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Maryellen Berryhill, matriarch of political family, dies

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Maryellen Berryhill, matriarch of political family, dies


POSTED August 1, 2007 10:01 a.m.
Whether it was looking after her grape ranch, her garden or working on her paintings, Maryellen Berryhill enjoyed life. But the widow of former state Assemblyman Clare Berryhill also thrived on politics. She passed away Saturday at the age of 78.

Mrs. Berryhill's health had been failing in recent weeks as she awaited an operation to install a pacemaker. She died in a Bay Area hospital after suffering from a kidney infection.

"She was active up until the end and then peacefully died in her sleep," said Betsy Berryhill, one of Berryhill's five children.

Three members of Mrs. Berryhill's family have aspired to state office. Besides watching her husband rise to state office, she saw son Tom Berryhill elected to the state Assembly last year. Ceres School Board trustee Bill Berryhill, another son, is running for the Assembly.

Her other children are Betsy Berryhill of Camino, Jane Johnson of Sula, Mont., and Lynn Trio of Ceres.

Betsy Berryhill, an actress who appeared in New York City and Hollywood productions, said she will remember her mother as a "life so well lived. Integrity and joy and a deep spirituality that she passed on to all her kids. She lived fully and full of friends."

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill said he will remember his mother as the "consummate matriarch and backbone of our family.

"This community is truly going to miss her. She touched so many lives. Everybody loved Maryellen."

Well-known in Ceres, Maryellen Berryhill's contributions to local agriculture earned her the Agribusiness Woman of the Year award by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce in May 2003.

Born Feb. 10, 1929 to Ellen and Heine Rossel in Madera, Mrs. Berryhill grew up in Modesto and recalled wishing that her bicycle was a horse. She dreamed of farming and marrying a farmer. She did just that when she married Clare Berryhill after graduating from Modesto High School and Modesto Junior College. She went on to major in music and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. The Berryhills married on Aug. 13, 1950, settling south of Ceres. Together they raised cattle, almonds, grapes, alfalfa, walnuts and boysenberries at their ranch at Central and Taylor roads.

Maryellen served as a music teacher for a while at Denair High School while giving private piano lessons in her home. She also supported the ranch operation any way she could and helped her kids with 4-H projects as they were growing up.

She was active in the PTA, Persephone Guild, 4-H and Republican Women.

When Clare went into politics, Maryellen shouldered more of the ranching responsibilities. Her husband was elected to the state Assembly in 1969 and later became director of Food and Agriculture for the state of California. She also helped in her husband's unsuccessful 1989 run for Congress against Gary Condit.

"She was the original political animal," said Bill Berryhill. "I miss my dad and think about him every harvest but mom I will miss her on the campaign trail. Politics was a big part of her life."

He said he remembers how his mother, a Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan Republican, ran Clare's political campaigns from the Ceres Dehydrator plant, which was located across the street from Richland Shopping Center.

"She did a lot of precinct work. When dad ran for the Senate, she went up and down 13 counties. She got it all organized."

After Clare Berryhill died of cancer in 1996, she split her time on the family 500-acre ranch in Sula, Montana which they established in 1979.

A supporter of the arts, Maryellen supported the Gallo Performing Arts Center in Modesto. When her daughter starred in a local theater production near Sacramento, Maryellen organized busloads of Betsy's friends and fans to go see her perform.

Because she was a "true Republican," Bill Berryhill said his mother will be buried with a gold necklace with the GOP elephant head on it.

Private interment will be at Lakewood Memorial Park. A celebration of her life will be hosted at the celebrated Berryhill Pond from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday.

Remembrances may be sent to the Gallo Center for the Arts, P.O. Box 1579, Modesto CA 95353; or Great Songs of the Sky (healing through the arts), P.O. Box 945, Placerville CA 95667.
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