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‘Grandma’ brightens southeast Fresno neighborhood with donated bread

Former pilot Violet Huckleberry, 94, stays active with charitable work

Violet Huckleberry, 94, an ordained minister, a former pilot, and a member of the Ninety-Nines, a group founded by Amelia Earhart, to celebrate women aviators, lives to brighten the lives of people in need, with donations of bread.
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Violet Huckleberry, 94, an ordained minister, a former pilot, and a member of the Ninety-Nines, a group founded by Amelia Earhart, to celebrate women aviators, lives to brighten the lives of people in need, with donations of bread.

When Eduardo Salmeron moved to southeast Fresno in early October, he didn’t expect much from his neighbors.

But when the 94-year-old woman who lived in the pink house across the street came knocking at his door one morning, Salmeron didn’t hesitate to open it.

“Moving into a new neighborhood, we didn’t know anyone, but she came and introduced herself anyways,” Salmeron says.

Handing over a roll of baked sourdough bread to Salmeron, the woman told him to come over anytime. She even gave some treats to Salmeron’s son, 2-year-old Allan, who was playing in the yard while his three older brothers and sisters were in school.

“She’s done it twice now already, and we’ve only been here since the third,” Salmeron says. “We call her Grandma now, and I told my son to give her a kiss goodbye.”

“Grandma” is Violet Huckleberry, a widow, a former pilot and a lot more.

“I’ve always been out and doing different things,” Huckleberry says. “An ordained minister, a chaplain at Saint Agnes and Veterans Hospital. Now I work on a prayer line.”

I give all the time, but I know one thing, I can’t outgive God.

Violet Huckleberry

Huckleberry came to Fresno in 1960 as a newlywed. She met Jack, who worked in fertilizer companies throughout the West, in a cab in her hometown of Joplin, Mo., and hit it off instantly. They were married 34 years until Jack’s death in 1994. She had three children who also passed away.

In 1969, Huckleberry was appointed president of the Fresno chapter of Ninety-Nines, a national organization established in 1929 by Amelia Earhart to promote female pilots.

“Not too many women flew at the time,” Huckleberry says. The boys, she laughs, were shocked when she would emerge from the cockpit of a plane in heels and dress clothes. “Of course, they expected pants and goggles.”

Huckleberry learned to fly at Chandler airport in 1963 You might say she saw her (future) life pass before her eyes: She was driving in her new car to visit her sister in San Jose when a car swerved in front of her. In that moment of terror, Huckleberry says, she saw a plane flying low in the distance, and knew then what she was meant to do.

“Seeing that airplane flying along there, you hit the brakes so hard to keep from having an accident, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we do that instead of this? And that’s the reason we went out to the airport. I was plenty old enough (42) but I figured they could teach old ladies to fly airplanes.”

Huckleberry got used to spreading her wings, flying over 500 hours between 1963-70. Over her aviation career, she owned three planes and survived two life-threatening collisions. She vividly recalls the one in 1970 when her Piper 150 collided with a Cessna 172 in midair just east of Herndon Avenue near the San Joaquin River.

“I didn’t know how the plane was going to land, I didn’t know the full extent of the damage, and I had to handle it differently, expecting it to potentially explode.”. Her three passengers “were as still as a mouse.”

Now, Huckleberry sits outside her garage door at home every day with a loaf of bread and a small donation jar she keeps ready to be filled. Many times, she gets cart-fulls of bread from a man named Felix. He drives to grocery stores and churches to pick up anything he can find, Huckleberry says, but doesn’t want recognition for his deeds.

Collecting telephone numbers for the last 10 years for neighbors or anybody who seems to need an extra loaf, Huckleberry also puts out the donation jar to help pay for Felix’s gas.

“It’s not very much, but it’s whatever people happen to have,” Huckleberry says. “Whatever they want to donate, I tell them take all that they need. Sometimes they take three or four loaves, sometimes they take one.”

She doesn’t expect anything, she doesn’t put a price on anything. There should be more people like that.

Violet Huckleberry’s neighbor Barbara

Huckleberry’s neighbor of 12 years, Barbara, says that Huckleberry’s giving has become infectious, with the entire neighborhood taking part.

“She taught me how to use my words,” said Barbara, who declined to give her last name. “She said, ‘Never say thank you,’ that’s the word she always says. ‘Never say thank you, but God bless you.’ And that’s the way the whole neighborhood is. Her and I, we bring each other things, and so we say, ‘Bless you.’ Now that’s the thing she’s going to leave behind.”

Huckleberry’s legacy is apparent from her little pink house in the neighborhood: everyone knows “Grandma,” and Huckleberry says she knows them. She says she still gets new stories from people all the time, whether from her prayer line or her front porch. She’s learned to read people, she says. At her age, though, “It’s nothing new to me.”

“That’s just her, her personality, her belief,” Barbara says. “Makes you feel like there should be more people like her. She doesn’t expect anything, she doesn’t put a price on anything. There should be more people like that.”

Huckleberry says her faith is what keeps her going. “I want to help people. I want to help all I can. I give all the time, but I know one thing, I can’t outgive God. God gave it to me, I figure he’s going to take care of me. And he does. And doing this, I hope, is the right way.”

Megan Ginise: 559-441-6614

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