3 Time Mayor Suffers Apparent Heart Attack
Albert Vera Sr., an Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. as a penniless teenager and grew to become one of the most admired government officials and store-owners in Culver City’s history, died in his Sunkist Park home earlier this week.
Vera was 75 years old. He is expected to be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, but a date for memorial and funeral services had not been set as the Observer went to press late Wednesday.- UPDATE - June 3 2010 - Funeral services for Albert Vera, will be conducted on Tuesday, June 8, 9:30 a.m. at St. Augustine Church, 3850 Jasmine Ave., interment to following directly after at Holy Cross Cemetery, 5835 W. Slauson Ave
Paramedics were called to Vera’s home on Diller Avenue at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, after the always-punctual shopkeeper failed to arrive to open the doors of the popular Sorrento Italian Market that he founded in 1962.
The medics found the three-time former mayor “in full cardiac arrest and attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful,” Culver City Police Department spokesman Lt. Milton McKinnon said.
“There were no signs of foul play and it appeared that Mr. Vera died of natural causes,” McKinnon added.
His longtime wife, Ursula, was not at home because she had been re-admitted to Brotman Medical Center several hours earlier with a fever that had reached 104 degrees, a friend of the family said. She has been battling kidney problems and other serious illnesses for the past several years.
Albert Vera served three, four-year terms on the Culver City Council. He was first elected in 1992, in part because many local residents felt that the council—whose makeup had changed little over the previous several years—had grown out-of-touch with the needs of the citizens who they were supposed to represent. He was easily reelected to another four-term in 1996.
After a brief, retirement from politics due to term limits, his longtime friends and supporters urged him to again run for the Council in 2002. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed—and soon trounced his closest competitor by a 50-percent margin.
In each of the three terms he served a one-year stint as mayor, a position that is granted by peers on the Council rather than by public vote.
Though technically an honorary job, the mayor has been called “the face and voice of Culver City” because he or she often serves as the sole representative on numerous panels. The mayor also typically represents the city’s interest in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, as well as in Sacramento.
And, on rare occasion, Culver’s mayor also gets to counsel with the U.S. President—as Vera did in the 1990s with Bill Clinton.
“I thought he was a pretty smart guy, but I told him that he had to start doing more for small businesses instead of looking after the big [companies],” Vera said after the brief meeting with Clinton.
A picture of Vera, shaking hands with the nation’s 42nd President, still hangs on a wall in the narrow hallway that leads from Sorrento’s parking lot and into the store.
Though Vera may have gently chided President Clinton into action, he was often more direct when dealing with his colleagues on the City Council. Never afraid to bluntly call a proposed measure “stupid” (or worse) if he felt it would harm his constituents or local businesses, he occasionally would storm out of meetings in anger if his colleagues didn’t seem to grasp his reasoning and appeared ready to vote against him.
“Albert was very passionate when it came to the measures that he supported,” said Steve Rose, the current Chamber of Commerce president who sometimes clashed with Vera while both served on the council. “I didn’t always agree with him, but I always admired his tenacity.”
Vera’s job on the council didn’t end when the gavel was dropped at City Hall after the Monday night sessions. Almost daily, at least one of his constituents would file into his deli—some called it “City Hall West”--to ask for help with a problem they were having in their neighborhood or with local government.
More often than not, their problems were soon solved after Vera would make a call to the appropriate city department and air the resident’s complaint.
“Albert was a ‘roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work’ guy,” said current Mayor Christopher Armenta, who served as City Clerk in Vera’s final term in office. “He’ll always be a city icon.”
Vera was born into a family of modest means in a small town near Naples, Italy.
In 1950, at age 15, he arrived in New York with little money in his pocket and barely a word of English on his tongue. He soon moved with an aunt to Culver City, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
His early years here weren’t easy, Vera said in a 1994 interview, and he desperately wanted to go back to his native country. “Every time I opened my mouth, people laughed at me,” he recalled.
But his English improved and his career took off.
Shortly after finishing a four-year stint in the U.S. Army in 1960, Vera purchased a small white van and began what he called a “refrigerated deli-on-wheels.” He began driving a regular two-week circuit—from Culver City, south to San Diego and then up to San Jose—to deliver fresh cheese and other delicatessen items to his customers.
He opened what was then a small store-front operation, Sorrento, on Sepulveda Boulevard in 1962 and married his Germany-born wife the following year.
Business at the deli was good, but Vera couldn’t stop scratching his entrepreneurial itch. So, while driving through the San Joaquin Valley one day in the early ‘60s, he decided to buy a small olive ranch near Bakersfield.
He then bought another. And, another. And, another.
By the 1990s, Vera’s dozens of ranches made him one of the biggest landowners in Kern County. The farms now produce more than 1,200 tons of olives annually, plus thousands of tons more in other vegetables and fruits that are sold to distributors or through his private “Vera Ranches” label.
His Vera Ranches wines have also been praised by connoisseurs.
Vera was always happy to share his quiet wealth, friends say. He contributed millions of dollars in cash and goods to various religious institutions, groups and charitable organizations.
And, some say, he probably gave away more sandwiches, pasta and cookies to customers than he actually sold.
Despite his sizeable assets, Vera continued to work long shifts in his store six days a week in his trademark blue smock. Every Tuesday—the day that he jokingly referred to as his “day off”—he would rise before dawn and make the 115-mile trek to Bakersfield so he could inspect his crops and visit with ranch hands.
He would religiously return to his home on Diller Avenue the same night so he could open the doors at the nearby deli promptly at 7 a.m. the next day.
When asked by a reporter recently why he didn’t retire or at least cut back on his work schedule, Vera said the notion would be akin to “retiring from my family.”
“I’m probably the luckiest man in the world,” said Vera. “I get to work with my wife and son [Albert Vera Jr.] every day, and see all of my customers.
“They’re ‘family’ too,” Vera said.