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May 21, 2022

Prominent volunteer known as ‘Mr. Watsonville’ dies

Bill Neighbors dead from cancer at 74

(Pajaronian reporter Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story. — Editor)

WATSONVILLE—Bill Neighbors, whose proclivity to help and to improve his community extended into nearly every aspect of Watsonville civic life—and whose lifelong career of volunteerism led him to be dubbed “Mr. Watsonville” by those who knew him—died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 74.

“He was just a real giver,” said Neighbors’ stepdaughter Jenny Bachman. “He was always giving, and never wanted anything in return. He’s been there for everyone 100 percent. He would never turn his back on anyone.”

Bachman said that Neighbors and his wife Virgie dedicated their lives to helping their community, never asking for anything in return.

“He just liked to give back to the community,” she said. “He thrived on that stuff.”

That included taking care of his ailing wife until the end of his days—despite his own illness—and refusing help for himself.

“He never wanted anyone to take care of him,” Bachman said. “His strength and determination is huge—the one thing he never did is give up.”

Neighbors is survived by four daughters, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by two sons and a daughter.

Bill and Virgie Neighbors. — contributed

Neighbors is perhaps best known for his volunteer work with the Watsonville Police Department, where he served under police chiefs Ray Belgard, Manny Solano and Terry Medina.

Neighbors was an original member of the department’s Post Incident Team and was instrumental in creating the Watsonville Police Assistance Fund, Medina said.

“I can’t say enough about Bill Neighbors,” he said. “He is the definition of can-do.”

Neighbors led efforts to recruit about 30 volunteers for that group, Medina said. He also kept at the ready WPD’s critical incident trailer, often waking up in the wee hours of the morning to bring it to where police needed it, Medina said. 

Neighbors was also the leader and one of the original members of his volunteer police force, Volunteers in Law Enforcement, also called the Police Posse.

“He was the guy we could depend on for many many things,” Medina said.

Neighbors was 17 when he joined the U.S. Army, and, after meeting Virgie while serving at Fort Ord, settled in Watsonville.

He had a distinguished 25-year career for the Coca-Cola Corporation, but he is remembered for his life of volunteerism that includes co-founding the local National Night Out, volunteering with Watsonville police and fire departments, serving as a Watsonville Planning Commissioner and on the Watsonville Certified Emergency Response Team.

He was named Santa Cruz County Volunteer of the year in 1999 and Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year in 2000.

Watsonville city council member Lowell Hurst (right) presents a proclamation to Bill Neighbors in 2015 for his numerous efforts to better Watsonville. — Erik Chalhoub/The Pajaronian file

Neighbors was elected to the Watsonville City Council in 2010, but resigned a year later. Medina said this abrupt departure came in part because the cogs of government turned too slowly for Neighbors’ desire to see his projects to a swift conclusion.

Neighbors’ love for automotive mechanics spilled over into his work with WPD, Medina said, when he saved the department thousands of dollars by recruiting volunteers to help with the motor pool.

“I think it was his sense of loyalty to the community,” Medina said. “He wanted to be a part of the community and make it a better place.”

In addition to his work with WPD, Solano said he knew Neighbors as a longtime family friend. He said Neighbors had an innate understanding of how to serve his community.

“He worked and dedicated his life to making things better for people,” Solano said. “No matter who they were or what it was, he saw the need. He would be able to predict the need before it was made known, and he would make a solution to it.” 

“I called him ‘Mr. Watsonville’ for a very good reason,” Solano added. 

Neighbors was also part of WPD’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) efforts and community outreach nights, Solano said. 

“We’re going to miss ‘Mr. Watsonville,’” Solano said. “Our community is better because of him.”

Retired WPD officer Randy Pesce said he was impressed at how much Neighbors pitched in for his community, and called him an “unsung hero.”

This included leading efforts to provide housing for people displaced in disasters, and personal touches such as bringing coffee during police incidents, Pesce said.

“He knew everyone,” he said. “He truly knew how to talk to people and get things done; that was his high point. He was just there. It did not matter what time of day or night it was, Bill would show up to offer help.”

Dennis Osmer, who formerly served on the Watsonville City Council and Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, described Neighbors as “everyone’s friend.”

“He knew so many people, and he related to so many people on so many levels,” Osmer said. “He was always willing to do whatever was needed. He did nothing in half-measures. He was just a hell of a guy.”

Bill Neighbors’ volunteer service

  • Co-founder of National Night Out
  • Watsonville Police Community Service officer
  • Member of the Watsonville Certified Emergency Response Team
  • Watsonville Strawberry Festival Committee
  • Fourth of July Parade Committee
  • Christmas Lighting Committee
  • Former Watsonville Planning Commissioner
  • Board member of Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes 
  • Santa Cruz County Drug and Alcohol Commission
  • The Watsonville Police Assistant Fund
  • Watsonville Police Activities League
  • Santa Cruz County Mobile Home Commission
  • The Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce
  • The Watsonville Fly-In and Air Show
  • Member of the Watsonville Post Incident Team
  • The Watsonville Veteran’s Day Committee
  • Watsonville Rotary Club
  • Watsonville YMCA

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