Steve Nettleton, a longtime friend of the University and honorary doctorate recipient, passed away Friday, January 11. He was 80.
Born September 9, 1938 in Waterloo, Iowa, Nettleton majored in marketing at San Diego State while also working at a local grocery store. He left school and continued working for Fleming, a wholesale grocery supplier, and built his way up from his first job as a box boy to a role as night manager. In 1971, the opportunity came to move to Chico and open his own grocery store, Shop ’N Save. He sold the store in the mid-1980s and opened several Food 4 Less stores across the North State, the start of a burgeoning grocery empire that he eventually sold to Kroger in 1995 when he retired.
Nettleton then dedicated himself to giving back to the community he said supported him whole during his grocery career. One of his greatest philanthropic legacies was a $2.5 million gift to Chico State to create a state-of-the-art baseball facility completed on campus in 1997. His dream was for the stadium, which the University named in his honor, to be a venue for professional baseball that would benefit the entire Chico community as family-friendly entertainment and bit of hometown pride.
His lifelong interest in baseball and dream to own a baseball team came to fruition when Nettleton bought and brought to Chico a Western Baseball League franchise, the Chico Heat, in partnership with alumni Bob Linscheid (Public Administration, ’76; MPA, ’78) and Jeff Kragel (Communication Design, ’71), and Chico businessman Robert Hart. Both the collegiate wood-bat league and the Chico State Wildcats used the stadium to great success the first year, with Heat winning a league championship and the Wildcats taking home a national championship.
Honored as Chico Sportsperson of the Year by the Enterprise-Record in 1999, the University inducted Nettleton into the Wildcat Athletics Hall of Fame the following year. He was recognized into the Chico Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
Nettleton enthusiastically thanked attendees after every game, and he and his wife, Kathy, went to great lengths to ensure every detail of the stadium made for a fun experience, said Assistant Sports Information Director Rory Miller, who served as the Chico Heat’s media relations director and radio play-by-play broadcaster from 1997 until its initial end in 2002.
“Fans looked forward to seeing him at the exit gates after each game and sharing a handshake with ‘the boss.’ His everyman approach forged a bond with the people of Chico that will never be forgotten,” said Miller.
Miller also noted Nettleton’s quiet generosity as he embraced the community through baseball.
“Steve was constantly paying it forward under the radar as well: going out with Heat players every December to distribute Heat gear to underprivileged kids, having the team mascot Heater visit local elementary schools to promote reading, and providing area baseball fans with first-class summer entertainment at the stadium that bears his name … all at great personal expense,” said Miller.
Associate Athletics Director Brian Ceccon worked for Nettleton both in the grocery business and for the Chico Heat. He attributes Nettleton’s customer-service approach to business and life for shaping him into the person he is today.
“I remember the first week I worked for him at his Food 4 Less store here in Chico. I was clearing carts from the parking lot during a 100-plus degree summer day when he arrived at the store for meetings with our management staff. He took the time to stop and talked to me—a first-week employee—about what a great job I was doing. What really shocked me is that he knew my name and that I was just starting college. I had worked for him for only a few days and he made the effort to know about the person and not just the employee. He had hundreds of employees, and I guarantee that every one of them felt they were his favorite.”
Nettleton’s basic desire to help others led him to contribute his talent and time to many civic organizations, including the Governing Board of Chico Community Hospital and the Enloe Health Systems Board of Governors. His leadership skills were put to use when he served as president of the Chico Rotary Club, president of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of the Board of North State National Bank.
Numerous community organizations also benefited from Nettleton’s generous nature and charitable spirit. These include the American Red Cross, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of America, United Way, Salvation Army, and Chico Boys and Girls Club.
Nettleton supported the University as a member of multiple boards, including the College of Business Advisory Board, the University Advisory Board, the Board of Governors of the University Foundation and the Business Advisory Board of Students in Free Enterprise. He also co-chaired the University’s Fulfilling the Promise scholarship campaign, which exceeded its $10 million goal by $6 million. The campaign initiated a series of scholarships, many of which continue to support students today in their educational quests.
In 2003, the California State University Board of Trustees and Chico State awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters—the second such degree to be awarded in the University’s long history—in recognition of his personal and professional achievements and meritorious service to society. Nettleton was a fitting addition to the short list of important people in state history who have earned such honors—the highest level of recognition within the CSU, said Linscheid, who served on the Board of Trustees from 2005–14.
“They are examples of people in the region whose contributions were legendary,” Linscheid said. “It was an indication of his support and dedication to the community and the University.”
President Gayle Hutchinson echoed the sadness of so many in hearing of Neettleton’s passing.
“Steve was a pillar of our campus and community for many years, and his legacy of philanthropy is both remarkable and inspirational,” she said. “Because of his generosity, we have one of the best baseball facilities of any university. His support of academics, athletics, the arts, and so much more has transformed our campus and enriched the experiences of countless students. His kind spirit and his cheers from the front row of Wildcat athletics events will be greatly missed.”