Mayor Del Britton, who served his country in Vietnam and served his city through decades of community service and eight years at the helm of the St. Helena City Council, died Tuesday of complications from cancer. He was 74.
Britton died at home before noon on Tuesday, attended by his wife and three children and Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Care.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Britton underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatments in January 2012. He thought the cancer was gone, but at a mid-December doctor’s visit he was told that it had returned in an aggressive form, according to his son, Duke Britton.
Britton was put back on chemotherapy, which turned out to be ineffective. He then fell and ruptured his intestine, leading to a short hospital stay. Last week he returned home under hospice care. He died Tuesday of renal failure.
Britton was a fifth-generation St. Helenan. He was elected to his fifth term as mayor in November, and was sworn in on Dec. 11, at what turned out to be his last council meeting.
Britton is survived by three children: Duke Britton, April Wilder and Stephanie Getz. All three were the children of Britton and his wife of more than 30 years, Ida Jane Britton, who died in 2004. Britton married Marielle Coeytaux in 2009.
A member of the St. Helena High School Class of 1957, Britton stood out in athletics, where he excelled in three sports, and in student government, where he served as class president.
Hap Vasconi, whose friendship with Britton dates to their Carpy Gang days, said that as a young man Britton showed great athletic ability, strong leadership skills and “was always very diplomatic.”
In politics and community service, Britton’s core philosophy was always about “keeping St. Helena St. Helena,” Vasconi said.
“People might have disagreed with some of what he did,” Vasconi said, “but it was always what he thought was good for the community.”
Bob Pestoni, who was a year ahead of Britton and Vasconi, called Britton “a true and honorable friend.”
“His heart was always with the people, and he always worked for the betterment of our town,” Pestoni added.
After graduating from Santa Clara University with a degree in economics in 1961, Britton joined the Air Force and began a 22-year military career highlighted by his years in Vietnam, where he flew UH-1 “Huey” helicopters in and out of combat zones to rescue downed airmen.
He spent the latter years of his military career teaching aerospace studies and running ROTC programs. In 1983 he left the military and returned to St. Helena, where he joined the insurance business of classmate Rich Simpson and quickly became known for his community service.
Along with the late Dr. Robert Darter, Britton helped revitalize the St. Helena Kiwanis Club, in which he remained active until shortly before his death, participating in the club’s annual golf tournament and organizing its Christmas luncheon for seniors for at least 25 years.
Fellow Kiwanian Howard Walker said Britton always gave his full effort to any project he took on. Walker said he showed that same dedication as mayor, manning a booth at the St. Helena Farmers Market on Friday mornings and representing St. Helena.
“When it came to actually stepping up and doing something, Del was always there,” said Kiwanian Jeff Farmer. “Even if he’d wait until the last minute, when he did commit it was 1,000 percent.”
Seeing the need for a community center in St. Helena, Britton started the annual Harvest Festival as a fundraiser. The concept of a harvest festival wasn’t new to St. Helena but it was Britton who thought to revive it as a financial launchpad for a community center.
Jay Greene worked with Britton in the festival’s early days. On Tuesday Greene said the festival was an example of Britton’s talent for inspiring others.
“His political success stemmed from that same ability to rally people to work for whatever his cause was,” said Greene, who noted that Britton also organized 90th and 100th birthday celebrations for popular St. Helena doctor George Wood, who died in 1997 just before his 101st birthday.
“It’s a cliché to say he shall be missed, but he left an indelible mark on this community,” said Greene, praising Britton’s warmth and “goodness of spirit.”
Mark Terrell met Britton through their service club involvement. The two became best friends and served as best men at each other’s weddings.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” said Terrell. “He was a very kind, loving and generous man who was able to share that with many, many people.”
Britton will be remembered as a pillar of St. Helena’s “old guard,” which seeks to preserve the town’s small-town values and protect it from radical change, said Terrell.
Those values were at the center of Britton’s first campaign in 2005. A political neophyte, Britton trounced incumbent Ken Slavens by 19 points.
