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Jim & JoAnn Delhart
Ex mayor and downtown Ceres lynchpins built a life once upon a mattress or two
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Jim and JoAnn Delhart visit with the Courier inside their furniture store on Fourth Street in downtown Ceres.

JoAnn Nutt was a gangly knock-kneed teenager when she saw Jim Delhart walk through the door of the Pentecostal Church of God on Service Road for the first time. She found herself turned off by his demeanor, recalling that he had the air of a "smart aleck and showoff."

"I didn't like him," admitted JoAnn. "I only liked his dad because his dad was my Sunday school teacher and Jim was very arrogant and I came from a very humble family."

Having lost her dad at age 12, JoAnn was drawn to Jim's likeable dad as a father figure. The Sunday school teacher and pulpit filler was kind and considerate, unlike his brash, self-assured son. But Jim and JoAnn got past first impressions to know each other more closely during a family campout in Gilroy.

Something good in there
"I just kept looking at his dad and I thought something good's got to be in there," she said.

It turns out there was something good in there.

That 1953 meeting was the start of a relationship that is going strong today, 62 years later.

Jim and JoAnn Delhart have been woven into the tapestry of the community so deeply that Ceres wouldn't feel the same if they weren't around. Jim, the former one-term Ceres mayor and downtown property baron seen defiantly propping up mattresses against the outer wall of Delhart's Home Furnishings store to the chagrin of city officials, is 80 today and says he has no plans to slow down.

"I feel good," said Jim. "I'll be going another 10 years."

JoAnn, his bride of 63 years, has retired from years of running Delhart's Family Dining next to bustling Highway 99 but still is acting serving in their church, The House at Coffee and Briggsmore in Modesto. She also is a believer in good nutrition and a dealer for Youngevity supplements of Dr. Joel Wallach, their health guru.

It seemed natural that Jim - born March 3, 1935 in Wickenburg, Arizona - would go into the mattress and furniture business. His father, Joe Delhart, stumbled into mattress trade by fate. Jim recalls that a friend in Congress Junction, Ariz., needed a $35 loan in a day when $35 was a lot of money. Joe made the loan but held mattress-making equipment as collateral. The debt wasn't repaid and Joe kept the equipment and learned how to use it by rigging it to a belt and car tire. One of his first jobs was contracting with the county to rebuild mattresses for the jail. The contract paid for the expense of Jim's birth in the hospital.

From 1935 to 1942, Joe Delhart operated a mattress factory along with an auto court - rental cabins for traveling motorists - in Glendale, Ariz.

Jim helped his dad in the business. At age 11, he went to an auction to buy furniture for his father to resell. After the sale, Joe had to come to load it up since Jim wasn't of driving age.

Jim dropped out of school in the tenth grade.

"I didn't like school. I knew what I wanted at 11 years old. I wanted a furniture store and I didn't need their school."

Jim's move to California
It was 1942 and World War II was raging when Joe packed up the Delhart clan for a move to Delhi in Merced County where he grew grapes and apricots. Three years later the Delhi ranch was sold so that Joe could purchase a small mattress factory in Turlock - located at 1010 South First Street - that could turn out 3,000 mattresses in a year, Jim recalled. Joe Delhart owned and operated the factory until about 1970. The Delhart family's choice to worship at the Pentecostal church in Ceres put Jim and JoAnn on a lifetime pathway.

After the two warmed up to one another around church activities, JoAnn called Jim up one day and coyly, "I found a ring I really like." At least that's how he tells it.

Jim and JoAnn went before the judge to marry and both needed parental permission because neither was an adult. Because the Korean Conflict was underway and married men with kids were kept from the draft, the two got busy starting a family. Debra was born nine months and seven days after their 1953 wedding.

"That was one reason to get married early at 17 because at 18 you got drafted," said Jim, "and I didn't want to get drafted."

After Jim, who was 17, and JoAnn, then 16, were married, he opened a used furniture store at Boulder and El Paso in south Modesto in 1953. He also bought his first house at age 19 and snatched up others as investments.

The marriage, it would later prove, was good timing for Joann since her mother suffered a heart attack and died and would have left JoAnn without financial support as an orphan.

