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Betty Lee Taylor Baker: 79 years of memories
When someone who's been around as long as

Betty Lee Taylor Baker, 89, tells a newspaper writer that their life is "boring" for a good feature, press for an interview anyway. Humbleness is a common trademark of the Greatest Generation, Mrs. Baker no exception.

After reassuring the kind 79-year Ceres resident that she qualifies as interesting with her longevity alone, Mrs. Baker sat down and recounted her association with Ceres since the day it started in June, 1931. Her Leslie Lane home where she's lived since 1962, is quiet but when she speaks my mind is whisked back to days of Ceres long ago and encountering emotions I didn't expect. I knew little of her life as we sat down but left 100 minutes later feeling as though I had a friend.

Betty came to Ceres as a red-headed nine-year-old. She was just as content to stay in her Yates Center, Kansas, some 22 miles from her 1921 birthplace in Burlington, Kansas. But it was the Great Depression and Arch Taylor, her father, had hit upon hard times as an auto salesman. Aunt Nell Reed in Ceres encouraged Arch and Bessie to pack up Betty and older sister Patti (Patti Taylor LaPointe will be 94 next month), and make a new start. They drove their tightly packed Ford all the way to Ceres.

"Dad said it was the best move he ever made," said Betty, who believes that only 600 to 700 people were living in Ceres at the time. "I had my 10th birthday just a few days after we arrived here."

Ceres welcomed the new family like old friends. Kindness abounded.

Arch Taylor eventually built up a successful Modesto insurance business, but dollars were still short in the 1930s. Betty and Patti - indeed most every kid in Ceres - found summer jobs cutting peaches or apricots at Fred Moffet's Superior Fruit Ranch between Hughson and Ceres. She often hitched a ride to the ranch with Petra Hosmer, mother of her best friend in school, Wanda Hosmer, down Whitmore Avenue, then named Hughson Highway.

"We cut fruit in the summer time to earn money. It was Depression time. We didn't go without clothing or food or anything like that. We didn't really think we were poor but there was no extra money whatsoever and all of us cut fruit to make money to buy school clothes for the fall. As we got older some of the kids worked in the cannery."

Ceres was a sleepy village. Betty paints an idyllic picture of a friendly town of a more innocent era where neighbor looked out for neighbor. In those days parents could safely let their children rollerskate down Whitmore Avenue - sometimes as far as Hughson - since there was little traffic and you could trust most everyone.

"The town was so small. I can remember there would be hobos that would walk from the railroad over there and Mother would feed them, you know, they would do a little bit of yard work. Everybody did that. They trusted each other."

Betty's parents first lived in a rented house, known as the Bartholomew house, on Fifth Street south of Whitmore Avenue. The Taylors later bought the house next door.

I hand her a surprise, a copy of a late 1930s photo of Betty and Wanda taken during high school and she gasps, "I'd forgotten about this. I sure don't remember what the occasion was." After studying their fancy dresses, she's sure the dresses were worn for a play, "Anne of Green Gables."

Elementary and high school were "good years" and Betty was invariably a well-behaved student. But there was a moment of childhood terror when she was called into the office by Principal Walter White, a tall and imposing figure who was known for using a paddle on the fanny. Betty dusts off a memory of how this one boy teased her unmercifully - "I guess he liked me" - and when she had enough, raised her classroom ukulele up as if to strike him as he raised his elbow to block it with the objects colliding and the ukulele breaking. She had the ukulele as part of the fifth grade Ukulele Club organized by teacher Helen Froelich. Her march down the hall of Whitmore School felt like a walk to the gallows.

"It scared me to death, absolutely petrified me because I wasn't a kid that ever got in trouble. He didn't lay a hand on me. All he did was talk to me. I guess he could see I was petrified. He was very, very nice and sent me back to my room."

Betty is confident that had she been a boy, she would have got a good lickin' from Mr. White.

She blurts out, "Oh my goodness," remembering that she hadn't remembered the incident in many years.

Betty had little contact with the legendary school marm Mae Hensley. Still, she's very fond of the late Mrs. Hensley for kindnesses she extended to her future husband, Ron Baker, when he was a child.

"They became very close. When Ron and his father first came to California, there was not money for the whole family to come out. And Ron was in Mrs. Hensley's eighth grade class and she started to look him over, mother him, knowing that his mother wasn't out here yet, sometimes taking him home with her, sometimes do laundry for him."

Betty's contact with teachers was always positive, saying "Some of those teachers in those old days gave of extra time. They were outstanding."

Froehlich and Lela Taylor teamed up to teach her fifth grade class. Evelyn Mashek taught her sixth grade class. A Miss Jones her seventh grade and Gladys Peterson Francis in eighth grade. "She also was a leader of our Camp Fre Girls organization. She gave us a lot of extra time."

Betty disappears into another room to fetch her senior yearbook, a 1939 Ceres High School Cereal. She flips pages to show photos of her in music and drama productions. In the front of the book a photo of Principal Aaron S. Cakebread is inscribed to Betty. He admonishes her not to lose touch with him now that she's graduated as a high and mighty senior. A long inscription by Wanda tells Betty "let's hope that whether we're old maids or matrons we can keep in close touch." It's an ironic expression given that Wanda, the pretty and popular class valedictorian, eventually married and moved and became estranged with family and thus friends who stayed in Ceres. Wanda died in 2009 in Arizona, leaving Betty struggling to understand why the estrangement occurred but believes it had something to do with Wanda's husband.

It's been 71 years since high school yet Betty and some old class friends still meet regularly, albeit they are fewer and fewer. Irene Hickey, who lived a block from her while growing up, died this month. Joyce Geise, Ruth Runsten and Betty Castleman Smith remain.

"Irene and I were very close friends. We wheeled our babies in those war time canvas baby buggies up and down Fifth Street."

