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A good (end of) life
How a neighbor helped the Modinis exit their beloved ranch but still honor it

  • Acting as the Modinis' trustee, neighbor Judy MacDonald Johnston saved a few special items from the estate of Shirley and Jim Modini to display in the barn of the 1,725-acre ranch the couple bequeathed to the Audubon Canyon Ranch. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

When Judy MacDonald Johnston and her husband, John, first met their neighbors Jim and Shirley Modini over cocktails at their remote ranch above the Alexander Valley, she thought they were not only “kind of adorable” but really quite sharp.

Since their life together began back in 1943, the octogenarians had spent all but 10 days waking up on the 1,725-acre ranch off Pine Flat Road northeast of Healdsburg that had been in Jim's family since 1867.

Tending the land and the “little people,” as Shirley called the wildlife that lived there, was all they wanted out of life. They raised just enough prized Herefords to make a simple living and maintain the ranch, leaving the rest to the bears, cougars, bobcats, deer and coyotes.

It was a very good life and not lonely. Although they lived remotely, they were not reclusive. Friends visited almost daily.

But when their aging bodies began to fail them, it was Johnston who stepped forward to make sure the childless couple — both of them without siblings, nieces or nephews — had not just a dignified end, but could exit assured their beloved land would be preserved as wild and that all the things they had collected and saved, from Indian arrowheads found on the ranch to family heirlooms, would wind up in appreciative hands.

Died at home

Jim Modini died in 2011 of esophageal cancer, just weeks after celebrating his 94th birthday; Shirley passed away eight months later at 89. Both died at home, surrounded by a team of supportive caregivers that Johnston had scrupulously assembled and had made all the difference in the quality of their lives. They were people like Marsha Simmonsia, who, when Shirley was on her deathbed, drove around taking videos for her.

“I've built a few busineses and I used to work for HP. But of all the teams I've built, this is the one I'm most proud of. They were ubelievable,” said Johnston on a warm spring day at the ranch, a hilly expanse of forests, streams and waterfalls with the flank of Mt. St. Helena in the near horizon.

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