Lemon Grove's Lion in Winter Dead at 93

René Collette at home in 2012.
René Collette at home in 2012.

 René Joseph Collette, a French Huguenot descendant from North Dakota. World War II veteran and a mainstay of Lemon Grove life for more than 60 years, died at home in the early hours of May 19.  With him was his wife of 67 years Lillian Sando Collette, also from North Dakota.  

     René, a soldier to the end, did not want resuscitation, nor did he want to die in a hospital.  His wish--fulfilled despite a brief hospital stay a few days earlier--was to die in the home he and Lillian bought in 1950 when they settled in Lemon Grove, with his citrus orchard, colony of tortoises, and workshop nearby.

     René and Lillian grew up on farms 15 miles apart in North Dakota, but did not meet until 1946 in San Diego in the aftermath of the war.  He was born to Edmund Collette and Clara Rheaume in a large French-Canadian colony near Grafton.  His grandparents Ovide Collette and Olivine Laberge lived nearby.  The family’s history is included in a 1981 parish centennial history, Sacred Heart of Oakwood, North Dakota (http://www.chez-nous.net/pdfs/shc_3.pdf) by Richard Bernard, a family relative.

     René lit out for California right after graduating from high school.  He enrolled in Los Angeles City College, then moved to San Diego to work at Consolidated Vultee.  He enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1943 and served for three years as a cryptographer, cracking codes in India, Burma and China -- problem-solving skills that he would utilize for the rest of his life.  

     Meanwhile, Lillian attended Mayville State Teacher’s College, Mayville, ND, then taught school for two years before leaving for California “in search of adventure.”  She found it.

     When the dashing René crossed paths with Miss Sando, the beautiful Norwegian descendant with a halo of blonde hair, both were “otherwise involved” as Lillian later noted.  But their fate was sealed after another meeting late in 1946.  They were married May 17, 1947 in St. Joseph’s Cathedral, San Diego.

     In Lemon Grove they contributed to the Baby Boom Generation by raising five children, who, in turn, produced seven grandchildren.  René joined Convair to supervise the Engineering Department in a veritable think tank of flight wizards.  Lillian became a force in the PTA at a time when the Lemon Grove School District was rapidly expanding and building its eight schools.  She raised money for every one of those schools through the Education Foundation.

    When René retired in 1976 a new world opened up as it so often does for talented, involved people.  He joined the team at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, Balboa Park, to restore vintage planes and share his technical skills with a new generation.  He served as a proctor at Southern California bar examinations for many years.

     He co-founded the indispensable Lemon Grove Senior Patrol, long a key component of local law enforcement and safety.  He was appointed hearing officer of the town’s traffic court, a division of the San Diego County Sheriff, giving countless hours to counseling bad drivers, calming them down and getting them to ‘fess up and pay those fines. 

    In a role reversal, Lillian, the stay-at-home Mom whose babes had grown and left the nest, went to work as an antiques dealer.  Both became mainstays of the Lemon Grove Historical Society museum docent team -- and René was a fountain of knowledge during the rehabilitation of the museum (actually the town’s first church, built 1897).  These busy years included travel, family events and interesting hobbies (like the tortoises). 

     On Mar. 24, 2012 the Lemon Grove Historical Society honored René and Lillian at its Annual Board Dinner in the historic H. Lee House--another vintage restoration to which René contributed his expertise.  The toasts and applause for these twin pillars of the community were frequent and heartfelt that evening.   

     René of the sharp French temperament, fund of stories and sympathy for the afflicted, our lion in winter, is gone.  He is survived by Lillian, his children Nancy, Mike, Suzanne, Steve and Jim, and all those grands.

     There will be a Celebration of Life on May 23 at 1 p.m. in Lemon Grove Lutheran Church, 2055 Skyline Drive.  All are welcome.

     Au revoir, cher ami de nos coeurs, et bon voyage.


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