If Shelia Myers' mother hadn't found work as a waitress at the Burger Pit Steakhouse in Fremont, it’s likely she never would have met Lee Brandt, her husband today.
It was by hanging out in her mom’s eatery workplace that Shelia, a clerk at the nearby Alec Department store, met Lee, who bused tables at night alongside of Millie Myers in 1968.
The following year the 19-year-olds were exchanging wedding vows.
The fun-loving Ceres couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November at a gathering at their church.
“He was the biggest jerk, he was a bad boy."Shelia Brandt on husband Lee
“He was the biggest jerk, he was a bad boy,” recalled Shelia, who was born in Pasadena, Texas in 1949. “He was flirty. He thought he was God’s gift to women and he had has ’55 Chevy.”
Lee, a Branham High School student at the time, did not ask Shelia, a JFK High School (Fremont) student out on their first date.
“I made a bet with him that he would not ask me out for a date,” explained Shelia, “because he was going with a bunch of friends down to Disneyland and he goes, ‘You know what? When I get back we’ll go out for a date.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah? I bet you won’t go out on a date.’”
When Lee returned the two did go out – on a double date with her brother and his girlfriend. Shelia said she doesn’t remember the movie playing at the passion pit in Fremont because they “were too busy making out in the back seat.”
Shelia suggested Lee wouldn’t remember the movie either, saying he doesn’t have much recall of the 1960’s or seventies for that matter. Was it drugs, I asked? An open book, Lee admits that he is “an old hippie” and freely admits to smoking a lot of marijuana back in the day. He’s given it up, expressing fears about the strengths of cannabis today.
“Lee and I are from two totally different cultures growing up. I had a very stable childhood growing up. I’m the oldest of seven kids. His parents were divorced. He lived between his mom and his dad. He’s the baby of four boys.”
Lee’s childhood was far from idyllic and he said he chooses to forget a lot of it “on purpose.”
“My curfew, for instance – coming home from high school I had to be in by dawn the next day. My mom … we highly suspected that us five boys had different dads and she was hanging around with a guy that was younger than three of my older brothers.”
Because he had a mom who was largely more concerned with boyfriends than the welfare of her children, Lee took an immediate liking to his coworker in Shelia’s mom – mostly because of her motherly qualities.
“I think we were that family that he never had because he had a crappy childhood,” offered Shelia.
A less than romantic proposal
The couple dated and Shelia waited for a traditional on-the-knee proposal that never came.
“We’d been dating for quite a while on and off, on and off and he was doing the whole thing with ‘I really love you and I’d really love to get married but I don’t think we can afford that.’”
Shelia – she’s a self-confessing “control freak” – whipped out pen and paper and calculated how they could make it financially as a couple.
“That’s when he pulled the tab off the Coke can and he put it on my finger and we got engaged,” said Shelia. “I still have it. I’m sentimental like that.”
The aluminum pull tab engagement ring story prompted the light-hearted and affable Lee to deadpan: “I’m a romantic.”
The marriage hit a few road bumps after Lee went through a “wild and crazy” time that led to three separations.
“The Lee you know now is made by her – seriously. I have grown to really super appreciate Shelia over the past 25 years or more.”
Shelia looked into Lee’s face at that moment, perhaps looking for an expected crack of a smile but also taking in his words almost surprised, like she hadn’t heard Lee gush such sentiments often – and she thanked him. Much has healed between them.
Brandts come to Ceres
Because they seem like such an active part of the community landscape – Lee worked for the city of Ceres for many years –it doesn’t seem possible that the Brandts have not been Ceres residents for less than 34 years. They moved to Ceres in 1985 from Fremont, where they were married, because housing prices there were out of their reach.
“Yeah, we were going to buy a house in Fremont and our house payment would have been $246 a month and that was too much,” laughed Lee. “That was in the seventies,” added Shelia.
Mark and Pam Stephens, friends from Fremont who relocated to Ceres, encouraged the Brandts to follow. At the time Lee worked for Xicor, an electronics company in Milpitas, in shipping and receiving. Shelia worked for a cable company in Fremont. The couple continued to commute together to their South Bay jobs, leaving at 4 a.m. and returning to their Loretta Lane home at 6 p.m. Shelia eventually went on medical leave after their move and Lee continued to commute for over two years – until the city of Ceres hired him in 1991.
