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Art McRae has impacted thousands in Ceres
Ar McRae today.jpg
Art McRae has an upbeat attitude and confidence that has earned him lots of friends in Ceres since arriving in 1959. His refrigerator is plastered with greeting cards and photos from his admirers and friends. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Art McRae is somewhat of a Ceres institution.

The former Ceres High School biology teacher and baseball coach – who is the namesake for the field where he coached – is a gentleman and scholar. But that doesn’t fully explain the esteem this restless senior dynamo carries. Always intellectually curious about the world around him, the long-time Ceres resident is a world traveler, senior mentor, fitness guru, athlete, student and life coach. But perhaps what he is best known for is just being a friend.

Over the generations lots of people in Ceres have considered McRae, now 84, their friend. His refrigerator is plastered with photos of acquaintances made since arriving in Ceres as a young teacher back in 1959. Whenever he’s out in public, he is constantly stopped in aisles for brief reunions and updates. Art is regularly invited to numerous class reunions dating back to the class of 1960 where he shares memories and laughs. And when he turned 84 earlier this month, he received 174 “Happy Birthday” greetings on Facebook – a testament to the wide field of his acquaintances.

McRae continues to be as active as an octogenarian can be, whether it’s putting together a Power Point presentation of immigration for seniors enrolled in the Modesto Institute for Continued Learning (MICL) program or attending a Journey rock concert with his son.

“I try to be physically and mentally active. I think it’s important.”
Art McRae

“I try to be physically and mentally active. I think it’s important.”

As one who has run half-marathons and played a lot of hand ball, McRae is still an avid exerciser. He’s had both hips and a knee replaced so he defers running to working out in water. The Sportsmen of Stanislaus (SOS) Club, of which he has been a member since 1962, has been an important part of his physical conditioning.

“I’ve always been a believer in the high intensity training where you get your pulse rate up to 80 percent of your target rate for at least 20 minutes.”  

Surprisingly, Art says he’s a “big believer” in sun exposure despite the risk of melanoma in pursuit of vitamin D generation.

He also conditions his legs with 40 squats every morning and pushups.

“They say if you can keep your thighs strong you have a better chance of not falling because that first fall, so many times, is the start of the downhill road.”

McRae was the third and final son of Scottish immigrants Duncan and Janet McRae who settled in the Miles City area of Montana “for a better life.”

“There just wasn’t any opportunities there,” said McRae of his parents’ desire to leave Scotland. Duncan McRae arrived first – in 1909 – and Art’s mother came in 1919.

Art remembers helping out on his father’s sheep ranch and remembers having to chip the top layer of winter ice off the watering stations so the sheep could drink. Montana can have bitter winters, which is one of the reasons Art would later end up in sunny California.

Art McRae as child
Art (in front) spent his entire childhood in Montana where he enjoyed fishing in the Yellowstone River and helping out his dad on his sheep ranch. - photo by Contributed

Born on Sept. 4, 1934, Art graduated from Custer County High School in 1952. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Montana State University in 1956 before he was drafted into the Army during the time between the Korean War and Vietnam War. McRae served in the Army’s Special Forces as a combat engineer at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and played baseball at Fort Lee.

“I played baseball there for a couple of summers for the Fort Lee team. We had our own bus and traveled up and down the East Coast from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to Fort McPherson in Florida so that was pretty good duty. That was a time when there were few things going on.”

After serving two years in the Army, Art decided to pursue his teaching credential in California. Because he had spent two weeks of Army training at Fort Ord in Monterey, Art warmed up to the idea of  California as home so he decided to study at Fresno State College where Ceres High School Principal Fleming Haas was on campus to recruit new teachers.

“My major was science so I wanted to get something where I could teach and coach since I was a baseball player,” said McRae.

His first year on the job was during the 1959-60 school year. He also coached the Bulldogs’ varsity baseball team which played close to where the girls field is today.

Walter White, a well-known Ceres institution himself who served as principal, superintendent and mayor, regularly attended games. “He was one of our big fans. We played a lot of the larger schools when I first came here. We were only allowed 20 games a year. Well now they get 30-35 or so.”

The 550 wins of teams he coached are the most of any coaches in Stanislaus County.

McRae remembers Ceres of 1959 being more agriculture oriented with the area stretching from Acorn Avenue to Hatch Road being entirely planted in peaches.

“Peaches were the real big thing. We had the Dehydrator and all the peach ranches and so many of the teachers worked in receiving stations and things like that so a couple of years they actually delayed the start of school until the peach harvest was over. The Board of Trustees, many of them were ranchers or farmers also. But the way the peach harvest went sort of dictated how things were going. Some of the students worked in the harvest and a lot of the teachers were grading peaches and so forth.”

Art enjoyed Ceres’ more moderate climate than cold Montana winters. However, he was disappointed in the poor air quality of the Valley back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I was used to being able to see the big horizon everywhere and in ’58 and ’59 the air quality was worse than it is now. I think when they took the lead out of gas in the 70’s it made a big difference. I couldn’t get used to not being able to see the mountains 20 miles away here.”

McRae also feels that the Tule fog was much worse because of the particulate matter in the air and the presence of smudge pots to prevent the trees from frost damage.

He bemuses how the “old-timers” often portray the past as  the “good old days,” saying he tries to “not to be one of those kind of people.”

McRae says he often encounters others who look at the past through rose-colored glass when he gathers with seniors in the MICL, of which he is an enthusiast. He served MICL as president on 2011-12 and is now on the Curriculum Committee.

