Pajaronian file

Pajaro Valley Health Care District Board (PVHCD) Chair and former Watsonville Community Hospital CEO John Friel, who took the lead of the fledgling agency at its outset in 2022, died March 21 after battling an undisclosed illness. 

Friel resigned from his position on March 19, and the board appointed Tony Nuñez as chair.

Knowing he was in Hospice care, the board dedicated their public meeting room to Friel during their March 19 meeting. Friel joined virtually from home.

Watsonville Community Hospital CEO Steven Gray said that Friel brought more than 50 years of experience as a nurse and as a healthcare executive to get the district off the ground, and helped ensure its financial stability and long-term sustainability. 

“This is a big loss for our organization and our hearts go out to John’s family,” said Watsonville Community Hospital CEO Steven Gray. “It’s difficult to express the amount of gratitude we all feel toward John. 

Gray said that Friel did not hesitate when asked to chair Pajaro Valley Health Care District.

“He could have just decided to enjoy his retirement, but that’s not John Friel,” Gray said. 

Friel worked as a licensed vocational nurse, then a registered nurse, serving both in hospitals as well as two years with the nursing corps at Travis Air Force Base, where he worked with wounded patients coming in from Vietnam, Watsonville Hospital spokeswoman Nancy Gere said.

He held leadership roles at several hospitals across California, and ultimately at Watsonville Community Hospital, when he became CEO in 1991. 

According to PVHCD, Friel helped secure FEMA funding with the help of Senator Diane Feinstein and Rep. Sam Farr to build Watsonville Community Hospital’s current facility after the 1989 earthquake. 

Nuñez will chair his first meeting on March 27 at 5pm. in the Community Room at 85 Nielson St.

“I’m grateful we were able to honor John last Tuesday,” said Nuñez. “We had a chance to thank him for his passion and dedication to Watsonville Community Hospital all these years, and we formally dedicated the hospital board room in his honor, which will now be called the John Friel Executive Boardroom. I am humbled by the opportunity to take on the role of board chair. I know I have big shoes to fill, but I’m excited by the opportunity to serve our community.”

Nuñez currently serves as marketing and communications manager at Community Bridges. A lifelong local, he graduated from San Jose State University, Cabrillo College, and Watsonville High School.

 He is one of the five inaugural PVHCD board members appointed by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in 2022.

With Friel’s resignation, there is an open seat on the PVHCD board. To serve on the board, one must be a registered voter in Santa Cruz or Monterey County and have a permanent residence within the PVHCD boundaries.

For information, visit after March 27 to submit an application. Questions should be directed to Rosalie Brown, Clerk of the Board at [email protected].

The deadline for submissions is April 14 at 11:59pm. The PVHCD board will vote to appoint the new board director on April 24 to serve the remainder of the 2024 term.

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA.


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