The cyclist who died Wednesday morning after a car crash in North Berkeley has been identified by community members and co-workers as Joseph Hurlimann.
“Many people might remember him riding through the University Ave., Curtis Street area of Berkeley near the car wash at times picking up recycling material and loading it onto his little old bike,” Matt Calkins, a good friend of Hurlimann’s longtime next door neighbor, told Berkeleyside. “He did not own a car.”
Hurlimann “had been riding his bike around Berkeley since he was a child.” He grew up near University Avenue and Curtis and still lived in his childhood home.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Alameda County coroner’s office has not released Hurlimann’s name because no relatives have been found. But numerous people who have known Hurlimann for decades have said he had no immediate family left, and no close relatives they knew of.
Hurlimann, who was 78, had a basket attached to the back of his old single-speed bike, which was gray. Sometimes, he would stack wood scraps tied with twine — from his longtime employer Truitt & White — 4 to 5 feet high on the basket. He would take the scraps home to his workshop, turn them into stakes, and sell them back to Truitt & White, which is located just west of the railroad tracks and south of Hearst Avenue.
“It always looked like he couldn’t possibly make it across the railroad tracks without the whole stack collapsing. But he always did,” recalled Dan White, Truitt & White’s CEO. “I’m sure lots and lots of people have seen him around town over the years.”
White said Wednesday it had been a very sad day for everyone at the company.
“I’ve known Joe my whole life,” he said.
Hurlimann was Truitt & White’s longest running employee, with more than 60 years with the business. He began working for the family-owned building materials company in the 1950s, when he was still in high school.
Hurlimann worked part time until he graduated from Saint Mary’s College High School in 1956. He went on to attend UC Berkeley, where he got a PhD in plant pathology as part of the first class of the College of Natural Resources, according to its alumni magazine.
White said Hurlimann continued as a researcher at Cal for a long time, though he retired from UC Berkeley about two decades back.
According to online records, Hurlimann retired from Cal in 1991 after working there for 31 years. He drew a small pension from the university. He’s listed as a coauthor on nearly 100 academic articles and reports in the area of plant biology, according to Google Scholar.
UC Berkeley spokeswoman Gretchen Kell said Hurlimann actually got three degrees from Cal: his bachelor’s in soil science in 1961, a master’s in plant pathology in 1964, and his doctorate in plant pathology in 1974.
Even while at UC Berkeley, however, Hurlimann worked at Truitt & White on weekends and vacations.
“He liked us and we liked him,” White said. “It was always a kick to have him around.”
White said one reason for the longtime connection was that Hurlimann had a close bond with White’s father, one of Truitt & White’s founders. (The Truitt family, which was the other founder, is no longer part of the company, but Dan White and his brother Warren now run it, and each has a son who is involved with the business.)
White’s father encouraged the young Hurlimann to go to Cal, and mentored him over the years.
“They always had this relationship,” White recalled. He said Hurlimann would stop by the White home from time to time to help with tasks that needed doing. “He was very handy.”
Hurlimann never moved out of the small house he grew up in, on Curtis Street, above Allston Way. He lived with his parents until they died, first his father and later his mother. He never married. At the time of his death, he lived alone, and rode his bike everywhere.
Hurlimann was known at Truitt & White as an avid stamp collector. White explained that stamp collectors buy sheets of 100, but are mainly interested in the four corner stamps. That left 96 stamps for Hurlimann to share. He would lick them and put them on Truitt & White’s envelopes, and sell them back to the company as postage.
White described those envelopes with their vintage stamps as “one of our claims to fame.”
In June 2016, Truitt & White featured Hurlimann on its Facebook page, writing, “Joe started his Stamp collection when he was 7 years old and is still collecting stamps today. About 40 years ago he decided he would use his collection on Truitt and White envelopes.”
Quoting Hurlimann, the post continues: “I’ve used stamps from the 1930 World’s Fair.” Pictured with him “are stamps from 30 years ago!”
According to the short Facebook feature, Hurlimann’s first day of work with Truitt & White was Oct. 19, 1955. (The company was founded in 1946.) His first job was stocking shelves.
More recently, his jobs with the company included organizing its postage and counting inventory.
“When I started in 1955, Truitt and White was just a contractor shed and the lumber was stocked in the barn,” he said, according to the Facebook post, which continued, “Joe has a great sense of humor, when asked what he does today he laughs and says, ‘I count sticks.'”
White said Hurlimann, who worked part time, kept a close eye on the company inventory. Materials get cut to different lengths, for example, and keeping track can be quite a project. The company sells materials such as lumber, doors, windows, paint, tools, siding and more.
“He would go around the yard with his clipboard and count stuff,” White said. “He would go around with his tally sheet and count everything.”
White said Hurlimann’s long tenure with the company was quite a feat. He recalled how it had once come up at a going-away event for another longtime employee.
“I called on Joe and said, ‘What do you think about the new guy quitting already?'” White laughed, recalling the moment: The “new guy,” he added, “had been there for 30 years!”
