Del Britton’s bocce antics used to drive people crazy.
He’d stand nonchalantly in the back, socializing with others as he leaned on a nearby table. Occasionally he’d look over at the court and secretly size things up, but it rarely held his gaze for longer than a few seconds.
“He’d get up, he’d pick up the ball and he’d throw it … without looking,” his widow and bocce teammate Marielle Coeytaux recalled. “And everybody’s going, ‘Del, come on!’”
Then they’d look back at the court and realize how close his shot was to the pallino and immediately stopped complaining.
Britton was an exceptional athlete and, on Oct. 28, he’ll be posthumously inducted into the St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Fame alongside Attilio “Toch” Ghiringhelli (Class of 1936), Andy Vanderschoot (Class of 1965), Kirk Mulligan (Class of 1968), Rich Lomeli (Class of 1978), Allison Zumwalt (Class of 1985) and Tobe Wolf (coach for 25 seasons), for his outstanding prep career as a three-sport standout in the 1950s.
But it’s his approach to bocce, specifically, that perfectly encapsulated everything about him. He was talented but modest; physically gifted but never tried to make others uncomfortable or intimidated by it.
“I don’t want them to take it too seriously,” he used to tell Coeytaux. “People take this game too seriously but, on the other hand, I don’t want to disappoint my team so I want to play well.”
“That’s Del,” she said.
One of the best hitters in school history
Britton’s upbringing is a familiar tale. He was a fifth-generation St. Helenan raised in a family of eight children, with six girls and two boys. His father, with whom he shares his name, was out of the picture, so he was forced to grow up quickly and went to work at a young age.
He worked all sorts of jobs, but the one he described as “the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life” was a gig baling hay in Yountville. Britton used a pitchfork to move the bales into truck beds, and Coeytaux said that’s how he developed such a broad back.
Britton, like countless others, was part of Carpy Gang growing up. His coordination was remarkable and his physical attributes helped him stand out from his peers.
In high school, he played football, basketball and baseball. He was also class president.
From the limited statistics available, Britton was an All-League selection in football at least his junior and senior seasons in 1955 and ’56 as a wide receiver and defensive back for the Saints. In 1955, he was part of the second team in school history to go undefeated, winning the North Bay League III championship behind a 3-0 league record and an 8-0 mark overall.
Britton was a ballhawk on defense with an uncanny ability to end up with the ball, intercepting at least five passes and coming up with four fumble recoveries in his career.
In basketball, he led the Saints to an NBL III championship his senior year, averaging 10.9 points per game and earned All-League honors.
But it was the baseball diamond where Britton truly shined. He was an All-League selection his final three years, and was named league MVP as a senior in 1957.
That spring, he batted .449 and set school records in triples (six) and extra-base hits (14). His .898 slugging percentage is the third best in school history, and his 21 RBIs are fifth most.
He had a nine-game hitting streak (fifth longest) and, at one point, recorded a hit in 10 straight at-bats – something that has never been repeated by a St. Helena player.
On April 30, 1957, Britton went 5 for 5 against Calistoga – one of only three players to do so – and hit for the cycle, a distinction he shares with only one other athlete.
Britton’s career batting average of .417 is the best in school history. He finished with 15 doubles (fifth most), six triples (fourth most), five home runs (sixth most), 26 extra-base hits (fourth most), a .677 slugging percentage (third best), 42 RBIs and 53 runs scored (ninth most).
Life beyond St. Helena
After graduating in 1957, he went to Santa Clara University on a baseball scholarship.
He joined the U.S. Air Force and, in 1963, was sent overseas and served in the Vietnam War where he piloted helicopters for rescue missions to save stranded airmen. His service during the war earned him numerous decorations and distinctions, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
During his tour in Vietnam, Britton met and married his first wife, Ida Jane Welty, who was serving in the Red Cross at the time. They had three children, Duke, April and Stephanie, and were married 34 years until she died in 2004.
