John Florentz Chiapelone
With deep sadness we announce that John Florentz Chiapelone passed away peacefully at home in Foster City, surrounded by loved ones, on January 16, 2021. While we will miss him for all our days, we revel in the memory of his broad smile, towering presence, booming voice, and warm, generous spirit. He was a gentle giant who believed in giving back, serving nature, and loving God. We feel fortunate to have admired his resilience, laughed along with his funny humor, and felt his joy of life.
John was a California native and lifelong resident of the Bay Area. Born in San Mateo in 1932, he spent his youngest years in Woodside where he attended a 2-room school before moving to Burlingame in 1942. He attended McKinley Elementary until the 8th grade, and went on to Burlingame High School where he was involved in football, track and all music activities. Music was his first love. He played the upright bass, piano, low brass for marching, and sang in the church choir. He spent two summers advancing his music studies at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. John crowned his academic achievements at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA where he graduated with degrees in Music and Math, intending to pursue a career as a teacher.
After college, John served in the US Army as a part of the guided missile program. His time in the Army was often a counterpoint to the discomforts of life. He would say, "if I could make it through the Army eating SOS and taking cold showers, I can make it through anything." While he toughed it out with the best of them, his military service also offered fantastic musical opportunities, including participation in a travelling variety show led by Raymond Burr. John played in the band and also had the honor of giving Mr. Burr a pie in the face.
After his travels, John returned to Burlingame to help his parents in the family business, the Burlingame Garden Center (BGC). BGC was built on the property that his grandparents purchased in 1917. The business was started by his parents, James and Laura Chiapelone, who began by selling roses out of their driveway. In 1973, Laura Chiapelone became the first woman to achieve certification by the California Association of Nurserymen. Like his mother, John was a self-taught nurseryman who developed a wide-ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of California horticulture. At BGC he fulfilled his intention of being a teacher by sharing knowledge freely and prolifically with community members from Burlingame, Hillsborough and the greater Peninsula. The business grew and became an anchor point for the Burlingame community and for the Chiapelone family, also known as The 5 Jays (John, Jan, Jim, Jane, Julie). Jane and Julie punched their first time clocks at the nursery, as did oldest son Jim, who built his career there and continues to operate BGC as a landscaping business to this day.
John contributed to the betterment of the nursery industry by participating in local, state and national nursery associations. In the Bay Area, he served as President of the Master Nurseryman's Association and spent 18 years on the board of that organization. At the state level he twice served as President of the California Association of Nurserymen, and offered many years of service on committees. On the national level, John held leadership positions in the American Association of Nurserymen, traveling to Washington DC and having occasion to confer with First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Ladybird Johnson.
All throughout his working life, John made substantial civic contributions to the Burlingame community. He served as President and long-time member of the Burlingame Rotary Club. For many years he served as Scoutmaster of Troop 156 and under his direction, 23 Scouts earned the rank of Eagle Scout. His distinguished service in Scouting was recognized with the BSA's prestigious Silver Beaver award. Every Arbor Day John could be found planting trees at local schools, encouraging children to appreciate plants and the natural world. All of his service work gave him joy, but he truly lit up when he was supporting music education. He proudly attended all of his children's elementary, middle school and high school concerts, and donated significant time and treasure to school band programs. Long after his children graduated, John continued to support the Burlingame High School Band, hosting annual holiday concert fundraisers at BGC.
A highly engaged lifelong learner, John explored many interests throughout his life. In the 60s and 70s, he was an amateur pilot and member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. An avid sports fan, John supported the SF Giants, and was a season ticket holder for the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco 49ers starting in their earliest years at Kezar Stadium. There were legendary tailgate parties in Candlestick Park. John would arrive in the windy parking lot early in the morning, fire up a generator to watch the morning games on TV, and begin preparing food and drink alongside many lifelong friends. When it came time for the game, he was all business, watching intently and with one ear glued to his transistor radio where he caught the detailed commentary. The only reason John would miss a 49er game was if he had opera tickets, and he often held season tickets to both the San Francisco Opera and Symphony. He loved music of all kinds including jazz and American musicals. With the 5 Jays, he attended many wonderful shows in the opulent theaters of San Francisco, creating treasured family memories and sparking a love of music that ripples through generations.
In his retirement, John served as a docent at Filoli mansion, and often helped out by handily answering questions that stumped the Master Gardeners on staff. He was an active member of the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, and on many Sunday mornings before church he could be found with family at the Millbrae Pancake House or Nini's. Along with Sherry, his second wife of 30+ years (endearingly, they both lost count), he loved to entertain friends and family at their home on the water in Foster City. He continued his love of sports and music by attending the games and concerts of his grandchildren in California and Washington, beaming with pride all the while. As his life's pace slowed, he relished the simplest of pleasures … a wonderful bath, a delicious sandwich, a purring kitty cat. It seems somehow fitting that this loving Dad and Granddad lived to the age of 88, matching the number of keys on a piano.
John is survived by his wife Sherry Chiapelone of Foster City; children Jim Chiapelone (Cheryl) of Burlingame, Jane Chiapelone of Beaverton, OR and Julie Chiapelone Rey (Oskar) of Seattle, WA; former wife Jan Chiapelone of Beaverton OR; sisters Anne Fuller of Burlingame, and Charlotte Horton (Murray) of La Quinta, CA; as well as many nieces and nephews. He was Granddad to Dan and Jenny Chiapelone; Calvin and Lukas Rey; Lauren and Alexa Szabo and Lindsay Rasmussen (Jon) and great grandfather to Serena Raye Rasmussen.
Private family services will be held at the First Presbyterian Church with the support of Crosby - N. Gray funeral home. A larger gathering will be held at a later date.
In remembrance, kindly consider a donation to the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame. If you prefer an everlasting memorial, please plant a tree. In so doing remember what John always told us … it goes green side up.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle from Jan. 28 to Jan. 31, 2021.