Community mourns loss of Esther Viti, La Jolla’s ‘hat lady’

Viti’s community service included everything from work on the memorial benches to organizing Village clean-ups

She was a larger-than-life presence, from her outspoken advocacy for La Jolla’s quality of life to the grand, fanciful hats she always sported in public — an aspect of her personality that led locals to refer to her as “the hat lady.”

A resident of Casa de Mañana retirement community, Esther Viti died Monday, April 13. She was 82 years old.

Upon learning of her passing, San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner spoke of Viti’s passion for La Jolla.

“One of the benefits of serving on the La Jolla Town Council was that I had the opportunity to meet and work with Esther Viti,” said Lightner, who previously acknowledged Viti’s community service by proclaiming Dec. 7, 2010 “Esther Viti Day” in the City of San Diego. “My first encounter with her involved working on the memorial bench program, followed by volunteer code enforcement efforts and her monthly clean-ups of the Village. It was incredible how much she did for the Village, and her tireless volunteer work will be missed.”

According to longtime friend Darcy Ashley, Viti was born in the Chicago area to a large Italian immigrant family who ran an insurance business. An insurance adjuster, Viti later relocated to Phoenix, Ariz. where she raised a family of six children.

An avid golfer, Viti moved to La Jolla in 1986, regularly assisting with local golf tourneys. Ashley said Viti’s hat habit began in her youth, when she wore them to Catholic services. “She loved to customize them and had all sorts of flowers and feathers to make them into exactly what she wanted,” Ashley said.

Viti began organizing La Jolla’s memorial bench program and the coastal bench program in the late 1990s, interacting with donors and helping get plaques and benches installed. A bench was dedicated to Viti by Promote La Jolla (La Jolla Village Merchants Association’s predecessor group), in gratitude for her volunteerism. (It is located on Herschel Avenue near the Brooks Brothers store.)

Years before the merchants association’s Sparkle & Shine campaign began, Viti organized monthly clean-ups of the Village as chair of La Jolla Town Council’s (LJTC) now disbanded “Nell Carpenter Beautification Committee.”

“She had a great energy and vitality, and a deep love of La Jolla,” LJTC immediate past president Cindy Greatrex said. “She personally shined The Jewel more than anyone else I know.”

Ashley added, “Esther was at her happiest getting everyone organized to get something accomplished,” while noting Viti’s volunteerism slowed down in later years due to health issues related to diabetes, though she could still be found at community meetings on a regular basis, or traversing the Village in her motorized chair.

“Many people reported seeing her around the village in the few days before she passed away,” Ashley said. “She was a big personality that did not diminish with age. She used to always tell me ‘I’m not a talker; I’m a doer.’ ”

Viti is survived by six children, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.