Donnie Joe Huffman of Vacaville, a legendary volunteer and civic leader, champion of agriculture, and a dedicated philanthropist, passed away peacefully at his home on June 17, 2023, surrounded by family. He was 83, but as a Leap Year baby--born Feb. 29, 1940 in Thayer, Mo.-- he was 20.
A former governor of the Kiwanis Club, District 8, Donnie served as president of the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce and chaired both the Vacaville Fiesta Days Committee and the Vacaville Onion Festival. He founded and directed the Friends of the Solano County Fair, and the Friends of the Dixon May Fair, leading the two organizations to provide more than $270,000 in college scholarships for Solano County residents majoring in agriculture.
Donnie was the second of five children born to James Elmer “Pete” and Minnie Swope Huffman. In 1942, his parents, grandfather James Thomas Swope, and his siblings Gertie and Virginia, left Thayer, Mo., in a flatbed truck to relocate to Solano County. During the 2,000-mile trip, Donnie and Gertie sat cushioned between boxes in the truck bed, while the baby, Virginia, rode in front with the adults. Two more children, Bobby and Sharon, would be born in California.
Donnie remembers that their first home, in Cordelia, was a “one-bedroom home with dirt floors.” The Huffmans worked at the Monez, Oberti, and Lanza family ranches in Suisun Valley.
Donnie attended Armijo High School, Fairfield, and as a teenager growing up in the 1950s, enjoyed dancing, cruising and hot-rodding at M&M Skateway in Suisun, Sid’s Drive-In in Fairfield, and Dream Bowl in Napa.
He was known as a diligent, industrious and “get-er-done” worker throughout his life. As a youngster, he shined shoes in downtown Fairfield, and labored in fruit orchards in Suisun Valley, giving half his wages to his then single mother. As a teenager, he worked at service stations owned by Rudy Ramirez and Joe Danboise, at Hyde’s Department Store, and at Hannigan Soda and Donut Shop, Fairfield.
Donnie began his automotive career in 1958 at Digerud Auto Parts in Fairfield and then Ghilotti Brothers in San Rafael before managing Digerud Auto Parts, 349 Merchant St., Vacaville, from 1965-1968.
Donnie married his sweetheart, Claudia “Tootie” Bergmann in 1960. They raised two children, Shelli and Don Jr. The couple celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary on April 16.
Donnie and Tootie purchased Digerud Auto Parts of Vacaville in 1968, renaming it Don’s Auto Parts. In 1972, they relocated the business to 749 Mason St, Vacaville, operating it until 1995. His employees fondly nicknamed him “The Whip.”
A genial leader, tireless volunteer and dedicated philanthropist, Donnie founded the Friends of the Solano County Fair in 1993, serving as its president until 2006; and founded the Friends of the Dixon May Fair in 2000, serving as its president until March 2023. Donnie and Tootie spearheaded a college scholarship program at each of the fairs. Since 2000, the Friends of the Dixon May Fair alone has awarded a total of $248,750 to Solano County residents majoring in agriculture. In tribute to their work, the program was renamed the Donnie and Tootie Huffman Scholarship Program in 2022, and a $5000 scholarship to the top applicant bears his name.
With Donnie at the helm of the Friends of the Dixon May Fair, the service-oriented and fund-raising arm of the fair, the Friends raised thousands of dollars serving beverages to fair attendees. The Friends donated the funds for college scholarships, buckles to award-winning exhibitors, and funded building and grounds improvements. Among the projects, valued in the millions: paving the midway and building the RV park, the Pig Pavilion, the Wine Pavilion, and the Friends’ Plaza.
Donnie was a lifetime member of the Vacaville Museum (a bench in the courtyard memorializes the Huffmans’ 50th wedding anniversary). He was active in Vacaville Lodge 134 Masonic Temple, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, No. 83, as well as the 20-30 Club, Western Fairs Association, California Fairs Financing Authority, and the North Bay Stand Down
An agriculturist with 50 leased acres of almonds, Donnie was active in the Solano County Farm Bureau. He was a longtime swine leader for the Town and Countryt 4-H Club and emcee of the wildly popular Dixon May Fair Hogcalling Contest, urging the hogs to go “hamward bound” and the callers “to bring home the bacon.”
Like Will Rogers, who said “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet,” Donnie was known as “generous to a fault” and “someone who never tooted his own horn—he just got it done.” He enjoyed good times, laughter, traveling, crabbing, fishing, gardening, NASCAR races, and classic cars. His favorites included a ’52 Oldsmobile convertible and a ’56 Chevy.
Surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he considered himself “the luckiest man in the world.”
Donnie liked to joke about being a Leap Year baby. “I was three years old when I began working for Rudy Ramirez; 5 years old I when joined the Digerud Auto Parts and got hitched; 7 when I bought Digerud Auto Parts; 10 when I became a grandpa;18 when I became a great grandpa; and at 20 (in 2022), I’m almost of drinking age.”
Donnie is survived by wife Claudia “Tootie” Huffman of Vacaville; daughter Shelli Huffman Vasquez (John) of Vacaville; son Don Huffman (Jennifer) of Napa; and sister Sharon Hulse of Fairfield. He is also survived by seven grandchildren: John Michael Vasquez (Pamela), Mary Vasquez (Rene Pimentel), Jacqueline “Kristy” Vasquez (Sean Fuller), Sarah Lincoln (Kevin), Annabelle Rosenthal (Sam), Allie Huffman and Ava Huffman; and seven great-grandchildren Ciana Vasquez Pimentel, Alejandro Vasquez Pimentel, Hunter Lincoln, Dionicio Vasquez Pimentel, Kensley Lincoln, Amelia Vasquez Fuller, Penelope Vasquez, with an eighth (Baby Lincoln) on the way.
Other family members include his brother-in-law Kenneth (Diane) Bergmann, sister-in- law Donna (Douglas) Moreau, brother-in-law Richard (Glynda) Bergmann, nieces and nephews; David (Renee) Palagi, Darien Bergmann, Karen Bergmann Purcell, Erin Stack, Sean Stack and Katy Bergmann, Erika Bergmann, great nieces and nephews; Megan Palagi, Chad Palagi, Amy Palagi and Amanda Purcell. Donnie also was a father figure and mentor to many, including David Bunge and Eric Baker.
Donnie was preceded in death by his parents, James Elmer Huffman and Minnie Swope Huffman Mulcahy; his sisters Virginia Sue Huffman and Gertie Palagi; brother Bobby Huffman; brother-in-law Ben Hulse; nephew Frank Palagi; cousin P.J. Huffman; mother-in-law Claudia Nelda Chaney, father-in-law Elmer Ralph Bergmann, and many aunts and uncles.
In lieu of flowers, Donnie had asked that any memorial contributions be made to a favorite charity or to Friends of the Dixon May Fair, P.O. Box 6208, Vacaville, Calif. 95696.
A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m., Tuesday, July 18 in the Rockville Stone Chapel, Rockville Cemetery, 4219 Suisun Valley Road, Fairfield, with burial to follow.
A celebration of life—commemorating what would have been his 21st birthday—is set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 29 in Denverton Hall, Dixon May Fair, 655 S. First St., Dixon.