Tom Passalaqua returned to his native Ceres after spending decades in Southern California and remembers the frustration of not having a place in Ceres for his daughters to play soccer.
With no soccer program in Ceres, he and his late wife, Johnny, jump-started the Ceres Youth Soccer Organization which today boasts thousands of players.
Today at age 79 he looks back with plenty of happy memories of his life as a Ceres resident and father. The son of Jim Passalaqua, an immigrant of Italy who landed here in the 1920s, Tom remembers growing up with gatherings over music and Italian food cooked on an outdoor stove at the 40-acre ranch on Grayson Road. His mother was from Oklahoma.
"Isn't that funny? An Italian Okie."
The family made their living by raising hay and cows.
"Every morning before I went to school I had to run and get the cows in for my dad, go and take my shower and the bus would pick me up," said Tom, a 1955 Ceres High School graduate. His desire to play football was more to escape the fact that his dad wanted him "to work all the time."
"My dad was tough on me. I mean, he used to whip the heck out of me. If I left the milk house door open I'd get a good beating with a hose, really. I thought when I grow up, if I ever have any kids, I'm never spanking them."
He learned to love football, which back then called for players to use leather helmets.
Time in SoCal
After graduation in June 1955, Tom hauled hay for his father and worked on peach ranches in the Hughson and Empire areas. With lots of experience with equipment under his belt, Tom decided to go south for more excitement. Tom first worked at the Los Angeles Country Club where he did landscaping work with a tractor - a skill he learned on the Ceres ranch.
"I met everybody. I met Dean Martin. He was the greatest guy in the world, just nice."
Actor Fred MacMurray was on the driving range when he approached to strike up a conversation.
"He asked me all kinds of questions, where I was from, my name, what I did. I told him I was a farmer's kid. He wouldn't tell me about him. "
Comedian Jerry Lewis gave him a dirty look when he came up and said "Hi, Jerry!"
"So I took off and got away from him."
Actor-singer Bing Crosby was much nicer.
Worked for Hughes
In the late 1950s, Tom found work at Hughes Tool, a company owned by millionaire and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. He worked there for 17 years. Over the span of about a year, Passalaqua was assigned to work alongside Harry Kaiser, Hughes' right-hand man on the Spruce Goose flying boat project.
"I stayed there with him and I had so much fun there with him because he was such a nice guy. All we did was start up all his planes. I would carry the gas. He had one of those little electric Kalamazoos that you drive. I'd bring the gas and fuel them up and he'd get in and fire them up and run them a while and go to the next one. We went all over. We went to San Pedro, Santa Monica, everywhere."
Tom had a brief marriage that produced daughter Cyndi Passalaqua in 1956.
His second marriage produced four more children - Rhonda Passalaqua Alvarado in 1961; Sabrina Courtroul in 1967; Dena Passalaqua Jones in 1969; and Michelle Passalaqua Clifton in 1972. While in Redondo Beach, Tom coached the girls in soccer. However, when he brought his family to Ceres to take a job at Bronco Winery, he found himself scattered to different places in Modesto for games. That's when Johnny and Tom talked about starting up soccer in Ceres.
"I got to where I was tired of doing this because I was working too. So we talked about starting it in Ceres. And I told her ‘I'll tell you right now, it's going to be hard to get it going here because football doesn't want nothing in there but football."
Starting Ceres soccer
The Passalaquas began a community conversation with most people feeling soccer "would be fine." Ceres, he believed, had enough elementary school sites for playing fields but he met resistance with then Ceres Unified School District Supt. Bob Adkison.
"He said, ‘No, no way. We don't want soccer in here.' I thought ,‘This is not good.' I said there was a lot of parents who really want it. He said, ‘Nope, we don't need it in here. We've got enough sports in here already.'"
Tom asked to come back and see Adkison again and in the meantime rallied the community with Greg Smith.
The second meeting met with more discouragement after being told the district would charge $100 per field per game.
"He knew that we couldn't do that because we were just trying to get started."
Passalaqua said that in 1982 he came up with "this stupid idea of getting signups before we even got into fields."
Flyers were placed all over town for the first-ever signup. Tom and Johnny sat at Smyrna Park with Star Bear, and Doug and Nancy Campbell with nobody showing up for signups. Right after they were ready to clear the park, kids showed up.
"The Dolphins swim team got out and they all came over to sign up. Man, we were so happy to see all these kids coming. It made us feel really good."
The idea was to play exclusively at Smyrna Park. Tom's son-in-law, Rudy Alvarado, made makeshift nets with PVC pipe to play under 6 kids. The community loved it.
Those who turned out were urged to lobby Adkison to change his mind. When Richland Market owner Gus Pallios found out, he went down to rattle the cages at the School Board meeting.
"Gus made a good speech, boy. He said, ‘You mean you're going to charge these kids a hundred dollars a game when I spend so much money each year for the high school, for all these little schools for sports?' He shamed the heck out of them. They said, okay, we could play at Walter White first."
From there a committee was formed with Johnny being president and Tom being vice president. The Kicker newsletter was produced in the beginning years with Donna Lopez, Sandy Ulery, Laura Norwood and Bill Kearney involved in its production.
"It grew quick," said Tom of the soccer league. "Even the football came out and watched it. They wanted their kids in it right away."
He convinced the Ceres High athletic director at the time that soccer would make for better high school athletes because of all of the running involved.
"After that, some of the best football players they had after that were soccer players. So they were all for it. They loved it."
Tom says he constantly looked out for all kids to be allowed to play despite their abilities.
Dena remembers helping the fledging league get started.
"My Father dragged me, willingly, to board meetings, to get permits, knocking on doors, making and handing out fliers and just constantly recruiting volunteers and sponsors," said Jones. "There were so many hurdles to climb and my parents really counted on family and the community's support. I remember my brother-in-law (Rudy Alvarado) and myself studying together and passing the test to become soccer referees. I think I was only 14 or 15 at the time. My score was second highest behind Rudy's and he never let me forget it."
She also remembers how her father instilled the tradition of each team making a fun and colorful team banner.
Tom got Boss & Deller, an accounting firm in Modesto owned by his sister and brother-in-law, to sponsor his first team.
Dena said both her parents worked full time but each took on a team to coach, with practices together at Don Pedro Elementary School, closest to the Passalaqua home out in the country.
"The very funniest thing was that at the end of the season my father's team won every game and my mother's team lost every game - even though they scheduled every practice together. I was so inspired, that my senior year of high school in Ceres I became the only girl to play on the boys' soccer team."
Tom and his partner in life - third wife, Cindy, who is 21 years his junior - also believes in the benefits of soccer.
"Our little granddaughter plays now and she had a little tummy on her," said Cindy. "She's eight years old and she's slimming down. It's hilarious."
Passalaqua eventually phased out his involvement because of his work as a school bus driver, and because his daughters had grown up. The organization fell to leaders like Lou Toste who has been with the organization since its inception. For years after he left, said Cindy, Tom served as an advocate for parents who felt their child was not getting any play time.
The couple will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary on July 4.
"I wouldn't have it any other way - he's the best guy. I do credit age to that."
Cindy says it's fun to go around with Tom in public because many old bus riders come up to say hi to him.
"Of course they're all grown up but he hasn't changed that much," said Cindy.
Tom is also a hero to Cindy's handicapped son, who is cared for by Tom and Cindy.
"My son is 32 and my other son is 34 and they don't have anything to do with their biological dad. This guy has been in their lives since we got together in 1991. He walks on water."