LAFAYETTE -- Emmelie Woo and Christine Logan were surprised.
When their father John A. Sabatte Jr. -- fourth son of Berkeley Farms founders John and Mary Sabatte -- died Nov. 20 at 95, they were caught off guard.
"We thought he'd live forever," Logan said from her father's Lafayette home two weeks later. "I got a call on my cell and thought it was him, asking if I'd completed the paperwork for a business transaction I was handling for him."
Instead, it was news that an era had ended. The last surviving son of the elder Sabattes' five, the final tie to a Bay Area legacy and the father of five daughters, was gone.
But the memories aren't, and the two women -- also Lafayette residents -- are experiencing a second surprise as people rise to the surface from the great expanse of their father's life.
"At the funeral, there were business associates, drivers, customers, parents of kids we went to school with, church people," Woo says. "There was even one old gentleman, sitting by himself, who came up to me and said, 'I'm Keith Salisbury, from Carnation. I was a competitor. We were often on opposite sides of the table, but I always respected your father and I was determined to come here today.' "
John Sabatte Sr. and Mary came to the Bay Area from France. They established the South Berkeley Creamery, forerunner of Berkeley Farms, in 1910. John Jr. and his four brothers were part of the family business.
Growing up in Lafayette was like living in a Disney movie, the sisters say. The school year started with the purchase of one dress, bought at Montgomery Ward. Playing after school happened in the then-uncrowded streets and ended at dinnertime. Shopping was done at Kings Market, Monty's, Lunardi's and Diablo Foods because they were customers of their intensely devoted family-businessman father.
"We lived like everyday schmoes," Woo says. "Money was tight because dad put it all back into the business."
Their mother kept a little brown book, accounting for every dime. World War II and the Depression taught their parents to appreciate education, be loyalty to family and practice generosity.
"His experience in the war made him value family celebrations because you didn't know what tomorrow would hold. And, always have savings in the bank, have gas in your car and get an education in case you marry a bum, " Woo laughs.
Logan joined her, chuckling at the flat of pork and beans her father gave each of his daughters to keep in their garages.
"He knew we'd never eat them, so we'd be mobile and prepared."
In the great divide that many men of Sabatte's generation held sacred, their father never told his daughters of the dark lessons he brought home from war. Those stories, he shared with men.
Norm Alberts, who rose through the ranks at Berkeley Farms and now is the CFO of the family land holdings at Berkeley Land Company, says Sabatte always regretted not returning to Italy.
"He talked about being fired on; about how they always avoided taking down the churches over there. His comment was that in today's wars people use churches to hide in and they get destroyed. He wanted to go back and see what had survived."
Alberts remembers Sabatte was the first person at the Berkeley Farms plant every morning, making sure everything was clean and that no one took shortcuts.
"He'd walk through the plant 20 times a day. I remember when the (Loma Prieta) earthquake happened. Everybody else shut down, but he could rally the troops and next day, we were delivering milk."
Albert's clearest memory of that day was seeing Sabatte change his mind. Albert had purchased a first-generation mobile phone, a 6-by-10-inch behemoth priced at $1,000.
"He thought I was crazy, but after he saw guys lining up, calling home to check on their families, he said, 'I guess we got our investment out of that!' and never argued with me about money again. With Sabatte, that was big."
Trouble at work wasn't kept from his daughters, and Woo and Logan say the accusations of discrimination that arrived in a 1990 lawsuit and a court-ordered consent decree were immensely painful.
"Being the father of five daughters and working in a business where women were on track to rise to higher positions, that taught him more than anything," Logan says, managing to sound both loving and tough. "He and his brothers felt they were 'milkmen,' not 'milkwomen.' He knew it was wrong not to accommodate more women, but yes, I think it took the lawsuit to make him realize it."
Alberts says the lopsided statistics, with more men than women in blue-collar positions, were due to Berkeley Farms' acquisition of competing dairies, which had large concentrations of men in high positions, and reflected Sabatte's allegiance to employees.
"What were we supposed to do -- fire employees to keep the numbers right?" he asks.
Eventually, Logan says the pressures of a changing world were overwhelming.
"He was 78 years old and he'd get these calls that the chocolate milk had been mixed wrong and jump into the car to go fix it. We handled our business like our customers were our friends. It was hand-held -- and it was too much to hold forever."
In 1998, Dean Foods absorbed the family business, but not the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sabatte family. Logan continues to "handle the money" for her late father's company; Alberts continues to carry on the traditions of his boss -- a father figure to him. And Woo is returning to live in the Disney-movie home.