Transforming Lives through Education: Exploring the partnership between the Gasser Foundation and Justin-Siena

Director of Communications Eileen Mize
What do an old Napa card room and a cleverly named Pale Ale at Downtown Joe’s have to do with the history and viability of Justin-Siena? Fortunately in 1970s Napa, the early years of Justin-Siena, a few downtown businessmen and community leaders understood the important role a school like Justin-Siena played in their community and shared an interest in supporting the school.
Some Background:
The Downtown Joe’s Lou Paine Pale Ale, is so named for a local legend and one-time proprietor of a card room called “Oasis” which was located in the very same building (the Oberon Building) as the brewery today. Lou, known as the “Mayor of Main Street” back in the day, had a penchant for philanthropy and a knack for bringing like-minded people together. He and his dear friends and fellow downtown businessmen Bill Novelli and Peter Gasser would make many significant contributions to Justin-Siena, with Gasser’s contributions lasting through the current day in the form of his Foundation. Bill Novelli served on the Justin-Siena Board of Trustees in the early 80s and was co-founder of the Napa Wine Taster’s Golf Classic, which benefited Justin-Siena for many years. Bill, who passed away in 2001, also served as Vice President of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” a program that sponsors kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity to see “big league” baseball games. He was a generous community man and because of his great benevolence, Bill was named Napa Chamber of Commerce “Citizen of the Year” in 1983. Both Bill and Lou urged their friend Peter Gasser to get involved with Justin-Siena and invited him to school events. Peter joined them at an annual fundraiser where keys to a new Cadillac were auctioned off, but only one key would open the door, and the person with that key got the Cadillac. Story has it that at one of these events Bill and Lou arranged for Peter to be named “Citizen of the Year” by Justin-Siena in front of the assembled multitude, and Peter never forgot it.
Focusing on the Gassers:
Peter Gasser was one of six children born in 1905 to Swiss immigrants, Henry Gasser and Mary Crotta. The Gassers were farmers, and young Peter grew up learning about the land and the hard work of running a thriving farm. Peter never graduated from high school, leaving after 9th grade, but he went on to earn a banking certificate in San Francisco. When he was twenty years old, he began working for the “Bank of Italy,” which is now known as the Bank of America. In 1934, Peter married Vernice Wilson, and a few years later the two of them opened Gasser Motors Dodge Cars & Trucks in Napa. Vernice was in charge of bookkeeping and managed the office while the up-and-coming young businessman, Peter Gasser, became known around Napa as the man to talk to for a good deal on an automobile. As their business gained momentum, Peter became an influential leader in the Napa Chamber of Commerce and was very effective in directing Napa development before and during World War II. He was a major force for change in Napa between 1940 and 1975, and his opinions influenced such projects as the widening of Highway 29 between Napa and Vallejo and the development of the Napa airport. In 1965, he sold Gasser Motors and devoted himself to real estate and Napa Valley development. As he grew in success and wealth, so, too, did he grow in his philanthropy, giving generously to many charities throughout the Valley and especially to Queen of the Valley Hospital and to Justin-Siena at the urging of his friends Bill and Lou.

While the Gassers did not have children, they both loved the Napa Valley and gave much while alive and wanted their inheritance to benefit the Napa community after they were gone. Through the years, the Gasser Foundation has provided grants to more than 250 nonprofits in Napa County, and awarded over $35M. The Gasser Foundation mission has been to serve the people and community today and in the future with a focus on education, as well as health care and the environment.

Timing is Everything—Understanding the Gasser Impact:
Roger LaVoie, former Justin-Siena Trustee and Board President through much of the 90s (and father of John LaVoie ’90 and Danielle LaVoie ’94) recalls how providential it was when the Gasser Foundation named Justin-Siena in its Trust in 1989. “School enrollment was at an all-time low, and there was the possibility of the school closing. So when Joe Peatman, Sr. (Executive Director of the Gasser Foundation) told me that Justin-Siena had been named in their Trust, I immediately drove over to the Convent (currently, the Student Residence) to inform the Principal at the time (Sister Marion Irvine, OP) who upon hearing the fortuitous news, broke down and cried.” Her tears were certainly those of joy and gratitude. This commitment was a critical turning point in the school’s history. Mr. LaVoie added, “If Gasser did not come when it did, the Trustees later agreed that absent of those funds, there was a reasonable probability the school would not have survived. In retrospect, the timing seems miraculous. And more than the Gasser money itself, the gift was an enormous morale booster and provided the catalyst for the first return of optimism to the Justin-Siena community.”

