The daughter Betty Lee Taylor Baker called in April to tell me that her mother will be celebrating her 100th birthday on June 17 with a party to follow two days later at her daughter’s house.
I had interviewed Betty 11 years prior and could hardly believe that it had been that long. Times flies at a speed I’ve been unable to explain.
Since I sat down with her in July 2010, I’ve thought about this humble woman, a fixture in Ceres perhaps longer than any living human. Mrs. Baker sat down with me again on June 4 to reflect on turning 100 and to recount her association with Ceres since it started in June, 1931.
“Considering my age, I think I’ve been good,” said Betty, who has beaten the odds of making it to 100. I was startled to learn before heading over to her home that only of 0.0173 percent of Americans make it to the century mark.
“The good Lord has blessed me with pretty good health.”
She credits good eating and taking care of herself – and her Christian faith.
“I believe that helps with your longevity, unless you’re afflicted with something you cannot control,” said Betty. “I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. I don’t eat as much meat as I used to. My son (Stan) gets my groceries for me each week. He’s been such a help to me. My kids are real good to me.”
Genes may also play a big part in longevity. Her mother lived to be 98 years of age after a stroke placed her in a convalescent home; and her sister Patti died at age 99. Her father, however, died of cancer at age 79.
Getting old is no fun, though, as Betty will tell you.
She stopped driving recently and allowed her license to lapse. She misses driving and her independence.
“The kids don’t want me to drive and they absolutely insist that I don’t. However they haven’t taken the keys away. My son takes me everyplace I need to go and my daughter comes and gets me every Sunday afternoon and I spend the afternoon and evening. I’ve been tempted to drive. The car sits in the garage. We’ve got to get busy and sell it.”
Her 1997 Buick LeSabre is in good shape and it has few miles.
Because mornings are her “worst time” as she wrestles with stiffness due to arthritis, Betty has given up going to morning services at Grace Community Christian Church, a spin-off of Ceres Christian Church where she was choir director for many years.
“I just sit and watch sermons off the television on Sunday morning but I still have a connection with the church,” she said. She also gets together on Wednesday mornings in her home for a Bible study with neighbor and close friend Sue Reynolds and three other women.
Despite the negative effects of aging, Betty remains grateful about many things, such as being able to continue walking, with the aid of a walker of course. She’s also grateful that she can still live at home – thanks to the help of her supportive family and friends and hired help.
She misses having a garden and doing yard work, which is time filled by doing other things she enjoys, such as reading books, the Bible and newspapers and watching her favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, on TV.
“I thoroughly enjoy watching them and they’re doing very well, not so well last year and the year before but I’ve stayed a loyal fan.”
Betty has had to give up participating in the Persephone Guild, although she remains a “privileged member” of the Ceres women’s service club.
Her Leslie Lane home where she’s lived since 1962 is quiet but when she speaks my mind is whisked back to days of Ceres long ago.
Betty came to Ceres as a red-headed nine-year-old girl, just as content to stay in her Yates Center, Kansas, some 22 miles from her 1921 birthplace in Burlington, Kansas. But it was the Great Depression and Arch Taylor, her father, hit upon hard times as an auto salesman. Aunt Nell Reed in Ceres encouraged Arch and Bessie to pack up Betty and older sister Patti (Patti Taylor LaPointe), and head west for a new chapter. They drove their loaded-down Ford all the way to Ceres.
“Dad said it was the best move he ever made,” said Betty, who remembers Ceres being home to about 600 or 700 people. “I had my 10th birthday just a few days after we arrived here.”
That was 90 years ago. I wondered if anyone else can say they’ve been in Ceres as long and seriously doubt it.
Ceres warmly welcomed the new family. Kindness abounded.
Arch Taylor eventually built up a successful Modesto insurance business, but dollars were still short in the 1930s. Betty and Patti – indeed most every kid in Ceres – found summer jobs cutting peaches or apricots at Fred Moffet’s Superior Fruit Ranch between Hughson and Ceres. She often hitched a ride to the ranch with Petra Hosmer, the mother of her best friend in school, Wanda Hosmer, down Whitmore Avenue, then the Hughson Highway.
