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Neighbors feature: Eric & Carol Ingwerson love Ceres
• Former mayor and Ceres first lady have been in the community for decades
Eric Ingwerson and wife Carol
Eric Ingwerson and wife Carol have enjoyed being a part of the fabric of community life in Ceres since their childhood. - photo by Jeff Benziger

One would be hard pressed  to find any couple who could better represent the face of Ceres, California than Eric and Carol Ingwerson.

My head was spinning after our two-and-a-half-hour interview session last week as both recounted their life experiences in their hometown where Eric served as mayor – more than two non-consecutive terms – as a member of the Ceres School Board and president of the Lions Club while making a living selling real estate. Eric tossed out more names than I could count of folks who were part of his growing up years and their marriage.

“Growing up in Ceres has been awesome,” said Eric, now approaching his 70th year of life in Ceres.

Eric was born at the former Memorial Hospital South in Ceres in 1954 and has been in Ceres since. Knowing just about everybody in town prior to the 1980s, Eric is a Ceres fixture and has been nicknamed “Mr. Ceres” from time to time because of his community involvement. His gift of gab – which came from years as a salesman of furniture and real estate – is often put to use as the jovial and thundering emcee at community events such as the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.

Eric and Carol met as students at Ceres High School and first dated before he graduated in 1972. Carol Norton was a year behind.

Carol experiences ‘culture shock’

Carol first came to Ceres in 1965 from Granada Hills – where her family lived below the Van Norman Reservoir along I-5 – when she was nine years of age. The LA Basin smog and congestion of the San Fernando Valley were enough to send her parents, Gene and Millie Norton, relocating to Ceres where they had acquaintances and family.

“Culture shock,” were the words she used about the family’s change of hometowns.

The Santa Monica beach was no longer a 20-minute drive away but Carol was able to enjoy the pool at their Ceres home and the family spent a lot of weekends going to boat races where she learned how to water ski. Carol would often be invited by the Goodrich family, who belonged to the Tuolumne River Lodge, to go swimming there.

“The first day we moved here,” Carol recalls, “I didn’t have anything to do and they got my bike out of the truck and Carleen Goodrich said, ‘You go down to the corner and turn right and there’s Foster Freeze. Here’s a quarter. So I got me a frosty.”

Not just any ice cream cone, Eric added: “That was the biggest ice cream cone you had for twenty-five cents.”

Eric the fourth of five kids

Eric was the fourth of five children of Ceres residents Francis “Gus” and Janice Ingwerson. His father owned the grocery store in La Grange and was a partner in the Bottle ‘N Cork Liquor Store at Tully and Bowen in Modesto.

Oldest brother, Greg, who was born in 1951, contracted polio, one of the last cases in Stanislaus County before the vaccine was developed.

“It affected us because he was in the hospital a lot,” Eric recounted. “I remember going to see him – they wouldn’t let us in, of course, and we would stand outside and they’d take him to the window and let him wave at us.”

Before Greg was 10 he had endured six surgeries on his leg to adjust for a leg that had stunted growth because of the polio. Gus braced his kids for the possibility that their brother would not have a long life but Greg not only graduated from Ceres High in 1969 but worked up until the few years before he passed away at age 61 in 2012. His passing came within 90 days after the December 2011 passing of their mother.

Eric’s other siblings were sisters Amron (Norman spelled backwards who was born in 1950), Sherri (born in 1952) and Malrie (1958). Sherri Ingwerson Thornburg died in 2019.  

By the time Eric finished high school the Vietnam War was in full scale.

“When it was time for us to register (for the draft) they had already stopped the draft,” said Eric. “But we still had to register and our status was 4-H. And I asked, ‘What is the ‘H’ for?’ ‘You’re on hold, so in other words if we reinstate the draft, we reserve the right to come back and nab you.’”

Eric recalls that the son of a third cousin Gill went to Vietnam and didn’t come back.

A neighbor of Carol’s named Wally joined the Air Force and was also killed in Vietnam.

“He lived around the corner,” said Carol. “He had this neat red coupe and when I’d walk to the store I used to stop and talk to him and he’d be out there cleaning it. I was a kid. His death made an impression.”