Humble beginnings
Unlike Jim, JoAnn was raised in a large and poor family. Born in Perry, Okla., as the sixth of seven girls of Loyd Buster Lee Nutt and Mary Alena Carl Nutt, JoAnn was moved to Oceanside and Carlsbad during World War II when she was about three years old. The Nutt family settled in the Modesto area where her father could return to farming.

On Oct. 6, 1948, JoAnn's life would change dramatically forever.

"My father was abusive and my mother shot and killed him," said JoAnn.

JoAnn remembers seeing her parents violently fighting that day. JoAnn grabbed her younger sister and fled from the house at 605 Broadway Street in south Modesto to run to a phone booth across the street to call police.

"I heard a shot ... and I went back and he was laying on the floor. He was going to take out the whole family. I was the only one that took the stand to free my mother because I was there that night when the tragedy happened. He would have wiped out the entire family."

JoAnn remembers running down to the South Modesto Drive-In on Crows Landing Road to tell two sisters who were working there.

The murder trial jury found her not guilty on the basis of a self-defense argument.

"It made the San Francisco Chronicle," said JoAnn. "All of California had the headlines."

Jim said that his wife remembers the tragedy "like it was yesterday" and doesn't like to talk about it much. The only reason she got through the trauma was because of her faith and the support of friends in the church, she said.

Pressures were great on the young couple in the first years of marriage. Jim was supporting JoAnn and her younger sister Janice.

"We weren't 16 and 17," JoAnn commented. "We were like 20 and 25 because of the responsibilities. We couldn't think like teenagers today. I was looking after my sister, my mom was sick, Jim's family never suffered financially like we had suffered. It all worked because we've been married since 1953."

It was far from a smooth marriage in the beginning.

"It was terrible," said JoAnn. "We both had to grow up through those teenage years. Had it not been for the church we could have never made it. There's no way. I just remember I made that vow and that vow was more than I love you forever. It says I vow to marry you forever. There's a difference and we were taught that. My mom did not believe in divorce."

Series of heartbreaks
The couple experienced a series of heart-breaking losses as Jim and JoAnn tried to have children but ended up burying five of them. An Rh factor was the cause for the deaths. JoAnn, still feeling the losses, pulls out a collection of five photos of headstones engraved with the names of children who never got to live past a day or two: Rodney Lee, Feb. 22-23, 1956; Joshua David, Dec. 14, 1956; Joseph Preston, Jan. 18, 1958; and Scarlett Ann, Nov. 8, 1964.

The couple was only able to conceive one child to adulthood, Debra Kiss. She and her husband help out at the store.

"I think my past gave me a lot of perseverance to not give up," said JoAnn. "It was devastating. The doctors used to ask me what keeps you between the ears because I never took any kind of medication. I am anti-medication. And I say it's my faith, it's my God."

Fragile from all the losses of all those babies, JoAnn was contacted by a woman in Santa Cruz who heard about the Delharts' losses and informed them about a pending baby that they could soon adopt.

"I was irate. We had just buried a baby."

Eight months later, after lots of prayer, a feeling came over JoAnn that "maybe there was something there that the Lord wanted me to do."

Derrick Matthew Delhart was born July 1, 1965 and became part of the family.

When Derrick was three, JoAnn decided to work as a lab technician at General Foods plant west of Morgan Road. A retiree there asked her, "What's a young girl like you doing in a place like this? I've given a lot of years here. You don't need to be here." She thought about it and decided to leave, selling Jafra cosmetics on her own.

JoAnn opens a restaurant
Jim moved his furniture store from 3030 Fourth Street - the former Carl Miner store - into the former grocery store and Harold's Variety Store at the corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets in downtown. In 1982, JoAnn then struck on the idea of starting up her own restaurant. She romanticized about the community coming together over home cooked meals. Jim bought the Stone Pony restaurant building built by Leo Durossette on the frontage road south of Hatch Road. Delhart's Family Dining opened Aug. 27, 1982 and operated until 2000.

"It's very hard," said JoAnn. "They say if you can run a restaurant and make it successful you can make just about conquer any business. It was good to us but it was a hard job. I just walked away. It was just way too much. I was working 17 hours a day. I baked all the pies. I worked the line. Wherever there was a slot that was empty I filled in."

Today the building is in escrow for possibly another restaurant.

