Gene Friend, 96, passed away March 25, 2020. Born in Dinuba, CA, Gene, his parents, Grace and Ralph, along with sister Geraldine (Gerry) moved to Watsonville in the summer of 1927. Gene attended local schools, Mintie White Elementary, East Lake Grammar and Watsonville High School. It was at Watsonville High where Gene met his future wife, Shirley Stephenson. Gene graduated WHS in 1941 and attended Salinas Jr. College (Hartnell) before moving on to attend San Jose State. His time at SJSU was cut short due to World War 2, and he ended up spending 3 years in the Army utilizing his drafting skills, finishing training at an Army engineering school at St Norbert College, Wisconsin before being transferred to Signal Corps School. It was then, in 1944, Gene and Shirley were married in Joplin, Missouri, with Gene soon being shipped to the South Pacific and Shirley returning home to Watsonville. Upon Gene’s completion of Army service, he returned to Watsonville, working along side his wife and father in the family hardware store on Peck Street until it closed in 1962.
Gene’s community service began in the mid 1950s, joining the Chamber of Commerce and becoming a volunteer fireman. Gene’s commitment to community service and the City of Watsonville saw him become an ardent supporter of the Fire Department, rising to the rank of Assistant Chief, performing a variety of duties, including Acting Chief when the chief’s position was vacant or awaiting a new appointee. His service in the fire department spanned over 50 years, from 1954 to 2006. He was longstanding member of the Monterey Bay Fire Chiefs’ Association. One of his greatest pleasures involved administering and managing the “reserve” firefighter program from where many future full-time Watsonville firefighters came. His dedication to the history of the department is evident in the exhibits displayed in the Watsonville Fire Department Chief Gene Friend Fire Museum.
Gene’s professional life included partnering with long-time friend Stanley Martin to form Martin & Friend Insurance Agency in the early 1960s and retiring in 1983. He was a director and board chair of the former Watsonville Federal Savings & Loan which he shepherded into becoming Monterey Bay Bank, as its Chief Executive Officer, and eventually Union Bank. He also served on the Planning Commission (including Chairperson) for the city of Watsonville.
Gene was a Watsonville Rotarian, (past President 1964-65) as well as board member and chairperson of Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce, including being honored as Man of the Year in 1975. He was a longstanding member of the United Presbyterian Church of Watsonville, serving on its finance committee as well as its governing Session. Additionally, he was a member of the former Watsonville Community Hospital board of directors.
Among Gene’s hobbies, he raised Polled Hereford cattle – show and breeding stock. This hobby not only created new and varied friendships within the cattle world, it also moved him in to memberships of the Santa Cruz County Cattlemen’s Association, California-Nevada Polled Hereford Association (Director and Board Chair) and ultimately the American Polled Hereford Association (Director and Board Chair), Kansas City, MO. He was avid San Francisco Giants fan, taking many “road trips” with grandsons Josh & Rick Banks and son-in-law Ed Banks. He was the “stabilizing force” during those road trips often having to buy a round of scotch to settle some very animated discussions.
Gene was pre-deceased by his wife Shirley as well as son, Bill. Gene is survived by daughter, Kathleen and son-in-law Ed Banks; daughter-in-law Kathy Jones of Boise, Idaho; grandsons Josh (Brook) Banks of Escondido, CA and Rick (Lesa) Banks of Corvallis, OR; granddaughter Megan (Doug) Wongdock of Idaho; great grandchildren Cooper, Chloe, Will and John Banks, Grace and William Wongdock. The family is grateful for the care and attention given Gene from the staff of Valley Convalescent Hospital, his physician, Dr. Christopher O’Grady and caregivers Mary and David. Gene will be interred at the California Central Coast Veterans Cemetery in a private ceremony. Mehl’s Colonial Chapel is handling arrangements. A celebration of Gene’s life will be held later this year at the Watsonville Fire Chief Gene Friend Museum.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Cabrillo College Foundation-William R. Friend Memorial Scholarship, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos, CA 95003, or the Watsonville Firefighters Association Museum Fund, 115 Second Street, Watsonville, CA 95076, or favorite charity.
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