Eric recalls other young Ceres men who went to Vietnam but lived through it, including Doug Mullens, Denny Giddens, Rick Coble, Ronnie Tschantz and Bill White. They are part of the encyclopedic catalogue of names in his head of folks who were part of his growing up years in Ceres.

“When you grow up and go to Ceres schools and stay in town and work in town, yeah, we never left.”

Remembering businesses long gone

Eric remembers Martin’s Variety Store – Delhart’s Home Furnishings occupies the space now – where Bob and Joyce Martin sold all kinds of clothing, sundries and assorted household items.

The building at the southeast corner of Fourth and North streets – where the Ceres Chamber office is today – was split in two and occupied by Benny’s Market in one half and Bilson’s Sporting Goods in the other.

The only other grocery stores in Ceres at the time were Sequoia Market, Whitmore Market and Richland Market at the southwest corner of Richland and Evans.

“That was the first grocery I remember,” Eric recalled. “Mom would take all of us with. We always had a station wagon and we would go to that grocery store to do groceries and you didn’t pay; they had a monthly grocery bill. Mom would go once a week and I remember Ted Rosander worked behind the meat counter and would give us raw hotdogs and I ended up working with him later at Rice Furniture and he remembered that.”

According to Eric, Ted felt sorry for Mrs. Ingwerson “with those five kids.”

Eric attended Carroll Fowler Elementary School from 1959 to 1966. Eric shared that “learning to skip” was a skill required for promotion to the first grade.  “Education standards have come a long way since then.”

Those were also the days when a customer could buy five hamburgers for a buck, he noted, at the Chew ‘N Chat Cafe on Third Street opposite Whitmore Park. Eric also remembers that near Ceres High School was the Snack Shack and Bulldog Den where snow cones were sold.

Eric used to go with his parents into Mae’s Café on Fourth Street where he would fiddle with the coin-operated tabletop juke boxes and flipping through song selections.

“I remember when they built Paul’s Rexall Drug across from Sequoia Market and my Aunt Leila and Uncle Don had just bought a home off of Fourth Street off of Caswell when it was brand new and we would walk down to Paul’s Rexall. If you had a dime you’d walk out of there with a sack of candy. Ten cents! Oh!”

All things are relative, though. His mom was paid a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour working at Ceres Drug Store. She was elated to receive a raise of 10 cents.

‘You’ll never leave’

Over the years, the couple has toyed with breaking free from the gravitational pull of Ceres to live in areas like the Folsom area. They also have talked about moving to the Carson City area of Nevada but it may never happen. 

“I don’t know that we’ll ever leave,” he admitted. “We may end up spending the rest of our lives here now but we still talk about moving to Nevada.”

Carol used to tease Eric that he would never leave his mom or Ceres.

When he was in his 20s, Eric worked for McMahon’s Furniture in Modesto which offered him an assistant manager role when they opened a store in Clovis. He chewed it over with Carol but she declared “no way you’ll take it … you won’t leave your mother.”

Carol would have gone but Eric turned down the chance for Clovis.

Eric’s life as a boy, teen

He mostly held down sales jobs but remembers pitching watermelons for one weekend “and that was it.” He also worked picking peaches for the Burrell family.

“I remember they would hold the start of school if the peaches weren’t in.”

As a kid Eric remembers the Ceres’ city limit sign was at Caswell Avenue with the population number of 1,900 posted on its face. On some summer night, he stayed over for sleepovers in the front yard of the home of friend Kevin Swanson. The boys would take turns straddling the city limit line to say, “I’m half in Modesto and half in Ceres.”

Technically the other side was the unincorporated area of the county with a Modesto mailing address. Today the north part of Ceres continues to maintain the Modesto mailing address despite being in Ceres.

In his boyhood, the area that would become Smyrna Park was planted in peaches owned by Hardy Fowler’s family. Berries were grown west of Moffet Road until the housing subdivisions took them over.

When he graduated Ceres High School, Eric found a job as a forklift operator at Delta Brands on Tenth Street in Modesto loading beer into trucks.

