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Legendary Chester Smith had Ceres connections
Chester Smith, the legendary country performer who had roots in the Ceres and Modesto area and who built a TV and radio station empire in California, died Friday. A number of Ceres residents have felt the loss on a personal level.

The 78-year-old performer and businessman died at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto. He had been suffering a heart ailment for over a month.

"He was a unique person," said Ceres pastor Herb Henry, who first met Smith in 1972. "He was a very deep man, a very spiritual man. He had very deep insight. I think that's what allowed him to develop into a successful businessman that he was."

Smith was scheduled to perform at Richland Faith Assembly of God Church in Ceres on July 13 but had to cancel because of his health.

"We talked on the phone and he was very weak and hated that he couldn't be with us."

Henry performed with Smith in the early 1970s when Henry was part of the Premieres gospel singing group. Although Smith had decided to follow God in the 1970s, he had been raised by Christian parents, said Henry.

"I think God's hand had been on him all along," Henry commented.

When Smith started KLOC radio station in 1963, he needed a city of license. Since the station located its towers on Iowa Avenue northwest of Ceres, he picked Ceres as the city of license.

Ceres businessman Jim Delhart remembered that Smith walked into the Bank of Ceres back then to borrow $80,000 to start a station. The bank manager turned him down so Smith turned to friends for the funding. They never regretted it.

"I always laughed about it ... those friends who gave him the money have received probably at least 100 times over what they loaned him," said Delhart, who felt closer to Smith than a brother.

"He loved God more than anything in his life," said Delhart. "God actually gave him the ability to actually see forward to things that were going to happen ahead of time."

A full-page ad appeared in the Ceres Courier in October 1963 to congratulate the station on its birth. A copy of it hung in Smith's Modesto offices of Sainte Partners Broadcasting.

Smith came to California from Durant, Oklahoma in 1936 as refugees of the Dust Bowl. His family first settled in Tranquility to work in the fields and orchards.

A child performer, his parents got Smith into his first radio gig in Fresno. When the family moved to the Modesto area, he walked into the studios of KTRB in 1947. He told the Courier in 2000 that "I got on the radio. That was the only thing I knew to do. I dropped out of high school. And I had no job so I got on the radio. I had a choice. I could be a cotton pickers, a peach picker or a guitar picker. So I decided on the latter."

He and his band performed in Ceres and South Modesto. He also performed one night at the Riverbank Club House where a 14-year-old Merle Haggard watched in awe. That experience encouraged Haggard to seek a career in country music.

In 1950 Smith wrote a song that would change his life. He later recorded "Wait A Little Longer, Please, Jesus" in 1954 at Capital Records in Hollywood. It was released in 1955.

Haggard sang with legends Hank Williams Sr., Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash. He most recently recorded albums with Haggard, a close friend.

Smith later began acquiring other radio stations in Northern California.