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Former County Supervisor Joni Gray Remembered as Community Cheerleader

Memorial service celebrates life of Orcutt native, 75, who loved sports and filled many roles in the community

Joni Gray
Joni Gray

Hundreds of people gathered Thursday to remember Joni Gray as an avid cheerleader for all aspects of the Santa Maria Valley in her many roles, including as a politician, teacher, sports fan and rodeo supporter. 

Approximately 400 people filled the Santa Maria Elks Lodge for the memorial to remember the woman with deep roots in Orcutt and 14-year member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, representing Orcutt and Lompoc. 

Gray died Nov. 22 at the age of 75 after an aortic aneurism.

“Joni was just a dynamo — I mean, an elected official, a lawyer, a teacher, a rodeo queen, party planner extraordinaire, a hostess, parade announcer, a wife and a mother,” Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino recalled.

Another title, one that harkens to her days attending Orcutt Junior High School, best represents Gray, Lavagnino said.

“Because when I think Joni that’s what I’m always going to remember — how much of a cheerleader she was,” Lavagnino said. “She was a cheerleader for her community.”

He recalled traveling with Gray to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento where she spoke passionately about Orcutt.

“She was also a cheerleader for all of our local young athletes,” Lavagnino said, noting Gray’s beaming smile while talking about high school athletes during the Northern Santa Barbara County Athletic Roundtable. 

“She was a political force as well,” Lavagnino said. “Anyone that traveled with her to Sacramento or Washington, D.C., can attest that she had friends everywhere, on both sides of the aisle. Everybody knew Joni Gray.

“She could make a friend anywhere, and to prove that she actually landed a job for me working for Congressman Elton Gallegly while she was in the women’s bathroom at Vandenberg Air Force Base,” he said as the audience laughed.  

A framed poster shows a young Joni Gray when she was competing for Santa Maria Elks Rodeo queen. Click to view larger
A framed poster shows a young Joni Gray when she was competing for Santa Maria Elks Rodeo queen. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Lavagnino and Gray carpooled to Santa Barbara for meetings, but the conversation on those trips never touched on politics.

“She had two favorite subjects. They were her daughter, Sam, and football. I hate to tell you, Sam, most of the time we were talking about football,” Lavagnino. “To say Joni Gray was a fan of football is kind of like saying President Trump is a fan of Twitter. It totally consumed her.”

In what Lavagnino called “true Joni-style,” despite the fact she was in the intensive care unit, Gray asked her daughter Samantha to bring a computer to the hospital — not to work but to make her football selections. Her final picks gave Gray a 13-3 record. 

“She would be very proud of that and want me to tell you that,” Lavagnino added. 

A veritable who’s who of North County leaders, including elected officials, judges and business people as well as local residents, filled the Elks Lodge, with some South Coast representatives — and Democrats — also in attendance to pay their respects to the Republican woman.

Her former Santa Maria High School classmates filled one table at the reception 

The service also included the National Anthem by Michelle Swanson, songs My Way, and One More Day by Barbara Wilson, and presentation of the colors by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Honor Guard. 

Gray’s niece, Tammy Van Vleet, spoke on behalf of the family, including Gray’s daughter Samantha Wood, and husband George Wittenberg, sister Dot Hodges and others.

“My aunt was the perfect example of the saying, “Bloom where you’re planted,” Van Vleet said. “And whether it was in a classroom, a courtroom, a supervisors meeting or at a family function, she always shined her light and had a special trait to put on everything.”

In his eulogy, Judge James Rigali spoke about Gray’s final Santa Barbara County Superior Court appearance Nov. 20 when the attorney called a witness to the stand, requested a few seconds, then told him “I’m not OK.”

She was taken from the courtroom by stretcher to a waiting ambulance that transported Gray to Marian Regional Medical Center. 

“Continuing this conversation with you, Joni, and I know you’re OK,” Rigali said. 

Through the years, Rigali said, Gray became known simply by one name — Joni. 

A former law partner of Gray, the judge also noted her unique influence in assorted people’s lives.

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget and that’s Joni,” the judge said. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino told mourners that Joni Gray “was a cheerleader for her community.” Click to view larger
County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino told mourners that Joni Gray “was a cheerleader for her community.” (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

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