This article was contributed by Gary Byrne, president of the Community Foundation for San Benito County.
Newspapers in 1942 contain daily accounts of military activity; the Greatest Generation was in the making, and Sonny Paullus wanted to be a part of it. A Baler through and through, he was in his junior year and a prominent football player when he quit high school and joined other young men who felt compelled to help defend our country.
Loren Franklin “Sonny” Paullus, the youngest of four children, was born and raised in Hollister and attended public schools. After joining the Marines to fight in the Pacific, Sonny was assigned to the staff of a five-star admiral, the youngest orderly for Admiral Nimitz. Sonny once admitted that the Admiral shaped the man he had become, including lessons in the value of hard work, determination, and generosity—characteristics that served Sonny well.
Military service was the only time Sonny lived anywhere but San Benito County, and upon his discharge, he joined his mother who was raising turkeys. Turkeys are dirty birds, and his high school buddies were always quick with a turkey joke or two, but the job provided an income. They had up to 100,000 birds located in several places, including the family ranch in the Enterprise District of Hollister along Airline Highway.
Sonny married Donna Bundesen and raised five children. He showered his children with love and care, all the while nurturing a dream for his turkey farm. He had a vision, and he was determined to make it happen—the contour of the land was perfect, but it wasn't until 1966 that he could afford to hire Harry Cullum to dig for much needed water.
With help from many partners, as well as his son Mark who was now a senior in high school, the fantasy of transforming the turkey farm into an asset for the community was about to become a reality. Then, a month after graduation from high school, Mark was killed in a car accident. Forever in his heart, Sonny now had a name for his new venture, Ridgemark, in his son’s memory. The facility opened on Mark’s birthday in 1972.
With the completion of Ridgemark, Sonny turned his passion for San Benito County into many other successful projects—in fact upon his death in 1998, friends and associates hailed his death as a huge loss to the community. During his celebration of life, longtime friend Bud Holland said, “To my knowledge, he has done more for the county than anybody I know.”
Few may know that Sonny was the catalyst for San Benito Bank, a locally-owned independent state-charted bank, which began operations in April 1984. According to then President Ed Stephenson, Sonny brought other investors together—helping to establish a bank that still honored a handshake between banker and customer.
“Sonny didn’t tilt with windmills…he got things done his way," Stephenson said. "And he was always helping the youth.”
He was known for donating his time and money to local youth groups like Future Farmers of America, 4-H Youth Development, Little League, and Babe Ruth Baseball.
Sonny’s vision of an organization that could serve local nonprofits in perpetuity developed into the Community Foundation for San Benito County. In 1992, a dedicated group of people who were passionate about building a stronger community and enhancing the quality of life for individuals and families in San Benito County became founding board members, including Fernando Gonzalez. He remembers Sonny fondly.
“Sonny Paulls loved San Benito County and wanted a nonprofit organization that would be dedicated to making our community a wonderful place to live," Gonzalez said.
Sonny’s generosity continues to this day through grants awarded by the Sonny Paullus Fund. The Community Foundation received a gift from his estate for the Community Grants Fund. The Foundation renamed the fund in his honor, and today grants are awarded annually to nonprofits who serve San Benito County. Nonprofits are invited to submit applications for matching grants up to $10,000, and this year over 40 nonprofits are currently working on their applications. Sonny would be pleased—he lived by a philosophy of helping others his entire life—he represented the Greatest Generation well.
By the way, his nickname came when he was in first grade. A teacher pronounced his name Lorene—his classmates erupted into hysterics, and a fistfight ensued in the hallway. “They called me Sonny after that.”
In Sonny’s memory, the Community Foundation is participating in San Benito GIVES on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, and the Foundation will transfer all donations during this 24-hour online day of giving to the Sonny Paullus Fund. He never lost sight of the people in this community, and the Foundation is happy to provide an opportunity for others to follow in his footsteps.
- Photos courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society and Bonnie Flores