Richard and Isabel McKay feel very blessed.
It's a natural conclusion for those who've seen the lives of others torn apart by strife and circumstances - particularly after you've had to bury a close friend claimed by a tragedy.
Married 55 years, the McKays have been a part of the fabric of the Ceres community for decades and I've seen them at various functions numerous times - without any lengthy conversation. It took me 28 years into my career at the Courier to set up an interview with the well-known Ceres couple. We sat down and talked on Thursday in the immaculate Acorn Lane home they've shared since it was built in 1967.
Both Isabel, who worked as attendance clerk at Ceres High School, and Dick, a retired Sheriff's Deputy, had jobs that brought them into contact with people who didn't live as blessed people. Collectively, they dealt with troubled youth, burglars, drunken drivers, drowning victims, abusive parents and drug dealers.
Yes, even bank robbers.
The ground in the McKays' lives cracked on the afternoon of Jan. 27, 1970. The Central Valley National Bank in Hughson was robbed at 3 p.m. and Dick's good friend, fellow Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy Billy Jo Dickens, was shot to death after arriving on scene with another deputy. Dickens was unaware that two robbers were trying to leave the bank on Hughson Avenue and as he focused on one, was fatally shot in the back by the second. Dickens, who often played on the sheriff's basketball team with McKay, was mortally wounded. He was just 36.
For the several days that followed, then Sheriff's investigator Dick McKay had to shake the emotions of losing a good pal and joined the massive manhunt in the Don Pedro area and near Altaville in Calaveras County tracking down Leonard Ellsworth Miller and partner Ross N. Porter. Isabel was on pins and needles. It was a day when there were no cell phones. Occasionally the department would send out messages that all the officers were fine.
McKay remembers surrounding the pair, firing shotgun rounds at Porter in one of three shootouts.
"I don't know if I hit him or not," said McKay.
Porter was killed in the volley while Miller was convicted and is currently in state prison.
The reality of the dangers Dick faced as an officer seemed more real than before.
"The only time I really worried about him was when Dickens was killed. We were good friends with them and I was good friends with his wife Bev and our children were the same age. I was with her a lot. Law enforcement was kind of a closed society."
Her faith in God helped her not worry about "things that you can't control." But she admits officers faced a less hostile world then. Until the murder of Dickens, the only fear she had was than Dick might get slugged breaking up a fist fight or bar brawl at Doug's Den.
"When he first started working for Ceres, I didn't have any knowledge of police departments and he was the ninth guy on the department. It was small. He loved police work. I don't think he ever got up in the morning saying, ‘Gee, I don't walk to go to work today' and there's value in that."
Yellowed newspaper clippings saved by the couple tell stories of McKay as a small town hero. One early foggy morning in the early 1960s Officer McKay saw a car stuck on the railroad tracks and ran ahead to lay down a flare to signal an oncoming train as he and others unhooked the car from the tracks.
McKay made local news when he helped deliver a baby in a car parked in front of the Ceres Police Station at the corner of Third and North streets. The mother stopped to ask for directions to Memorial Hospital Ceres but ran out of time. A nurse from Dr. Gerald Den Dulk's office across the street also helped as the baby crowned. He had just become a father around the same time.
Dick and Isabel would have never met had he not decided to go into the Air Force. But going into military service was a given, he said, as "the thing to do back then." In 1957 Dick was first stationed at Kinross Air Force Base (now Kincheloe) about 10 miles from Brimley, Mich., which is where teenager Isabel was raised.
"My roommate was going with her friend and so I went out on a blind date," said Dick. "That's how we met and the rest is history."
Born in 1941, Isabel was the last of 12 children of Bob and Verna Mills. At the time of that date, Isabel was attending Brimley High School where she was involved in intramural activities like FFA, yearbook, school newspaper and cheerleading. When her family's aged hotel became charred rubble in a 1959 fire, Bob and Verna decided to try living in Chula Vista to be close to three of their older children. They waited until Isabel graduated before leaving for California. California was to Isabel's liking but years later her parents moved back to Michigan where they are buried.
Isabel worked for Firemen's Fund Insurance Company while in San Diego as Dick served out his term in the Air Force.
Dick's history started four years earlier in 1937. He was born to James and Opal McKay in Longmont, Colo. James paid the bills by driving freshly-cut lumber from the Pipe's Peak region to his father's lumber bill. The family left Colorado in the throes of World War II so that James could work in Pacific shipyards in Redondo Beach. They bounced around to Venice and Compton when Dick was five or six years old.
With the war over, James McKay moved his family to Modesto where Dick's uncle lived. Dick was just in the second grade.
"My uncle (Hank Moss) had a service station on Hatch Road and Atlantic. My other uncle, Cliff, had a garage right behind the service station and they were the first ones, really, to settle there with a business. They were kind of rich for the day because people would go to them to borrow money."
Dick's parents arrived in California dirt poor - they worked for a while as fruit pickers - and lived for about six months in a tent set up in his grandmother's yard on Morgan Street, just south of Hatch Road. They ditched the tent when they were able to buy a place on Pearl Avenue in Modesto.
Dick's parents later moved to a house on Whitmore Avenue east of Moore Road. His mother worked as a licensed vocational nurse at the Modesto State Hospital where the MJC West campus is located. Dick attended Ceres Grammar School on Lawrence Street before going to Walter White, then a junior high. At Ceres High School, Dick played football, basketball and track before graduating in 1956.
