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Ceres forever home to '46 graduate
Sometimes a journalist doesn't go looking for a story; sometimes they come looking for us. This one came to me during a February weekend of rest and relaxation at a Christian conference at Mount Hermon near Santa Cruz.

Our speaker that evening asked us to all turn and greet someone next to us. Mary Ellen Pitts was two rows in front of me and leaned over, shook my hand while reading my name tag and hometown. She lit up and eagerly offered up, "I grew up in Ceres!" When I informed her that I was editor of the Ceres newspaper, she dropped her jaw.

Later in the conference she found me and shared her affections for the tiny town that nurtured her as a child and young woman. She condensed her life story into 30 minutes, as her husband, Samuel Pitts, nudged her that it was time to move on since they had a long drive back to Redding. Her fondness for Ceres was evident as she spoke in glowing terms about a loving community, Ceres of the 1930s and 1940s, that rallied around a single mom in one of the first Hispanic families to settle here.

"Ceres will always, always be our home," said Mrs. Pitts. "It was the place that raised us."

Insist hometown

It's easy to see why Ceres has such a fond place in the heart of Mary Ellen Martinez Pitts. Her family came to Ceres in 1935 from Turlock after her mother, Juanita "Jenny" Martinez, decided to leave her father. He had become physically abusive to her and the kids, so she wanted to make a break from him. The county welfare department placed her into a home at the corner Eighth and Roeding in Ceres. As it turned out, a year later Mary Ellen's father had died of a stomach ailment.

A lot stacked against her

Jenny Martinez had a lot stacked against her. She was a poor single mother of a family of five children. She also had left Catholicism for a Protestant faith, which was taboo at the time. But Ceres - which was about 1,800 people in Ceres in 1935 - proved to be more than supportive.

"All the people from Ceres raised us, especially the First Baptist Church and the Christian church."

Ceres showed the family nothing but good will.

"I realize it now - I didn't realize it then - that at that time Mexican families were considered in the same light as Okies and blacks and Chinese. I mean, we were really looked down upon. But not one person in that little town ever ever treated us like we were anything but a member of the community. They just took us in. They enveloped us with their love, from the church to the schools to the police department."

Ceres didn't discriminate

Her first taste of discrimination was in another town during a church function. First Baptist Church took the Vacation Bible School children to an outing to swim at the plunge in Riverbank. Mary Ellen waited her turn in line at the gate with a ticket in hand. But she was stopped at the gate, told she couldn't go in. When she asked why, she was told: "No Mexicans are allowed in the pool." The stunned teacher of the class called for all her students to get out of the pool, announcing: "If Mary Ellen can't swim here, none of us will."

Standing up against injustice truly was Christian love in action in the eyes of Mary Ellen.

There were countless other times in which the community reached out and helped, mostly when Jenny Martinez was down with illness. The constable came by often and checked on the kids when Mrs. Martinez was hospitalized. So did the school nurse. Claude McKnight, the drug store owner and pharmacist did too. Art Rohde also helped out but Mary Ellen's memory of him is a bit dim.

Even the school teachers did little things to make the kids feel special. Each year on the last day before the Christmas break, one of the teachers would let Mary Ellen or her siblings take home the Christmas tree that had adorned the classroom. Otherwise the family would have done without one.

"Walter White was our school principal. He was wonderful. He was so sweet. He always made sure that my brothers and sister and I were taken care of and guided us to teachers that he thought would be good for us."

She recalled that Mr. White thought the world of her oldest brother, who was a terrific baseball player. Another brother two years older was a great student.

Education was the way out

"Mom had told us that education was going to be our way out of poverty. She said education is next to godliness. First you love God and he'll help you through your education."

Mary Ellen developed a knack for spelling and math, encouraged by her third grade teacher, a Mrs. Corson.

"I wish that I could have gotten in touch with her to let her know what a difference her encouragement meant to me. It was in the third grade that she told me, "Mary Ellen, you have a good mind and anything you put in your mind that you want to do and be, you can do it. With God's help you can do it.' "

Mr. Graham brought U.S. History to life, she recalls, that it was "like it was in front of your eyes." She was so inspired that she would take her history book and a flashlight to bed to read under the covers after lights were out. Mary Ellen got A plusses in the subject.

The struggling family was helped in ways that seemed to multiply. Once a neighbor (believed to be an Ashford) gave her little brother, Ruben, a calf. By the time the war came along, the cow had given lots of milk. "We would share that milk with all of our neighbors. We'd let the cream come up to the top and make butter. Butter was rationed at that time. It was a real wonderful thing to have milk with cream so we could have butter."

Any money the kids raised was handed over to mom for living expenses. Rabbits raised, slaughtered and cleaned by her younger brother were taken down to the grocery store where Mr. Seasted would buy them. Ruben also washed pots and pans at the bakery.

