Mel Berti, a born and raised Fortunan who dedicated much of his life to the betterment of the Friendly City, compiling a decades-long record of public service in the process, died July 22. He was 84.
Known equally as the longtime and beloved butcher at Hoby's Market in Scotia, the 28-year Fortuna council member, the decades-long Humboldt County Fair director, the near lifelong volunteer firefighter and the voice of Fortuna High School football, Berti occupied an iconic, almost ever-present role in Fortuna.
"He truly cared about his community and he was always willing to help wherever it was needed," says Mayor Tammi Trent. "He was just a very giving person, very caring."
Berti grew up in Fortuna and attended Fortuna schools, and Fortuna Volunteer Fire Chief Rus Brown says he was once stunned to find in the department's archives a photo of Berti as a high school student, jumping out of a window at Fortuna High School to respond to a fire at the start of what would become a 53-year stint as a volunteer firefighter with the department.
When Berti could no longer meet the physical rigors of fighting fires, he moved on to serve two stints on the department's board of directors, always looking for a way to help out.
Brown says some of his most prominent memories of Berti are responding to the scenes of car crashes with the department to find Berti, off duty but already on scene, sometimes in his butcher's apron on his way home from work, directing traffic.
"It didn't matter what time, day or night, he was always willing to help," Brown says, adding that Berti also had a gift for handling even the most gruesome of accidents, noting that some people can't handle the gore, emotion and fear at the scenes. "He was just one that could. He always made that chaos calm, and that's not an art that many have."
Trent says it was Berti who launched her career in politics, appointing her to the Fortuna Planning Commission some 20 years ago. Trent says Berti — a friend of her mother's — always encouraged her to give back to her community through public service, even when she wasn't sure she had it in herself, telling her, "You need to be mayor."
Having now served on the planning commission, the city council and in the mayor's office, Trent says she has a different appreciation for how much Berti gave through 28 years on the city council and two stints as mayor.
"It's a very time consuming job, and it's pretty close to a volunteer job," she says. "You have to love it to do it. But that's how important the city is to him."
While not serving on the council or cutting steaks at Hoby's, Berti volunteered much of his time coaching youth sports, umpiring baseball games, officiating basketball games, working in snack bars and grooming city fields, taking his role as the city council's parks and recreation liaison to the extreme.
He also volunteered his time as the play-by-play commentator for Fortuna High School football, making sure parents and grandparents who couldn't attend the games could be a part of the action.
Berti's love of sports and civic service coalesced in the late 1980s, when he played a "pivotal role" in the acquisition and development of Newburg Park, according to a city press release.
"Fortuna has seen significant changes in Mel's 28 years on the council; one constant that cannot be overlooked is Mel Berti's love and support of our children and park system," former City Manager Duane Rigge wrote in an Oct. 4, 2010, staff report requesting the city officially rename the baseball/soccer field in Newburg Park after Berti.
Brown says Berti was so many things to so many people, he took on a celebrity status around the Friendly City.
"Mel knew everyone in town, so it always felt like you were talking to a friend when you were talking to Mel," he says. "He was a friend to everyone — just a positive person and someone who knew everyone and was a friend to everyone."
Berti also dedicated 15 years of his life volunteering on the Humboldt County Fair Association Board of Directors until stepping down in November, served 28 years on the Fortuna Rodeo Board and was named Fortuna's citizen of the year in 2006.
Fortuna Councilmember Mike Losey says he's known Berti for more than 30 years and appreciates all of his dedication to the city, though he mostly appreciates the simple interactions he had with the man.
Most recently, those came at the Campton Heights Market, where Berti worked as a butcher after moving on from more than 30 years of managing Hoby's meat department.
"I could go into the meat section and ask Mel for a prime rib, ribeye steak or any kind of cut of meat and he would go cut it on the spot," Losey says.
Carmen Glass, who serves as both the Fortuna Volunteer Fire District's secretary and captains its Company 4 in Hydesville, says she got to know Berti 42 years ago through her first husband.
She says she and Berti bonded over a love of collecting old antique bottles, with Berti guiding her on how to find old homestead sites and dig for them with homemade bottle probes. It was a passion they shared, she says.
Glass says Berti had a good sense of humor and was always looking to make connections, to help out where he could, but says he also wasn't shy with his opinions.
"He told it like it is," she says. "If he had an opinion, he made sure you knew what it was. He wasn't someone who just agreed with you to agree with you. And believe me, he didn't always agree."
But she says he also wasn't one to take disagreements personally.
"He was just an extremely — just a very giving individual," Glass says. "Up until the end, he wanted to serve his community in every possible mode that he could, you know. I don't think he ever wanted to retire from anything. Whether it was his job, firefighter, commissioner — he did it all until he couldn't do it anymore."
Berti's family is planning a celebration Oct. 29 at the River Lodge in Fortuna.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.