Shelia eventually worked as a customer service rep for Modesto Irrigation District for 23 years. It was through his job with the city’s Facility Services Department where Lee came to know a lot of people, including city leaders, and many of the police and fire personnel.
Lee was on the staff during that night that evil lurked its ugly head in Ceres: Jan. 9, 2005 when AWOL Marine Andres Raya slayed Sgt. Howard Stevenson in a dastardly executed attack fueled by drugs and seriously wounded Officer Sam Ryno. Lee got a call from his boss to report to the Ceres Police headquarters “and just be there for them – whatever they need.”
He remembers feeling the emotional oppression in the following days.
“It was horrible,” said Lee.
Shelia feels it was “a God thing” that they couldn’t have children because 18 years into the marriage they were led to adopt special needs twins in Alex and Brianna, who were two and a half years old at the time. While living in Ceres they adopted through Family Connections, a Christian agency in Modesto. Both children had been severely physically abused and Brianna nearly died of brain injury – from a suspected baseball hit to the head. Permanent effects of that abuse have left Brianna as an adult with no peripheral vision in her right eye, short-term memory loss, a contorted right arm and difficulty walking.
Over the decades the couple has been active in the community. Lee coached and umped for Ceres Youth Baseball for a while and Shelia has taught Sunday School at Village Chapel Free Will Baptist Church not far from their home. Together they have helped out at the Ceres Street Faire and Christmas and Halloween festivals. Lee served on the Measure H advisory committee, helping to oversee where half-cent sales tax money is spent on public safety. He also served on Measure A concerning the utility users tax. Shelia worked on the Concerts in the Park Committee. Together they serve on the Ceres Centennial Committee and the TOT advisory committee. Lee is also a member of the Ceres Lions Club.
The Brandts also are regular back row fixtures at City Council meetings, something Lee wanted to start doing mostly in support of Linda Ryno who worked for the city when Lee did.
“It’s much better than Monday night football,” Lee commented of council meetings.
“We enjoy being involved because you really don’t have a right to complain if you aren’t involved,” said Shelia.
The couple has been active in the small church after being invited by then Pastor John Smith, who was tipped off that they recently adopted twins who he felt needed to come to church. So Pastor Smith dutifully picked up the Brandt children and brought each Sunday. It took an invitation on Friends Day a year later for Sheila to walk through the door of the church. Eventually Shelia became a Christian and began teaching Sunday school and serving on the church board. Lee attended occasionally until his involvement increased.
Age of retirement
When both retired within days of each other in 2008, the couple decided to leave the state for fear California’s high cost of living would outstrip their income. They sold their Ceres house before the housing market crash and moved to Portland, Tenn. They selected that area since Nashville offered state of the art medical care for daughter Brianna at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; and to be close to the country music scene.
“We loved it back there,” said Lee. “It’s beautiful. Ceres has been great to us but California hasn’t but that’s a whole ’nother subject.”
The separation from family – such as the Shelia’s sister here – pulled them back to Ceres three years later.
“We had no family back there. We missed family and friends – that’s why we came back,” said Lee.
Looking back, they see God’s hand in the move. Her niece, Candice LaFramboise, was diagnosed with cancer which ultimately took her life in 2014.
“There would have been absolutely no way I could have stayed in Tennessee with Candice being sick,” said Shelia, who supported the 2016 Ceres Relay for Life in her name.
As he approaches 70, Lee works part-time for Ace Hardware on Oakdale Road in Modesto to help pay the bills – and fuel their love of travel. Having traveled across the country in 2017, they want to get back on the road with their travel trailer in 2020.
“We’ve been to every state in the union over the years,” said Lee.
In recent years the Brandts also have served as summer camp hosts at the Bridalveil Campground in Yosemite National Park.
My visit with the Brandts will be one I long remember. I felt at home even though their little dog Sheldon greeted me with barks. By the end our 90-minute visit, Sheldon wanted to play, still apprehensively, but the smell of dinner reminded me it was time to head home.
I left with the appreciation that the Brandts are a unique couple, good people who are part of what makes Ceres a great community.