When a group of prominent Fresno County farmers got together recently to reminisce about their high school days, one person soon became the focus of the conversation: Ben From, their ag mechanics teacher.
To them, From wasn't just their instructor at Fowler and Parlier high schools, he was their mentor, father figure, and most of all, their friend.
"He taught us how to work, and so much more," says Jim Simonian, president of the Fowler-based Simonian Fruit Co., a grower, packer and shipper of tree fruit and grapes. "He is one of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing today."
So, to formally say thanks, several of From's former students are hosting a dinner in his honor at Sunnyside Country Club on June 21.
"He deserves this," says Ken Bedrosian, co-owner of National Raisin Co. in Fowler, makers of Champion Raisins. "He has been such an important part of so many people's lives."
The 86-year-old From doesn't consider himself special. Retired from teaching since 1992, he spends his days quietly tending to his Fowler ranch, irrigating his vineyards and fixing stubborn farm equipment.
"I am by no means the most outstanding teacher out there," From says, his hands worn and dirty from farm work. "I did a reasonably good job and I was just in some very fortunate situations."
His former students say From's dedication to teaching made a difference in their lives. His students learned how to weld, use a cutting torch, and tear an engine apart and reassemble it. In the process, they also learned about responsibility, making good choices, hard work and striving for success.
To From, it didn't matter if his students' parents were wealthy farmers or poor field workers. He taught them all the same. During his first teaching job at Parlier High in 1954, his students were a mixture of Hispanic, Japanese-American, Armenian and Anglo.
"The kids who showed up were the kids who showed up," he says. "The key to vocational agriculture is that you learn by doing and the hands-on work is what suited me and the students just fine."
Although a rookie teacher, From slowly began making a name for Parlier High's ag program, especially in student competitions.
During their first pruning competition at Fresno State, the student team placed 14th -- dead last.
"And we weren't even close to 13th place," From says with a smile. "At the time, we didn't know what we were getting into. But we learned from the experience and we got better."
The next year, they placed fourth in the pruning competition and the following year they took first and third. The fourth year, they recaptured the first-place title.
"I had good kids who sharpened their skills by practicing during school and after school," he says. "I would ask them questions about why they made that cut, or why they didn't pick that branch. It was the best of learning situations, having to think."
Even the students who weren't keen on taking ag mechanics were winning ribbons for their projects at the Fresno County Fair.
"There were more than a few times when I would go to the homes of my students and see in the living room, the trophy and ribbons they had won," From says, tears welling up in his eyes. "Sometimes the only contact they had with the school was with a vice principal. But I was always welcome in their homes because they had some success and they and their parents were very proud."
After spending four years at Parlier, From was hired at Fowler High where he taught for 10 years. He later went on to Fresno State, where he retired in 1992.
From's former students say they have fond memories of their teacher in and out of the classroom. Highlights for many students were the trips to San Francisco's Cow Palace for the annual student livestock competition and the student camping trip -- four days in the mountains at the end of the year.
"He loaded us all up after school on Friday and we would take off," says farmer Leo Balakian. "We would go up there and hike, fish and occasionally find a rattlesnake. It was like hanging out with your father. We had a great time."
Ken Bedrosian says it was From's positive attitude that left a lasting impression on him. Bedrosian even became an ag teacher early in his life before joining his brothers in farming.
"He constantly stressed excellence and had such an incredible amount of enthusiasm," Bedrosian says. "He gave you confidence and left you with the spirit that you could accomplish your goals."
From isn't sure how he will react when his friends, family and former students gather to honor and thank him. Although he still maintains that he doesn't deserve the attention, he admits his teaching career has been extremely satisfying.
"I should have just plain insisted that they not do this," he says. "I love these guys -- they are a stellar bunch. And if I have contributed a little to them and the hundreds of others, who are just as good citizens and fine people, then I couldn't be any prouder."
If you go
What: An evening with Ben From
When: June 21. Hors d'oeuvres served at 6 p.m. Dinner at 7 p.m.
Where: Sunnyside Country Club, 5704 E. Butler Ave., Fresno
Details: For ticket information or to RSVP call Simonian Fruit Co., (559) 834-5921 and ask for Jim Simonian or Kathy Nilmeier
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, email@example.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.