Those who died in '07 paint tapestry of Valley roots
(Fresno Bee (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Dec. 31--The lives of those who died in 2007 portray more deeply than anything the mosaic, character, diversity and soul of the San Joaquin Valley.
The stories they left behind were all about life, although the occasion of their telling came uniformly at the end of each individual's time on Earth. An accounting of one year requires an arbitrary selection having nothing to do with worthiness of the lifetime described.
At the U.S. Census Bureau in Maryland, spokesman Robert Bernstein said the year's deaths reflect both the older population and demographic composition of the region.
Professor Roger LaJeunesse, chairman of the anthropology department at California State University, Fresno, said older individuals often "seem to reflect the cultural past of Fresno, while the younger individuals are more representative of today's demographic mix."
Fresno State anthropology professor Ellen Gruenbaum said by e-mail from Sierra Leone, Africa, where she is doing research, that older people left "a reminder of our history -- the migrations from Oklahoma, descendants of those who fled Armenia and longtime farmers."
The Valley attracts characters who choose to work and live here despite summers that feel too hot for many and winters too cold and foggy for others. They work in the rich soil or in occupations that evolve on top of it.
People who remembered those who died said most had enjoyed the time they had. Each death brought great sadness, but most also presented the opportunity to celebrate life.
Bus driver Michael J. Hobbs Sr. joked and made friends with all the "regulars" on his Fresno route.
Norma Jean Leonard, known as Babe on her side of the family, danced or rode horses in films with Fred Astaire, Abbott & Costello, Humphrey Bogart and Laurel & Hardy, then moved to the Valley.
Lives at their completion (of walking the Earth, at least) revealed the Valley one story at a time as if they were individual tiles in the larger mosaic portrait. Each story could grow into a book, given an author with time and talent. Memories sometimes brought laughter with mourning.
Herb "Speedy" Newman, 86, a Fresno labor contractor, died of leukemia in February, but it was time to remember the former ice cream salesman's face-to-face with the intimidating Gen. George S. Patton during desert training for World War II. When the gruff general asked Mr. Newman what company he was with, Mr. Newman replied, "I'm with an ice cream company."
Gerti Schult Ramirez, 93, of Madera died in March, and told people she felt as if she had lived consecutive lives. She survived Nazi, then Soviet, rule in Berlin, but had lost her first husband and three children during World War II. Then she met and married American soldier Guillermo "Willie" Ramirez, and became an American citizen, an act she placed only second to the joy she felt in giving birth to her children.
Others who died during the year had worked their way out to California, trekking west from the Dust Bowl in 1930s Oklahoma, Kansas and bordering states.
Verna Duty, 83, died Feb. 24 of congestive heart failure. She had joined the great migration west from Oklahoma, and worked with the legion of women building U.S. military planes in Southern California during World War II. Then she picked cotton in the Riverdale area. Toward the end of her life, she moved to Clovis to be near her son, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.
Those lost to the Valley included the wealthy, accomplished, highly educated, heroic and those who gave and found value merely by living day to day.
Earl Cheeseman, 85, made a name for himself in Biola and beyond by the time he died in February. He served on the Biola Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion and Biola Community Service District. Customers loved the German sausage and the head cheese he made and sold in the Cheeseman & Steitz grocery store. The daily grind might have seemed dull to Mr. Cheeseman after Marine battles he had fought across the Pacific during World War II in places with names written in bloody history: Guam, Corregidor, Bougainville and Iwo Jima.
Bob Flores, 71, ran the Checkmates Restaurant and bar in Fresno that celebrated football, specifically the Oakland Raiders, coached by his brother Tom. He died of a heart attack in February.
Boaphan Douangmeechit, 63, died in March of lung cancer in Fresno, never having smoked. She had escaped war and repression in Laos, where her family grew rice and vegetables. Missionaries introduced her family to Christianity, and she traveled to the United States in 1986, ardently embracing her new religion, Catholicism.