“I got two dollars an hour and the minimum wage at the time was $1.65 and I thought wow, I’m making it!”

Eric, who admits that “didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” ended up losing cases of beer that he dropped and they exploded.

His job was eliminated when drivers were allowed to load their own cargo – maybe because of the losses from inexperienced forklift drivers like Eric.

He recalls cashing his first check of $50, stuffing the cash in his wallet but losing it all on a dive into the canal during a swim. Friend Bobby Stapp fished for it and couldn’t find it. Instead he found another wallet – this one with $23 inside – of which Eric was given $10 out of sympathy.

Twenty-year-old Eric sold furniture McMahon’s in Modesto starting in 1974 working a warehouse job and later trained to sell during a long period of no pay.

“I was working for free on Saturdays to sell furniture.”

Eric could work for free because he was still living at home with his mom at 2518 Thomas Avenue. He quickly rose in the ranks of a successful salesman and later worked at Rice Furniture.

Eric and Carol Ingwerson wedding
Eric and Carol Ingwerson on their wedding day in July 1977. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Married life

He and Carol married in July 1977.

Ingwerson, who has been in real estate sales for decades and now works part-time, marvels at what he paid for their first house. In 1978 he plopped down $250 for a down payment to buy a 1,500-square-foot house under construction on Rose Avenue for $38,200.

Carol worked as a dental assistant for numerous dentists after graduating from Mid-State College in downtown Modesto. She later worked at Modesto City Hospital for a brief stint and quit because she was working swing shift and Eric missed seeing her. So she went to work for Blue Shield in Riverbank for six years until they closed.  For 18 years Carol worked at Kaiser. As a bed control clerk, she was among the first group of employees assigned at the new Kaiser hospital in Modesto. On March 1, 2022 she retired.

Carol Norton Ingwerson
Carol Norton, future wife of Eric Ingwerson, (right) with portraits of her siblings, older sister Terry Norton (born 1950) and brother Eugene Norton (born 1961). - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Since she was young, Carol has struggled with stuttering and believes it began when she was three years old and broke her front teeth when her face collided into the back of a metal seat when the brakes were slammed in her mom’s car. In those days kids rarely used a seatbelt.

“I had to learn all over again. I went to speech therapy all through school.”

Fortunately, her friends were accepting of her stutter, encouraging her to not to worry about taking longer to get the words out.

The Ingwersons household expanded in the 1980s with the births of two children. Carol stopped working to raise Joel, who came along in 1982 and Breanna in 1986.

Eric’s social and civic involvement led to him being the go-to emcee for various public events in Ceres. He believes it started when he was in the second grade and was coaxed into tap dancing by Betty Bilson despite fears of being ridiculed by his classmates.

“That was the first time I did anything in front of an audience,” said Eric. “We had recitals … and they would take us out to the State (mental) Hospital and perform and the crazy people were the audience.”

Eric Ingwerson kid family
Eric Ingwerson (bottom left) with his siblings Amron, Greg, Sherri and Malrie Ingwerson. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

As a high school freshman he performed in the musical “The Boyfriend,” under the direction of teacher Judy Glaister. It took six months to whip the cast into shape.

He rebuffed Betty Bilson’s attempts to recruit him to take on the Debs and Dons ballroom dancing group, saying “I was already getting picked on enough.”

But those experiences got him used to speaking in front of audiences. His ability to banter and ad lib with strangers was polished as an easy mannered salesman.

He was later squeezed into leadership roles in the Ceres Lions Club after he was pressured by Jim Cooper to join in 1982. 

“I joined. I was just going to appease them, join and be a member for a while and I was the president by 1989.”

Other young guys joining the club at the time included Linny Goodrich, Rocky Fisher and Mike Sneed who complimented older members like Hardy Fowler, Medrick Parra and club president Roger Strange.

“I think I got used to talking (publicly) when I became president,” Eric commented.

The first event he was tapped to emcee was the now bygone Miss Ceres pageant. He routinely is the emcee for the annual Chamber banquet. While he does enjoy it, he admits getting nervous before crowds.

At those Chamber banquets Eric enjoyed his banter with Pastor Adrian Condit who baptized him as a young man. Condit died in 2021.

