I had been hearing about Bill and Betty Bilson for decades without having ever met them.
Bill, now 87, made a name for himself as a sporting goods shop owner in Ceres before selling it and concentrating on his Turlock shop. Hundreds of girls, if not thousands, learned how to dance from Betty, now 83.
The city's plans to rejuvenate downtown Ceres sparked interest in the couple - they are owners of a downtown commercial building - to attend recent Planning Commission and City Council meetings. I finally got to see them and didn't let them slip away without explaining that I thought they'd make a great feature story. They agreed to have me over.
Last week I sat down with them in their spacious Scenic area home in Modesto of 20 years where they've lived since walking away from 42 years of life at 2441 Thomas Avenue in Ceres. The warm and hospitable couple spent the next two and half rich hours telling me all about their lives and the people they knew in Ceres.
Married for 64 years, it doesn't seem that long ago when they met.
Bill joined the Air Force in 1951 and was first trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and then six months at Greenville, Miss., where Betty Gayle Thomas grew up and was living. The two met at a dance put on for the Air Force cadets by the city fathers.
"I had my eye on her the minute I saw her," said Bill. "She was just a very, very lovable person. She had lots of intelligence, was a great dancer, a good talker. We did a lot of time talking."
Betty Thomas was born Oct. 17, 1932 to Robert "Bob" and Stella Thomas, and started dancing at age four.
"My mother encouraged that, you bet," she said, bringing out a dance photo of her as a small girl in an oversize toy soldier hat, looking like a slightly different version of Shirley Temple. "She took me to see another little girl's dance recital at a studio in Greenville. When the show was over and we were leaving, there was a big Christmas tree with teddy bears and the teacher was giving out teddy bears. I got in line to get me a teddy bear and when I got there she said, ‘I'm sorry little girl, this is just for the ones who take dancing.' And I wanted mother to sign me up. I don't know if I got a teddy bear out of it."
That's when I notice Betty still has a thick southern accent.
Bill agreed, chuckling, "When I first met her, I could only understand about half of what she said."
Because Bill spent six days a week on the base, he called her a lot from the Cadet Club even during late hours when he wasn't supposed to.
"We got off Saturday at noon so we didn't have much time for courting."
Betty had her sights on becoming an English school teacher after graduating high school. Meeting Bill changed those plans. The two were married in Greenville two days after he graduated in 1952.
Bill was off to Bryan, Texas for six months of advanced training and then to Nellis Air Force Base for advanced gunnery in F-86s. He flew 100 air-to-air combat missions during his 10-month deployment during the Korean Conflict. After serving overseas, Bill returned to Nellis where he was an air-to-air gunnery instructor for two years.
Daughter Debbie joined the family in 1953 and Steve in 1954. Bill got out of the Air Force in 1955.
"We decided that military life was not for us," said Bill. "So we came back and moved to Ceres."
Betty said they settled in "God's country."
Bill's ancestors first settled in the Promised Land of Ceres in 1901 when his grandfather, also named William Bilson, came from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. His grandparents had 10 children.
"Why they moved out here, I don't know but he was a baker and he had a bakery in back of the Bank of Ceres, that vacant lot back there," said Bill.
Bill's uncle, Albert Bilson, owned and operated a barber shop in the early 1900s behind the former Ceres Drug Store at the northwest corner of Fourth and Lawrence.
Grandfather Bilson raised most his children on a Don Pedro Road farm that sat just south of Lucas Elementary School. Walt Service, of the Ceres' celebrated Service family, was a neighbor.
The youngest child of the Bilsons was Cecil, who was Bill's dad. Cecil was born in 1901 and after graduating Ceres High School in 1918 became a baker, too, and worked for the Zenardi family bakery.
"My dad knew everybody in Ceres. My dad dated Grant Lucas' mother before she was married."
Cecil and Bill's mother, Violet Johnston Bilson, met at a Los Angeles bakery. Cecil decided to open his own bakery, the Butter Crust Pie Shop, at 1015 M Street in Modesto. The shop was located where the MID parking lot is located today.
Bill was born Feb. 10, 1929 after Dr. Hiatt rushed his mother to the Modesto hospital at 17th and H streets. "Billy" attended schools in Ceres, growing up with the likes of Ronald and Claire Berryhill, Floyd Sneed and Leroy Cunningham, who later became police chief.
