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Mary Ellen Pitts always considered Ceres ‘home’
• She passed away in 2023 but her story of Ceres will keep resonating
Mary Ellen Pitts simple things
Before she died in 2023 at the age of 94, Mary Ellen Pitts loved the simple things in life like butterflies. She carried fond memories of Ceres through her entire life, even as she spent her final years in Redding, Calif. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Time moves quickly and life is fleeting.

I would face that fact once again over the weekend when I picked up a 2020 letter that Mary Ellen Pitts had written me.

We had made acquaintance at a February 2008 Christian conference at Mt. Hermon near Santa Cruz.

Our speaker that evening asked us to turn and greet someone next to us. Mary Ellen was two rows in front of me and leaned over, shook my hand while reading my name tag and hometown. She lit up and eagerly offered up, “I grew up in Ceres!” When I informed her that I was editor of the Ceres newspaper, her jaw dropped.

Mary Ellen was a resident of Redding with her husband Sam. Later in the conference she searched me out and shared her affections for the tiny town that nurtured her as a child and young woman. Her fondness for Ceres was evident as she spoke in glowing terms about a loving community, Ceres of the 1930s and 1940s, that rallied around a single mom in one of the first Hispanic families to settle here.

As I read her letter, I wondered how she was doing for she was 92 when she wrote me last. A quick internet search turned up the sad news that Mary Ellen passed away last year – April 23, 2023 to be exact. She was 94 years old and enjoyed a good long life and if anyone was enjoying Heaven it was Mary Ellen. She loved God and Jesus immensely.

I wanted to honor her by telling her story, again, here as I did in 2008.

“Ceres will always, always be our home – it was the place that raised us,” Mrs. Pitts told me 16 years ago. I’m frankly stunned that 16 years had passed when we first met. Time has a way of stealing away by the minutes. 

It’s easy to understand why Ceres had such a fond place in the heart of Mary Ellen Martinez Pitts. Her family came to Ceres in 1935 from Turlock after her mother, Juanita “Jenny” Martinez, left her father due to the physical abuse he heaped on her and the kids. The county welfare department placed her into a home at the corner Eighth and Roeding in Ceres. A year later Mary Ellen’s father died of a stomach ailment.

Jenny Martinez had a lot stacked against her. She was a poor single mother of five children. She also had left Catholicism for a Protestant faith, which was taboo at the time. But Ceres – home to about 1,800 people in 1935 – proved to be supportive. Ceres showed the family nothing but good will.

“All the people from Ceres raised us, especially the First Baptist Church and the Christian church.”

Mary Ellen told me that she realized later in life that “at that time Mexican families were considered in the same light as Okies and blacks and Chinese. I mean, we were really looked down upon. But not one person in that little town ever treated us like we were anything but a member of the community. They just took us in. They enveloped us with their love, from the church to the schools to the police department.”

I was touched by one example of the community’s love for the Martinez family.

First Baptist Church had taken the Vacation Bible School children to an outing to swim at the plunge in Riverbank. Mary Ellen waited her turn in line at the gate with a ticket in hand. But one rude woman stopped her at the gate and was told that she couldn’t go in. When she asked why, she was told: “No Mexicans are allowed in the pool.” The stunned teacher of the class called for all her students to get out of the pool, announcing: “If Mary Ellen can’t swim here, none of us will.”

Standing up against injustice was true Christian love in action in the eyes of Mary Ellen.

There were countless other times in which the community reached out and helped, mostly when Jenny Martinez was down with illness. The constable came by often and checked on the kids when Mrs. Martinez was hospitalized. So did the school nurse. Claude McKnight, the drug store owner and pharmacist did too. Art Rohde also helped out but Mary Ellen’s memory of him was a bit dim.

Even the school teachers did little things to make the Martinez kids feel special. Each year on the last day before the Christmas break, one of the teachers would let Mary Ellen or her siblings take home the Christmas tree that had adorned the classroom, otherwise the family would have done without one.

“Walter White was our school principal. He was wonderful. He was so sweet. He always made sure that my brothers and sister and I were taken care of and guided us to teachers that he thought would be good for us.”

She recalled that Mr. White thought the world of her oldest brother, who was a terrific baseball player. Another brother two years older was a great student.

Mary Ellen’s mother was wise and told the children “that education was going to be our way out of poverty. She said education is next to godliness. First you love God and he’ll help you through your education.”

Mary Ellen developed a knack for spelling and math, encouraged by her third grade teacher, a Mrs. Corson. Mary Ellen expressed to me that she wished that she could have gotten in touch with the teacher “to let her know what a difference her encouragement meant to me. It was in the third grade that she told me, ‘Mary Ellen, you have a good mind and anything you put in your mind that you want to do and be, you can do it. With God’s help you can do it.’”

Mr. Graham brought U.S. History to life, she recalls, that it was “like it was in front of your eyes.” She was so inspired that she would take her history book and a flashlight to bed to read under the covers after lights were out. Mary Ellen got A-plusses in the subject.

The struggling family was helped in ways that seemed to multiply. A neighbor (believed to be an Ashford) gave her little brother Ruben a calf. By the time the war came along, the cow had given lots of milk.

“We would share that milk with all of our neighbors. We’d let the cream come up to the top and make butter. Butter was rationed at that time. It was a real wonderful thing to have milk with cream so we could have butter.”

