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GILROY — Driving down Highway 101 toward Los Angeles, it’s hard to miss the 10-mile stretch of road bearing the name “Sig Sanchez Freeway.”

You wouldn’t know it from driving on it today, but that part of the freeway was both a death trap and a traffic nightmare until Sanchez, a fixture of the South County community and a political force, fought for 12 years to widen it.

From driving up to Sacramento several times a month to lobby to gathering supporters in his community, Sanchez pulled every trick in the book to get the highway improved, and he succeeded.

But it won’t take a big sign next to the freeway for area residents to remember who Sanchez was and what he represented.

“Sig is the someone people wish the politicians of today would all be like,” said former Gilroy mayor and Sanchez’s self-described mentee, Don Gage. “They saw the way he operated, they saw the things he’d done, so I think they’ll remember him for that.”

On Saturday, Sanchez died peacefully in his sleep just a few months after turning 100 years old.

Born to Spanish immigrant parents in 1920 and and reared on a farm in Hollister along with 10 siblings, Sanchez knew the meaning of hard work from early in his life.

Though he largely tended to his land and to his small businesses, Sanchez went into politics in 1954 when he learned of an opening on the Gilroy City Council, a position that he would run for and win. He went on to become an influential local leader — some would say a king-maker.

Sanchez served on the City Council for nine years, including two terms as mayor from 1958 to 1963. After his stint there, he ran for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, where he served for four terms from 1963 to 1978. Two years after that he was appointed to the Santa Clara Valley Water District board, where he stayed for 33 years.

With a combined 57 years of civil service under his belt, there’s no doubt people knew who Sanchez was. And were his funeral to be held in a time before the coronavirus pandemic, his sons are convinced the church would overflow with people.

For Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Sanchez was more than a political colleague; he was also a dear friend.

“Sig Sanchez made enormous contributions to our community through his public service as Mayor of Gilroy, as Member of the Board of Directors of Valley Water, and as a Member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors,” she said in a written statement. “He had – in abundance – good sense, a sense of humor, good character, and a commitment to his family. I consider him a friend and mentor, and I mourn his loss.”

But despite his popularity as a local politician, his prowess as a real estate mogul and his tenacity as a business owner, people say you wouldn’t know Sanchez had such a pedigree if you saw him,

“When people were around him, they felt comfortable,” Gage said. “They didn’t see a person who was acting like a big shot or anything else. He acted like a farmer and like a friend. Even though he was in position that could change people’s lives, he always took it seriously and respected it.”

For his son David Sanchez, his father was a kind of politician they don’t make anymore.

“We wish we had politicians like him,” he said. “Through his whole public service, over 50 years, he really was not in the political field for political gain. His life was about giving back to the public.”

Sanchez is survived by his five sons and one daughter, 13 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. Family member say anyone wishing to pay their respects should do so at a service Saturday, Feb. 13 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gilroy.