"Walter White popped me on the fanny when I was about second grade," recalled Bill. "I was probably talking in class."
He remembers the starting day of the first grade when his teacher took role and asked if he was the son of a prior student, Cecil Bilson. Billy replied yes and the teacher piped, "I hope you're a better student than he was!" He went home and told his dad, who replied, "That's got to be old Stinky Klinke."
More properly, she was Geneva Klinke. The kids called her the awful nickname behind her back.
Bill remembers being a short younger student relieving himself as he stood dwarfed at the tall urinals in the boys' restroom at the Ceres Grammar School on Lawrence Street. Classmate Leroy Cunningham pushed him into the ceramic urinal. Bill turned around and "just wet him down good." Yes, this was the future police chief of Ceres who got a whizzing on.
Because his parents worked long hard hours at the Butter Crust, Bill was cared for by his oldest sister and grandmother in the house on Don Pedro.
Bill remembers that the Zenardis lived in the Castle still at Fourth and Magnolia. "I can remember going to that as a kid. It was a real treat to be able to go up and look out that turret."
He remembers Fourth Street having wooden sidewalks as a boy. He also remembers the poles to tie horses to "which we used to swing on." He remembers cement sidewalks south of Lawrence Street.
Cecil and Violet Bilson moved their family to Max Foster's former house on Santa Cruz Avenue in Modesto to be closer to their popular Butter Crust Pie Shop, which was turning out 1,500 to 2,000 pies a day. Customers came from all over the county and Bill and his sisters, Ann, Hattie and Patricia, all worked in their dad's bakery after school when they were old enough. Betty remembers the pies being "so well known."
The Vines of E.R. Vine & Sons in Ceres lived on Santa Ana Avenue a block away from the Bilsons. Bill remembers at age 12 when he encountered Don Vine on a narrow bike path along the canal near their homes.
"I said to him, ‘Get out of the way, fat boy, I'm going through here.'
He said, ‘Who you calling fat boy?'
"‘I'm calling you fat boy.'
"'Nobody calls me fat boy and gets away with it,' and he climbs off his bike. I climb off my bike and fists flew in the air for about two or three minutes. We didn't hit each other. Finally both of us started laughing and he said, ‘What's your name?' And I said, ‘Billy Bilson, what's yours?' ‘Donny Vine.' He said, ‘I know who you are - my brother's sweet on your sister.' We've been friends ever since. That had to have been 77 years ago."
Bill remembers attending Lincoln School - which no longer exists - when a teacher asked for someone in class to volunteer to show him where the drinking fountain and restrooms were located. Nobody raised their hand except a girl named Maryellen Rossel who offered, "I'll show him!" Maryellen became Mrs. Clare Berryhill. Bill and Clare went to college together after Bill graduated from Modesto High School in 1946. The Bilsons and Berryhills have been good friends since.
Bill is laughing because he has a story bursting to come out. It was about the time Clare and Bill were left to care for the younger kids at the Berryhill ranch house on Taylor Road as their women went on an errand. The men were busy playing dominoes when Bill Berryhill, the future state Assemblyman, crawled into the room crying and obvious in pressing need of a diaper change. It was hot and the stench was growing unbearable yet Clare resisted Bill's calls to change the diaper. Clare said it was always "Mer's job to change diapers." Finally Bill couldn't handle the cries - and smells - and changed "the messiest diaper I had ever seen."
The Butter Crust closed its doors and Cecil and Violet settled in Loleta (near Eureka) in 1948 where they bought a hotel. Not long after Cecil drowned in a bay boating accident at age 48. It was a devastating blow to Bill and his sisters.
Bill remembers Ceres being about 7,000 residents in 1956, the year he opened Bilson's Sporting Goods on Lawrence Avenue.
"We had two children and I knew I wanted to get into a business that was compatible with family life and I was an avid hunter and fisherman all my life. And I was very good with repairs of guns and bicycles and boat motors. It was just kind of a natural thing to do."
The first Bilson's Sporting Goods was located in a small 1,000-square-foot space in what is now Alfonso's Mexican Restaurant on Lawrence Street. The long building also housed a dry cleaner, an attorney and the courthouse with Judge Olson. Mr. Bilson remembers longing for more space when in 1958 Paul Cleveland built the block building at the southeast corner of Fourth and North streets and offered to rent half of it. The northern half was occupied by Chinese owned Benny's Market.