In 1988 when an opening came up on the Ceres Planning Commission, he was recruited to apply by member Greg Smith and Mayor Louie Arrollo. While Eric helped decide planning matters on the first and third Mondays of the month Carol “just worked and took care of the house.

“It was a lot but I just got used him being gone but at least it kept him from getting into trouble.”

He simultaneously served as vice president of the Ceres Chamber while serving as chairman of the Ceres Planning Commission.

“That became trying. When you have meetings three, four times a week and try to sell housing, and the kids were growing up, I made jokes about my wife introducing me to my children because I was never there.”

In 1995 Ingwerson was elected to the Ceres City Council, re-elected in 1999 and served until 2003.

He recalls the time Mayor Barbara Hinton was challenged by Councilman Leo Havener in 1997.

“Nobody except me supported Leo. Leo came to me and he goes, ‘Everybody else on the council is supporting Barbara.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Leo, you don’t have a chance. This lady is going to smoke you.’”

Partly out of pity, Ingwerson endorsed Havener who ended up winning in a 1,714 vote to 1,525 vote outcome.

“Barbara never forgave me for that. I just didn’t think my name on something meant that much. She was not happy when she lost that election.”

Eric was named vice mayor but six months later, Havener resigned to take a job in Yerington, Nevada and Ingwerson became mayor, serving until 1999.

A memorable moment during his first tenure as mayor occurred when Carol received a phone call from New York City to be on the “Live with Regis & Kathie Lee” TV program.

The show had viewers send in a letter to be randomly called to answer a question to win a money prize of at least $2,000.

Eric thought Carol was wasting her time with the “odds being slim to none.”

One morning at 5 a.m. the producer of the show called for Carol. She was put on the air. Regis asked if her husband was a farmer given that the name of Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture. No, but her husband was mayor she explained.

Regis replied, “The mayor? Can we speak to the mayor?”

Eric got on the phone and was speaking to a national audience.

“Before they let me go, they asked, ‘Name one thing that you’ve been able to accomplish as mayor’ and my mind went blank. I’m stammering and he said, ‘Come on, mayor, one thing!’ We had just expanded the wastewater treatment plant to allow for more development.”

The two TV personalities cheered his answer.

Eric remembers calling his mom to report that “I had just made a fool of myself on national TV.”

The experience was “surreal,” the couple said.

Because of his prior experiences as mayor, Arrollo was tapped to fill Eric’s empty seat. Ingwerson needed Arrollo’s experience since Planning Director Randy Hatch was leaving and Chief Pete Peterson retiring after the city had combined police and fire into one Department of Public Safety.

Eric decided to run for council and not mayor in 1999, opening the door for Arrollo to run and become mayor again.

At the time many were fearful over Y2K, believing that computers worldwide would halt when the new millennium turned over at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. He recalled how the entire top floor of the Ceres Police Department building was turned into the countywide Emergency Operation Center for Y2K.

It turned out to be a big nothing burger.

Eric returned as mayor from 2001 to 2003. At that time the office was a two-year term.

Taking a respite from city service, Ingwerson was elected in 2007 to a four-year term as a member of the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees. He stepped down in 2011.

Ingwerson was drafted into city service again in 2011 to fill the unexpired council term of Chris Vierra who became mayor due to the resignation of Anthony Cannella after being elected to the California State Senate.

As they approach their seventies, the couple is enjoying a more relaxed pace. As San Francisco 49ers season ticket holders they enjoy attending home games and tailgate parties in Santa Clara with friends Ken and Yvette Lane. They’ve also stepped up their travel plans. They were in Hawaii in December and are planning two big trips this year – a two-week trip to Key West, Florida and an 18-day Alaskan cruise.

As far as when Eric plans to retire came this answer: “You know what? Realtors, I don’t think, ever really do retire. They slow down. When they come in and say, ‘what’s your name again?’ and I can’t remember, that’s time to hang it up.”

Ingwersons 19902
Eric and Carol Ingwerson in this 1990s Christmas family portrait with kids Brenna and Joel. - photo by Contributed to the Courier