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Ask Me: Man in wheelchair shared waves, smiles with Fresno freeway drivers for decades

For more than 40 years, Gilbert Shamshoian sat in his custom wheelchair and waved at drivers along the old Highway 99 near Clovis Avenue. Many people waved back and some even stopped to chat.
For more than 40 years, Gilbert Shamshoian sat in his custom wheelchair and waved at drivers along the old Highway 99 near Clovis Avenue. Many people waved back and some even stopped to chat. Fresno Bee File Photo

Q: Can you tell me about Gilbert Shamshoian, the man who used to wave at traffic from his wheelchair at Clovis Avenue and old Highway 99 for decades? I knew him as a teenager working at a gas station near the highway.

Brian Bobbitt, Fresno

A: For 40 years, Gilbert Shamshoian “brought smiles to countless motorists” as he waved at them while sitting in his wheelchair at Clovis Avenue and the old Highway 99, according to Shamshoian’s former neighbor, Edie Kassabian, in a letter to the editor following his death Jan. 2, 2015, at age 86.

Sometimes people would stop and chat with Shamshoian, Kassabian said, and the encounters could be inspiring. “If Saki (Gilbert’s nickname) could have that dazzling smile and cheerful outlook despite his severe handicap, then life was worth the effort,” Kassabian wrote.

“Shamshoian was a mystery to most people during his years out by the highway,” according to a 2006 Bee story.

Retired California Highway Patrolman Jim “Trooper” Taylor of Fresno struck up a friendship with Shamshoian in the early 1960s. “Gilbert loved to sit and watch the cars. Once in a while I’d tell him, ‘Gilbert, pick me a fast one,’ ” Taylor told The Bee.

“Shamshoian had a knack for picking out speeders. He could spot cars moving faster than the flow of traffic and over the years learned to judge speed by the sound cars made as they whistled through the air,” the story said.

Shamshoian began waving at traffic as a child. His left leg and arm were paralyzed during birth. The surgery he had as a toddler failed to help him walk. When he got his first wheelchair as a child, “Shamshoian experienced the taste of independence that would lead him to the highway,” the story said. “He started by wheeling himself out to the mailbox every day,” where he would wave as people drove by.

From his spot by the mailbox, Shamshoian could hear highway traffic about 1,800 feet away. “That distant hum filled him with a hunger to see people going places, even if he couldn’t join them,” the story said. “He was 8 years old the first time he went to the highway by himself.” His parents, Charles and Sarah Shamshoian, were concerned for his safety, but they knew it helped him pass the time.

“I learned a lot sitting by the side of the road,” Shamshoian said. “I saw railroad workers lay ties by hand. Now it’s done by machine. I saw people picking cotton by hand.” During the Great Depression, he saw cars from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas travel the Valley. During World War II, he watched military vehicles rumble past. He saw Highway 99 change from a two-lane road to a freeway.

But mainly Shamshoian learned that many people like to see a friendly smile and a wave. “I used to say, ‘My smile made your day and your smile made mine,’ ” he told The Bee.

Shamshoian was home-schooled and had about a sixth-grade education. As a youngster, he was able to dress himself and could use a traditional wheelchair. “In the 1950s, his parents hired the late John White of Fowler to design and build a custom wheelchair” that was easier to operate, the story said.

White, who owned a welding shop, built a three-wheeled chair operated by a hand crank. Shamshoian steered the chair with his right leg, attached to the lead wheel by a stirrup.

In 1979, Shamshoian’s parents sold their 20-acre vineyard and the family moved to Fowler. By 1988, Shamshoian’s parents could no longer care for him, and he moved to Bethel Lutheran Home in Selma.

Shamshoian was philosophical about his lifelong disability. “I learned to live with it,” he told The Bee. “I learned to handle it. I accept it. But I wish I could walk.”

Q: My husband attended Lone Star Elementary School in the late 1950s, and we still have contact with several former classmates. It was a wonderful community school, but where did it get its name?

