Former Santa Barbara-Ventura congressman Robert J. Lagomarsino died Sunday at home on his family ranch in Ojai. He was 94.
Lagomarsino served under five presidents during a 19-year career in Congress. He also spent 13 years in the California Senate and three years as mayor of Ojai.
He was remembered this week by friends and colleagues as a modest leader – one who championed the establishment of the Channel Islands National Park and CSU Channel Islands.
He was a gentleman through and through – gracious, witty and engaging, said Timm Herdt, a former Ventura County Star political reporter, who covered the later years of Lagomarsino’s congressional career.
“He was a politician from the old school,” Herdt said. “He was all about finding ways to get things done, respecting those who may have disagreed with him.”
Mike Sedell, who first met Lagomarsino in the early 1980s, said he was highly respected.
“He worked in an era where politics wasn’t a fighting game,” said Sedell, a former Simi Valley city manager. “It was a collegial game, and he was a collegial person and worked well with with everyone.”
His glory days in Congress were the Reagan years, Herdt said. He liked to point out that he was the president’s congressman, as Reagan’s ranch was in his district.
The congressman would occasionally fly home with him on Air Force One.
When he wasn’t working, his stepson Dana Smith said, Lagomarsino loved to hunt and fish, and also was a voracious reader. As a family, they often visited the Channel Islands before and after it became a national park.
Without him, Bill Ehorn said, the Channel Islands National Park may not have happened.
Ehorn, the park’s first superintendent when the Channel Islands became the country’s 40th national park in 1980, called Lagomarsino instrumental in establishing the five-island park. A mainland visitors center at the Ventura Harbor was named for the former congressman.
Lagomarsino was born and raised in Ventura. After a stint in the Navy, he got his bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara in 1950 and a law degree from the University of Santa Clara three years later.
He was the mayor of Ojai when he met his late wife Norma in 1958. The two married in 1961 and later moved to a Solimar beach home. Norma had two sons when she married Lagomarsino, who had a daughter of his own.
Lagomarsino then served as a California state senator from 1961-74 and as a congressman from 1974-93.
He and his wife Norma, who died in 2015, lived at their home north of Ventura for many years, Herdt said. The couple loved watching the dolphins and sunsets from their deck.
“They have been very philanthropic and very involved in a lot of nonprofits throughout the county and in helping a large number of people,” Sedell said.
Sedell was deputy city manager in Simi Valley when he first met Lagomarsino. He later worked in Washington, D.C., as Congressman Elton Gallegly’s chief of staff.
“I spent four years with him back there, part of which was overlapping with Congressman Lagomarsino’s term,” he said.
Gallegly, who was first elected in 1986, said he worked shoulder to shoulder with Lagomarsino and called him both a very dear friend and a mentor.
“Bob had that unique blend of not only being a person that you respected greatly, but also liked personally,” Gallegly said. “He was a modest guy who had a lot more fire than smoke, which is not particularly common in the U.S. Congress.”
In 2002, Robert and Norma Lagomarsino pledged to give close to $1 million to the CSU Channel Islands library. The money would support the library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections, particularly the archives documenting Lagomarsino’s career in public service.
He had collected countless documents, including photographs, texts of speeches, copies of bills, including the one to create Channel Islands National Park, and transcripts from the Watergate hearings. The Lagomarsino Archives also included a replica of Lagomarsino’s congressional office.
“He gave us his office, which is in the Broome library, and he supported the office with a donation as well,” said Richard Rush, president of CSU Channel Islands from 2001 to 2016.
Lagomarsino was a modest man, he said, and effective.
In the 1960s, when Lagomarsino was in the state Legislature, he introduced a bill to establish a public university in the county, Rush said. It didn’t get off the ground back then.
“But when finally they were able to find a way, Bob was in the vanguard of supporting it and his support never flagged,” he said.
Family members said Lagomarsino died peacefully at home on Sunday afternoon. He left behind an incredible legacy, according to a family statement.
He was preceded in death by his wife, stepson and a grandson. He is survived by his daughter, stepson, four grandchildren and a great grandson.
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In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the Channel Islands Park Foundation or to the Robert J. and Norma Lagomarsino Department of Archives and Special Collections care of the CSUCI Foundation.
Donations can be made online to the Channel Islands Park Foundation at www.ciparkfoundation.org/give-now/ or by mail to 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura CA 93001.
Checks sent to the CSUCI Foundation at 1 University Drive, Camarillo, CA 93012, should read either in Memory of Robert Lagomarsino or Lagomarsino Archives in the memo line. Donations made online at www.csuci.edu/giving/make-a-gift.htm may include the name Robert Lagomarsino.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.