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Rancher Shirley Modini dies on land she cherished

Thursday, July 12th, 2012 | Posted by

Shirley and Jim Modini in 2009. (PD File)

Modini, 89, ensured 1,700-acre ranch would stay wild

By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Shirley Modini, who lived her entire married life on a ranch in the rugged Mayacmas range and bequeathed it as a wilderness sanctuary, died there Tuesday.

Modini, 89, died at home off Pine Flat Road, northeast of Healdsburg, on a 1,725-acre property described as “impressively wild” and a haven for bears, mountain lions and eagles, as well as a native plant habitat.

Her passing was “calm and measured … in her cozy room on her beloved ranch,” according to Judy MacDonald Johnston, her neighbor and trustee.

Modini and her husband, Jim, who died in November at the age of 94, raised cattle and sheep and claimed to have never left the ranch for more than 10 days total since the mid-1940s, when Jim came back from the Coast Guard.

Shirley Modini on the Modini Ranch in 1950.

They sold their development rights a dozen years ago to the county Open Space and Agricultural Preservation District.

Despite getting $1 million for the “forever wild” easement placed on their property, they continued to live frugally.

They arranged to donate their land and estate to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a conservation group that also manages the Martin Griffin and Cypress Grove sanctuaries in Marin County and the Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen.

The Modinis never had children, but had a deep love for the land and wildlife, the animals Shirley Modini called “the little people.”

They delighted in the bird life and rigged a camera to catch glimpses of black bear and mountain lion. “They were devoted to keeping the ranch as wild as could be,” Johnston said.

“At the core they loved the ranch and all the animals and plants in that charmed world,” said Skip Schwartz, the retired executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch.

“People ask me how I can stand it, being so far out of town. And I ask them how they can stand not being so far out,” Shirley Modini told Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron when she visited the ranch in 2009.

“She shied away from the city life. She preferred the peace and solitude of the mountains,” her friend and accountant Gary Wilson said Tuesday. “She was very happy right there.”

The property had been in Jim Modini’s family since 1867.

Shirley Modini, whose maiden name was Nye, graduated from Healdsburg High in the 1930s and also attended Santa Rosa Junior College.

She met Jim Modini when a boy she was dating invited him to join them on a trip to the county fair in Calistoga. She was intrigued by Jim Modini’s stories of managing his uncle’s ranch off Pine Flat Road.

He invited her to visit and that was the beginning of their 70-year relationship, according to Johnston.

The Modinis had to borrow money to pay the taxes when Jim Modini inherited the property. To pay off the loan, he managed cattle at the nearby Gauer Ranch, land that in later years was purchased by wine mogul Jess Jackson.

But any idea of vineyards on the Modini ranch was repugnant to Shirley Modini, who greeted the suggestion with “over my dead body!”

In the years her husband worked his day job, Shirley Modini managed their ranch on her own, taking care of the cattle herd and maintaining the fences and miles of road. Their cattle had their horns instead of their hides branded, because it is considered more humane and painless.

On Sundays, the couple would go into Healdsburg, where they would watch TV programs like The Ed Sullivan Show at Shirley Modini’s parents’ house on Bianca Street. And once a week they shopped at the Plaza Market downtown, Wilson said.

They could listen to radio at the ranch, and their bookshelves were filled with fiction and nonfiction — books about wildlife, western history, poetry volumes and those written by classic authors.

“They were voracious readers,” said Johnston, who said Shirley Modini was known to recite poetry.

While Jim Modini was outgoing and gregarious, his wife was more quiet and reserved, but described as warm and genuine, delighting in cooking and offering hospitality to visitors.

“If the other was there, they’d be happy, even if on a deserted island,” Johnston said.

After her husband died, Shirley Modini spent four days away from the ranch in the hospital. She also had the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Two weeks ago, she fell and broke her hip, exacerbating her decline. She was under hospice care when she died.

A private service will be held at Oak Mound Cemetery.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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