Ceres provided other opportunities. During summer nights, movies were shown on an outdoor screen in the area near Lawrence and Fifth streets. Mary Ellen recalls how residents would come out with blankets or stools.

"The only movies my mom let me see was if Shirley Temple was in it. We thought that was the most wonderful thing in the world to see a movie."

Church around social life

Every Easter church-going Ceres turned out for the annual egg hunt at Whitmore Park. One year Mary Ellen squealed with delight when she found the coveted "golden egg." The prize for finding it was a bunny-shaped glass container full of candies.

In those days, social life in Ceres was centered inside the walls of church. At First Baptist, Pastor Paul Jackson was a friend to all, someone the entire community looked up to. His wife did nice things for Mary Ellen, such as make an eighth grade graduation dress of pink material.

She remembers the Barrows family, and Mrs. Griggs, the grandmother of Cliff Barrows. Cliff Barrows, of course, became famous with the Billy Graham's crusades. Cliff's mom offered free violin lessons to Mary Ellen and Cliff's grandmother gave free piano lessons at church after school. While she attended Ceres High School, Cliff Barrows directed the high school choir at First B. At the time he was attending Modesto Junior College.

"I sang under him until he went on to be with Billy Graham."

Billy Graham made history when in November 1948 he staged a crusade in Modesto. Cliff Barrows invited a trio consisting of Mary Ellen, Virginia McCulley and Sue Munday to sing on stage in front of Graham. On a stage under a large canvas tent set up in a vacant field somewhere along Yosemite Boulevard, Mary Ellen sang her heart out. She'd occasionally glance over at Billy Graham, who was waiting his turn to speak, thinking "What a wonderful older man." She laughs now remembering that through her high school eyes 30-year-old Graham seemed old.

Her trio would also dash up to the studios of KTRB in Modesto after Sunday services to sing for a half-hour radio program hosted by their Ceres pastor.

Church was also where wide-eyed Mary Ellen and siblings would sit spellbound as twin brothers, one named Sheldon Helsley, came back from mission trips "telling us all these wonderful, wonderful miracles that God performed in the mission field." After those talks, Mary Ellen wanted to become a missionary.

Prayed out of death's claw

At one point, the family was given an opportunity to move from their cramped house in town - with strings attached. The welfare department called on Mrs. Martinez to see if she would be interested in taking in five orphaned Modesto sisters. They set her up in a large five bedroom, two-and-a-half story home on the Case Ranch on Roeding Road. The arrangement lasted until she got seriously ill for Mrs. Martinez was dying of cancer. She pleaded with church leaders to take in her children as a ward and keep them together. A legal contract was drawn up with the church, Mary Ellen recalls. But the church wasn't going to set by idly and watch Jenny pass without fervent prayer. On the day doctors said was her time to die, the church summoned a 24-hour prayer vigil. Members took turns at her hospital bedside, asking God for miraculous healing because her children still needed her. Her pulse grew stronger through the night. She turned the corner.

"That was a miracle."

Mrs. Martinez lived long enough to see all her kids graduate from high school and some from college. Mrs. Martinez lived until 1955, some nine years after that prayer vigil.

After graduating from CHS in June 1946, Mary Ellen won a scholarship to U.C. Berkeley as did her good friends, Marian Hackett Young and Virginia McCulley. Mary Ellen gave up her opportunity.

"The war came along, and my two older brothers had to go to World War II and my little brother and I stayed home with my mom. My sister was married by that time."

So Mary Ellen went to work instead.

Leaving Ceres

Just as family brought her to Ceres, family took her away. Brother Mack Martinez (now a Campbell resident) won a boxing scholarship to San Jose State. He found a house for the family. Mary Ellen contributed the $1,000 she earned and saved for the downpayment. Before the family left Ceres, Mrs. Martinez thanked her church family during a send-off celebration.

"She told them "God sent me to Ceres because all of you would be here to help me raise the children.' She was just a widow with a sixth grade education but a complete trust in God and God honored her for that."

Mary Ellen found bookkeeping work and typing and shorthand learned at Ceres High was put to use in many secretarial and bank jobs. She eventually found Samuel and they married in 1953. She retired as a secretary in the San Jose Unified School District.

Return in 2006

In October 2006, the Pitts's drove to Ceres for the 60th anniversary reunion of the class, an event organized by Vernon Mays. About 45 classmates attended, including Frances Romero Hirdes, Wanda Hinton Hickey, Betty Smith Wise, June Quesenberry Canning and Floyd Sneed. They drove by to see the old house at Eighth and Roeding. She was saddened to see that it was gone.

Time has a way of changing people and places. In our memories of our childhood, people and places can stay the same. If they are good memories, like Mary Ellen's view of small Depression era Ceres, filled with goodness and love, they can actually serve as guideposts for the rest of our lives. I'm glad I met her.