Since being named in their Trust, the Gasser Foundation provides an annual grant to Justin-Siena that is applied to financial assistance, staff and curriculum development, educational technology, and facility and campus improvements. Appropriately reflecting Peter and Vernice Gasser’s wishes, education remains the largest funding category of the Foundation, both in terms of the number of recipients and in terms of the amount of dollars granted. As a beneficiary, Justin-Siena has benefitted in the form of many capital expense projects as well as support of general operating expenses. Over the years, the Gasser Foundation has provided necessary funding for several campus projects including classroom renovations, re-roofing, computer systems, faculty development and tuition assistance—most notably has been the generous contribution to the building of the Library and Media Center in 2000. Known simply as the “Gasser Center” to the students and faculty today, this 8,000 square-foot building continues to serve as a center-point of study and research on the Justin-Siena campus.

The Gasser Foundation Today:
Joe Peatman, Executive Director of the Gasser Foundation whose son, Joe, owns and operates the Downtown Joe’s Brewery that serves the Lou Paine Pale Ale, speaks of the significance of Gasser’s explicit inclusion of Justin-Siena in the Foundation’s trust. “The founding documents of the Foundation, personally signed by Peter Gasser, call for the Foundation to give ‘special consideration’ to two ‘…charitable causes within the City and the County of Napa…’ Justin Siena School and Queen of the Valley Hospital.” He added, “The founding documents were filed by Peter in February 26, 1982, but it was not funded until Vernice’s passing in 1989. The first grant awarded to Justin-Siena was $50,000 in 1989 to re-roof the 200, 300, and 500 wings. When asked about the ways he sees alignment between the vision of the Gasser Foundation and Justin-Siena’s mission of educating young people he commented, “the Foundation’s mission statement describes ‘education’ as one of the Foundation’s ‘field of interests.’ The Board sets aside $45,000 each year to go to individual classrooms in elementary and middle schools (with a limit of $500 per classroom and two classrooms per school) and another $45,000 in scholarships for students graduating from Napa College, county high schools, and the adult school ($5,000 per institution). The Foundation has historically viewed these three programs as meeting the needs of ‘education’ that fall within its capacity. Its policy excludes other grants to public schools, as a primary reason for the Foundation’s existence was to avoid taxation.

President Robert Jordan is grateful for the continued partnership with the Gasser Foundation. “Upon becoming President of Justin-Siena in 2009, one of my very first meetings was with Joe Peatman,” Jordan said. “Yes, the Gasser Foundation played a significant role in the history of our school, and make no mistake, it still does. The current support the Gasser Foundation makes possible on-going faculty development, current curriculum initiatives, and tuition assistance support for students from Napa County. Without the on-going support of the Gasser Foundation, much of the progress we have made in these areas would be compromised. We are grateful to this on-going and important partnership.”

Connected by a common mission to transform lives through education, a relationship between the Gasser Foundation and Justin-Siena High School was forged more than twenty-five years ago. The Peter A. and Vernice H. Gasser Foundation was established in 1989 and has played a key part in the sustainability of and mission advancing opportunities for Justin-Siena. As the school commemorates our 50th Anniversary, we wish to acknowledge the Gasser Foundation for playing an instrumental role in the story of Justin-Siena and for the generosity of Justin-Siena’s late “Great Friend”—Mr. Peter Gasser.
    • The Oberon Building in downtown Napa pictured in the early years of the last century

    • Downtown Joe's Today

    • A Sketch of Peter Gasser

    • Gasser Center

Justin-Siena High School

4026 Maher Street
Napa, CA, 94558
United States
T: 707.255.0950 
F: 707.255.0334
Justin-Siena is a Lasallian Catholic college preparatory community that serves young people in grades 9–12.