He built this city

Developer Dan Drake dies following six-month illness

DAN THE MAN Dan Drake was a major player in Chico for close to four decades. He built more homes in the past two decades and spent more money for political ends than anyone else in the history of Chico. This photo dates from 1990.

DAN THE MAN Dan Drake was a major player in Chico for close to four decades. He built more homes in the past two decades and spent more money for political ends than anyone else in the history of Chico. This photo dates from 1990.

photo by Mark Thalman

Legacy: At the time of his death, Drake was building offices called “Executive Park” in northeast Chico, the Foothill East housing project near the airport, two housing projects in southeast Chico and another in north Chico near East Avenue and The Esplanade.

It could be reasonably argued that developer John “Dan” Drake, who died Thanksgiving Day, helped build Chico both physically and politically. Drake built more houses in Chico than any other developer and poured more money into local candidates’ campaign coffers than any other contributor in the last 20 years.

“I think there is a tremendous hole going to be left in this community,” said Chico City Councilmember Steve Bertagna. “A lot of the houses we live in today were built by Dan.”

Former Councilmember David Guzzetti recalled the other impact Drake had on Chico, noting how the wealthy businessman set a new standard for campaign fund-raising in 1981, when Guzzetti first ran for council.

“There were eight candidates that broke into two slates of four, one progressive, one conservative,” Guzzetti said. “I remember Dan Drake and his partner at that time, Tom DuFour, contributed something like $10,000 or $12,000 to the [conservative] slate. At that time it almost doubled what any single candidate had ever spent.”

Guzzetti said that contribution, though spent on a losing slate, triggered local campaign-finance disclosure laws.

“He was a private businessman, and there was nothing illegal in what he had done,” Guzzetti said. “He just tipped the scale a bit.

“He primarily gave all his money to individual candidates. As far as I know he didn’t give money to the phony [political-action committees] that used to attack [progressive candidates]. He was polite, gentlemanly and never talked too much. He rarely came to City Council meetings.”

Bertagna, who benefited a few times from Drake’s generosity toward certain office-seekers, said Drake never asked for anything in return for his campaign contributions.

“He was a political friend, a guy you could count on being there for you,” Bertagna said.

Drake, who moved to Chico in 1958 and then launched a long career of building houses, died at the age of 79, reportedly after a long illness. Described by friends and political foes alike as a modest, publicity-shunning man, Drake had a taste for adventure and sports. Friends recalled his penchant for alternative transportation—he rode motorcycles, had a pilot’s license, owned and flew a helicopter and owned and sailed a boat—and that he was an accomplished hunter and fisherman as well.

“He did it all, was proficient at everything, and he was modest,” said longtime friend Bill Brownell, who first met Drake in the 1950s.

“I had a motorcycle shop on Nord and met Dan because he used to come in and buy motorcycles,” Brownell recalled.

According to Drake’s obituary in the local daily, he fought in the Pacific during World War II, serving in the Navy as a bomber pilot off an aircraft carrier. For his service he was decorated with the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

“He told me about flying off a carrier during the war,” Brownell said, “but I was surprised to read he won a Purple Heart. He never talked about that.”

Jim Mann, executive director of the local chapter of the Building Industry Association, said the news of Drake’s death came as a “shock,” though he’d heard Drake had not been feeling well in the last six months.

“Dan was a real quite guy, a very kind guy,” Mann said. “He really cared about the community.”

City employees, too, remembered Drake as nothing less than professional and always a gentleman.

“Every dealing I had with Dan was very professional,” said City Manager Tom Lando. “He’d ask what we needed to get something done, and he’d do it.”

Clif Sellers, the city’s community development assistant, confirmed that Drake has been the most productive Chico builder over the past two decades, building everything from offices to large-scale housing developments.

Drake also owned a lot of land in the foothills, selling some 1,300 acres that were added to Bidwell Park a few years ago. When negotiations for that purchase ended up with an arbitrator in court to set a fair selling price, the city ended up paying more than it had originally planned.

“I remember when that happened,” said Guzzetti. “We had been more or less been screwed by the city staff on that when they tried to lowball the price. It came down to the 11th hour, and Drake could have held out longer and gotten more. But he didn’t, and I remember I went up to him and said, ‘Thank you for laying down your arms.’

“In my dealings with him, he was never nasty.”

Survivors include his widow, Ginger, who worked with Drake as a real estate broker, and daughters Debi, Diane and Gina, son Jody and sister Virginia Anderson.

He also leaves behind, said Mann, a couple of beloved hunting dogs.