“I’m a newcomer and I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’,” he joked to the Star at the time, in his typical self-deprecating manner.
But during the campaign against Slavens, and during subsequent campaigns against Bonnie Schoch and Alan Galbraith, Britton demonstrated a keen understanding of the central ideas near and dear to his political base: severe limits on new development, conservative water policies and, most of all, keeping St. Helena the way it is.
“Normal living includes that you have a lawn in the summer time and have flowers,” Britton said in 2005, summing up his staunch belief that the city’s limited water supply should be reserved for agriculture and landscaping, not new development.
Friends praised Britton’s charisma, generosity and broad sense of humor, more often than not at his own expense. Britton’s leadership style, friends and colleagues agree, was to elucidate a basic concept — “Keep St. Helena St. Helena” — and inspire others to work out the details.
“Del would voice an idea, and he’d inspire other people to fill in the blanks and make it happen,” said Greene. “He was very ‘big-picture.’”
Chuck Vondra, who got to know Britton over the last few years and managed his 2012 campaign, said Britton possessed two sterling qualities: humility and honesty.
“A lot of people might not have agreed with Del, but he was as straight a shooter as you’ll ever meet,” Vondra said.
Britton’s political success was built on his integrity and profound love of the St. Helena community. “This was a labor of love for Del,” he said. “He didn’t do this for any reason other than that he cared about St. Helena.”
Britton had a basic goodness in his heart that made him impossible to dislike, believes Vondra, who’d watch people young and old walk up to Del to receive a warm smile and a friendly handshake.
Britton’s old friend Roland Vieira was in Hawaii when he learned of Britton’s death.
“In Hawaii, we have a double rainbow when Alii (Hawaiian chiefs) pass,” said Vieira. “I know there will be a double rainbow for my friend Del.”
“He was just very kind, considerate and easy to talk to,” agreed former Napa County Supervisor Mel Varrelman. “When he came back here after he left the military he became a very active member of the community. You could see that he wanted to give back to his home town.”
“Del never forgot where he came from,” said Jeff Warren. “He saw St. Helena change from the ‘50s to today, and he had a real respect for the people who built this town and the way they built it. He worked hard to keep those values alive.”
Britton was also well-served by natural charisma, a confident leadership style tempered by humility, and an instinctive understanding of the basic issues that are important to St. Helenans, like water and potholes, said Warren. He was very forward-looking. A lot of his accomplishments were about fending off things that seem like a good idea at the time but really aren’t.”
Former judge Scott Snowden said that when his parents bought a ranch on Taplin Road in 1955, they hired a teenaged Britton to help out.
“My mother and father thought very highly of him because he’d grown up under rough circumstances and was an absolutely stellar kid,” Snowden said.
Britton’s strong support of the new community garden at Meily Park was a fitting bookend to a career that had started on a local ranch, Snowden said, and echoing many others, added that Britton’s devotion to community service and local politics was grounded in a genuine love for his home town. “They broke the mold,” said Snowden.
“I had the pleasure of working with him and being out on the links with him a few times,” said Supervisor Diane Dillon, who called Britton “a wonderful man. He approached everything the way he hit his drives and putted: walk up, direct the ball and do it. There were no practice swings. Del didn’t hesitate. He was always moving forward with that indomitable spirit.”
Friends also praised Britton for listening to opposing viewpoints — the council’s official three-minute public comment limit was rarely a factor on Britton’s watch — and encouraging community involvement.
In 2005 Britton founded the Multicultural Committee in hopes of inspiring Latinos to become involved in city government. He encouraged Catarina Sanchez, who chaired the committee, to run for council.
At the Dec. 11 council meeting, a visibly weakened Britton broke into tears as he paid tribute to the outgoing Sanchez. Although the two frequently disagreed on policy, Sanchez in turn thanked Britton for his professional and personal support.
Whether or not the show of emotion was a sign that Britton knew he was nearing the end of his life, he wasn’t afraid of death, according to his best friend Terrell.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, he said, ‘Mark, if I die tomorrow it’s OK because I’ve lived a full life.’”