Pixel Tracker

Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 3:20 pm | Partly Cloudy 56º


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.

Talk to Us!

Please take Noozhawk's audience survey to help us understand what you expect — and want — from us. It'll take you just a few minutes. Thank you!

Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >