Helen Irene Bonfigli, a lifelong Sonoma County community member and West County native, who operated numerous successful West County businesses over the course of five decades, and whose avoidance of the limelight of success belied her shrewd business acumen, passed away, in comfort and at peace, at the age of 86 on July 8, 2019, after a sudden, brief illness. And she still possessed a keen, agile mental acuity and intellect that rivaled or exceeded those half her age and continued to manage her own affairs right up to the time of the onset of her most recent illness.
Helen was born on March 6, 1933 at Petaluma General Hospital to Henry D. and Mary Watkins and grew up in the small dairy belt town of Bloomfield, just south of Sebastopol during the throes of The Great Depression. She attended Canfield Elementary and then Analy High School, from which she graduated in 1951. A course of instruction followed at Burbank Business College immediately thereafter. Upon completion, she became employed by the Perkins Insurance Agency for a short time.
In 1953, she married her husband of 61 years, the late Joseph A. Bonfigli, and became a stay-at-home mom in 1954, when she gave birth to her daughter Carol and remained such until 1968, when she became the bookkeeper for a popular Roseland business in which Joe was a partner, Arlington Farms Milk Stop. She also became very involved in the Wright School Parents Club, serving as chairperson of several of their most successful annual fundraisers and participating in many of their sponsored activities.
In 1972, after having lived in rural Santa Rosa for many years, Helen and Joe decided to give subdivision life a try. It turned out to be a mistake because Helen realized that she was still a country girl at heart, so she and Joe decided to make the shift back to rural life, and in July of 1972, she and Joe moved their family to the old Frey Ranch, which was located at the West end of Sebastopol Road and was one of the last working prune and walnut ranches still left in Sonoma County before the tidal wave of vineyards swept across the county. Because it was so peaceful, she would often say, “We found God’s country!”
In 1976, Helen decided to open up a business of her own: Bodega Bay Gifts and Gallery, which they ran with the help of their daughter Carol. It was a success, and she sold the business to a new proprietor in 1980, who operated it for many years thereafter. Shortly after that, she was hired by Liberty House department store in Coddingtown, where she consistently achieved the highest gross sales figures, and as a gift for her stellar performance, she and Joe were given an all-expense-paid trip to the Silverwood Country Club in Napa. It was during this era that Joe gave Helen a very special gift for her birthday on March 6th of 1981: a miniature white toy poodle which she named Muffet. (She absolutely adored him and was devastated by his passing in 1995, but eventually came to accept that he had entered a better place after suffering several mini-strokes).
After Liberty House closed in 1984, and with Joe now retired from his 33-year career with PG & E, Helen had a rekindled desire to once again have her own business, and one day, while perusing the newspaper, she discovered a want-ad seeking a new proprietor for the then-shuttered store in the town of Bodega. After meeting with the then-owner of the building, she entered into an agreement to reopen the business under a new name, The Bodega Country Store, which she, Joe and their son Tom would operate for the next 20 years. Owing to her rural upbringing, Helen made the wise decision to cater equally to both the local population and the tourists, and the business became a major success, attracting local townspeople as well as tourists from hundreds of miles away – and sometimes from other continents – all of whom were welcomed with equal enthusiasm.
In 1993, Helen and Joe were given the opportunity to open and operate the Freestone Country Store. During this time, Joe needed surgery, so Helen and Tom, along with one dedicated employee, John Ruedy, ran both establishments concurrently. It was an incredible amount of work, and Helen would drive over to Freestone after closing up shop in Bodega to help stock that store as well.
In 2005, Helen and Joe moved to Sebastopol and, wishing to “slow down” a bit after several years of hard work, decided to sell The Bodega Country Store. However, that “retirement” was short-lived, and after a mere 10-month futile attempt to live a relaxed lifestyle, Helen got word that Lucca Liquor in Sebastopol was for sale. Thinking that this would be a perfect fix now that Sebastopol was their new home, Helen entered into a lease, and she and Joe, along with their son Tom, operated the business for five years, after which Helen made the decision in 2010 that this time, they would once again retire – this time for good.
Throughout her long, well-lived life, Helen was a great Mom, a strong, astute businesswoman, a trusted advisor and a friend who lent an ear to many in time of need or crisis. She and Joe survived The Great Depression as children, lived through the WWII years, started a family in the postwar boom years of the 1950s, witnessed the social upheaval of the 60s, and continued to engage, prosper and live their lives fully for five decades thereafter. But at the heart of it all was Helen, whose guidance, wisdom, passion, independent thought and indomitable spirit steered the family through the best and worst of times – and was hugely responsible for helping them to survive both. She will be sorely missed, but our fond memories of her as well as her guiding spirit will live on forever.
Helen is survived by her daughter Carol and her son Tom, both of Sebastopol. Friends are invited to a visitation which will be held at Pleasant Hills Memorial Park, 1700 Pleasant Hill Road, Sebastopol on Thursday, July 18, 2019 from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Interment will be private.