DOWNEY – Former Downey Mayor Bob Winningham, universally regarded as one of the brightest and most caring and effective civic leaders in the city’s history, died Tuesday at his home in Yorba Linda after a long battle against cancer. He was 59.
Bob was the current President of the Optimist Club of Downey, and was honored twice in the last few weeks by the Downey City Council. His service to the city was recognized at a special ceremony on April 28, then the ballroom at the Rio Hondo Event Center was named in his honor on the day he passed away. Bob will also be inducted into the Downey High School Hall of Fame on June 5.
Born in Downey and educated in local schools, Bob graduated from Downey High School and immediately joined Downey Vendors, the family business. Under his leadership and that of his cousin Michael Ferraro, Downey Vendors has become one of the nation’s most outstanding vending businesses.
He married his high school sweetheart, Carol Lewis, and they spent 30 years making a huge impact on their city together. They raised daughters Jennifer and Amanda and son Scott in Downey, and were active in a wide array of community activities.
“Bob was always a leader, and was always heavily involved in community service,” said Downey civic leader Beverly Mathis. “He was tireless in his work in the community.
“For so many years, he has been a cornerstone of the annual Pumpkin Patch Halloween event,” she said. “He and his Downey Vendors team poured hundreds of thousands of cups of soft drinks and water for kids at the Pumpkin Patch throughout the years, and because of Bob, every drink was free.”
“Bob volunteered tirelessly on many projects,” said Downey Unified School District Board of Education member Martha Sodetani. “In my mind’s eye I see him at the Downey Pumpkin Patch on Halloween, working furiously in the drink booth with Tod Corrin.”
“He was one of the brightest and funniest people I’ve ever known,” said his longtime friend and fellow Optimist Club member Sam Mathis. “The best thing about Bob was that he had such a big heart. Whether it was the Little League, YMCA, Rancho Los Amigos or the Optimist Club, Bob gave so much back to the city and especially to its children. To me, that’s the mark of a great man.”
LITTLE LEAGUE AND YMCA
One of the first places he left a lasting mark was the Northwest Downey Little League (NWDLL).
“Bob was a good man and one of the hardest-working parents,” said Louis Morales, who served on the NWDLL Board with Bob. “Even back then he showed the characters of respect and caring. He will be missed.”
Bob’s extensive service at the YMCA included two years as Chairman of the Board, member of the Board of Managers, chair of the finance committee, head of campaign finances and fundraising as well as head of the Chairman’s Roundtable.
Mark Shelton of Rio Hondo Event Center, who has been Bob’s friend and fellow Optimist for decades, said, “He had an unmatched ability to find solutions that worked for people on both sides of a dispute. He honed this skill at the Little League, in the Optimist Club and on the YMCA Board, and by the time he joined the City Council he was a truly inspirational leader.
“I saw him find answers for many, many difficult problems and each side went away happy because of Bob’s ability to be fair and understanding, and to use humor as a way to make people comfortable,” Mark said. “He was one of the most effective leaders I’ve ever seen.”
DOWNEY CITY COUNCIL
Bob was elected to the Downey City Council from Northeast Downey for a four-year term that began in 1998, including a year as mayor from December 2000 to December 2001. These were days of trial for the city that he and his fellow council members and those who followed have turned into a triumph.
“He was a great friend and mentor to me, and a great civic and community leader for Downey,” said former Downey Mayor and friend Kirk Cartozian. “He was the first and best mayor with whom I ever worked. I will miss “Mayor Bob” dearly.
“Bob served on the council during some especially rough times for our city,” Kirk added. “I remember when Boeing left the city in 1998, taking thousands of jobs and ending our long status as the center of the country’s Space Shuttle program. We suddenly had the prospect of 160 vacant acres at the city’s historic aviation production site.”
Fellow Optimist Meredith Perkins, another previous Downey mayor who served on the City Council with Bob and also one of his best friends, said, “We sometimes forget things people do, but no one should forget the positive effect Bob has had on this city from the day he graduated from high school until now. He has been a mentor to me and to many others. He has helped us figure out which way to go.”
CREATING THE PATH FORWARD
“Bob did a tremendous job on the council and as Mayor,” Meredith said. “He was a tireless and extremely talented leader. With Bob spearheading the effort, we were able to bring our city back, creating the path forward that eventually led to the Downey Landing, today’s Independence Park, the Columbia Memorial Space Center, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and soon, the Promenade.
“In addition, Bob is responsible for building the Rio Hondo Golf Club and Event Center Clubhouse, one of the city’s treasures,” Meredith said. “He also helped to construct the Barbara Reilly Senior Center in Apollo Park to honor the important work she did for our city.
“He always led with a spirit that made everyone in the city happy to work with him. In my mind, he was one of the greatest mayors in Downey’s history and also one of the greatest friends anybody could ever have.”
