Harold A. Del Ponte, a tireless private and public citizen with Del Norte County in his bones, died Sunday. He was 96.
Described by many of his peers as a “true Del Norter,” Del Ponte fell in the camp of first generation immigrants that worked nonstop, to the point of disbelief. His wife was hard-pressed for an example of his recreational pastimes, finally settling on “he liked to work.”
“He would come home from being a supervisor, jump on the tractor and bail hay for other people, working until dark with the tractor lights on,” said his wife, Judy Del Ponte.
Del Ponte was the longest-running Del Norte County supervisor, serving from 1953 to 1973, representing Klamath during the devastating 1955 and 1964 floods and the 1964 tsunami.
In the aftermath of disasters, Del Ponte became the point man for recovery efforts in Klamath. When he owned the Hunter Valley subdivision, which he created, he allowed people to live there while they recovered from the disasters.
“He helped keep Klamath together when it was on hard times,” said former county Supervisor Tom Cochran, who ousted Del Ponte from his supervisor seat but still managed to benefit from his mentorship.
The lifelong Del Norte County resident’s 96 years read like a local history lesson.
“I saw Klamath go from a cow pasture to a southern Del Norte metropolis, then saw it get wiped out by the ‘64 flood. So I’ve seen a lot over the years,” Del Ponte told the Triplicate in 2000 when he was featured on a PBS biography special.
He was born Dec. 31, 1916, delivered by Dr. Fine, the namesake of the bridge over Smith River. Raised by Swiss immigrants who homesteaded 200 acres in Klamath, Del Ponte received all of his elementary education in the one-room Terwah Schoolhouse in the Terwer Valley before attending Del Norte High in Crescent City.
After a couple years at Humboldt State University, he obtained a degree in forestry from Washington State University. In a newspaper article during his fifth supervisor campaign, he credited his forestry degree as making him a better supervisor for Klamath during the “Redwood Park controversy.”
He worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Del Norte, Trinity and Plumas counties before being drafted into service during WWII.
Del Ponte was proud of a simple but courageous act he did in the service as an officer that racially integrated his Air Force command.
“I was training fighter crews and didn’t have enough men,” Del Ponte told the Triplicate in 2000. “When I called about getting more, the other officer said all he had to give were black men, and in those days you didn’t mix the two groups together. But I told him to send them anyway, because I didn’t see the sense in it.”
“We lived with Native Americans and we treated each other equal,” Judy said.
Del Ponte remained in the Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force Reserves as a retired major for 35 years.
When he returned to Klamath, he ran the family dairy farm. Raising cattle for beef rather than dairy became the trade after the ‘64 flood, but cattle continued to be a part of his life until an accident paralyzed him from the neck down in 2004. Judy continued to take care of 50-60 heads of steer for years after his accident. He spent the final years of his life in the Crescent City Convalescent Hospital.
During the 1964 flood, a Klamath steer originally from Del Ponte’s farm took a treacherous ride out to sea miles from shore, and was found, struggling to stay afloat, in Crescent City Harbor.
Crescent City officials said the steer was going to be slaughtered and the meat sold for recovery efforts, but Del Ponte intervened:
“‘He’s gone to hell and back already,’” Judy recalls him saying. “‘We’re going to make him a symbol of our community.’”
And so it was that the steer dubbed “Captain Courageous” would become one of Del Ponte’s most treasured pets grazing the field near the present-day Klamath Bridge. A monument for Captain Courageous is now just south of the Yurok Tribal Office in Klamath.
One of Del Ponte’s most involved and longest duties began in 1947, when a man from the National Weather Bureau walked into the Klamath post office inquiring where he could find a dependable soul to become Klamath’s next weather observer.
The postmaster suggested Del Ponte, who accepted the position assuming he would commit to it for a couple years.
Fifty-five years later, on April 12, 2003, Del Ponte was given the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Benjamin Franklin Award for more than 20,075 weather observations, 365 days a year for 55 years.
The award ceremony turned into a grand event honoring all of the achievements of Del Ponte’s life with more than 250 people in attendance.
The Crescent City Council and Del Norte supervisors declared the day “Harold Del Ponte Day.” A binder of letters to Del Ponte from the party testify to his extensive reach over the community:
“Thank you for giving Sarah her first job and giving me work when times were slow.”
“...You made it possible for me to learn.”
“You are a wonderful, giving person.”
When an Irish immigrant named Mark Mellett came to Klamath, Del Ponte greeted him with: “Welcome to Klamath and welcome to America. It is a great country with many opportunities for a youngster like yourself!” reads Mellett’s letter to Del Ponte.
From memories of 4-H field trips that Del Ponte supervised, appreciation for aid in the aftermath of floods, to mentorship for political posts, accounts of Del Ponte’s relentless generosity abound.
“Harold and I had our differences but it never seemed to get in the way of our friendship,” said Tom Cochran, who said it only took Del Ponte a couple weeks to shift from political opponent to generous mentor. “He taught me how to be a supervisor and how to be a gentleman.”
Del Ponte never ran for political office beyond Del Norte, but he maintained close contact with many outside politicians to better serve his community. The strongest friendship being with former Del Norte supervisor and U.S. Rep. Don Clausen, who represented Del Norte in Congress from 1962 to 1982.
“Harold used to say, ‘I taught Don everything I knew and sent him on to Congress,’” Judy said.
“Frankly he was the best supervisor Del Norte County ever had,” said John Fraser, who served with Del Ponte on the county board, and at times experienced his passionate wrath. “To take Harold on, you better be damn careful because he would absolutely tear you apart even if he was a friend. He was a hell of a representative for Del Norte County.”
“He could advise without being autocratic,” said Maralou Ellis, who served with Del Ponte on the Kiwanis Club of Crescent City.
Del Ponte was a charter member of the Kiwanis Club of Klamath, past president and also Lt. Governor of Division 20, Kiwanis International. He was with Kiwanis for 48 years.
Del Ponte’s numerous positions include: more than 50 years with the Klamath Chamber of Commerce, more than 40 years with the Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce (past president), more than 50 years with the Redwood Empire Association for Tourism (past president), 20 years with the Oregon Coast Association for Tourism, 20 years with the Del Norte County Farm Bureau (past president), nine years as director of the Del Norte County Fair, 4-year member of California Regional Water Quality Control Board, a life member of the Del Norte Historical Society (past director), more than 20 years as 4-H community leader, two-time grand marshal, and so many other positions that it would be impossible not to forget some.
To this day, there is a Del Ponte legacy that beckons tourists from Highway 101 in Klamath with a giant yellow sign reading: “TOUR THROUGH TREE.” Since 1976, Del Ponte owned and operated one of only two redwoods in the state with tunnels large enough to drive a car through.
Del Ponte asked two nephews, an engineer and a tree faller, if they would carve the tunnel into the tree. They were offered compensation of either $600 or half the proceeds from tourists, Judy said. The nephews took the cash up front, not knowing that the tree would draw thousands of tourists from across the globe, Judy said.
Del Ponte is survived by Judy, his two sisters, Valeria Van Zanten, 99, and Rena Tryon, 92, their extended families in the United States and in Switzerland, adopted daughter Lynn Russell and many friends.
He was preceded in death by his first wife, Grace Del Ponte.
In lieu of flowers donations, can be made to the Del Norte High School scholarship fund “In memory of Harold Del Ponte.”