White said Hurlimann had a unique personality. He didn’t question authority, exactly, but had a healthy sense of skepticism.
“He’d always grumble in recent years about the doctors, saying, ‘I don’t think that guy knew what he was talking about,'” White said.
The company got a call from Hurlimann’s neighbor on Wednesday to let them know about his death. The news hit the company hard.
“He’s been there forever,” said White. “It’s sad to see him go.”
Added Patty White, Dan’s wife: “We all knew and loved Joe.” She said, in addition to his stamp collecting, he also loved to garden.
Hurlimann attended mass at St. Joseph the Worker Church, at 1640 Addison St. As a child, he had attended its Catholic grammar school. His family were lifelong parishioners at the church, and Hurlimann’s funeral is likely to take place there.
“I remember that, for years, Joe brought the dozens of poinsettias and Easter lilies that decorated St. Joseph’s Church for the holidays,” said Jeanne Loughman of Saint Mary’s College High School in North Berkeley. He grew all the flowers up at his Cal greenhouse while he worked there.
Milton Schroth, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of plant pathology, described Hurlimann as hardworking and dedicated.
“One of the most important things of any profession is to know what your own skills are, and he felt he’d be the type of person who could help others,” Schroth said. “He did all kinds of practical things for us in the department, carpentry and other things”
Several people with Truitt & White ties shared reflections of Hurlimann with Berkeleyside on Wednesday.
Eddy Tenret said Hurlimann had been very active in his church, and was the only child of German immigrants. Tenret said he believed Hurlimann’s dad, too, at one time did some work for Truitt & White when Hurlimann was a boy.
“Easiest going guy, with a big heart and soul. One of the strongest men I knew. Sad to see this. He was a Berkeley native his whole life,” wrote Matt DuPont, who worked with Hurlimann for 18 years.
Another co-worker, Christian Vazquez, said he “joked around with him on many occasions, he was extremely sharp for his age. He was a very humble guy.”
Dan White said the company would likely make time for employees to come together to remember Hurlimann, and is still seeking the official word about the fatality from authorities.
“I will want to pursue it,” he said, adding: “If there’s no family, I don’t know what happens next.”
A representative from the coroner’s office said, if next of kin cannot be located, the case could eventually be identified as “county indigent,” but she said she had never heard of that happening.
Minimal information has been available about the circumstances of Wednesday’s crash, but Hurlimann was not wearing a helmet, according to one of the first people to reach the crash scene, at Sacramento Street south of Hopkins. The police report is not complete, so the primary collision factor has not been identified, authorities said Thursday.
Matt Calkins — the good friend of Hurlimann’s neighbor — described him as “a very sweet, soft-spoken, and humble old man.”
He continued: “I was always intrigued by him, by his story, and by his daily work ethic and simple way of life. Berkeley has lost one of its sweetest old characters.”
Update, Feb. 10, 3 p.m. A resident of the Ada Street neighborhood wrote this poem for Joe, and shared it with Berkeleyside.
“My Neighborhood Landscape”
In Memory of the Man Who Died on Sacramento Street Feb. 8, 2017
I knew you.
Did you know me?
You were part of my neighborhood, the taken for granted, landscape.
You biked of necessity,
You biked of purpose.
An old small girl’s bike, no bells or whistles.
Of necessity, a basket for the oranges
And vegetables you were welcomed to
At the produce market around the corner
Before opening hours
Before the crowds.
I tried to catch your eye, to say ‘hello’, or was that in my imagination?
We never did make eye contact.
But I knew you,
You bicycled down my street nearly every morning.
You were older than most who pedal.
Short of stature, the girl’s bike a little too small for you,
those wide handlebars…
You were handsome,
grey white hair, button down, always clean looking shirt, weathered jacket…
a handsome man on an almost too small bike.
You were dignified, gentle and kind…I just knew.
The man who stood over your broken body trying to breathe you back to life, knew, too.
‘He seemed sweet’, he said.
You looked relaxed, confident in the early morning air.
Now you are gone…
Mangled bike, body under a white tent, bright yellow tape blocking streets – gone.
And in the absence of you,
I recognize how much of you I really did know and see
and take for granted
in my neighborhood landscape.
-Joan Alexander, Feb. 9, 2017
Editor’s note: Comments from UC Berkeley were added at 4 p.m. Feb. 9. On Feb. 10, additional information about Hurlimann’s early life, including his grade school and high school, as well as a high school yearbook photograph and church, were added to the story after this information was provided by Saint Mary’s College High School.
Funeral mass for Joseph Hurlimann: A funeral mass will be offered at St. Joseph the Worker Church for its longtime parishioner Joseph Hurlimann on Thursday, March 9, at 10:30 a.m. There will be a short viewing of the body at 10 a.m. prior to mass. Afterward there will be a gravesite service at St. Joseph Cemetery in San Pablo. All friends and parishioners of “Joe” are welcome. St. Joseph the Worker Church is at 1640 Addison St. in Berkeley.