In 2021, Long Beach lost a big piece of history with the deaths of three former councilmembers, a state Assemblywoman and Senator, and others who made a big impact on the city: a leader in the Cambodian community, a longtime strawberry farmer, a Filipina chef, the owner of a shoeshine stand and a former gang detective.
Here’s a look back at a few of the notable deaths of 2021:
Eunice Sato, the city’s first female mayor and first Asian American mayor, died at her home Feb. 12 at age 99. The 4-foot, 10-inch Sato not only broke gender and racial barriers, she led the city during a turbulent time in the early 1980s, when her focus was revitalizing the Downtown area. Former Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster described Sato as gruff and straightforward: “She was very honest,” he said. “She said what she thought and damn the consequences.”
Rigoberto Ramirez Sr., one of Long Beach’s best known strawberry farmers, died in late February after losing his battle with COVID-19, leaving a legacy of half a century and heartbreak across the community. He owned the Ramirez Strawberry Ranch in West Long Beach on Santa Fe Avenue and Arlington Street, a place where people from Long Beach and beyond would buy his sweet strawberries for 53 years.
Kry Lay, who is considered one of the founders of Long Beach’s Cambodian community, died on June 27 in his daughter’s home in Long Beach due to complications with Alzheimer’s, a disease he lived with for more than a decade. He was 79. His efforts included helping establish the Cambodian Association of America and the city’s first Cambodian Buddhist temple and implementing a bilingual Khmer/English program in the Long Beach Unified School District.
Betty Karnette, a former Assemblywoman and state Senator, died Sept. 8 at age 89. Karnette entered politics in the early 1990s and was elected to the California Assembly in 1992. Two years later, she was defeated by Steve Kuykendall. In 1996, Karnette was elected to the California State Senate and served until she was termed out in 2004. She finished her political career with another stint in the Assembly from 2004 to 2008.
Janice Dig Cabaysa, a well-known Filipina chef, died of a heart condition on Sept. 22. She was 39. A Long Beach native, Cabaysa founded Bebot in 2019, and later a popup called Dig the Stoop/Corner Stoop. Those who knew Cabaysa were touched by her generosity and devotion to uplifting and supporting her communities. “She just wanted to make sure that people had comfort while the world was falling apart,” a friend and colleague said.
Jimmy Brown, a fixture on Pine Avenue who owned and operated a shoeshine stand Downtown for 32 years, died on Sept. 30 at age 87. Jimmy’s long weekday trek between his home in Rialto and his stand outside L’Opera Italian Restaurant required a couple of Metro train rides. “He wasn’t much at starting a conversation, but he sure could finish one,” said Dr. Henry Johnson, whose practice is just above the shoeshine stand at 115 Pine Ave.
Chris Zamora, a Long Beach police officer who worked for years on the department’s gang detail, died by suicide Nov. 13. He was 44. Over the span of a 20-year-career, Zamora had helped innovate ways to combat gang violence and earned recognition for his work on hate crimes and human trafficking. He was key in developing the gang prevention strategy run out of the Long Beach City Prosecutor’s office, which included tactics like free tattoo removal for gang members and programs to help them find jobs.
Val Lerch, a former councilman for the 9th District and the organizer of the city’s annual Veterans Day parade and festival, died of cancer on Nov. 21 at age 69. Lerch served for 12 years with the U.S. Coast Guard and another 30 years in the reserves, and was a councilman representing North Long Beach from 2002 to 2010.
Doris Topsy-Elvord, the first African American woman to serve on the Long Beach City Council, died Dec. 15 at age 90. Topsy-Elvord, who had a long career in public service, was elected in 1992 to represent the city’s 6th Council district in Central Long Beach. After being selected unanimously by her colleagues twice to serve as vice mayor, she was termed out in 2000. Among her many achievements was her co-founding of the African American Heritage Society.