The most challenging part of my job is not writing three or more columns a week, 52 weeks a year.
No, the most challenging part is coming up with a new, fresh lead for the annual look at the past year’s columns. I mean, it would be both flattering and humiliating if someone called and said, “Hey, you wrote the same lead last year.” (Flattering because they remembered it, and humiliating for the same reason.)
So, that obstacle hurdled for 2015, let’s get on with it, and not necessarily in chronological order. As always, the best part of writing the column is the variety – the people, the events, the issues.
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▪ We barely got to know Les Williams, a 95-year-old who moved to Patterson from San Mateo about 18 months before he died. Williams rose to the rank of captain as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and we had the opportunity to chat for a February column. Not only did he serve in the decorated African American aviation unit during World War II, he grew up a childhood friend of the great Jackie Robinson and after the war he came home to start a dance studio in the South Bay where he taught future NFL star Lynn Swann to hoof. Williams died in April at 95.
▪ From 10-year-old Azad Aghdam (April column) came the resolve not to let a birth defect stop him from doing what other children his age like to do. Born with virtually no left hand, he plays the piano, and also the woodwind baritone. The son of Iranian refugees, Azad pitched on his Little League team and earned his junior black belt in taekwondo.
▪ I caught up with Mark DuBois who, in 1979, tried to stop the filling of New Melones Reservoir by hiking down into the canyon below the new Parrotts Ferry Bridge and chaining himself to a rock (July column). He told me that despite being 6 feet 8 inches tall, he managed to hide from Calaveras County sheriff’s deputies who came by in boats just yards from where he hid among some rocks, using a tree branch for cover. Walter Cronkite mentioned him on “The CBS Evening News.” He spent five days chained to his rock, hiking out of the canyon only when he realized the snowmelt had eased and the lake level would rise no further for the time being. DuBois’ efforts ultimately failed, and the Stanislaus River soon turned into a reservoir with a high-water mark more than 150 above the rock where he hid. Still, he became the hero of the environmental movement and hated by dam proponents.
▪ Wayne Seawright (June column) couldn’t believe it when he received a notice from the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency telling him to stop growing marijuana in his north Modesto backyard and, by the way, to get an attorney. After all, he’d spent almost seven years volunteering with the Modesto Police Department. The contraband growing in his yard? Tomatoes, sunflowers and cucumber plants. The green plant growth drew the attention of drug agents in an aerial surveillance plane, and agents sent out letters warning him to “knock it off,” Chief Galen Carroll said, adding that “this one was wrong.”
▪ Two of the most moving events I’ve covered in years happened just over a month apart (March and May columns) and involved handmade wooden caskets, a cemetery in Hornitos and the 140-year-old ranch that linked them off in the distance. Mostly, it involved bonds of friendship and the cowboy culture. When 59-year-old Bob Wood of Empire died from an aneurysm in March, his friends, including Gary Thompson of Modesto, did for Wood what he had done for his friend, lifelong cowboy and longtime Downey High teacher Art Turner, in 2012: They fashioned Wood a custom casket lined with coyote pelts, with his ranch brand burned into the sides and cover, and then said goodbye on a bright, sunny day. Thompson led the symbolic riderless horse up the hill ahead of the hearse.
Thirty-eight days later, Thompson rode in the back of the same hearse, in a wooden casket fashioned by his friends as he had done for Wood and Wood had done for Turner. Wood’s horse – the one Thompson led up the road for Wood’s funeral – bucked Thompson off April 18. He suffered head injuries and died nine days later. History, and funerals, repeated.
▪ Somerset Middle School teacher Susan Romero (January) discovered that many of her students had lost a mom, dad, sibling or grandparent in recent years, the causes ranging from disease to murders, suicide and drugs. Yet only a couple had received any sort of grief counseling. So she offered the children the opportunity to tell their stories in a book, with the idea that those stories might help other children deal with their own crises. More than a dozen participated and became published authors in a book titled “Teens Dealing With Death: Stories From My Students.” It is compelling and moving to the reader, therapeutic to the writers.
▪ We were graciously invited to the home of Romel and Sharlet David (February column). Sharlet’s brother, a former Modesto resident, had returned to his native Syria and was captured along with some other family members by Islamic State fighters. They eventually released the brother, but the others remain captive.
▪ The Butte fire (September column) destroyed much of the life’s works of artists Donna Graver and her husband, Dale Laitinen, both of whom lived in Modesto before moving to Mountain Ranch.
▪ None greater than the drought, which I wrote about numerous times and figured into local politics as well. I wrote about the emergence of the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge (May column), which saw daylight for the first time since another drought in the early 1990s. The drought, along with the proliferation of well drilling to supply new almond orchards, stirred up area residents (June column) who in November voted out two longtime Oakdale Irrigation District board members and replaced them with the first two women to serve on the board.
▪ Likewise, the people used their collective power to prevent the release of Jeffrey Maria, one of four defendants convicted in the brutal 1970 murders of Modesto residents Phil and Kathy Ranzo (November column). When the parole commission voted to release Maria, a protest on the Capitol steps ignited a massive letter-writing campaign to Gov. Jerry Brown, who overturned the parole.
▪ Homelessness compelled a group of area residents to better understand the problem, and they began videotaping homeless on Modesto’s streets in an effort to document it (October).
▪ And I wrote about the UC Merced stabbings (November) and a case of questioned police brutality in Ceres (December).
On the lighter side
▪ At 57 years old and in lousy shape, I took and passed the law enforcement academy’s physical exam (April column) with little difficulty. That can only mean only one thing: The test is wa-a-a-ay too easy.
▪ For Thanksgiving Day, I wrote about the terrorist turkeys of east Oakdale, which routinely stop traffic on State Highway 120/108 and on Stearns Road. They did, however, dance nicely for my video.
Another year in the books. On to 2016.