“As a city employee. while Bob was a mayor and council member, I always appreciated him for his fairness with the citizens and his ability to see both sides of situations,” said retired building director Linda Haines.
Jason Mikaelian, a former Downey city planner, said, “I too remember Bob as the nicest man—a model politician who treated staff and the community with kindness and respect.”
In addition to his work on the City Council, Bob served Downey in countless other leadership roles, including as the chairman of Downey’s Recreation Commission, Chamber of Commerce Liaison, 1-5 Joint Powers Authority Representative and Southeast Water Coalition Representative.
He also served in leadership roles on the Downtown Merchants Committee, Downey Avenue Beautification Project, Downey Transit Center Project, Annual Budget Review Committee, NASA Site Development Committee, Rio Hondo Golf Course Clubhouse Renovation Project, and as the Vice-President for the Independent Cities Association.
Tod Corrin, president of the Downey school board, said Bob was active in supporting the school district.
“He has made a difference in the life of countless youths and families,” Tod said.
SENSE OF HUMOR
With each assignment, Bob used his superior intellect, razor-like wit and zany sense of humor to bring others around to his way of thinking.
“Bob was a big joker,” said Optimist member Johnny Venegas. “His laugh was very contagious.”
“Bob was so funny that many members came to our Optimist Club meetings just to see what he would come up with on that Thursday,” said Optimist Club member John Marifian. “His wit was so quick that by the time you had finished speaking, Bob would be right back with something hilarious. But when we needed someone to help us make the difficult decisions, Bob was always our leader. We all respected and deferred to his judgment. And nobody ever loved Downey’s youth more than Bob.”
In the last decade of his life Bob and his second wife Michele lived in Yorba Linda, although they traveled extensively throughout the world. They also maintained strong ties in Downey, including their Winningham Scholarship Fund that provided money for college for many Downey-area high school students.
A HALL OF FAME FLAT COAT
Over the last few years, the Winninghams shared the joy of training and showing American Kennel Club (AKC) championship show dogs.
After substantial research, Bob and Michele selected the Flat Coated Retriever as their dog of choice and named their first show dog Riley. After an incredible amount of work and travel to AKC championship shows around the nation, Riley was this month inducted in the Hall of Fame of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America. This is a very high honor that very few show dogs ever achieve, and for Bob and Michele to accomplish it with their first show dog is especially significant.
Over the years, the Winninghams made many friends in the dog world, including Nanci Hanover.
“Many of us attended a wonderful reception for Riley’s Hall of Fame induction on Saturday,” Nancy said. “We had the opportunity to spend time with Bob and to learn of his many accomplishments from his life away from dogs.“
In addition to Michele, Bob is survived by his daughter Jennifer Cordero (and her husband Daniel and sons Ethan and Mason), daughter Amanda Winningham, son Scott Winningham (and his wife Zoila and sons Branson and Nixon), sister Nancy Smith (and her husband Ric), and his first wife Carol.
Former Downey Mayor Mario Guerra said that Bob was “a man with a great big heart who cared deeply about others and always doing the right thing. He was a true leader, from Little League to being Mayor.”
“He was smart, knew how to get things done and had great vision for our community,” Mario said. “His accomplishments are visible throughout our city to this day. His passing is a tremendous loss to so many people. He will truly be missed.”
A CELEBRATION OF BOB’S LIFE
Mario will officiate at a celebration of Bob’s life that is open to the public on Tuesday, May 5 at 3 p.m. at the Rio Hondo Event Center, 10627 Old River School Road in Downey.
The Winningham family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Optimist Club of Downey, P.O. Box 831, Downey, CA 90241.
A final tribute to Bob came from former Downey Fire Chief Mark Sauter, a longtime friend and fellow Optimist.
“Bob Winningham was a great man and one of Downey’s best citizens ever, not just for his family and friends, but for the greater community,” Mark said. “The City of Downey, the YMCA and those who have benefited from the work of the Optimist Club of Downey have all experienced and gained from Bob’s positive influence and leadership.
“For those of us who were fortunate enough to spend time with Bob, we learned so much more from him,” he said. “We learned about his compassion for others, his generosity, his courage to do the right thing when it wasn’t popular and his ability to find solutions to problems when others were divided.
“He was a very good friend as well, always giving with his time and experience, often to strangers,” Mark continued. “He shared his love of life with others through his actions and kindness.
“Bob embodied the Optimist creed, to be so strong that nothing can disturb your piece of mind...to be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble,” he added. “Sadly, we need more ‘Bobs’ now, not less. As we move forward after Bob’s loss, we will all need to shoulder a little more of the community workload.
“Even though our hearts are heavy, I know we can do this,” Mark said. “Bob Winningham showed us the way.”