Karen Sebilian, Fresno

A: Lone Star School began as a small, one-room schoolhouse – not more than 20 square feet in size – built in 1882 on the Frank DeWolf ranch near Clovis and North avenues, according to “Public Schools of Fresno County 1860-1998.”

The school was built for children of the farmers who had settled in area by the 1880s, including J.D. Collins, Edward Hughes, John Pool, J.B. Hancock and Joshua Newman, who donated the materials and labor to build the school.

There are two versions of how the school was named, but the most accepted story is that some of the farmers’ children – Molly Hughes, Woodson Pool and Jesse Webber – were asked to give their new school a name. They came up with Lone Star because “they said it looked like a lonely little star in the middle of the grain field,” according to the book.

The other version says Harriet Hughes, another daughter of Edward Hughes, named it after Texas, where she was born.

The Lone Star School District was formed in 1883. District voters approved a bond measure and a larger school was built on the same site. An improvement over the first school, the new one was painted and had a wrap-around porch. “The old school was moved to the Speake residence, where it was used as a kitchen,” the book said. The new schoolhouse “was used as a center for community activities for many years.”

The area continued to prosper. The Santa Fe Railway laid track through the area and built a station in 1887. The village of Lone Star grew up around the station with a store, blacksmith shop and post office.

In 1898, a new school was built in the village, on Fowler Avenue between North and Jensen avenues. The two-story schoolhouse had a covered porch and a belfry.

In 1914, the fourth Lone Star schoolhouse, a one-story brick building, was built across Fowler Avenue.

In 1947, the Lone Star Union District was formed with Highland and DeWolf school districts. Locan School District joined Lone Star Union in 1949.

The fifth schoolhouse, Lone Star Union School, was built in 1949 at 2617 S. Fowler Ave. with eight classrooms and an auditorium. Two classroom wings, an office and a cafeteria were added in 1958.

In 1961, the district built a second campus at 6350 E. Lane Ave., named for longtime teacher and principal John S. Wash, who served from 1915 to 1938. In 1964, the Lone Star Union District joined the Sanger Unified School District.

Q: In the Dec. 26 column you mentioned the Morrow House. My grandmother owned businesses in Fresno in those days, and I’d like to know what the Morrow House was and where it was located.

Margaret Morrow Young, Fresno

A: The Morrow House was an early-day Fresno hotel at Tulare Street and K Street, later Van Ness Avenue, which Jesse Morrow helped build in 1874, according to local historian Paul Vandor. In his 1919 two-volume history of Fresno, Vandor called the hotel “the caravansary par excellence of Fresno.”

The hotel was first known as the Southern Hotel and later the Henry House when it was operated by Simon W. Henry of Millerton. Morrow took over the hotel in 1877. Later it was known as the Mariposa Hotel.

Vandor called Morrow a “picturesque character.” A native of Ohio, Morrow was “lured” to California by the discovery of gold in 1849. His trek into the Valley was a harrowing journey.

The original group disbanded after crossing the California border. “Morrow and six others, with food and blankets, trudged on westward and, crossing the Kern (River), met at Posey Creek two survivors of a party of 16” that had been attacked by Indians, Vandor wrote.

They returned to the river, headed north and met up with another “emigrant train” that included Dr. Lewis Leach, who would become one of Fresno’s earliest doctors. The two groups found the massacre site at Woodville in Tulare County and buried 14 bodies.

Morrow mined gold at Fine Gold Gulch and on the San Joaquin River until 1856, according to Vandor. He moved to Los Angeles where he raised cattle. He moved his stock business to the Fresno area after driving 1,100 head of cattle from Southern California.

From 1875 to 1882, Morrow raised flocks of sheep, numbering from 4,000 to 20,000, and became “one of the richest men in the county,” Vandor said. At one time, he was part owner of a flour mill in Centerville. Jesse Morrow Mountain is located five miles east of Centerville.

Morrow apparently outlived his riches. He lived in San Jose, perhaps for the last 15 years of his life, and when he died in 1897 “he was practically a ruined man,” Vandor wrote. His former hotel was torn down in 1915.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.