In 2009, the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture named Opella the Man of the Year. That same year, his daughter Sharyl McDonald was the chamber’s Woman of the Year.
His political career in the city spanned a dozen years and included five terms on the city council with one term as mayor, 1980-81. His community service included membership in the Bay City Jaycees, Noon Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.
Born in McLennan County but reared in El Campo, Opella is a graduate of El Campo High School, Wharton County Junior College and Texas A&I. After working for the Internal Revenue Service, Opella moved to Bay City in 1966 and began a career in tax preparation and other business-related services.
Opella first came to the attention of the community as a member of the Bay City Jaycees, being named that organization’s “Outstanding Young Man of Bay City.”
Opella considered the Jaycees as proving ground preparing a younger generation for service to the public. Among his contemporaries was Tom Uher, who served Matagorda and its surrounding counties for 20 years in the Texas Legislature, including as Speaker of the House.
It was shortly after that time he transitioned to the political arena, winning his first term on the city council in 1969. In a six-person race for three seats, Opella was one of the top three vote getters. During his service on the council, he helped initiate a number of changes, including requiring council elections be based on running for individual positions.
“When I was elected, there were six of us running for three positions,” he recalled in a 2012 interview with the Bay City Tribune. “There were three openings, but what they did was they just counted the votes and the three with the highest total filled the empty seats. No on ran for a certain council position, so in my way of thinking, there was no accountability to anyone.
“I worked real hard and it took me about two years to get that changed. I felt that if you were going to be elected to the city council then you ought to answer for the position you held and not hide behind six other people.”
Working with then BCISD School Board President Glenn Quillin, a friend, Opella also led the effort to consolidate the city and school board elections at the same time and location for the convenience of local voters. Other council accomplishments during that time included the hiring of the first detective for the BCPD and the start of construction on STP.
But for a man of Opella’s energy and vision, things were not moving fast enough. With Mayor Richard Gussman retiring after 32 years, Opella ran for and won the office. At the time, Opella figured he would have one term in office to make changes.
“There were more people set in their ways than wanted change so I decided ‘Well, we’re going to have to go as fast as we can and get as much as we can done in those two years because that’s about all I’d have.”
And a whirlwind of change followed Opella‘s taking office. Among his first actions was to lead the council in revising the city’s building codes and the passage of a subdivision ordinance requiring developers to put in all concrete streets. There was also the creation of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the purchase of Amistad Park and a $250,000 upgrade of LeTulle Park paid for through funds raised by the community.
He also guided the effort to purchase the downtown city block on which City Hall and the Bay City Police Department buildings now stand.
“We didn’t have very much money back then because our taxes were so low,” he said. “So to pay for that building, we took $250,000 that was the annual street paving and patching budget. I said the building was going to be forever but we could drive on these chuck holes maybe another year.”
Working with the Texas Department of Transportation, the city got its first turn lanes at the intersection of Highways 35 and 60 and was able to repair 70 to 80 homes and make sewer system improvements through Community Development Block Grants.
Also taking a long view, Opella was the first mayor to attempt to establish a Home Rule Charter for the city.
Taking his leadership abilities from city hall to the Noon Lions, an organization he joined in 1966, he served as the club’s president and Rice Festival Chairman.
For his service to the Bay City Lions Club, he twice was awarded the Jack Wiech and Melvin Jones fellowships, the District and Lions International 100 percent President’s award and numerous other awards.
Opella has served District 2S4 as zone chairman, district convention and cabinet meeting chairman and district governor. As district governor, he was awarded the state’s past governor’s state retention award and the membership increase award. The Texas Lions Foundation awarded him the Ed Flood award.
Most recently, Opella was named to the State of Texas Lions Hall of Fame.
“We get to make one nomination every three years and are competing against four other districts,” Lion Mitch Thames said. “For all practical purposes, this is the highest award you can receive as a Lion and is even more significant because you are nominated for it by your fellow Lions.”
Opella’s service to the community also included serving as a Scout Master, on numerous community advisory boards including those involving the Bay City Civic Center, Bay City High School and the home rule charter commissioner, and as a past president a chairman of the board of a local savings and loan. He is the past president of the Matagorda County Museum Association and co-designer and builder of the Children’s Museum. A member of Holy Cross Catholic Church, he was a co-founder of the Parish council and the school foundation.
Visitation is scheduled beginning at 4:30 p.m. with a Rosary service at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 9 at Taylor Brothers Funeral Home in Bay City. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Bay City on Tuesday, June 10. Burial will follow later in the day at the El Campo Catholic Cemetery next to his parents as he requested.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Matagorda County Museum Endowment Fund in the memory of Ernest J. Opella, the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville or the Holy Cross School Foundation.