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Local icon Harry Sands dies at 82

By: Andrew DiLuccia, Journal Motoring/Real Estate Editor
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Whether it was helping people through one of the most somber moments in their lives, or trying to help enrich his community, Auburn resident Harry Sands did it with sincerity and warmth.
On Saturday, Jan. 24, one of the Auburn Journal’s 100 most influential people in the community, and the former owner of the Auburn Chapel of the Hills and Sands’ Foothill Chapel mortuaries, died due to complications from lung ailments. He was 82.
Over his mortuary career, which spanned from the mid-1950s until 1988, Sands oversaw more than 10,000 funerals in the foothills region, and was instrumental in helping the Auburn community.
“He was always an Auburn-first person. He was born and raised here along with his parents,” said Harry Sands’ son, Tim. “What’s really amazing is the number of people he helped and was generous to. Over his time he buried over 10,000 people in Auburn and Loomis. Everybody knew who he was and appreciated him being there in their time of need.”
A Placer High School graduate and varsity football player, Harry Sands joined the U.S. Navy and served in the South Pacific. After returning home he went on to UC Berkeley where he earned his degree in business administration. He then attended the California College of Mortuary Science.
After graduation, Sands served an apprenticeship at the West and Hite Chapel of the Hills, which he purchased in 1955. He then opened the Sands’ Foothill Chapel in Loomis in 1962.
“He always had a plan, he knew where he was going. In high school he knew he was going into the funeral business,” said Bill Briner, a lifelong friend who met Sands in grade school. “That’s what he did, he was good at it … he was always very pleasant with people and very personal with people, and that served him well all through his life.”
Sands not only was dedicated to his mortuaries in Auburn and Loomis, he was also committed to his hometown and the surrounding region. He was a member of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce and served as the president during the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, an event he was very involved in.
“He really did enjoy it,” said Charley Fink, a lifelong friend and co-owner of Auburn Drug. “I know that he participated in the Olympics very closely; he helped organize a committee for it. Harry was very active with helping organize that Olympics.”
His son remembers how much his father enjoyed The Games at Squaw Valley as well.
“He was up there partying with Clark Gable, John Huston — all those guys who showed up for the Olympics,” Tim Sands said.
Harry Sands, a father of two, was a member of the Tahoe Club and was a charter member and past-president of the Kiwanis Club of Auburn, just to name a couple of the many clubs and organizations he was a part of.
In addition, Sands served on the committee that helped formulate the plans for the Auburn Sutter Faith Hospital. He was also a member of the committee for the renovation of the Historic Courthouse in Auburn. Sands also served as a director emeritus of the Placer Community Foundation.
In 2008, Harry Sands established an endowment fund with the Placer Community Foundation in honor of his wife, Anne, who preceded him in death in 2007.
Community involvement wasn’t the only area that required Sands’ attention; he also was active in his profession, serving on several funeral industry-related committees. He was appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to the State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers and served for 12 years.
“He was very sincere about what he did. This rubbed off on all the employees. We had quite a number of employees that worked a long time,” said Gerry Patton, who worked for Sands from the 1950s until he closed his businesses.
Patton also saw firsthand how his boss interacted with families in their time of need, and how it helped them through. 
“There was a certain amount of sincerity. What you saw is what you got from Harry,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was put on and not true. I think people really appreciated that at that time.”
Sands was also known as a man who committed many acts of generosity that remained under the radar.
“Something I never really knew about him, until later on, I would meet people whose children had been killed in a tragic manner at a young age, and they would come and tell me after all was said and done, my dad would not charge them for the headstone,” Tim Sands said. “After going through all that, he would provide the grave marker and not bill them for it.”
Tim Sands’ story is just one example of a man who did many things and didn’t seek recognition.
“If he told you he was going to do something, he did it. And he did a lot of things that nobody ever knew about,” Fink said. “And I’m sure he left this earth not owing a cent to anybody — not a lot of people can say that.”
Services for Harry Sands will be held at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Old Auburn Cemetery with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Placer Community Foundation Sands Family Endowment Fund, 219 Maple St. Auburn, or to Shriners’ Hospital Northern California.
The Journal’s Andrew DiLuccia can be reached at andrewd@goldcountrymedia.com, or post a comment at Auburnjournal.com.