Ruth Strange remembers walking across the shallow Merced River in Yosemite Valley when she was five years old. Her parents, Ben and Bess Mahr, were with her on that day in 1934 when the late summer and drought stole the thunder from the waters of Yosemite. Also present was her beloved older sister, Helen, who would later die at age 17 from leukemia.
When Ruth turned 85 on Aug. 3, she had a "crazy idea" to do it again.
Just as it was 80 years ago, the river was shallow enough for Ruth to walk in the same spot - this time with her daughter and grandchildren hand in hand.
"It was so much fun," said Ruth. "It was a beautiful day."
Yosemite has always been a love of Ruth's. She and late husband Roger Strange had volunteered there after he retired, often manning information booths. They would also go there to visit Frenchie Dillon, another Ceres resident who worked in Curry Village in the idyllic national park.
Earlier this month daughter Cindy Zellman also arranged to make Ruth's dream come true of motoring into the Valley in a convertible so she could gaze upon the sheer granite cliffs unhindered by a roof. A Sunday brunch at the Ahwanhee Hotel with the party of eight was icing on the cake.
Ruth's love affair with Yosemite started on trips there made from Antioch where she was born and raised. She remembers passing through Ceres on the way through the Valley.
Lots of time to remember
Ruth has a lot of time to remember the good times that she shared as the wife of Roger Strange, the town pharmacist who took care of Ceres' ailments from 1953 until his retirement in 1984. She lives alone in the Cape Cod style house she and Roger built in 1954. In the house, filled with memories of 60 years and sounds of a ticking clock, Ruth shares stories from her life and her views of the future. If she had it her way, Roger would be right there with her. But sadly after 59 years of a happy marriage, Roger died February 2010 from inclusion body myositis. The last two years of his life she faithfully sustained him through a feeding tube. The cruel conclusion of a life spent serving others was followed a year later by their daughter's unfortunate diagnosis of a less serious form of myositis.
The sadness is overpowered by the vibrant good memories.
Ruth feels blessed she got as much time with Roger as anyone could have hoped. They spent lots of time together when Roger retired at age 56. They packed a lot of travel into their retirement years, visiting 52 countries and exploring all 50 states. They backpacked and hiked all over the Sierras. She has hiked to the top of Half Dome several times, the first attempt at age 15 in 1944. The first time up Half Dome was in 1966 when Roger and she and the girls went without a camera.
Like many happy couples, their lives together were carved by the proper mix of change, perfect timing and geography. Had Roger stayed in Oakland Ruth likely wouldn't have met her future husband. However, his dad had an opportunity to work at Antioch's Fulton Shipyard during the war. That meant Roger would have to pull up his stakes from Piedmont High School and start attending Antioch High School. There he became attracted to a blonde-haired daughter of a school teacher.
"We knew each other in high school but we really got acquainted in the church youth group," said Ruth. "By my senior year we were going together."
Roger graduated in 1946 and Ruth the following year.
Roger then attended pharmacy school at UCSF while Ruth attended San Jose State University.
"I graduated on Friday and we were married on Sunday."
That was 1950.
Ruth is unsure how it occurred but said Roger worked a year as a pharmacist at a Hanford drug store and grew to like the Valley. Along came an interruption: Roger was ordered to report to the Army and trained at Fort Ord near Monterey. Ruth boarded with a local family while she worked a substitute teacher.
After basic training, Roger told Army officials that he didn't know how to do anything but pharmacy so they assigned him to spend his two years at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. Roger also worked a night job to be able to afford their apartment in San Francisco.
In 1953, the Stranges would move to Ceres - against Ruth's wishes.
"Most of Roger's classmates all wanted to stay in the Bay Area and he said he wanted to come to the Valley. I think he figured the jobs were here. He liked the area."
Move to Ceres in 1953
Mr. Strange had a pharmaceutical salesman pass along copies of a letter of introduction to Valley druggists who might consider employing him. The very next day, Ceres drug store owner Claude McKnight called and said, "I'm coming to a boat show tomorrow. Can you meet me?"
The two met on Roger's lunch hour and "hit it off so well."
"He walked into the apartment and said, ‘How would you like to move to Ceres?' And I looked at him and said, ‘I would not!' All I remembered of Ceres was our trips from Antioch to Yosemite and the little triangular park because, of course, Highway 99 went right by the park at the time."
Ruth reluctantly agreed to go.
"There was nothing to buy or rent and so we built right away," said Ruth.
