Fresno State exhibition focuses on 'firsts' in the Valley

Robin Greiner and Carole Ormaca Butler didn't set out to be the first from the greater San Joaquin Valley to win four national figure skating championships -- and then go on to compete in the Olympics.

But nearly 60 years later, they find themselves honored in a new Fresno State exhibition titled "ValleyFirsts!"

The exhibition, which opens Saturday to the public in the Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery at the Henry Madden Library, is meant to be a compendium of notable "firsts" and other achievements in the area stretching from Bakersfield to Stockton.

Greiner and Butler's accomplishments -- which include placing first in pairs figure skating each year in the nationals between 1953 and 1956, and then placing fifth at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy -- are among about 200 covered in the exhibition. The topics covered vary widely, from sports and entertainment to agricultural innovations and the region's natural splendor.

Peter McDonald, the dean of the library, says he and his staff pondered how the library could create an exhibition that would create community interest. "The thinking was: What would be the kind of show everyone would want to come to?" he says.

Ideally, the exhibition will raise visibility for the library and help in fundraising efforts, he says.

The goal for the exhibition, says curator Jill Moffat, is to have visitors leave remembering at least 10 notable "bragging rights" for the Valley.

Some examples:

  • Herbert M. Evans, who was born in Modesto and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins, was a co-discoverer in 1923 of Vitamin E.
  • The Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft, was flown first in 1977 at Minter Field in Shafter in Kern County.
  • The B.F. Sisk Dam and Reservoir in Merced County, completed in 1967, is the largest off-stream reservoir in the U.S.
  • The Turlock Irrigation District, founded in 1887, was California's and the Valley's first.
  • The Calimyrna fig was first successfully propagated in Fresno County in 1900.

The exhibition devotes a section to Valley innovations. Visitors can view an example of the Baker Casing Shoe, a device patented in 1907 that made it easier to case oil wells and revolutionized cable tool drilling worldwide. The Visalia Stock Saddle, created about 1869, was wide and flat, which meant it distributed weight more evenly on the horse.

Moffat notes that Valley cities include a number of small but wonderful historical museums, but no large, centralized regional institution exists. "ValleyFirsts!" is an opportunity to bring together notable objects in a central Valley location.

To bring to life the history of Tulare Lake, which used to be the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, for example, an anchor from a vessel used on the lake, along with "mule shoes," used by the animals working in the mud, are displayed. Items were loaned from such museums as the R.C. Baker Museum in Coalinga, the Kern County Museum, the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum in Lodi, and the Kings County Museum in Burris Park.

Then there is the large section devoted to sports.

Many people have heard of Valley athletic greats such as Bob Mathias, Cy Young and Tom Flores.

But it's possible for lesser known accomplishments to fade away into history -- such as the figure-skating prowess of Greiner and Butler.

"After that many years, you don't go around talking about it to everybody," says Greiner, 81.

Greiner was 14 when he started skating at the old Fresno Ice Arena on Olive Avenue. He soon paired up with Butler. Something between them clicked in terms of skating talent.

"Things just fell into place," Butler says. "We started winning."

She fell during the Olympic competition, which likely cost them a medal, which they were widely expected to receive, she says.

Butler didn't skate much after hanging up her professional skates.

Neither did Greiner, though he admits that "sometimes I put them back on mentally and, 'Away we go.' "

Greiner and Butler, who have remained friends, continue to love watching ice skating on TV.

As for making it into "ValleyFirsts!," Greiner thinks it's wonderful.

"It's exciting -- not just for us, but for the community," he says.

If you go

"ValleyFirsts!," Sept. 14 through Dec.15, Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery, Henry Madden Library, Fresno State. Open library hours: 7:45 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7:45 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 2-10 p.m. Sundays., (559) 278-5790. Free.