Betty cried and consoled with Irene when word came that Irene's husband, Paul Hickey, was killed during World War II. In March 1944, his plane, a B-17 "Flying Fortress" was shot down over Germany.

Betty got to enjoy her military husband much longer. Ron served in the Air Force and she was able to travel with him to live on bases in Montana and West Virginia. When she couldn't go with Paul to Point Barrows, Alaska, she stayed with her parents in Ceres. After the war, life resumed in Ceres. Ron returned to his old job as a watch repairman at a Modesto jewelry store but felt a calling to become a teacher. Betty was caring for four little ones at that time in their home on Central Avenue.

"Times were still hard after the war and so he worked two different jobs and took classes at Stanislaus State. And I started taking summer and night classes because I decided with a family of four children, that we were going to need money."

Mr. White hired Ron as a math teacher at the junior high school (now Walter White Elementary School). Ron later became vice principal. Betty became a substitute teacher while studying to earn her credentials.

"That wasn't easy with four kids. It took a lot of cooperation between the two of us."

In those days the Ceres school superintendent forbid spouses from both being employed in Ceres schools so Betty started full-time at Paradise School in about 1961. After the rule was changed, Betty worked at Don Pedro School to teach fifth grade. When Principal Bob Yialouris asked Betty to take on a first-grade class, she initially resisted, thinking "that's such a responsible year." Baker found the fit a great one for 17 years.

Retirement came in 1983.

"It's neat, you know, even to this day there'll be grown young men and women who'll meet me in the store or something and they'll come up and greet me and be so gracious, so sweet, you know, remembering that I had them in first grade. I don't recognize them at all; they have to tell me who they are."

For someone 11 years shy of 100, Mrs. Baker refuses to become sedentary. Acknowledging that it would be easier to sit and watch TV, Betty forces herself to stay physically active and engaged in the community.

"I've always been active in organizations and things and I still am. Ceres has been my home and I just like to give back." She's very active in Grace Community Christian Church. The church is a spin-off of Ceres Christian Church where she was choir director for many years. Betty has membership in Persephone Guild and the Ceres Historical Society but had to give up volunteering with Delta Blood Bank and the Ceres Salvation Army Extension Committee.

My eye checks on the clock for I know that Mrs. Taylor has plans to exercise with longtime friend Fran Welsh after our talk. She reassures me that we are fine on time.

I ask about her four children. She lists them in birth order. Lynne Wright, is a retired Modesto City Schools administrator. Steven Baker is a Modesto veterinarian. Stan Baker just retired from Gallo Winery.

"Our fourth child was Gordon," she said.

Was? I have a gut feeling I'm not going to like the next revelation. I notice the quietness of the house, as if these walls have witnessed a family tragedy.

Betty last saw Gordon over 40 years ago. It was no ordinary accident. Gordon died with two other Ceres teens, after school on Jan. 8, 1970. Anyone around back then recalls the horrific incident that not only claimed Gordon, a CHS senior, but also sisters Terri and Vickie Sargent.

"It devastated our whole family," she said. "It absolutely shook the town of Ceres and Ceres High School."

The details are recounted with heart-breaking clarity. The Sargent girls drove up to the very house I was in. They picked up Gordon to take him somewhere to talk. The girls wanted a sympathetic ear about their parents' troubling split up. Gordon, who suggested once that he wanted to become a counselor, was eager to assist his high school friends. He jumped into the Sargents' little red sports car and off they went on their death ride.

The car turned onto westbound Whitmore Avenue from Joy Avenue. Within seconds the car was struck behind by an out of control car zipping down Whitmore at 90 mph as its unlicensed driver, Lester Brahm, had an epileptic seizure. Brahm's foot was jammed to the accelerator. Yellowing newspaper articles produced by Betty include photos of the crumbled wreckage of three cars.

For days, teens pilgrimaged to the Baker home to console, be consoled and to find answers. Betty had no answers to give them nor herself, and still doesn't to this day.

The Bakers' strong Christian faith helped to buoy themselves and others.

"Without our strong faith I don't know how we would have made it. And our kids too. You're never the same. It does something to the whole family. It does bring you very close. Very close. And you know how precious family is."

Church family and friends offered great comfort and support.

"I didn't get bitter. That's not within my faith. He did wrong. He should not have been behind the wheel. We know that."

The Bakers settled out of court, avoiding a lawsuit to prevent further stress and heartache. Betty took three weeks off work to grieve. A friend later pursuaded her to join the Sweet Adelines female barbershop singing group. For the first time in this interview, Betty's eyes well up with large tears when she recalls telling the friend, "There's not a song in my heart." Burying a child will do that. Eventually, however, the music came back.

"You have to go on."

Betty was part of the group for 30 years.

Their children gone, Betty and Ron enjoyed retirement for approximately two decades, including travels all over the United States and up to Canada. Their 58 years of marriage came to an unwelcome close when cancer claimed Ron in October 2000. She remembers him facing the end with great attitude and determination.

Not wanting to camp any longer on the somber tone of our talk, her optimism bubbles up and offers that despite her personal heartaches, life has brought her great joy. She mentions five fine adult grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She marvels that her daughter had twin identical twins and one of her grandchildren also had identical twin girls.

"There's been a lot of joys in my life. Also so many good friends."

When asked her to explain her philosophy of life, Betty paused and said: "I certainly believe in living Christian attributes, a Christian way of life. And I believe in taking care of your body, eating right and exercising, having a closeness with your family and doing for others and for friends, although I'm losing lots of friends at my age."

I nod with approval. No doubt those values have enabled her to live as long and as healthy as she is today.

Leaving, I give her a hug, which I rarely do to subjects. It felt right.

And this remarkable woman didn't think her story was worth telling. Pillars of the community rarely do.