Andy Tully, the only real estate agent in Ceres at the time, told the Stranges to talk to Irmie Barnes who was an employee of the court building in Ceres. Barnes said her friends just moved into a new house and might rent their old one on Margaret Way. That's where the Stranges spent their first few months in Ceres. Duncan McDonald built their house and they moved in during February 1954. Ruth hasn't lived any place since.
Strange worked alongside McKnight in the drug store, then located at the northwest corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets. McKnight gave Strange "a very, very good deal" when turning the store over upon his retirement.
"He liked Roger. In fact Marge Derby to this day says Roger was the son her dad never had."
She described McKnight, who served as mayor of Ceres from 1938 to 1939, as friendly, congenial, generous and intelligent.
When Ceres Drug Store moved to its present location on Fourth Street in 1965, the Stranges purchased it. For a time, pharmacist Vern Vierra was a partner in the business. Ruth says she remembers the day that Vern's wife gave birth to Chris, the current mayor.
"That was a big day in the drug store when Chris was born," said Ruth.
Ruth watched her husband organize a Downtown Merchants Association. Mr. Strange organized the 1961 Paint Up Festival which was ultimately featured in the Saturday Evening Post. The people of Ceres came together and painted murals on the walls of downtown buildings that are still visible in locations.
"That was fun," said Ruth.
In the evenings, the Stranges would stroll around their neighborhoods, sometimes down Fifth Street which for decades had a row of trees in the middle of the street. They would often drop in and chat with neighbor Mae Hensley, the well-respected teacher turned truancy officer and namesake for Ceres' first junior high. Hensley is among the long list of older friends for whom Ruth has had tearfully bid farewell to over the years. Other very close friends she watched slip away were Medrick and Ruth Perra, Ruth and Homer Jorgensen and Caryl and Hardy Fowler.
Ruth has even had to watch a daughter die. Ruth and Roger raised two girls, Linda Strange, who grew up to become a math teacher and who died in 1987, and Cindy Zellman of Modesto. Cindy and huband gave Ruth three grandchildren.
Roger ran the household frugally - because they had to pay off their business debt - and rarely ate out at places like Mae's Café that operated on Fourth Street.
"I didn't have a lot of extra money to spend. Anything we had was going into buying the store."
For decades, Roger lived a quiet life dispensing the drugs to help Cereans with their ailments, diseases, pains and medical needs. But Ruth remembers getting occasional night calls from the likes of police officer Louis Arrollo who called to report "there's somebody in your drug store." One morning Roger helped detain one of two burglars by sticking a mortar pestle in his back and pretending it was a gun until the officer was done detaining the first suspect.
Another time, an armed gunman walked back to the prescription counter and confronted both Strange and Earl Eggett, who was handicapped. Earl, who spotted the gun as a fake, yelled, "Jump him, Roger - it's a toy gun!"
"Of course, Roger didn't know if Earl knew what he was talking about but he jumped him but the guy ran and Roger chased him down the street thinking all the time, ‘Gosh, I hope Earl was right.' Earl knew his guns but Roger sure didn't."
Being that everyone in town could access Roger's home phone number on the directory, the Stranges would receive late calls for the emergency filling of a prescription. Roger never turned them down.
"I can remember one night I groaned, ‘Do you really have to go?' and he said, ‘It's a sick baby.' You know you do anything for a sick baby."
In 1984, after 29 years of ownership, Roger and Ruth sold the drug store to Ted Smernes, who still operates it today. Smernes has had it 30 years.
Active social life
Looking back, Ruth realizes that while she resisted the idea of coming to Ceres, she is glad she settled here.
Ruth has been a charter member of the Soroptimist International of Ceres which formed in 1971. She greatly enjoys the companionship of club members.
"We have the best club around. It keeps growing where all the others are falling apart. I enjoy the younger women and I contribute nothing to them anymore as far as I'm concerned. You know I have gone through the offices and done my part but that was years ago."
Ruth also stays busy with activities of Harvest Presybyterian Church.
"I started thinking, what would I have done without these dear, dear friends. Life takes such different turns and I just can't imagine living somewhere else and having different friends and doing without the friends I had because they're so precious."
If she decides to sell her home of 60 years, Ruth says it will be only to move to Samaritan Village in Hughson where so many of her friends have moved in the past. For now there is still ways to serve her friends.
"I'm the designated driver for all my friends so I've got to keep my driver's license," she said with a chuckle.
There isn't a day where Roger isn't actively present in her thoughts.
"In fact I say good morning to him every day and kiss his picture."
"We've had a good life."