Any money the kids raised was helped mom with living expenses. Rabbits raised, slaughtered and cleaned by her younger brother were taken down to the grocery store where a Mr. Seasted would buy them. Ruben also washed pots and pans at the bakery.

Ceres provided other opportunities. During summer nights, movies were shown on an outdoor screen in the area near Lawrence and Fifth streets. Mary Ellen recalls how residents would come out with blankets or stools.

“The only movies my mom let me see was if Shirley Temple was in it. We thought that was the most wonderful thing in the world to see a movie.”

Every Easter church-going Ceres turned out for the annual egg hunt at Whitmore Park. One year Mary Ellen squealed with delight when she found the coveted “golden egg.” The prize for finding it was a bunny-shaped glass container full of candies.

In those days, social life in Ceres was centered inside the walls of church. At First Baptist, Pastor Paul Jackson was a friend to all, someone looked up to by the entire community. His wife did nice things for Mary Ellen, such as make an eighth grade graduation dress of pink material.

Mary Ellen fondly remembered the Barrows family, and Mrs. Griggs, the grandmother of Cliff Barrows. Cliff Barrows, of course, became famous with the Billy Graham’s crusades. Cliff’s mother offered free violin lessons to Mary Ellen and Cliff’s grandmother gave free piano lessons at church after school. While she attended Ceres High School, Cliff Barrows directed the high school choir at First B. At the time he was attending Modesto Junior College.

“I sang under him until he went on to be with Billy Graham.”

Billy Graham made history when in November 1948 he staged a crusade in Modesto. Cliff Barrows invited a trio consisting of Mary Ellen, Virginia McCulley and Sue Munday to sing on stage in front of Graham. On a stage under a large canvas tent set up in a vacant field in Modeso, Mary Ellen sang her heart out. She’d occasionally glance over at Billy Graham, who was waiting his turn to speak, thinking “what a wonderful older man.” She laughed remembering that through her high school eyes that the 30-year-old evangelist seemed old.

Her trio would also dash up to the studios of KTRB in Modesto after Sunday services to sing for a half-hour radio program hosted by their Ceres pastor.

Church was also where wide-eyed Mary Ellen and siblings would sit spellbound as twin brothers, one named Sheldon Helsley, came back from mission trips “telling us all these wonderful, wonderful miracles that God performed in the mission field.” After those talks, Mary Ellen wanted to become a missionary.

At one point, the family was given an opportunity to move from their cramped house in town with some strings attached. The welfare department called on Mrs. Martinez to see if she would be interested in taking in five orphaned Modesto sisters. They set her up in a large five bedroom, two-and-a-half story home on the Case Ranch on Roeding Road. The arrangement lasted until Mrs. Martinez grew seriously ill with cancer. She pleaded with church leaders to take in her children as a ward and keep them together. A legal contract was drawn up with the church, Mary Ellen recalled. But the church wasn’t going to set by idly and watch Jenny pass without fervent prayer. On the day doctors said was her time to die, the church summoned a 24-hour prayer vigil. Members took turns at her hospital bedside, asking God for miraculous healing because her children still needed her. Her pulse grew stronger through the night. She turned the corner.

“That was a miracle.”

Mrs. Martinez lived long enough to see all her kids graduate from high school and some from college. Mrs. Martinez lived until 1955, some nine years after that prayer vigil.

After graduating from Ceres High School in June 1946, Mary Ellen won a scholarship to U.C. Berkeley as did her good friends, Marian Hackett Young and Virginia McCulley. But Mary Ellen gave up her opportunity to work and support her little brother and mother. Two older brothers had to go fight in World War II and her sister had married by that time.

Just as family brought her to Ceres, family took her away. Brother Mack Martinez won a boxing scholarship to San Jose State and found a house for the family. Mary Ellen contributed the $1,000 she earned and saved for the down payment. Before the family left Ceres, Mrs. Martinez thanked her church family during a send-off celebration.

Jenny Martinez told them, ”God sent me to Ceres because all of you would be here to help me raise the children.” Mary Ellen didn’t forget that her mother had “a complete trust in God and God honored her for that.”

Mary Ellen found bookkeeping work and typing and shorthand learned at Ceres High was put to use in many secretarial and bank jobs. She eventually married Samuel in 1953. She retired as a secretary in the San Jose Unified School District.

One of her last visits to Ceres was in October 2006 for the 60th anniversary reunion of Ceres High class, an event organized by Vernon Mays. About 45 classmates attended, including Frances Romero Hirdes, Wanda Hinton Hickey, Betty Smith Wise, June Quesenberry Canning and Floyd Sneed. They drove by to see the old house at Eighth and Roeding only to see it was gone.

Mary Ellen Pitts will always have a special place in my heart. Her life was a testament of faith, goodness and love.

When it’s my time to pass on, I am sure that Mary Ellen will be there to greet me with a smile with all the others who have enriched my life’s experiences on earth.

Mary Ellen Martinez and Samuel W. Pitts
Mary Ellen Martinez and Samuel W. Pitts were married for 63 years until his passing in 2017. - photo by Contributed to the Courier
Mary Ellen Ceres High
Mary Ellen during her days in Ceres. She graduated from Ceres High School in June, 1946. - photo by Contributed to the Courier