When the boys in Fresno went off to fight in World War II more than seven decades ago, the girls created a club for friendship and a little fun.
Some were single. Some were married. But there was only one requirement to join the Very Special Bridge Club, or VSBC, as it is called – you had to be born in Fresno.
The group had 18 women, maybe 20 at the most, the remaining members said at their October meeting. Six women with deep Fresno roots, all over age 90, still meet on the third Tuesday of every month to laugh together, make jokes and talk over lunch.
Bridge was played in the early years, but when the men came back and life moved on, the club became more of a social thing with park picnics, wine trail trips, a trip to England and funny mishaps along the way.
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The thing that makes it such a special club is this – we don’t play bridge.
“The thing that makes it such a special club is this – we don’t play bridge,” joked Elizabeth “Betty” (Olsen) Aller. And after more than 72 years, “we still have lots to talk about,” she says. “We have happy times.”
The club started at Fresno State in 1943. Members took turns hosting. Back then, one pulled out fancy china and fine crystal to formally entertain, said Aller, who served on the Fresno Metropolitan Museum’s board of directors for 20 years and on the Fresno Philharmonic’s board for 25 years. Her husband was Dr. Daniel Aller Jr., a Fresno dentist who was a pilot during the war.
“We grew up in the best time,” Aller says.
The streetcars still ran in downtown Fresno up until the war, the ladies said, and Fulton Street, which was starting its transformation into a pedestrian mall, was the place to be.
“That’s where you went to see your friends,” says Virginia (Stammer) Eaton, who was a pediatrician. She was married to Lewis Eaton of the Guarantee Savings bank family. He became president of the company and was a driving force behind Fresno’s parks, stadiums and museums. He served in the Army during the war.
There’s only six of us left, but we still get together.
Babette Van Rozeboom
Babette (Hoblick) Van Rozeboom hosted last month’s meeting at Sunnyside Country Club. “There’s only six of us left, but we still get together,” Van Rozeboom says. “No bridge …”
“But good company,” cut in Beverly (Cornell) Heitzberg, who was a Fresno teacher for more than 20 years. She taught at Wilson Elementary School at Ashlan and Hughes avenues. Her husband was James Heitzberg, who was in the Navy during the war and later worked for PG&E.
Talk doesn’t stop
The women never run out of things to talk about and often all speak at the same time. They don’t dwell on family too much, said Van Rozeboom, the baby of the group, but talk about Fresno affairs and the world.
Van Rozeboom was in real estate for 20 years and was a community volunteer. Her father was Benjamin Hoblick, who invented excelsior cushions, or stuffing for packaging, and paper covers for fruit boxes. Her grandfather was Fresno contractor E.J. Farr, and she married a man also in construction, Roswell Van Rozeboom, who served in the Marine Corps.
The women’s adventures through the years include hopping into a minivan for lunch at a culinary school in San Francisco and renting a bus to Napa to visit a member’s daughter who owned a home there.
“The bus driver got lost, and that was an excursion,” Van Rozeboom says. The ladies had to get the map out and help the driver get to the destination.
We grew up in the best time.
Then there was the big trip to Oxford, England, where six women visited a member who rented a house there for two years while she was teaching.
“She rented a van so we could all be together and travel around, which was pretty hysterical, because the van ran out of gas one day on the side of the road and that was the only time we played bridge and once at the airport,” says Van Rozeboom with a laugh.
Back in Fresno, Margaret (Roberts) Jensen, a current member, once catered a white tablecloth lunch with candelabras on a hill at Woodward Park where the food was served by a waiter wearing a tuxedo.
Jensen’s parents, W. Ed and Clarice Roberts, helped develop Fresno’s fig industry. Her husband, Rodger, who was a pilot during the war, established S&J Ranch in Madera County in 1950. He was instrumental in developing the pistachio and citrus industries in Madera County and also farmed almonds and olives.
The couple in 2012 gave $1.5 million to the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State to fund scholarships for agricultural business or plant science students.
Another memorable picnic was by a stream that ran through the Clovis cattle ranch owned by the group’s final member, Jane (Sample) Creager. The Sample family has a long cattle ranching history in Clovis. Creager’s husband, Jay, worked in a shipyard during the war.
Creager says she enjoys being with the other women. “We all have our little backgrounds. We listen to each other and we talk all together. It is very special.”
After 45 minutes of chatting about the group, Van Rozeboom is eager to get to lunch and politely says to a reporter and photographer, “Don’t you think that’s enough?” The women dine on spinach crepes with chicken and mushrooms, salad and apple and cranberry cobbler with a brown sugar streusel for dessert.
The women of old Fresno laugh. One says “you can publish a whole paper on us.” Aller’s cellphone starts to ring and she tells the ladies about how she hates the thing.
Then Eaton says one last thing: “The greatest generation – that’s us.”