Banker, rancher, community activist Joe Nesbitt passes at 89

June 14, 2013
Santa Paula News

Joe Nesbitt was not a native Santa Paulan but that was just an oversight of geography for the man who enjoyed the best of many worlds only possible through small town living.

A banker, rancher, appointed official, equestrian and community booster, Joe passed June 16, 2013 at his home following a brief illness. He was 89. Joe, said his daughter Cate, “was gentle to the very end... he was always making sure everybody was being helped and even to the end he was like that.”

Born in Mesa, Arizona on February 4, 1924 to Joseph A. and Elsa Nesbitt, Joe attended local schools. When World War II he joined the Navy serving as a medic in San Diego and Maryland. 

Following the war Joe attended the University of Arizona at Tucson on a ROTC Scholarship. He graduated with a Masters in Animal Husbandry and as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. It was at the university that Joe met his future wife, Louise Grafe.

Louise and Joe married in 1951 at her home on Ferndale Ranch in Santa Paula. Immediately after the honeymoon Joe was transferred to Germany, where he served out his years. When he returned home to Santa Paula he was greeted by his wife and newborn son Joseph Grafe Nesbitt.

Joe managed the Ferndale Ranch for his in-laws, Paul and Helen Grafe, from 1952 to 1961. His background in animal husbandry and ranch management was a great asset to the Ferndale Ranch. During this time his daughters Georgann - who goes by Cate - and Alexandra were born.

In 1961 Douglas Shively, the then-president of Citizens State Bank of Santa Paula, approached Joe and asked him to join his banking team. Shively’s father had founded Citizens in 1929, just days before the Stock Market Crash that kicked off the Great Depression.

Cate said her father “was enthusiastic about changing careers and learned everything he could about banking” as he trained to become a bank manager. It was the perfect time for a perfect match: “A handshake to him,” said Cate, “was much more important than collateral. What he enjoyed most was creating opportunities for people to start businesses and to buy their own homes. And many of these loans were made with only a handshake, which cannot be done today. He enjoyed every client who came through the bank.”

Realtor Anita Pulido had dealings with both Joe the banker and the person. “I was close to Joe in that I had the highest respect for him,” said Pulido, the owner of Re/Max Gold Coast Realtors. “He was a good judge of people and had a true small town old-fashioned trust in people... so I admired that in him.”

In 1971, Joe became president Citizens State Bank, a position he held until 1996 when the bank was sold to Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. Joe, whom Cate said had followed in the footsteps of the ultimate country banker Shively, “could not adjust to a larger bank” and its corporate mentality, and he retired.

But only for awhile: he also served as interim president/CEO of Santa Clara Valley Bank for one year, taking no salary from the community bank founded in 1998 in the wake of the sale of Citizens. “He believed Santa Paula needed a community bank and wanted to help,” which he did until stepped down in 2001 and became a full-time avocado rancher.

Through the years Joe served on the Santa Paula High School Board of Trustees, the Ventura County Planning Commission and LAFCo. He was involved as a Santa Paula Historical Society board director and was a Free Mason. Joe’s love of riding and ranch life was reflected by his membership in the Ranchero Vistadores. 

“When he was on the board of the high school we would go to football games... I was only five or six and remember being so excited.” Her father, said Cate, “was a good supporter; he didn’t need to be out in front of things and if it was good for the community he was really you.”

Recognizing his behind the scenes devotion, the Chamber of Commerce created the Joe Nesbitt Community Service Award to recognize those whose volunteerism made a difference in the community.

In retirement he joined his wife on many trips around the globe. They particularly loved Hawaii, where they had a condo, but his favorite place was always Santa Paula. 

“No matter how many trips he went on, he loved coming home to his cars,” the old Cadillacs he collected, “his dogs, and his ranch and his grandsons he so enjoyed. The town and the people all meant so much... just sitting out in his garden on the patio was a joy to him.”

Cate found a sticker in her father’s possessions: “It said ‘Everyday is a good day in Santa Paula,’ and he would say ‘Everyday I’m here is a good day.’ He was just happy with everything, a happy go lucky guy who loved Santa Paula.”

And wanted his adopted hometown to thrive: “He wanted everyone to get a chance to do their part to make it better and he was wonderfully supportive.... Even my mother, when she had some crazy ideas,” said Cate with a laugh, “he might not like it but at the end he would say okay, he was always 100 percent behind us.”

Cate said her father “taught me how to do everything, to think and to be on an even keel. My sister got a lot artistically from our mother. I got the common good sense from our dad.”

His wife, Louise (Sally Lou) passed away in 2002. Son Joseph (Jody) Grafe, their three children, and three great-grandchildren, and by Cate (Georgann) Austin and Alexandra (Ray Price) Nesbitt and her two sons survive Joe. Joe is also survived by a community of friends, including his close friend and physician Dr. Richard Tushla.

A celebration service in memory of Joe will be held at the Glen Tavern in Santa Paula on June 26, 5 to 8 p.m. The family asked that memorial donations be made to a favorite charity in Joe’s honor.

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