Business picked up after the move and the Bilsons bought the building in 1959 or 1960 after getting a loan from Arthur Harris of the Bank of Ceres. Harris was legendary for being tightfisted with loan requests.
"We were buddies. He was a great guy. He loved to hunt, loved to fish. At 85 he was up in the mountains backpacking. He was a good banker. A good level-headed, no-nonsense banker and people didn't like him because people thought he was tight with his money but it wasn't his money. It was money the depositors put in and he was looking out for them."
When the Bank of Ceres was sold, said Bilson, five armored cars were required to haul the silver dollars to San Francisco. "He had all of his reserves in silver dollars in the vault. Can you imagine what that stuff would be worth today?"
Bill pulled up stakes in Ceres with Bilson's Sporting Goods to focus on buying Bart's Sporting Goods on Lander Avenue in Turlock. He couldn't manage both stores so he closed the one in Ceres. His son still operates Bilson's Sporting Goods in Turlock. The Bilsons still own the Ceres building, which has been home to Lone Tree Printing, the Ceres Partnership for Healthy Children and now the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.
Daughter Susan came in 1961 and son Brad in 1964.
Bill and Betty were invested in the Ceres community even though their Ceres business was gone. They still lived in Ceres and got involved in things like Christmas tree sales when Bill was a member of the Ceres Lions Club and for a time serving as president. He served as a member of the Ceres School Board from 1969 to 1973 and remembers a big deal was "getting rid of that open campus and flexible scheduling at Ceres High School."
One day Bill went to put a bid on sporting equipment with the city of Ceres Recreation program. The Recreation Commission was discussing hiring a PE teacher to teach ballroom dancing to junior high students.
"So he pipes up," remembers Betty, "and says, ‘Do you want a PE teacher or do you want a dancing teacher? My wife teaches dancing.' He came home with this job opportunity."
The only problem was Betty didn't know anything about teaching ballroom dancing. Because the pay was $60 to conduct 12 lessons - or $5 per hour, good money then - Betty learned how to teach ballroom through books. Evening classes were held at the Community Center located on the block where City Hall is located.
"The classes went over so well I was teaching for Ceres, Modesto and Hughson," said Betty.
Her heart wasn't in ballroom as much as it was into teaching ballet and tap dancing and batons twirling. Betty started teaching dancing to five girls her daughters' ages in her living room. When 26 girls showed up the next year Mrs. Bilson needed more space. She went to then City Clerk Leona Garrison who offered free use of the Girl Scout's Quonset hut north of Whitmore Park.
A friend of hers, Lenore Hughes, suggested that since she had so many girls coming from all over the area to share space in a Modesto studio. Hughes also was teaching classes in her home and wanted teachers teaching for her in a commercial setting. Betty teamed up with Hughes and they chose the name Dance Factory at 11th and G streets. The building was later razed. Hughes outgrew the place and opened up her own independent Dance City in downtown Modesto, allowing Bilson to remain at Dance Factory.
"We can't go anywhere, anywhere without running into one of her students," said Bill. "We're getting off of a plane in Washington, D.C. and someone yells, ‘Betty Gayle!'"
After its 18-year run the Dance Factory closed but Betty continued to teach dance in a studio built in the back of the Thomas Avenue house for two years.
Jodi Davis Zurfluh remembers living behind the Bilson's house and spending part of her childhood at the makeshift dance studio. "My mom said it was great day care and we learned values and respect from her," said Jodi.
Judy Johnson also was influenced by Betty as a dance student for years. "She was a very strict dance instructor but quick to give praise. We learned great discipline and great technique from Betty. I feel very blessed to have been her student!"
In the late 1970s Betty was the artistic director for the Mighty Few student program created by Bob Marjerison at Ceres High School
Betty continues to stay physically fit by doing aerobics classes three days a week.
"I still perform. I just danced at my daughter's show in June. I'm blessed."
Lamenting the loss of so many old friends, Bill likes to keep his mental acuity by meeting once a month with an "investment club" of about 15 friends who talk about what companies are doing good. He has slowed down a bit from duck hunting, which he's enjoyed since age 12.
The clock skipped from 3:10 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. and it was time for me to leave. I got the feeling we just forged a friendship that will pick up the next time we see each other. It's been like that with everyone I've had the privilege of knowing from the Ceres of the 1940s and 1950s. But then again, that could be why Tom Brokow labeled them the "greatest generation."