He and chum Harry Wheeler decided to join the Air Force together. They parted ways; Wheeler was stationed in California while Dick, trained for a communications job, was shipped out to Turkey after Michigan.
The United States was in peacetime as McKay was stationed at Adona Air Force Base in Turkey. The only excitement, he recalls, is that the base was flying out U-2 reconnaissance spy planes over Russia. One of them was shot down over Russia with Francis Gary Powers being taken prisoner by the Soviets. The incident inflamed Cold War tensions.
The Ceres boy was homesick.
"That was the first time I had ever been away from home by myself so it was a little bit difficult but it was a good experience," said Dick. "I was happy to leave there."
Besides, he had Isabel to come back to and plan life with as he was discharged from the Air Force after three years and six months of service.
Dick and Isabel decided to get married in 1960 and make Ceres their home. The Nazarene Church in which they were married no longer exists; it was razed from the site of present-day AM/PM at Whitmore and Ninth Street. The church sat alongside the Ceres Dehydrator which employed lots of local teens.
Isabel took to Ceres and many of its 4,400 inhabitants. She held several part-time jobs before landing a bookkeeping job at the CVC (California Vegetable Concentrates) plant on Whitmore Avenue. In the early 1960s, she became a noon time aide at Walter White School. She found work at Ceres High School, going from the attendance office to registrar under Principal Flemming Haas. She worked as the counselors' secretary and then the student body office where she spent 16 years.
Early in their marriage, Dick worked at service stations. Ted Fiskin employed him at the service station at Whitmore and Highway 99 (later moved to Fourth and Whitmore) and the Barbour family put him to work at their Modesto service station. Dick broke free of blue collar to work for a national credit investigation company.
One day Dick and buddies Don Tilley and Jim McGowan all decided to become Ceres Police Department reserve police officers. Then Chief Leroy Cunningham hired them in 1960. No background investigations or training were required.
"Before that they hired their officers and just brought them in and put them to work. They didn't have any education or training."
McKay became a sworn officer in approximately six months. He attended the first basic peace officers class that was offered locally by then Sheriff Dan Kelsay who invited neighboring police departments to send officers. The much-needed training came in handy in a celebrated Ceres crime.
Frank Chong Sr., owner of Sequoia Market, was the victim of a home invasion robbery. After robbing the house and holding the family hostage, the criminals took Chong to the market where the safe was opened and emptied of cash. The Chongs were not physically harmed.
"That was a big thing back then. The community never had anything like that. We did catch who did it but I don't remember the names of anybody. It would have had to have been in the early 60's."
McKay served with Ceres Police Department from 1960 to 1963. He left for the Sheriff's Department from 1963 to 1965 but returned to Ceres when he was offered a sergeant's position. After squabbling about low pay, he left for the Sheriff's Department in 1967 for good and stayed for 25 years.
"The reason for the jumping around was because at that time the Ceres Police Department had no retirement. They didn't even have Social Security. I realized that just being a sergeant wasn't going to be a good career move for me."
In 1967 there were only five deputies covering entire Stanislaus County and McKay was running all over the map. Newspaper articles in his scrapbook tell of cases he worked. He recovered the body of an 18-year-old drowning victim in the Tuolumne River and saved another man from a drowning. He shot at a fleeing "Flashlight Burglar" in Turlock. He held free a young Ceres woman who was trapped in car wreckage on the Mitchell Road Bridge. He made arrests of thieves and drug abusers.
McKay served as a detective for about three years.
"The sheriff liked to make sure that you were not in any one area for long period of time. I became the administrative sergeant. Back then that's the person who did all the backgrounds for the new deputies and carried out the administrative functions. But it was a lot smaller agency in a lot smaller community."
Dick was later promoted to captain, and circulated through all three divisions: Investigations, Administrative and Custodial. He enjoyed investigations and patrol. He also helped oversee the building of the new County Jail on Hackett Road but retired before it was finished.
Having served under Sheriffs Dan Kelsey, Lynn Wood, Jim Trevena and Les Weidman, Dick retired in 1992.
"Retired is nice," said Dick. "Retired doesn't really mean that you sit down and do nothing."
Both play golf at the Turlock Golf & Country Club and stay active in the lives of their two children and their four granddaughters. They recently, for example, traveled with granddaughter Elizabeth McKay to Portland State University where she is earning her master's degree in digital publishing.
Son Jeff was born in 1961. He served as a while on the Ceres City Council and is now owner of Jessee Equipment Manufacturing of Chico. He has two daughters, Madison and Morgan who attend Gregori High School. Madison is considered a great tennis player and is ranked in Northern California and recently her team won the USTA's Gar Glenney Cup for being the best tennis team in the state. Morgan is running cross country for Gregori this year as a freshman.
Daughter Shawna McKay Nunes, now the athletic director of Ceres High School, came along in 1963. She has two daughters, Carolyn "Callie" and Elizabeth. Callie is a pitcher on the Ceres High School softball team.
"Going to their functions is almost a full-time job in itself," laughed Dick.
He also looks after his mother, who is living at age 95 and well on her own in Ceres.
Add to all of this their attendance and involvement at Harvest Presbyterian Church, where they have been since the 1970s, and you can understand why neither feels retired.
And why they feel blessed.