To even the casual observer, it’s easy to see that Art McRae has been interested in others for decades. Passion for youth is one of the requirements of being a coach, he says. He also believes good coaching involves dedication, tolerance, good family support and a willingness to spend extra time with kids who need it.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing and tolerate some things that you wish you didn’t have to.”

Sometimes that meant spending one-on-one time with kids who were preoccupied with problems at home.

McRae feels the popular notion that the youth of today are much different than yesterday is a fallacy people have.

“There was cantankerousness. I remember, when I first got here, the gang fights with Modesto High. There was a big rivalry between Modesto and Ceres. The nunchucks and all those things they had and gangs coming at each other and school busses being rocked. There were no shootings but it was a fight-it-out mentality. The guns and the drugs weren’t anywhere near (what they are today). There was drinking but we didn’t have the gun thing.”

One big change that he has noticed in Ceres and the Valley is the influx of Latinos.

“They’re good people but it does change things. You have to tolerate the language problem. So many of those kids are brilliant. It’s not very often you see a blonde, blue-eyed boy or girl anymore. Central Valley is like 70 percent Hispanic.”

On campus he was attracted to Spanish teacher and south Modesto native Donna Cheever. They married on June 9, 1963. Their first home was on Fifth Street, which is now the eastern edge of the CHS campus. The homes were razed to make room for athletic fields.

“In those days there were no prep periods for teachers so I had four periods of life science and two periods of PE. Eventually I got my master’s in biology and started teaching just biology.”

He decided to go back to school to earn his master’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. For three consecutive summers, 1961, 1962 and 1963, he drove across the country in his 1958 Chevy.

McRae later taught advanced biology, general science, physical science, earth science, health education, driver education and P.E.

“I taught college prep biology so you really have to be tough on students. It was after Sputnik when it triggered a big push on the math and sciences because of Russia put that satellite. The National Science Foundation put out three versions of biology books – blue, green and yellow. Blue was the chemical molecular one and I taught that for a while. Those kids you have to be tough with them. We didn’t have AP then but they had to be disciplined and turn good reports in and do things right.”

His interest in science led to his being chosen to watch the launch of Voyager II at Cape Canaveral as part of a contest for science teachers.

He also coached the freshmen and frosh-soph football, cross country for a year and frosh-soph basketball for seven years. For two decades he served as adviser to the CHS Ski Club, making multiple trips to the snow with students. For 35 years Art was CHS Block C/Baseball Club.

In 1974 the school district bought out homes on the west side of Fifth Street to expand the athletic fields.

“I was fortunate to have a big part of the planning of it. I was able to submit the specifications … the drainage and location and it turned out to be pretty nice facility and in 2004 it was named after me.”

The Ceres Lions Club helped work on the fencing and the dugouts. The club also put in a basketball court out at the Monterey Park Tract community southwest of Ceres.

The McRaes bought his present home – built by the Durossettes – in 1965 for $19,500. They stayed in the house – right next door to Adrian and Jean Condit for decades – and never left.

“I had other opportunities but Donna was into her Spanish and she had a lot of connections and she spent 23 years at the junior college. In the 70’s and 80’s was when all the refugees were coming from Vietnam and Cambodia that she had 50-60 students in the class. We just had a comfortable life. We probably could have gone somewhere but this was her hometown too.”

He has enjoyed membership in the Ceres Lions Club since 1962 and is its most senior member. McRae has chaired the club’s annual student speaking contest and scholarship committee.

“Lions is a big part of my life. I like the camaraderie about staying in connection with different members of the community. They have nice social functions and they do a lot in fundraisers. I went through the chairs, became a president, a zone chairman, a deputy district governor and went to a lot of conventions. Donna and I went to the international convention in Hawaii in 1976.”

He spent 10 years on the Ceres Community Foundation after it was started by Homer Jorgensen.

After he retired in 1994 he continued to coach for two more years. Art also substitute taught for 13 years.

Art and Donna enjoyed traveling, mostly to Mexico and Europe. In 1964 they drove his 1958 Chevy to Mexico and spent 30 days with another couple.

In 1993 McRae was honored as Ceres “Citizen of the Year” by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

The final years of the McRaes’ marriage were rudely interrupted with Donna becoming a victim of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition showed up with significant memory loss which led to medications in 2008. Eventually she worsened to the point that Art had to drop subbing.

“She was here physically but she didn’t really know what was going on.”

Eventually he had to place Donna in the care of memory care units in Modesto and Turlock in 2012 up until her death on Nov. 4, 2016. They had been married for 52 years.

“I definitely miss her but I had a lot of time to prepare for it.”

He attends Harvest Presbyterian Church but admits church groups are not his forte, partly because he senses many in the church are more interested in putting off on God what they can do for themselves.

“I’ve always said the Lord helps those who help themselves. I’m a believer but I don’t prescribe to a lot of the principles. I think you need to take more charge of your own life.”

As a former teacher he surprisingly believes college is not a necessity to make money like it was decades ago.

“I don’t think it’s as important as it was at one time. They really sock it to them as far as costs.”

He is close to his only son, Kyle, who came along 50 years ago. Kyle, a 1986 CHS grad, was formerly employed as the baseball sports information director and athletic media relations for Stanford University. He is now lives in the Bay Area where he is the associate director of Athletic Media Relations at Cal Berkeley. The two occasionally go to concerts together. Art regrets missing a 2016 Prince concert held in Northern California months before his death. Kyle offered him a ticket but he decided against it because he was recovering from hip surgery.

Art McRae with Waded Cruzado
Art McRae received a 60th anniversary of his college diplomas from Montana State University President Waded Cruzado in 2016. - photo by Contributed