By Kimberly Horg / photography by D.M Troutman
While gathering eggs and picking weeds on her parents’ chicken farm in Petaluma as a young girl, Sylvia Panetta was learning the importance of a hard days’ work. On summer breaks, she had the important job of watering the vegetable garden and picking ripe tomatoes to add to the homemade marinara sauce brewing on the stove.
Born of deep northern Italian roots, Sylvia and her younger sister, Mary, were taught early on by their mother, Benedetta, and father, Jim Varni, the weight of a good education and loyalty to not only family but the community.
At the age of 11, she took to babysitting, earning 50 cents an hour, a modest yet sufficient sum of money for a teenager. At 14 she began her career by working as a nurse’s assistant for her mother. Watching her mother closely, the teenager picked up traits; unfolding these talents later to build upon her career as an administrator in Washington, D.C., helping those in need.
This Catholic girl was a multitasker, working vigorously as the editor of the school newspaper, serving as president of her class, and boosting morale as a cheerleader at Saint Vincent. These were but the stepping stones from her humble beginnings as a church organist when she was in only second grade and began playing the piano.
There was always something that sparked her interest, including a particular man who caught her eye at a “mixer” at Santa Clara University. Fifty years later, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is still the apple of her eye: mutual respect for one another serves as the key ingredient for their marriage. “Life changing moments happen all the time; meeting and marrying Leon was one of them,” says Panetta.
While Leon served in the Army, the couple lived in Santa Clara. During the 1960s, the family moved to Washington, D.C. where their three boys, Christopher, Carmelo, and Jim were raised. Grasping on to the history and the change of lifestyle on the East Coast, Panetta embraced motherhood to the fullest, exposing her children to the riches of the land. “It was fun raising kids in Washington because there is so much history and always something to do,” she says.
All three sons are in public service; two are attorneys on the Peninsula and the other is a cardiologist in Minneapolis. Whether serving on boards or improving the community, each son has developed strong leadership skills from Mom and Dad.
Drawing from her skills acquired at nursing school, she applied her talents to run her husband’s office in Washington, recruiting, hiring, and training staff to help the congressmen serve the people. Coordinating youth development programs was part of her job, which was not only fulfilling but bolstered a long-standing interest of hers beginning when her boys first started school. Getting involved was the only way for her to discern how her children were taught, so she served on various organizations and parent advisory committees. “We may be leaders now but nothing lasts forever, and for that reason I try to inspire young people.”
As part of the couple’s lifelong commitment to public service, the Panetta Institute trickles down as yet another attempt to improve the society in which she lives. It has nine projects, which Panetta is constantly striving to improve.
Work is her life. It is her greatest pleasure, outside of her family. She would like to one day have the time to grow a vegetable garden similar to the one she tended on the farm as a child. Cooking, another favorite pastime, is an activity of which she would like to do more, recreating authentic Italian dishes from her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes and cherished cookbooks.
Panetta, a grandmother of six grandchildren, lives on her husband’s family farm in Carmel Valley with their golden retriever, Bravo.