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Inside the packed lodge room of the Santa Maria Elks Lodge #1538 on Thursday afternoon, over 400 dignitaries, attorneys and influential business people from both the public and private sectors paid their respects to Joni Gray, who died Nov. 22 after suffering an aortic aneurysm. 

An hour before the Celebration of Life commenced at 2 p.m., parking spaces in the lot in front of the Elks Lodge had already filled up. Many of those who arrived close to starting time had to stand outside the door. 

Gray's colleagues, friends and family shared stories about what it was like to work and play with her -- whether it was during her time as a board member of the high school district, as the 4th District county supervisor, the announcer and grand marshal of the Elks Rodeo Parade or fighting for her clients at Santa Barbara County Superior Court as an attorney. 

The ceremony included a Posting of Colors by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Honor Guard, followed by the singing of the national anthem by Michelle Swanson and songs "One More Day" and "My Way" by Barbara Wilson. 

Fifth District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino officiated the ceremony Thursday afternoon. 

"I know she'd just like to say thank you for being here -- she really does appreciate it," Lavagnino began. 

"Joni was just a dynamo -- I mean, an elected official, a lawyer, a teacher, a rodeo queen, party planner extraordinaire, hostess, parade announcer, a wife and a mother. 

The title I most identified with her started way back when she was in Orcutt Junior High, when I found out she was a cheerleader," he said. 

"That's what I think of Joni -- how much of a cheerleader she was. She was a cheerleader for her community. I never heard someone so passionate about her community -- she wanted to tell everyone how great Orcutt was."

In addition, Gray also revered young athletes in the area her whole life and throughout her time as president of the North County Athletic Roundtable, Lavagnino said. But, above all else, "she had two favorite subjects -- her daughter Sam, and football," said Lavagnino, which was met with a ripple of laughter. 

"I hate to tell you Sam, but most of the time, we were talking about football," Lavagnino joked. Gray was always rooting for the USC football team, running through her football picks, even up until the day last week when she was in the intensive care unit at Marian Regional Medical Center. 

"I'm proud to tell you, Joni went 13 and three this last week, so she'd be very proud of that and would want me to tell you," Lavagnino announced to cheers from the crowd. 

"When you look at Joni's bio, how many people live a life like hers? At age 4, she was leading the Elks Rodeo Parade riding her horse Ol' Ace. Seventy years later, she was grand marshal of that same parade," Lavagnino continued. "There is not a single charitable organization you can name in the valley that Joni wasn't a part of."

He continued: "And who do you know that can become a lawyer without going to law school? I didn't even know that was possible!" 

Judge James Rigali, who was presiding over the hearing last Monday when Gray collapsed, shared her eulogy, during which he drew a picture of who she was -- an explorer, community advocate and a celebrity in her own right, with a mononymous title that everyone knew. 

Rigali likened the name Joni to that of famous celebrities like Cher, Plato and Adele.

"I don't need to tell you who they are," Rigali said. "I'd say the name Joni and you knew exactly who I was talking about!" 

Gray was in Rigali's courtroom last Monday ready to call a witness to the stand, the judge recalled.

"Then, she asked me for a few seconds and, after a few seconds, it was clear that maybe [she needed] more than that. She looked at me and said, 'I'm not OK.' 

And here we are. So I'm continuing this conversation with you, Joni -- and I know you're OK." 

The way she carried herself in the courtroom, in public meetings sitting on the dais, interacted with her colleagues, Gray was truly her community's biggest fan and support system, the judge added. 

"Joni was the living embodiment of the book, "How to Make Friends and Influence People," Rigali added. "It strikes me that Joni could get you all here today.

I'm just thinking about all that's happened since she left us, especially in football. Santa Maria High School is in the CIF championships and the Parade of Lights will be going on," Rigali continued. "I just -- I don't know; I think Joni's got a hand in all of this.

"Thank you, Joni, for looking under every other rock. I love you Joni, and I'm going to miss you." 

Gray's daughter, Samantha Wood, also addressed and thanked the large crowd of supporters and well-wishers for attending the ceremony, as "it really shows us how much she meant to all of you and how much you admired her."

With the pain of losing her mother still fresh, Wood had Gray's niece, Tammy Van Vleet, speak on behalf of Gray's family. 

"Joni took many of us under her wing, and she really pushed us to be more than what we thought we could be," Van Vleet began. "And it wasn't just in our family, it was a lot of people in the community. She was always very honest, and that's often what we needed to hear."

Van Vleet continued: "For the paper to call her 'Mrs. Orcutt' was so appropriate and it just shows where she was planted at a very young age, where she blossomed is such a contribution to her title of 'Mrs. Orcutt' -- and we're so proud and inspired by that." 

Finally, Van Vleet fondly remembered her aunt as someone who pushed her family members to keep learning and trying new things. 

"She was at a point where she was really enjoying her life, her community, her law practice and her friends," Van Vleet said. "This really brings a comfort to our family -- the fact that she lived a full life with lots of friendships.

We're going to do her proud and we're all very thankful for the lessons we learned from Joni." 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


Courts/Public Safety Reporter