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Advice

Willy Chamberlin Dies at 75; Santa Ynez Rancher, Ex-Supervisor

Santa Ynez Valley cattle rancher Willy Chamberlin, who was involved in a dramatic bid to represent the Third District on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors more than 20 years ago, is being remembered for his generous nature and strong advocacy for agriculture and land use issues.

Chamberlin died Tuesday at the age of 75.

In 1992, Chamberlin challenged long-time Supervisor Bill Wallace, a Goleta veterinarian and environmentalist, for the chance to represent the sharply divided Third District.

Chamberlin beat Wallace, according to initial election results, and was one of three new supervisors sworn into office in January 1993.

But Wallace challenged the election outcome in court — contending many votes from Isla Vista should have been counted — and a judge finally ruled in April 1993 that Chamberlin narrowly won the seat by two votes.

Wallace appealed that ruling, and the appellate court overturned the Superior Court opinion and deemed him the winner. 

The state Supreme Court upheld the ruling, knocking Chamberlin off the board after serving more than 18 months.

Chamberlin on the dais gave the Board of Supervisors a North County majority, with three members supporting growth pitted against slow-growth representatives from the South Coast.

Those who knew Chamberlin reflected on his generous nature, including helping a neighbor mow a pasture when she was unable to get the chore done.

“Willy Chamberlin was the real deal:  a true cowboy — in character and style — straight out of a Will James novel,” said Jim Youngson, who worked as Chamberlin’s chief of staff and now is a principal at Terrain Consulting.

“He was one of those guys who looked better in a large, white felt hat, with those large shiny belt buckles and boots. His temperament was all cowboy: an ever-present natural smile, even keel and upbeat attitude and a grounded disposition. He lived honestly and modestly.”

Another former colleague and friend, Thomas Widroe, recalled Chamberlin being a “kind of a throwback with old school values, a sometimes stubborn man who always kept his word — a little bit like any number of characters played by Jimmy Stewart in the movies.”

“All this is kind of funny considering how Willy’s political opposition tried to portray him as some of kind of robber baron, an oil man of voracious J.R. Ewing-type appetites,”​ Widroe said. “Of course, the truth was the exact opposite.

“Willy’s family may own one of the largest pieces of land in Santa Barbara County, but that certainly didn’t mean Willy was rich or that he even wanted to be. Apart from a growing collection of shiny big belt buckles that he won in competition for horsemanship, Willy didn't have or need much.

“He lived on the ranch in small if not spartan quarters, drove an old truck, and found a good deal of his satisfaction in public service.”

Despite being booted from the board, Chamberlin remained active in local government issues, often speaking up for farmers’ and ranchers’ interests.

"He never did give up trying to impact local government," his brother Fred Chamberlin said, adding his brother "wanted to see government done right."

"What he wanted to do was protect the ranchers' ability to ranch," Fred Chamberlin said.

One of seven children born to Ailie and Ted Chamberlin, William "Willy" Bradford Chamberlin grew up on the family’s 8,500-acre ranch in Los Olivos. The family’s Rancho Los Potreros was founded more than 85 years ago by Chamberlin’s father.

Chamberlin helped with the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, including serving as chairman for team penning over the year.

Among many organizations, Chamberlin belonged to Rancheros Visitadores and Santa Barbara Trail Riders.

"We have lost a great statesman, rider, teacher, mentor and above all, a true gentlemen," Jedlicka's Saddlery posted to the business's Facebook page. "Willy was always cool, gave great suggestions, helped with acquiring rights to ride other ranches and wonderful with dealing with kids and people who had never worked cattle before."

Funeral services are pending. Arrangements are under the direction of Loper Funeral Chapel in Solvang. 

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