Gabby Munoz and Bart Berg were an unlikely team.
Munoz, now 33, comes from a working-class Hispanic family in Napa. Berg, born in 1917, was a mechanical engineer and a successful business owner from Nebraska who moved to Napa after he retired.
The two met in 1998 when Berg hired Munoz, a new Napa High graduate, to help him with mopping and other janitorial duties at his woodworking shop on Oak Street.
Over the next 14 years, under Berg’s tutelage, Munoz would go from cleaning the shop to running it.
Today, she is has trained to become a master cabinetmaker, learning woodworking, machine milling and even welding. But in addition to a new career, Munoz received something equally as precious — mentorship from a man who would become an important part of her life.
“You have no limits,” was Berg’s message to her, Munoz said.
Her training began after Munoz had been cleaning for Berg for about a year, she said.
“He said, ‘Gabby, do you want to learn how to sand?’”
The answer was ‘yes.’
“I always wanted to do this,” she said. “I have an uncle that is a master cabinetmaker in Mexico,” she explained. He used to bring her blocks and scraps from the shop to play with. “When I grow up, I will be able to do what my uncle does,” she recalled telling her mother at a young age.
“He saw that I really enjoyed it,” Munoz said of Berg. “I want you to be trained and learn the skills as if you were me,” Berg told her. “I know you can do this,” she remembered him saying.
Working as a shop assistant, her first jobs included such tasks as gluing panels and measuring. Berg also taught Munoz machine shop skills like how to run milling machines and welding. Some of the milling machines were custom-made by Berg himself, and Munoz said that now she is the only one who knows how to operate them.
“He was very specific in what he wanted people to do at the shop,” which he called “Bart’s Shop.” “I make whatever I want,” reads the sign outside the building.
Berg and Munoz built tables, chairs, grandfather clocks, desks, bookcases and more.
“You name it, we did it all,” she said. But Berg didn’t sell his work. The pieces were all made for family members. Munoz said she has some furniture they made for her home in Napa as well. Munoz and her husband live just a quarter mile from the shop, she said.
Over the next decade, the two worked side by side. Berg eventually hired Munoz full time, paid for her health insurance, a vehicle, her education at Napa Valley College and other training and expenses, she said. The two ate breakfasts and lunches together, as well as many dinners.
“I didn’t have to worry about a thing,” she said. By 2006, Berg had named her the “boss” of the shop.
“He just adored her,” said Berg’s daughter, Marian Berg. “They were basically inseparable for a better part of 14 years.”
Berg became a father figure to Munoz, his daughter said. Like any family, “They had their little arguments about the right way to do something,” but “he just trusted her with everything.”
Last March 1, Berg called Munoz into his office. Normally not an emotional person, “He grabbed my hand and he said, ‘Gabby, you’re ready for anything.’”
The engineer had a strong work ethic, and had trained Munoz to his standards.
“He told me, ‘If I’m hard with you, and push you, it’s for your own benefit, because I could kick the bucket at any time.’”
“I said, ‘Bart don’t say that.’”
Three days later, Berg passed away. He was found in his shop. Berg was 94.
The months have passed and Munoz continues to come to Bart’s Shop, making sure all is as it should be.
“I turn on the machines but I’m not building anything,” she said. “I just stay here. Some days, I’m here all day.”
Munoz hopes to find a job using her skills and training or open her own woodworking business.
While the shop must be closed to settle Berg’s estate, “We want to find some way for her to continue to do woodworking,” said Marian Berg. “I’m hoping she can find someone to partner with. She’s quite good. He really taught her a lot.”
Asked what Berg meant to her, Munoz found it hard to speak.
“Everything,” she said through her tears. “He was everything to me. If I had a problem I’d come to him. He always told me, ‘Anything you need, you come to me.’”
“I really miss him,” she said, crying softly.
Berg may be gone but the lessons he taught Munoz remain. She described working this past summer on a custom dining room set that required some advanced woodworking techniques.
“After I finished the dining set, I said, ‘Bart was right. There’s no limit. I can do it.’”