Today the Delharts own much of the commercial block of Fourth Street facing Highway 99.

Jump into city politics
In the 1970s, Jim decided to throw his hat into the city political ring - despite JoAnn being the political animal - after the behest of Ceres Police Sgt. Loren Hartman who threatened to haul Delhart away in handcuffs in a patrol car unless he agreed to sign candidacy papers.

"I remember they came and said, ‘The day is almost over, are you ready to go?' And I said, ‘Okay.'"

Years on City Council
Delhart served nearly 12 years on the Ceres City Council, one two-year term as mayor. He is convinced that west Ceres subdivisions were built to a higher construction standard because he threatened to withhold his support unless better materials were used.

"I think we slowed down the apartments. The other council guys wouldn't go but I would have slowed down some of these apartments they built like the ones on Whitmore (at Della). That was good ground and you can't use the ground a second time."

Delhart, who was tight with then City Manager Jim Marshall, was a big supporter of city police and fire. He said he was often outnumbered, noting "they used to call me 4-1."

"I fought the things that weren't right to me."

He presided over the planning of the $4 million Ceres Police Department building which opened in 1988, the year after he was defeated by Louis Arrollo in a 1,243-to-896 vote outcome.

Grudge against the city
For being a former city official, Delhart has a reputation for stubbornly butting heads with current city officials over his business practices - including the display of mattresses in front of his building; and for tying up the prominent former Bank of Ceres building as a mattress warehouse. JoAnn said Jim didn't want to cooperate with city officials, claiming that city officials ignored a downtown Mexican restaurant's A-frame sign blocking the sidewalk while asking Jim to remove his mattresses.

"They were never called to take that sign down," said JoAnn. "We had to walk around that sign. The minute he'd put something out here they'd come. It would make him mad. It would make me mad too. There was a lot of targeting. It was strictly politics. When they don't like you, they're going to come after you."

Jim says his problems with the city run deeper, but not recounting the list of things that have placed enmity between him and city folks over the decades. In return he hasn't been an eager team player in the city's plans to revitalize downtown. Delhart once told a gathering of Chamber, city and business leaders that he would sell his half of the downtown of Fourth Street south of Lawrence for $4 million, knowing full well that the property isn't worth that much. It was his way of suggesting the city was ridiculous for shelling out $1 million to buy the former Ceres Christian Center property down the street for the Community Center.

Jim steadfastly argues that his mattresses next to his building are not on the sidewalk since he says he could chisel out the slab next to his building and convert it to a flower bed - like the one in front of the house he owns across the street.

He leads me out to the sidewalk in an effort to argue what defines a sidewalk.

"To me they're being technical because it's not on the sidewalk."

I offer my opinion that the sidewalk is anything between the curb and building. "To me it's not," said Delhart. "I think I'm right before God.

"I don't try to prove anything to the city. I just get mad at them and say go to hell. I don't care. It goes way back there. The city's done me a lot of stuff and I keep it under me."

JoAnn is not sure Jim will ever decide to retire from his low-pressure furniture store which remains unchanged from the 1970s and 1980s. "He's not wanting to slow down," she added. "Jim is very, very healthy. We watch what we eat."

He never advertises for customers but says his business does well in serving third and fourth generations of customers whom he invites to sit down and chat with for a while. Between customers, Jim spends about four hours a day in the store reading the Bible, saying "It's refreshing to me."

"As long as I'm feeling good, I'm going to work this thing," added Jim.

Jim remains enthusiastic about continuing with foreign mission trips that started 20 years ago.

"I'm here for a reason," said Jim. "Someday I'm going to meet that Man and I want to say, ‘Here's how much I loved you.'"

JoAnn has accompanied him on five trips to Lithuania.

"South Africa did it for me. It was just so poverty stricken. It was just too overwhelming. He's been about 15 times to Lithuania and Latvia, the Ukraine and Estonia and all of that."

JoAnn's primary ministry today is working with pastors as an altar worker at The House AKA Calvary Temple. She likes connecting to people on a personal level in the large church.

Both have minister's licenses with Jim occasionally officiating weddings. The couple is also seen one Friday evening per month on KBSV, the local Ceres based Assyria Vision station, teaching the Bible for an hour.

"God's been good to me," said Jim. "He's been very good to both of us."