Jess Santana, family man, dies at 73

Art Rogers
Jess Santana helped guide ships in the pacific from his post as a radio operator.  
04/19/2018

Jess Santana, a longtime Point Reyes Station resident who guided ships in the Pacific from his post at the KMI radio station, and helped organize the Western Weekend celebration as a member of the West Marin Lions Club, died on March 6. He was 73 years old.

Like the Lions Club itself, an organization of which he was president in the late 1980s and which is known for its silent service, Jess was a contributing community member who kept to himself. He coached his daughter’s soccer team, worked the barbeque during Western Weekend and helped friends build their homes in West Marin. 

“My father was really fascinating, mechanical and funny,” Samantha Santana said. “He built our house and did it without knowing anything about building houses. He was fiercely loyal and loved his family. He showed that love for us every day of his life. He also loved his community very much. He loved Point Reyes and the small-town feel. He loved the people and liked the fact that he could show that to them at Western Weekend every year. It was a big thing to him.” 

Jess was born in Santa Monica on March 2, 1945 to Jess Sr. and Eva Santana. His father was a pilot in U.S. Air Force and his mother cared for him and his three sisters. His name was often misheard as “Jeff,” so Jess decided to adopt the nickname Flash. He spent his early childhood in Germany and Spain, where his father’s military status allowed him to hop on free rides with Air Force planes. 

As early as 12 years old, Jess would skip school to visit other countries, and once flew into the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

“He told me one day he decided to fly to Moscow,” George Grim, a longtime friend, said. “Jess said he had to stay in the airport until they took him out of there. I don’t know how often he went to school.”

His family moved back to the United States when Jess was a teenager and he spent much of his time in Los Angeles with his cousins. He graduated from University High School in Los Angeles in 1963 and joined the Air Force in 1965.

Jess was stationed in the Philippines and at Hamilton Airfield in Novato, where he fell in love with Marin County. He moved to Point Reyes Station upon his release from the service. 

“He and his buddies would drive around on the backroads,” Myrna Ralston-Santana, his widow, said. “Living in the L.A. area with all the smog, he said all the air in Point Reyes was pristine. He was hooked.”

In 1971, Jess began working for AT&T at the High Seas Ship to Shore Radio Station on Point Reyes. His shifts were 24 hours each and dispatchers made contact with ships and airplanes across the Pacific Ocean. There were times when he had to coordinate sea rescue operations; once, he kept in communication with a man who rode across the Pacific Ocean in a covered rowboat heading to Australia. 

“It was interesting working with Jess,” Mr. Grim said. “We’d commute together, and I remember one day we made the turn from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard onto the road leading to the radio station really fast and the car was on two wheels! He told me he was saving rubber.”

One day in 1972, Jess was communicating with a new radio operator out of Oakland. It was her first day and he patiently guided her along. 

“He asked if I got everything and then later called to ask me out on a date,” Ms. Santana said. “I had heard a lot of rumors about him and I was curious so I said yes. They said he had long hair and dressed funny. When he came to pick me up, he brought his Irish Setter named Patty (he said he never went anywhere without her) and drove a blue Volkswagen Bug while wearing a black hat, bellbottoms and a shirt a friend had made for him. I saw him coming down the walkway and I told my friend, ‘Tell him I’m not here.’ But the date went really well! I loved listening to his stories and he talked a lot about his family and friends. I knew it immediately: if you talk about soulmates, it was definitely that.”

Samantha was born in 1974 and the couple married the next year. Jess and his daughter restored the 1963 Volkswagen Bug as her first car. On the morning of her 16th birthday, Jess planted signs that said “Happy 16th Birthday Samantha” all along the road from Point Reyes Station to Marin Catholic High School. 

Jess was an active member of the West Marin Lions Club, serving as president in 1988 and 1989 before becoming chairman of the parade for 1992 and 1993. “He did a lot as far as volunteering for the community,” Larry Brown, a fellow Lion, said. “As far as being president, he pretty much tried to get people to come to the meeting and keep things rolling as best as they can. Which he did. He was willing to step up and take the helm.”

Jess undertook improvements to the Red Barn (now the Green Barn) and helped Mr. Grim build his home. In the late 1970s, the Santanas began building their home on Campolindo Road in Point Reyes Station, where Jess would often assist his neighbors with the building of their own homes.

“He was always there if you needed him for help, like you hope a neighbor would be,” Skip Shannon, a neighbor for over 36 years, said. “He was a good family man and friend. He was an individual, but he was always ready to help people.”

When the flood of 1982 hit, Jess was helicoptered to the radio station to keep the beacon of communication running. He ultimately became the station’s last employee when it closed in 1995, later retiring after 27 years.

When his father’s health began to decline, Jess moved to Southern California to care for him until his  death in 2012. Later that year, Jess was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His health began to decline rapidly and the family moved him to Albuquerque in January to be closer to more relatives. 

Samantha said Jess loved to read mystery and adventure novels and would often read to his two grandsons, Tyler and Ryan. “I couldn’t pry my son away from my father,” she said. “That kid was now his. He loved both my sons fiercely and my kids adored their grandfather.”