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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Ernest A. ‘Ernie’ Rota - A Lifetime Lived in Honor of Country and Community

The Early Years

April 19, 1924, the city of Napa was blessed with the birth of Ernie Rota born in his family home on H Street. His first home is a short walk from 1975 Main Street, where Ernie, and his family have lived, and graciously served our community as Claffey & Rota Funeral Home since 1956.

When Ernie was born, the city population hovered around seven thousand––everyone knew everyone. The neighborhood buzzed with kids playing. Ernie said his young friends were, “The kind of people you made friends for life with.” Reminiscing about his past, he told us his family was lucky enough to own a car. As a teenager he learned to drive in the 1929 Buick, with its standard transmission, “Up and down the driveway.”

Ernie attended St. John’s Catholic School in his youth. As an Altar Boy, he was often called out of class to serve funeral Masses. A privilege, described in Ernie’s own words, “This was a real treat, because after Mass, on the way home, the pastor would buy us an ice cream cone.” (That simple gesture was the impetus of his pursuit of the funeral business.) Ernie was an active student, and was elected Vice President of his Napa High Senior class.

A Young Man In Service to His Country

One day during Ernie’s senior year, the United States Army Air Corps Recruiters came to campus. Of the ten students interested in the program, five were selected. Ernie was honored to be one of the five. He became a Flight Engineer with the 15th Air Force, 484th Bomb Group in Foggia, Italy. Ernie held the position of Crew Chief. He oversaw six people, which included a pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. In 1945, the crew boarded a brand new B-24 heavy bomber, at Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York, then flew to Italy––from where they served twenty-five missions over German airspace.

As Flight Engineer, Ernie rode between the pilot and the co-pilot. His task was to control the power settings. When the pilot called for more power, Ernie fed it to him. These missions were challenged by enemy fighters with heavy resistance. “It got a little hairy. The Germans shot Howitzers with one hundred fifty-five shells exploding at the same altitudes our planes flew,” Ernie said. On one of their missions, Ernie’s plane was pierced with one hundred thirty-eight bullet holes, injuring two soldiers on board. Both were lucky to recover.

Ernie’s Love

In 1946, while attending flight school in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ernie met Eloise, the love of his life. The couple married at St. John’s Catholic Church. It was evident to us, by the look on Ernie’s face when he spoke of his beloved wife, they had a long, loving marriage until Eloise passed in November 2017. The couple were blessed with two wonderful children, a daughter, Leslie, who works with Ernie, at the funeral home. Ernie and Eloise’s son, Robert, was also an integral of the family business until he passed away in 2016.

Business Focus

After his stint in the service, Ernie attended San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. He also worked for years at Treadway & Wigger Funeral Home, where he met, and developed a friendship with Ed Claffey. The men became business partners, and opened Claffey & Rota Funeral Home at the corner of G Street and Main. Unfortunately, the partnership lasted only a short time. Ed Claffey unexpectedly passed away, leaving Ernie to accept responsibility of the business on his own. From then on, he and his family have cared for our dearly departed with professionalism and dignity. Ernie assured family members who bring their loved ones to Claffey & Rota Funeral Home, “No matter how you feel at this moment, you have our commitment––you’re never alone.”

A friend said, “Ernie is known for his quiet generosity, and has waived the fees for families in need in the past.” Ernie continues to be active in the business, greeting everyone who comes to the door, while his family continues his good work.

Claffey & Rota Funeral Home is one of the oldest members of the Napa Chamber of Commerce. Ernie held the position of Secretary on the Board of Directors for three years. “They only had about a hundred members at the time. It’s grown quite a bit since then,” Ernie said. About the current business growth in Napa, Ernie was aware, “I like what’s happening. There needs to be something started for those who are coming in. I toured the Archer Hotel, and I was impressed.”

Honoring His Community

Serving eight years as a Napa City Councilmember, Ernie had many responsibilities. One of his favorite memories was as Vice-Chairman of a committee which ushered in Napa’s Sister-City status with Iwanuma, Japan. One of a twelve-member committee sent to represent Napa, Ernie was impressed with the kindness shown to the delegation by the citizens of Iwanuma. “It was a delightful experience. When the people from Iwanuma came to Napa, the son of the Japanese representatives stayed at my house.” Ernie hoped there is still a close connection with our Japanese counterpart.

When Ernie’s fine work with the Redevelopment Agency came to an end, his dedication to the city of Napa was recognized by Chairman, Paul Gore. Gore dedicated a ‘mini-park’ in Ernie’s name. A cork tree from the park behind the “Old Fox Theater” as Ernie recalled, was later uprooted and moved to what was then referred to as Napa Town Center (currently known as First Street Napa). Like Ernie, the tree continues to thrive. A plaque at the base reads, “Ernst Rota Commons, City Councilmember, 1966 to 1974, ‘Dedicated to the prosperity and the well being of the people of Napa.’”

Ernie has been a beloved member of the Kiwanis Club of Napa for more than fifty eight years; he helped with the annual fishing trips and end-of-the-year picnics. A proud Italian-American, Ernie has been an active member of the Napa Chapter of Sons of Italy, attending monthly meetings and enjoying the company of his fellow Italians. The current President of the Napa chapter, Anna Graeber, had this to say about Ernie, “Over the past twenty years, I had many opportunities to watch Ernie interact with people, many he knew, others, he had just met. Ernie is always present in their conversations, while remaining aware of those around him. He has a true gift of being in touch with those who might need a little compassion in their life. Ernie leaves an indelible mark on everyone he meets. I, for one, am quite honored to call Ernie my friend.”

Ernie is still in the driver seat and will renew his license the day before his birthday! He cracked jokes and kept us smiling throughout the interview. Ernie made us remember why we love Napa so much–people are the heart of our community. Together, let’s celebrate this stellar Napa Valley citizen.


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