Tony Bedford, it can be said, experienced two great moments of fear in his 76-plus years.
The first came as a young child in England during World War II, when German bombs rained down upon London in a relentless but unsuccessful attempt to shatter the collective will of that nation.
Later evacuated to the countryside, Bedford survived to move first to Canada, then to America and eventually to Modesto, where he became a popular history instructor at Modesto Junior College for nearly three decades.
His second moment of fear no doubt came Wednesday, when his car went up on a levee along the Stanislaus River in Riverbank and caught fire. It was his last – a terrifying moment of confusion and chaos as three men tried to help him out before flames engulfed his Honda Accord.
Bedford died just hours later at UC Davis Medical Center’s burn unit in Sacramento, leaving his family heartbroken.
They don’t know what compelled him to suddenly drive through a neighborhood where he’d never been before, up over a walking path and onto the levee. They do know he’d begun to show early signs of slipping mentally.
“He started to have (symptoms) of Alzheimer’s though he was never diagnosed,” son Grant Bedford, a Stockton police officer, said.
“He got lost a few times, but he always found his way home,” said Judy Beford, Tony’s wife. “He might have had a stroke.”
Just two days before his accident, Tony drove his sister, Shirley Fowler of Modesto, to her doctor’s appointment and home again without issue. And he drove every Tuesday when he and Judy either took Shirley out to dinner or brought her to their home to spend time and share a meal.
An avid photographer, just a week ago he and Grant went to Calaveras Big Trees to photograph the forest, just as he had pulled the boy out of elementary school one time to shoot the majesty of Yosemite National Park. The outing brought back memories.
“He said, ‘What was it – 30 years ago?’” Grant said.
Such memories will carry them through a most difficult time that comes after losing Tony’s older brother, Jim; Jim’s wife, Alicia; and Bedford’s sister Patty all within a few months in 2013. Of the five Bedford children who survived the war, came to America and became U.S. citizens, only Shirley remains.
“We were extremely close,” said Shirley, fourth in age among the five Bedford children and about 31/2 years older than Tony. “We played a lot when we were little. I guarded him when he was a new baby. When he was born, all of a sudden I wasn’t the youngest anymore.”
She remembers, as did he, the sounds of the dreaded buzz bombs and hulking German bombers as they approached London during the war. They remembered that one home the family rented had a bomb shelter.
“It was made of arched steel and buried beneath several feet of dirt,” she said.
They spent many nights underground while the Nazis destroyed much of what stood above. And they were among the evacuees, as Tony wrote in an essay that appeared in The Modesto Bee many years ago, who were “poorly fed, some physically mistreated, and research shows that the great preponderance suffered psychological marks that, perhaps while not immediately recognizable, have stayed with them, as with me, to this day.”
“He would often say, ‘You don’t think about how many things that affect you early in life and you hang on to them,’” Judy Bedford said.
Yet, Tony flourished in the safety and security of postwar America. After coming to Modesto in 1954, he went on to graduate from Downey High and work in construction before returning to school to study history at MJC.
Talked into joining a local theater group by sister Shirley, there he met Judy. They soon married and started a family that includes Grant and daughters Kami and Randi – and, now, 11 grandchildren.
He went on to get his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanislaus State and then returned to MJC to teach the history of Western Civilization and American History for 29 years before retiring in 1999.
“I had him in history class before I knew the family,” said Richard Smith, who married Randi Bedford, now a math teacher at Beyer High School. “He was a great teacher.”
Tony counted wife Judy and his sister, Patty, among his students as well.
“I took his night class with his sister,” Judy said. “I got an A and she got a B, and she used to tell people I got an A because I slept with the teacher. Yes, and we had three kids, too.”
Indeed, he built a great life and loving family life far from the haunting memories of his youth.
See The Bee’s obituaries for memorial service details.