Gladys Mary Robirds spryly opened the front door of her home adjacent to Mae Hensley Junior High School with a friendly smile for me. Ready to turn 90 on Sunday, she's not dependent on a walker and she looks as though she'd be able to outpace any 65-year-old.
I can sense her apprehension about sharing her life with a newspaper editor. On the phone she told me that she didn't consider her life all that interesting for a feature story. Little did she know how I enjoy hearing life stories of seniors. When I get there she shared that thoughts of the interview kept her up at night.
What kind of a child was she?
"I was shy. I'm still very shy."
We both laugh but I can tell there is quiet sadness about Gladys.
Upon my request prior to my arrival, she had pulled out a lifetime of photos, spanning from her days as a baby in diapers to a recent photo of her with a man.
"That is my second love, Joe Brocco," Gladys said when I asked about him.
Joe entered her life three years after the illness and death of longtime husband Gene Robirds, a former Ceres city official. Alzheimer's Disease robbed Gene from her months shy of their 60th anniversary. Gladys took three years to recover from her loss before she decided she needed to get on with her life. While attending a senior dance in Riverbank, she met Joe.
"We never did marry. We just had a good time together. We made a pact in the beginning not to worry because of our financial situation."
I asked where Joe was, thinking he may be around. She tells me that she lost her love of nine years on May 4. I suddenly understand that sadness has compounded on top of sadness and I express my sorrows for yet another loss.
North Dakota birth
She picks up a silvering print of her as a chubby baby sitting in a diaper and starts at the beginning 90 years ago. Oliver and Hazel Louise Goshorn Wagenmen were expecting their first child in an out-of-the-way town, Williston, North Dakota, where his parents had homesteaded and eked out a living, growing wheat that grew at the mercy of whatever rains fell. Oliver was 23 years older than his very attractive bride. In her grandparents' home, on July 31, 1926, Gladys was born as the first child of Oliver and Hazel. In two months, the young family struck out on their own, leaving for Wenatchee, Washington where he made packing boxes for apple growers. Two brothers, Kenneth and Harold, and sister LaVeta came along in Washington. Gladys remembers attending first grade in a two-story brick school house where "all the elementary school was downstairs and all the upper class was upstairs." It was not unlike the bricked grammar school building that served Ceres on the grounds now known as Whitmore Park.
Off to California
The Great Depression was crushing lives and spirits and in 1935, in search for work, Oliver and Louise packed up everything into a Dodge sedan and headed south to Modesto where an uncle and another aunt lived.
"The gear was on the floor and you had to crank it to start it," recalls Gladys. "We had chickens in a cage on the front, a goat on the side on the running board. I think he had some kind of frame work to hold it up there but it stayed there. My youngest sister at that time, LaVeta, was allergic to milk and the only thing she could drink was goat's milk."
The family journeyed south down Highway 1 into California.
"I don't think (Highway) 99 went all the way to Washington at that time."
During one stop, the family cat wandered off and was never to be found.
For a couple of years, the Wagenmans lived in a small vacated house behind her uncle Jess Wagenman's house on Rosedale Avenue in west Modesto. Her parents found jobs in the local canneries to support the family. Oliver later worked in President Roosevelt's WPA program, building sidewalks, and worked at a cement plant owned by another uncle, Ora Kaufman. Gladys attended Washington Street School in Modesto.
"I liked Modesto. I wasn't very happy when we moved to Waterford. My folks weren't very wealthy and a lot of people thought they were rich farmers and the kids kind of looked down on us."
In 1937 her father and his brother built a small house which initially had two bedrooms.
"It was about 25' x 25'."
In those days Waterford kids like Gladys had to be bussed 10 miles away to Oakdale High School.
Big changes came to the family when Gladys was 14 and her mother got pregnant again, with Betty, and then years later again with Dolores.
"You hear these people talk, you know, ‘What's she doing having kids again?' I was in high school. They were about four and five years old when I got married. There was no birth control at that time."
Gladys and her older siblings worked on farms, cutting peaches and apricots in the summer time to earn money to buy school clothes. The family participated in social events of the Church of the Brethren in Waterford. One day a young man named Gene Robirds, who lived on Wellsford Road between Empire and Waterford, came to the church with a fellow church member. Gladys recalled how handsome Gene appeared to her.
"I met him when we had a hay ride," said Gladys. "We didn't go together until he got back from the service. He went together with all of my girlfriends before he ever went with me. He saved the best for last."
World War II broke out in late 1941 before her graduation in June 1944. Gene joined the Navy after he graduated from Modesto High School and corresponded with Gladys as went to Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho and then stationed in Hawaii where he worked in the print shop and in electronics aboard submarines.
The war wound down in 1945 and Gene came back to Stanislaus County.
"He came home in March and we married in May," she said, bringing to mind the popular Andrews Sisters hit song, "Apple Blossom Time." (...I'll be with you in apple blossom time, I'll be with you to change your name to mine. One day in May, I'll come and say happy the bride that the sun shines on today...")
