Longtime Fresno-area businessman and former Fresno County supervisor Stan Oken thought he was going to meet with a friend in crisis Friday.
But the dire-sounding phone call he received hours earlier from One Putt Broadcasting president John Ostlund was a ruse engineered by Ostlund and Fresno Chamber of Commerce leaders to surprise Oken – owner of Wonder Valley Resort and Conference Center east of Fresno – with the news that he was this year’s recipient of the chamber’s Leon S. Peters Award for service to the community.
“The last time I was here, John fired me,” Oken said of losing a talk show on one of Ostlund’s radio stations. “He sounded a little stressed. But my wife Dorothy said, ‘Well, he can’t fire you twice.’ ”
The Peters award, established in 1984, is named for the former owner of Valley Foundry and Machine Works. Peters was a noted philanthropist in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley. The award recognizes business success and leadership as well as public service, contributions and investments in the Fresno area.
Oken, 87, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and after the war earned a bachelor of science degree at California State University, Los Angeles. He became a teacher and coached sports at the high school and junior college levels for about 19 years in the Los Angeles area.
In about 1967, he and two fellow coaches started a children’s camp in Three Rivers, in Tulare County. When the lease on the property ended, he bought out his partners and in 1973 bought what was Wonder Valley Dude Ranch, in the Fresno County foothills south of Pine Flat Reservoir, to relocate the camp.
In the 43 years since, the Oken family has built a modest dude ranch into a full-service resort and conference center that each summer hosts hundreds of children at youth camps, including a Champ Camp for burned children who have survived fires.
Eldest son Roy Oken said his father survived a massive fire at the old MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally’s) in Las Vegas in 1980. More than 80 people died in that fire, and Stan Oken was one of hundreds of survivors who were evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the hotel.
“After that, he decided that he wanted to do something for burn survivors,” Roy Oken said. “We’ve worked with the California Burn Foundation for 30 years, having kids come to the camp here.”
In 1991, Stan Oken won a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in a special election following the death of Supervisor Judy Andreen. He was re-elected twice before stepping down in 2000. As in his business, issues related to children and juvenile justice were a focus for his nine years on the county board.
“If you tell him something’s impossible, it only makes him want to do it more,” Roy Oken said of his father. “The first time he ran for supervisor, he was one of nine candidates, but he never doubted he was going to get it. … He enjoyed the challenge of getting things done. He hated the running for office, asking people for donations and money, but once he was in office, he enjoyed going around and working with people.”
The focus on children and family continues. Stan Oken said he is proud that nearly a dozen family members – children and grandchildren – work at Wonder Valley. “I’m fortunate enough to have my family with me in a business that provides fun, recreation and a good time for a lot of people,” he said. “Those are really the highlights.”
In recent years, Oken teamed up with another former Fresno County supervisor, Sharon Levy, to start a nonprofit board called Domus Mitis (a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “mild house”) to care for abused or homeless women and their children.
“We raised $3.25 million of private money and married up with the Fresno Rescue Mission,” he said. “We matched (the rescue mission) dollar for dollar and started a shelter for mothers and their children, and the best part is there’s not one tax dollar in that project.”
Oken’s wife and his three children – sons Roy and Larry and daughter Nancy Redfield – and several former recipients of the Peters award were waiting near Ostlund’s office in the rear of the radio station building when an unsuspecting Oken walked in on Friday.
“What is this? What did I do?” he said, blinking at the group before chamber president Al Smith told him of his selection as the 2016 Peters honoree.
“This is one of the few times I’m at a loss for words,” Oken said. Of the prior winners gathered, he added, “I’m in the presence of people I’ve held in such high esteem.
“But isn’t it unusual that a politician wins this award?” he asked with a smile.
The Peters award medallion will be formally presented to Oken at the Fresno Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards luncheon Feb. 10. The luncheon will include installation of the chamber’s new officers and presentation of entrepreneur of the year awards.
Valley Business Awards Luncheon
When: Feb. 10
Where: DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Fresno