South Valley celebrates ‘legend’ Sig Sanchez

Former water district director, county supervisor will turn 100 in November

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Sig Sanchez was mayor of Gilroy for two terms. File photo

Local and regional representatives and public officials held an early 100th birthday celebration last week for South Valley political icon, Gilroy Hall of Famer and longtime farmer Sig Sanchez.

Sanchez, who still resides in Gilroy, will turn 100 on Nov. 11. At the Sept. 8 Valley Water Board of Directors meeting, Sanchez’s former colleagues from nearly every era of his 55-year public service career lined up to sing his praises and wish him well as his birthday approaches.

“Sig has always been a straight shooter, and a consummate gentleman,” Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said during the Sept. 8 online celebration. “Sig is a man of the people. I think we should all be so lucky to be able to live a life like Sig’s. To Sig and your family, thank you and happy birthday.”

Born in Hollister in 1920 as the second of 11 children, Sanchez was raised by his Spanish immigrant parents on the family farm. When he grew up, Sanchez followed in his father’s footsteps and at the age of 21 began operating a farm in east Gilroy, where the Gilroy Premium Outlets are now located.

During his agricultural career, Sanchez branched out into warehousing, commercial real estate and real estate development, says a resolution adopted by the Valley Water board in recognition of Sanchez’s centennial. He was a co-founder of Gilroy Foods, and progressively expanded into more growing operations in the Los Banos area.

Sanchez entered the public service realm in the early 1950s, when he served two terms on the Gilroy City Council from 1954-1958, followed by two terms as the city’s mayor. In the 1960s and 1970s, he served four terms on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

He retired from that position in 1978, but joined the Valley Water board—then known as the Santa Clara Valley Water District—in 1980 when he was appointed to a director’s seat. He sat on the water district board until he retired, again, in 2009.

“You’re not just a man; you’re a legend,” Valley Water Director Barbara Keegan said. 

Sanchez’s influence is hard to miss in South County. A sign on U.S. 101 designates a portion of the freeway through South County as the “Sig Sanchez Freeway,” so named by the state legislature in 1994 in recognition of his efforts to develop the route.

Valley Water Director John Varela currently sits on Sanchez’s former board seat, which represents the South County region of the water district. Varela said on Sept. 8 that every time he sees the sign with Sanchez’s name on U.S. 101, “It always reminds me of what a great person you are. Your legacy is astounding.”

Valley Water CEO Rick Callender and several other current and former district staff members who served under Sanchez’s directorship delivered remarks consistently lauding his steady leadership skills.

“Now I have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of someone who got me here,” Callender said during the Sept. 8 Valley Water session.  

Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman and others spoke about Sanchez’s influence on a generation of South County politicians.

“When I first decided to run (for office), Sig sat me down and said, ‘This is how it’s done,’” Wasserman said. “Sig led by example, with his energy. Thank you so much for inspiring me and all the thousands of people you have inspired over the decades.”

U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren joined the celebration, notifying the board that she has submitted a resolution to the Congressional Record recognizing Sanchez on his birthday.

“There are few, if any people who can match that level of service,” Lofgren said of Sanchez’s 55-year political career.

Sanchez led his colleagues and co-workers with humility and respect, according to those who spoke at the Sept. 8 celebration. Lofgren recalled when she ran for her first congressional election in the early 1990s, Sanchez offered his Gilroy home as a venue for a South County campaign event.

Lofgren’s resolution notes that among Sanchez’s accomplishments on the water district board is the “merger of water districts that allowed for the full integration of all the county’s reservoirs and groundwater facilities, as well as many other important projects.”

The Valley Water resolution adds that in addition to his elected public service, Sanchez has served the community as a board member of local nonprofits, including HOPE Rehabilitation, Wheeler Hospital, South Valley Hospital, Health Dimensions, Inc., the Odd-Fellows and Rebekah Children’s Home.

Sanchez has been inducted into the Gilroy Hall of Fame, and in 2013 was named the chamber of commerce’s Man of the Year.

Former Valley Water Director Rosemary Kamei, who now sits on the county board of education, served with Sanchez for 17 years on the water district board. Like others who spoke at the Sept. 8 meeting, Kamei praised Sanchez as a mentor to herself and other young public officials.

She recalled that Sanchez once told her to always “call it like you see it,” and she still actively strives to apply that advice to her elected work.

“You are a legacy that will live on; you certainly impacted my life and the lives of many others,” Kamei said.