Gilroy resident significantly shaped water policy in the Santa Clara County

By Marty Cheek

Some folks called him “El  Presidente.”

For more than six decades, Sig Sanchez served as a local leader who significantly shaped Silicon Valley as a businessman and as a public servant. Admired by many in the South Valley, he died peacefully in his sleep at age 100 in his Gilroy home Jan. 30.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a friend, remembers Sanchez for his contributions as a councilmember and mayor of Gilroy, a member of the board of directors of Valley Water, and as a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

“He had – in abundance – good sense, a sense of humor, good character, and a commitment to his family. I consider him a friend and mentor, and I mourn his loss,” she said in a statement.

Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley knew Sanchez from her childhood because her father was a Gilroy fruit farmer who was friends with him. At age 99, Sanchez encouraged her in her campaign for mayor last year. Blankley met him at his house, chatting through the screen door because of COVID-19. He always had a positive attitude toward life and politics, she said.

“Sig was a big name in Gilroy and you knew him and he always had an attitude and reputation of someone who was on the up and up,” she said. “My dad was a pretty hard judge of character and I remember him thinking Sig was really genuine. Truly genuine. He didn’t do his many years of public service for notoriety, for attention. He did it for reasons of caring about people and loving where he lived. And Gilroy was so lucky to have him as our representative for all of those seats.”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman first met Sanchez in 2009 when the man was 84.

“After a couple of hours with ‘Super Sig,’ as I ultimately came to call him, I had learned a ton about South County in general and the wonderful people who lived there,” he said. “Sig was always praising and encouraging — but also a man who called it like he saw it, a let’s get it done kind of guy.

Wasserman said he smiles every time he drives past the Sig Sanchez Freeway sign on Highway 101 or goes to his office in the Sig Sanchez Government Center in San Martin where the new Animal Service Center is located.

Sanchez was born in Hollister Nov. 11, 1920 to Spanish immigrant parents, the second of 11 children. His mother worked in a cigarette factory in San Francisco and his father was an agricultural laborer in San Benito County. Sanchez grew up working the fields producing row crops such as tomatoes, sugar beets, and garlic. He graduated from San Benito High School in 1938.

In 1942 at the age of 21, he moved to Gilroy to operate a farm in the San Felipe district east of downtown. For 20 years, he owned a melon-packing operation with two of his brothers and a 600-acre farm to the south of Los Banos.

Sanchez branched his business into warehousing, commercial real estate and real estate development. He was a co-founder of Gilroy Foods, and progressively expanded into more growing operations in the Los Banos area. He also had farms in Hollister, Merced, Imperial Valley, and Sacramento. He was the largest grower of sugar beets in the U.S. at one time.

During the early years of his ag career, he wedded Jane Sanchez. They raised five children in a home on Fifth Street in Gilroy. The couple were married for 63 years until Jane died in Gilroy in 2007. They had 13 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

When he was honored with the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce’s Spice of Life Award as the Man of the Year in 2013, Sanchez shared his thoughts in a video on his life in politics and business: “Success comes from enjoying what you do and working hard at it. My family success is that I married a beautiful lady who was born and raised in Gilroy. I came to Gilroy as a farmer and farmed the land where the Premium Outlets now exist.”

After many years building his ag business, Sanchez entered public service by chance when one of his farm tractors broke down. The owner-mechanic of the repair shop was a Gilroy City Council member. During a conversation he encouraged the farmer to consider joining the council. Sanchez took on the challenge and campaigned for a seat and won. Starting in 1954, he served for four years as a councilmember. Following that, starting in 1958 he put in two terms as Gilroy’s mayor when the population was 3,500.

Starting in 1963 Sanchez served 16 years on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors where he advocated for the merger of the Santa Clara County Flood Control and Water District with the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District to better address flood management and water importation. Commuters traveling north on Highway 101 every morning pass a sign reading “Sig Sanchez Freeway” in northern Morgan Hill. The 10-mile portion of road was named in his honor for his 12-year effort as a supervisor to lobby various government agencies, often driving several times a month to Sacramento, to widen the highway and reduce the traffic congestion for safety.

As a supervisor for the South Valley region, he cast a vote to approve construction of an airport field in San Martin. It was a decision that he considered one of his most controversial. One writer of a letter to the editor in the Gilroy Dispatch at that time made a wish that Sanchez’s plane might crash if he ever flew into the new airport.

News reporters often referred to Supervisor Sanchez as “El Presidente” or “El Patron” for his leadership style. He enjoyed smoking cigars, a challenge for him when a no smoking rule was enacted for board chambers. He thus stopped lighting up and began only chewing on the cigar during board functions to get his tobacco fix.

In 1980, Sig was appointed as an at-large director on the board of directors of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, now known as Valley Water. He served on the board until 2009. He was a key player in the 1987 merger of the Gavilan Water District in South County with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which allowed for full integration of all the county’s reservoirs and groundwater facilities.

Sig was a strong advocate for South County’s agricultural community and once said water was the most important issue he dealt with in his political career, said Tony Estremera, the water board’s chair.

“I had the honor and privilege of being his friend and partner on the Valley Water Board of Directors,” he said. “We learned from him and carry forward the responsibility of continuing his service to Santa Clara County.”

Water board director John Varela represents the same South Valley seat Sanchez did. He feels honored to carry on the man’s legacy.

“He was a true champion for water issues in our community, from making sure we stored enough water for the future to protecting Santa Clara County from flooding,” Varela said. “Sig Sanchez was a friend and mentor. His career in public service was an inspiration and we will greatly miss him. His legacy will live on.”

Sig was a charter board member in the 1992 development of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a joint organization of 32 water and irrigation agencies that contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for water from the Central Valley Project. He was also instrumental in water importation into Santa Clara County with the board of supervisors, South Bay Aqueduct, water district board, and the San Felipe Project, which brings water from San Luis Reservoir.

Sanchez considered retiring from public service many times and even followed through with it once after four terms as a county supervisor. Then he joined the water district board. At 89 as chair of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, Sanchez vowed that year would be his last as an elected official. During his 57 years of public service, Sanchez made it a personal rule to never leave his office without returning every phone call.

In recognition of his longtime leadership, in 1991 he was inducted into the Gilroy Hall of Fame.

When Sanchez was honored as Gilroy’s 2013 Man of the Year, Lofgren placed in the Congressional Record a statement of the man’s accomplishments to mark the occasion, remarking: “The community is very fortunate to have benefited from his dedication, commitment, and advocacy.”

In the video presentation, Sanchez said of his political career: “What I’ve done in government is that I’ve always enjoyed helping people, especially people who were not knowledgeable about the process.”

An outdoor memorial service will be held Saturday, Feb. 13, at St. Mary Church in Gilroy.

Marty Cheek