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Santa Maria Civic, Business Leader George ‘Curtis’ Tunnell Dies at Age 101

He was a staple of the community, and his accomplishments were numerous

George Curtis Tunnell, a native son of Santa Maria whose business and civic life was intertwined with the community’s growth, died last Friday at age 101 at Merrill Gardens.

Tunnell, known as Curtis, came from a pioneer family and became one of the most influential public servants and political leaders in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County during the 1950s through the 1970s. He first sought public office in 1950 at age 40, served on the Santa Maria City Council from 1950 to 1962 and as mayor of Santa Maria from 1956 through 1960.

His accomplishments for the city were numerous, including the construction of the municipal swimming pool “The Plunge,” later renamed the Paul Nelson Aquatics Center; building a new fire station at the corner of McClelland and Cook streets; and annexing 160 acres into the city west of Stowell and Blosser roads.

He went on to serve on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors from 1962 through 1975, including chair from 1969 to 1972, until turning the reigns over to Harrell Fletcher.

Mayor Larry Lavagnino, who was an assistant to Tunnell for 10 years then Fletcher, said both men inspired him to run for public service. He remembers Tunnell as a larger-than-life figure.

“He was a force to be reckoned with,” Lavagnino said. “He knew everything that was going on, he was prepared and he was well-spoken. I was so honored to work for him. I literally have modeled my political career based on him.”

Credited with being one of the county’s foremost water experts, Tunnell foresaw the need for supplemental water sources. His hard work and skills helped establish the Santa Maria Health Center and the Sheriff’s Department substation on West Foster Road. Among numerous other accomplishments, he was the key voice in lobbying the state to make significant improvements to Highway 166, the “Cuyama Highway.”

In recognition of his exemplary service, the Santa Maria City Council declared Jan. 8, 2010, (his 100th birthday) as George Curtis Tunnell Day.

Three weeks after being born in San Francisco (only because his mother went to medical facilities there on advice of her doctor), he lived the rest of his life in Santa Maria. He graduated from Santa Maria High School in 1927, and was a movie extra in the movie The Ten Commandments, filmed in the nearby Guadalupe Dunes. He worked as a bellhop at the Bradley Hotel, at gasoline stations, and for 10 years was a salesman and estimator for a San Luis roofing company before founding Tunnell Roofing Company in 1949.

The Tunnell family has deep roots in Santa Maria. The Tunnel Ranch became Allan Hancock College. The city’s Tunnell Park is named after the family, and Martin Luther Tunnel Elementary School is named after his father.

— Mark Van de Kamp is a management analyst for the City of Santa Maria.

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