In recent years, death ceased sneaking up on Leon Barlas. Instead, it had taken to loudly clomping and banging after him.
The 91-year-old died last month when, in the words of his daughter, Shelley, “everything gave out.”
But he died on his terms, in his bed in the house on the old country road in Petaluma where he’d lived for 88 years.
“My father had such tremendous will to live. My husband, who is a cardiologist, saw pictures of my father’s heart from maybe nine years ago and he said, at that time, he should have been dead. But he kept living and living,” said Shelley Barlas Nagel.
“He called the shots. He always said to me, ‘Be master of your destiny, be captain of your ship.’ He died in his bed. He called the shots.”
Barlas, who died Dec. 5, was born in Minnesota to Russian immigrant parents who moved to the Bay Area when he was only 3. The family settled in Petaluma, and, like so many of that area’s Jews, became chicken ranchers. Max Barlas founded a feed company, which Leon and his two younger brothers, Izzy and Himmie, took over when they were all barely out of their teens and living in a home with no running water, gas, electricity or indoor plumbing.
In a chicken-flavored variety of the American dream, Leon Barlas built Barlas Feeds into an international corporation, filling the hulls of container ships with bags of feed bound for locales as remote as Japan.
While his business began to touch all corners of the globe, Barlas’ feet were always firmly planted in Petaluma, where he and his wife, Ann, were staples of the Jewish community. Leon Barlas was even the area’s shochet (ritual slaughterer).
“Somebody would go to San Francisco once a week to bring back orders for those who wanted kosher meat,” Barlas told the Jewish Bulletin in 2000.
“It was before the highway. They had to go by train. It was a big deal to do that.”
The Barlas family belonged to B’nai Israel in Petaluma for decades; Ann, who died a decade ago, was a board member for 55 consecutive years.
By the late 1960s, Barlas estimated he was raising 95 percent of the chickens in Sonoma County, earning him the apt but none-too-creative sobriquet “Mr. Chicken.”
Barlas was successful enough in the poultry business that he and the family were able to move from the Spartan home of their youth and build adjoining homes on Bailey Avenue. The Barlas brothers built several homes on Bailey, and, at times, were the only family on the street.
“At one time, when I was growing up, my grandparents were next door and my Uncle Himmie was across the street and Uncle Izzy was across the street to the left,” recalled Nagel.
Barlas had many interests outside of work. He was always in top physical shape, and played tennis avidly since the 1940s, back when he was the resident ace on Petaluma’s only public court. A friend of Nagel’s recalls that Barlas used to leap clean over the fence every time she came to buy chickens from him.
He also enjoyed literature and poetry. Even when he was in his 80s, Barlas was sometimes called upon to be the featured speaker at Jewish communal events, where he could recite hours of poetry from memory.
Barlas’ funeral was conducted by Rabbi Ted Feldman and attended by more than 400. He was laid to rest at B’nai Israel’s cemetery in Petaluma, naturally, the city he lived in for nearly nine decades.
He is survived by Irma Glazer, his companion of more than a decade, daughter Dr. Shelley Barlas Nagel of Menlo Park, son Marshall Barlas of Petaluma, brother Izzy Barlas of Petaluma, sister Bette Kiser of Healdsburg, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Donations can be sent to B’nai Israel or Hadassah at 740 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952.