The wedding ceremony took place at the Church of the Brethren in Waterford. The building still stands but the church dissolved. The couple bought a house on Avalon Avenue in Modesto.
"At that time it wasn't a bad area but I wouldn't live there now."
Move to Ceres
Daughter Sheryll Biondolillo came first in 1946; and Gary in 1951, the year after they moved to a house on Margaret Way in Ceres. The subdivision was heavily populated with World War II veterans who took advantage of the G.I. Bill to finance them and start raising their families.
"Ceres was a great place back then. It was a clean community. Everybody had a nice green lawn and they kept the yards up, cleaner than it is now. At that time everybody knew everybody, seemed like. Any more people probably don't know their next door neighbors, which is sad."
After the kids were raised, Gladys went back to earn her associate in arts degree and went to work at the Bank of California in downtown Ceres. It is now Wells Fargo Bank. She worked 13 years in the loan department before retiring in 1973.
Gene worked in canneries and at Gowan's Printing Company and Modesto Printing. Gene ran for Ceres School Board and won. He then entered a business partnership to own and operate The Ceres Courier and Modesto Journal. In 1954 he bought the papers with partners Sid Long Sr., Sam Wix and Paul Johnson. Robirds served as a news reporter, covering Ceres City Council meetings. Gladys worked as a clerk in the downtown Modesto office on 16th Street. The office also produced the Modesto Journal, Hughson Chronicle and Denair Times.
She also wrote society columns.
"That was the day you could describe the bride's clothes and all that kind of stuff. Any more they don't do that."
He sold his interest in 1958, the year he was elected to the Ceres City Council, serving with Mayor Walter White, and council members H.B. Rodgers, G.E. Barnes Jr., and Dale Taylor.
Gene became mayor in 1966, serving with F.M. Sterling, Ron Eneboe, Neal Gardenhire and Don Williams. However, when city administrator Ches Ludden stepped down in 1970, Robirds was encouraged to take his place - if he resigned from the council. He did. He helped the city take ownership of the private water system owned by the Vincent family.
Gladys didn't like Gene being in local politics.
"We couldn't go to a restaurant and have a nice quiet meal without somebody coming up wanting to complain or ask about something. In fact, I was totally against him running for supervisor."
Mr. Robirds ran and lost that election to Gary Condit.
Gene resigned his Ceres post in 1974 to become city administrator in Waterford. Gene and Gladys lived there and in 1979 he became Riverbank's city manager. Mr. Robirds helped oversee the "City of Action" until he retired in May, 1987. His last act of public service was winning an appointment to the Riverbank School Board, a post he held until 1991.
On the Fourth of July in 1978 Gladys and Gene dropped by to see her parents in Waterford. They went to the lake for a fun day and her father passed away. Her mother lived until 1987.
The Robirds did lots of traveling to places like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone. Finding the grave of her Revolutionary War forefather in Pennsylvania was a surreal moment to her.
Illness strikes both
Gladys had a medical cancer with a diagnosis of cancer in 2000. Radiation treatments were successful and she's been cancer free since. But something more serious was happening to Gene. There were signs as early as 2000 that Gene was developing Alzheimer's but it didn't get bad until 2003. Gene's condition contributed to him driving onto Highway 99 in the wrong direction and being involved in a head-on accident. He sustained a number of broken bones from which he recovered but the dementia robbed him of his memory and life.
"It was terrible," tearfully said Gladys. "Just like an early death."
Alzheimer's Disease ran in his family. His grandfather died from it as did two of his sisters.
Gene died in March 2004, month short of their 60th wedding anniversary.
Two years went by when Gladys said she had to do something "and I started going to the senior dances in Riverbank and that's where I met Joe."
The relationship ended on May 4 when he died at the age of 91. Gladys was alone again.
She keeps going, strongly. Gladys believes she has made it to 90 because she's always been active.
"I've always kept active and I had hobbies, I played golf, we traveled a lot," said Gladys. "I'm pretty careful about what I eat. I have Type II diabetes so I have to watch it."
She meets twice a month "all day" to play Scrabble with her good friends, Betty Spencer, Ethel Kalbach, Renetta Hayes and Sue Hamlin. It's a tradition she has enjoyed for a decade.
"It's fun, we have a good group."
Until recently when her hands began trembling, one of Gladys' favorite activities was painting watercolor landscapes and buildings. She took lessons from local artist Dan Peterson. Some of her art was displayed in the Art League gallery and at the Modesto Chamber of Commerce lobby.
"Riverbank had an art show I entered in that. The best I ever got though was an honorable mention so it wasn't all that great. But I sold a lot of paintings, mostly scenery work. I've done some portrait work."
Also filling out her time is visiting with family and reading novels. She still will attend round dances because she is now without a partner.
She has two grandsons and two step-grandchildren, one great-grandson, two step-great-grandson and two great-granddaughters.