“We cut fruit in the summer time to earn money. It was Depression time. We didn’t go without clothing or food or anything like that. We didn’t really think we were poor but there was no extra money whatsoever and all of us cut fruit to make money to buy school clothes for the fall. As we got older some of the kids worked in the cannery.”
Betty paints a Norman Rockwell word picture of a Ceres, a friendly village where neighbor looked out for neighbor. In those days parents could safely let their children roller skate down Whitmore Avenue – sometimes as far as Hughson – since there was little traffic and you could trust most everyone.
“The town was so small. I can remember there would be hobos that would walk from the railroad over there and Mother would feed them, you know they would do a little bit of yard work. Everybody did that. They trusted each other.”
Betty’s parents first rented the Bartholomew house on Fifth Street south of Whitmore Avenue. The Taylors later bought the house next door.
Back in 2010 I handed Betty a copy of a late 1930s photo of Betty with Wanda taken during high school and she gasped, “I’d forgotten about this. I sure don’t remember what the occasion was.” After studying their fancy dresses and was sure the dresses were worn for the play, “Anne of Green Gables.”
Elementary and high school were “good years” and Betty was invariably a well-behaved student. But there was a moment of childhood terror when she was called into the office by Principal Walter White, a tall and imposing figure who was known for frequently using a paddle on the fanny of a disorderly student. Betty dusts off a memory of how this one boy teased her unmercifully – “I guess he liked me” – and when she had enough, raised her classroom ukulele up as if to strike him as he raised his elbow to block it with the objects colliding and the ukulele breaking. She had the ukulele as part of the fifth grade Ukulele Club organized by teacher Helen Froelich. Her march down the hall of Whitmore School felt like a walk to the gallows.
“It scared me to death, absolutely petrified me because I wasn’t a kid that ever got in trouble. He didn’t lay a hand on me. All he did was talk to me. I guess he could see I was petrified. He was very, very nice and sent me back to my room.”
Betty is confident that had she been a boy, she would have got a good licking from Mr. White.
She blurts out, “Oh my goodness,” remembering that she hadn’t remembered the incident in many years.
Betty had little contact with the legendary schoolmarm Mae Hensley. Still, she’s very fond of the late Mrs. Hensley for kindnesses she extended to her future husband, Ron Baker, when he was a child.
“They became very close. When Ron and his father first came to California, there was not money for the whole family to come out. And Ron was in Mrs. Hensley’s eighth grade class and she started to look him over, mother him, knowing that his mother wasn’t out here yet, sometimes taking him home with her, sometimes do laundry for him.”
Betty’s contact with teachers was always positive, saying “some of those teachers in those old days gave of extra time. They were outstanding.”
Froehlich and Lela Taylor teamed up to teach her fifth grade class. Evelyn Mashek taught her sixth grade class. Miss Jones was her seventh grade and Gladys Peterson Francis in eighth grade. “She also was a leader of our Camp Fire Girls organization. She gave us a lot of extra time.”
Betty’s senior yearbook, a 1939 Ceres High School Cereal, include photos of her in music and drama productions. In the front of the book a photo of Principal Aaron S. Cakebread is inscribed to Betty. He admonishes her not to lose touch with him now that she’s graduated as a high and mighty senior. A long inscription by Wanda tells Betty “let’s hope that whether we’re old maids or matrons we can keep in close touch.” It’s an ironic expression given that Wanda, the pretty and popular class valedictorian, eventually married and moved and became estranged with family and thus friends who stayed in Ceres. Wanda died in 2009 in Arizona, leaving Betty struggling to understand why the estrangement occurred but believes it had something to do with Wanda’s husband.
She believes that she has outlived all of her classmates. When I spoke to her in 2010, some old classmates were still living. They included Joyce Geise, Ruth Runsten and Betty Castleman Smith.
“My dear friends, most of all of them are gone. I kind of think that Ervin Davis is still living.”
The war years were difficult for the young newlyweds, who married in the first Ceres Christian Church which is now the Masonic Lodge across from Whitmore Park. One of her close friends was Irene, who spent time wheeling their babies up and down Fifth Street in “those war time canvas baby buggies.” Betty cried and consoled with Irene when word came that Irene’s husband, Paul Hickey, was killed during World War II. In March 1944, his plane, a B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down over Germany.