Berniece Ruby, 87, who died in March after strokes, had entertained area children in the 1950s and 1960s as their non-biological Aunt Berniece during Fresno television's early years. Ruby presided during Fresno broadcasts of the Webster Webfoot cartoon show.
Valley people died young and at nearly a century old.
Kyle Runciman, 16, was killed with his stepfather, Dick Smith, a Fresno bail agent and commercial pilot, when their plane crashed into the Tehachapi foothills in April. Kyle planned to register as a pilot on his 17th birthday.
Kenneth G. Prillwitz of Visalia applied his high school education and love of figuring out how to make things work to a successful career as an inventor. He built and sold spraying machinery for farms and lawns around the world. Mr. Prillwitz, 78, died of lung cancer in March although he had given up smoking 38 years before.
Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, 88, Tulare County's poet laureate, dictated "Apparition," her final poem, in the days before her death April 13 after a stroke two years earlier. She was known nationally as California's biscuits and gravy poet.
J.H. Sanders, 93, and his family made their way from Bonanza, Ark., to the promised land of California in the mid-1920s. Mr. Sanders began milking cows and working in a bakery, moved to work in Bay Area shipyards, then returned to the Valley, where he entered the auto business with brothers. He died in October, son Stan Sanders said, because "he got worn out."
Death took those who had brought joy to many.
When Louis Eugene Sweet, 70, died in October of a blood clot, he was a longtime Tulare institution, having operated Sweet's Drug Store for decades. He made a lasting impression on Tulare-area people, handing them their medicine and sharing the latest news from his perch behind the pharmacy counter.
Dr. Marden Habegger, 90, a missionary, conscientious objector and family physician in Reedley, died in October. He had practiced his Mennonite Christian faith from the time he saw his parents work as missionaries with the Cheyenne people in Montana. He exercised his commitment to the ill and impoverished late in life, and protested against the Iraq war when he was 85.
Sgt. Maj. Jose G. "Joe" Jaurique, 88, overcame Alzheimer's disease long enough to have great fun during a major blowout at his 87th birthday party. Mr. Jaurique, who died Dec. 7, the date Japan attacked the United States, had won a Bronze Star with American forces fighting to liberate the Philippines during World War II. He moved from war to peace, serving 33 years with the post office in Madera.
Death and grief inevitably go with life, but in the year now ending, the Iraq war delivered suffering that Valley families otherwise would have delayed.
Pfc. Rowan D. Walter, 25, a Buchanan High School graduate, was killed with two other soldiers in the explosion of an improvised explosive device near their Humvee during combat in February in Ramadi, Iraq.
Army Cpl. Michael Rojas, 21, who had attended Clovis East High School, died when a bomb exploded beneath a Humvee. His stepfather, David Cordova, had told him when he left for war, "Don't say 'bye' to me. Say that you'll see me when you get back."
Pfc. Daniel Courneya, 19, was killed in May in an Iraq ambush. He was born in Fresno and had attended Daley Elementary School before moving with his mother to Michigan as a boy.
Sgt. Steven Packer, 23, graduated from Clovis High School in 2002, enthusiastic about joining the U.S. Army and fighting against terrorists. He fought during two tours of duty, and was looking toward college.
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Moore, 28, graduated from Alpaugh High School in 1996 and was devoted to his three young daughters, who were living in Texas. He was killed during his second tour in Iraq.
Army Cpl. Victor H. Toledo Pulido, 22, of Hanford promised his wife that he would return home to her and their 1-year-old son, but an improvised explosive killed him in May.
Lance Cpl. Christian Vasquez, 20, a graduate of Coalinga High School, died Aug. 2 of wounds he suffered in Iraq's Anbar province. His family and friends called him a proud Marine and loving son who had sacrificed his life for his country.
Nathan Hubbard, 21, an Army soldier posthumously promoted to corporal, became the second brother from a Clovis family to die in the Iraq war.
And Senior Airman Nicholas D. Eischen, 24, died of noncombat causes Christmas Eve while stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He was the sixth Buchanan High graduate to die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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