people to remember what the Garlic Festival stands for: supporting local schools and non-profit organizations.
“Get involved,” Christopher said. “Take a little bit of time and find something that matters to you and make a difference.
“Be kind to one another. Volunteer. Make a difference. This is a time when we need to dig deep. It’s OK to not be doing OK. There’s no right way to do this.”
When the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, working with the Gilroy Foundation, contributed $10,000 to set up a fund to benefit the victims of the shooting, Christopher Ranch immediately announced it would match the donation.
Christopher said he had spent the early hours of the festival’s final day leading Congressman Jimmy Panetta and his daughter around the grounds. It was Panetta’s first time at the Garlic Festival, according to Christopher, trying out garlic ice cream and purchasing a garlic braid.
“He was dazzled by everyone’s spirit,” Christopher said. “He kept commenting on how warm and welcoming everyone was.”
Among the numerous calls Christopher received that night was from Panetta.
“He stayed on the line with me that night, helping me build my strength,” he said.
Don Christopher, Ken Christopher’s grandfather, founded the festival in 1979 with Dr. Rudy Melone and Val Filice.
The ranch’s involvement in the festival runs deep. To date, Christopher Ranch has donated 150,000 pounds of garlic, and it finances the celebrity chef appearances and entertainment. It also sponsors the Garlic Queen competition.
Fighting back tears, Ken Christopher said his grandfather, who is the last surviving founder of the festival, was not ready to be interviewed for this story. Don Christopher’s message to the city, passed through this grandson, was: “Gilroy has strength. We can’t let this bring us down.”
Ken Christopher said he had worked tirelessly to make the 41st annual event the “biggest, greatest Garlic Festival,” hoping to make his grandfather proud.
“It’s his legacy,” he said. “I wanted to do this for him. I wanted him to look and see a sea of faces enjoying something innocent.”
The Garlic Festival Association is staying in constant touch with the ranch, according to Christopher. It has not yet discussed the future of the festival, instead focusing on providing support for the victims.
Christopher, who said he will never mention the gunman’s name, is hopeful that the festival will return next year.
“I do have every hope and I have faith that this will come back,” he said. “It’s what binds us together. We can’t let the actions of one madman dictate the future of our community. We need to honor and grieve for those who have passed. The best way to do that is to remain united and push forward.”