Betty was able to enjoy her military husband much longer. Ron served in the Air Force and she was able to travel with him to live on bases in Montana and West Virginia. When she couldn’t go with Paul to Point Barrows, Alaska, she stayed with her parents in Ceres. After the war, life in Ceres resumed. Ron, a 1938 graduate of Ceres High School, returned to his old job as a watch repairman at a Modesto jewelry store but felt a calling to become a teacher. Betty was caring for four little ones at that time in their home on Central Avenue.
“Times were still hard after the war and so he worked two different jobs and took classes at Stanislaus State. And I started taking summer and night classes because I decided with a family of four children, that we were going to need money.”
Mr. White hired Ron as a math teacher at the junior high school (now Walter White Elementary School). Ron later became vice principal. Betty became a substitute teacher while studying to earn her credentials.
“It was not easy to go back to school with four kids. It took a lot of cooperation between the two of us. Oh I can remember going in the bedroom and closing the door and the kids knew Mom was studying so you don’t go in the bedroom. No, that’s not the best way to do it but that’s the way we did it.”
In those days the Ceres school superintendent forbid spouses from both being employed in Ceres schools so Betty started full-time at Paradise School in about 1961. After the rule was changed, Betty worked at Don Pedro School to teach fifth grade. When Principal Bob Yialouris asked Betty to take on a first grade class, she initially resisted, thinking “that’s such a responsible year.” Baker found the fit a great one for 17 years.
Retirement came in 1983.
Betty and Ron had four children: Lynne Wright, a retired Modesto City Schools administrator; Steven Baker who is a Modesto veterinarian; Stan Baker who retired from Gallo Winery; and Gordon, who was killed as a high school senior in a tragic Jan. 8, 1970 car crash along with sisters Terri and Vickie Sargent.
“It devastated our whole family. It absolutely shook the town of Ceres and Ceres High School.”
The Sargent girls drove over to the Baker home on Leslie Lane to pick up Gordon to take him somewhere to talk about their parents’ troubling split up. Gordon, who suggested once that he wanted to become a counselor, was eager to assist his friends. He jumped into the Sargents’ little red sports car and off they rode to their deaths.
The car turned onto westbound Whitmore Avenue from Joy Avenue. Within seconds the car was struck behind by an out-of-control car gunning down Whitmore at 90 mph as its unlicensed driver, Lester Brahm, had an epileptic seizure. Brahm’s foot was jammed to the accelerator. Yellowing newspaper articles include photos of the crumbled wreckage of three cars.
For days, teens flocked to the Baker home to console, be consoled and to find answers. A half-century later Betty still has no answers to the nagging question, “Why?”
The Bakers’ strong Christian faith helped to buoy themselves and others.
“As hard as it was, I am convinced that the Lord gave us the strength to go on. We were both teaching at that time. You’re never the same. It does something to the whole family. It does bring you very close. Very close. And you know how precious family is.”
Church family and friends offered great comfort and support as Betty took three weeks’ leave from work.
“I didn’t get bitter. That’s not within my faith. He did wrong. He should not have been behind the wheel. We know that.”
The Bakers settled out of court, avoiding a lawsuit to prevent further stress and heartache. Betty took three weeks off work to grieve. A friend later persuaded her to join the Sweet Adelines female barbershop singing group but at the time her reply was, “There’s not a song in my heart.”
Burying a child will do that. Eventually, however, the music came back.
“You have to go on.”
Betty was part of the the Sweet Adelines for 30 years.
Their children gone, Betty and Ron enjoyed retirement for approximately two decades, including travels all over the United States and up to Canada. Their 58 years of marriage came to an unwelcome close when cancer claimed Ron in October 2000. She remembers him facing the end with great attitude and determination.
Not wanting to camp any longer on the somber tone of our conversation, her optimism bubbles up and offers that despite her personal heartaches, life has brought her great joy. She mentions five fine adult grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She marvels that her daughter had twin identical twins and one of her grandchildren also had identical twin girls.
“There’s been a lot of joys in my life. Also so many good friends.”
I nod with approval. No doubt those values have enabled her to live as long and as healthy as she is today.
And this remarkable woman didn’t think her story was worth telling. Pillars of the community rarely do.