His desire to give back to others and serve his community continued when he returned to St. Helena in 1983. He took part in numerous organizations like the St. Helena Kiwanis Club and was always ready to put on fundraisers for specific causes.
With zero political experience, he was elected mayor of St. Helena in 2005 and always advocated for the traditionalists in town. That said, he was always receptive to other ideas and extending a hand across the aisle. His slogan, “Keep St. Helena St. Helena,” was at the core of everything he did.
Fighter until the end
Coeytaux remembers the exact day she met Britton. It was Jan. 2, 2008, and she had recently settled back in to her hometown of St. Helena after spending decades in France where she – like Britton – had lived a full life, raising a family and doing her own version of community service as a choir director.
Her landlord at the time set the two of them up on a “lunch meeting.” She talked about different music and creative projects she wanted to bring to St. Helena and Britton seemed fairly receptive to them. He began calling her almost daily to introduce her to people within the community to help get the wheels turning, and she thought, “Wow, this mayor really takes care of his constituents.”
Later, when Britton scheduled a dinner meeting and came armed with a bouquet of roses, Coeytaux finally became wise to his intentions. She still blushes when she talks about him.
Despite being 18 years older, Coeytaux asserted, “he was so young in his head,” evidenced by his constant doodling. His sense of humor and ability to light up a room made it hard not to love him dearly.
“I call him my shooting star,” she said. “It was very short.”
Britton was diagnosed with cancer in January 2012. For three months, he went to chemotherapy three times a week and lost a kidney in the process. By May, doctors told him the cancer had subsided so, later that summer, he filed his paperwork to run for re-election for a fifth term.
He went to France with Coeytaux and spent time with her family, living their best lives. But when Britton returned, he came home to a visceral campaign.
“They were ugly elections,” said Coeytaux. “It was the worst they’d ever been for a long time. He kind of let things slide, but I could tell he was chewing them up. He was being attacked on his person – it was very ugly.”
Britton ended up winning, but the morning after election night, everything began to change.
He went into this cycle of on-again, off-again fevers, so they visited the doctors. After some tests, they found out that the cancer had spread to his liver.
Britton got back on chemotherapy, but this time it was different. His body took a beating during the treatment as doctors put out one fire only to discover another that needed attention. He was also doing all of this on one kidney.
And, just like the year before, doctors gave him good news again – prematurely.
“That was tough,” said Coeytaux. “That was tough – because the third morning (after a procedure), the doctor that was checking the kidney … came in and told Del, ‘You’re amazing because it looks like you’re pulling through this too.’”
After breathing a heavy sigh of relief, she went and showered. When she was finished, a doctor suddenly grabbed her and held her close, telling her that Britton’s kidney was failing and his days were ultimately numbered. The only question now was whether he wanted to die in a medical building or at home.
Coeytaux and Britton once made a pact to never hide anything from each other. It was such a strong part of their relationship, her voice shakes when she talks about it. So, when she returned to his room, she told him what she had just learned.
The main doctor that had been overseeing Britton’s treatment entered the room ready to give the mayor the bad news, unaware that he already knew. Before he could say anything, Britton quickly sat up.
“OK, Doc. Here’s the deal … well, it looks like I’m dying here,” he said. “So this is how I want it to happen. Three days. You send me home today, I want to see my kids tomorrow and, on Friday, high noon, I want it to be over.”
And that’s what Britton did. He went home, saw his children, and at noon on that Friday he stopped eating and drinking, knowing full well that his body couldn’t take that kind of deprivation. By Sunday he was non-responsive, and on Tuesday he was pronounced dead.
It was his ultimate swing for the fence. Britton had seen enough pitches and been thrown enough curve balls over the course of his 74 years to know which hurls he could put a bat on.
With the count full and the game winding down, he reared back and swung hard because there’s no other way he could have done it.
“He controlled his life to the very end,” Coeytaux said.