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Ask Me: Racing legend Vukovich’s monument got new home in Fresno

The Billy Vukovich Sr. monument stands at the northwest corner of Selland Arena in downtown Fresno. Vukovich, a Fresno native, died in May 1955 while racing in the Indianapolis 500. It had earlier stood at the Memorial Auditorium.
The Billy Vukovich Sr. monument stands at the northwest corner of Selland Arena in downtown Fresno. Vukovich, a Fresno native, died in May 1955 while racing in the Indianapolis 500. It had earlier stood at the Memorial Auditorium. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Q: I seem to recall that for many years there was a monument to famed race car driver Billy Vukovich Sr. in front of Fresno Memorial Auditorium. Why is it no longer there?

Joyce M. Kasparian, Fresno

A: Billy Vukovich Sr., who won the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500 races, was killed in the 1955 Indy race. A year to the date after that race, a monument to Vukovich was unveiled in front of Memorial Auditorium.

According to a May 30, 1956 Fresno Bee story, Vukovich’s son, Bill Jr., then 12, gave the cord a “firm quick pull” to release the drape covering the 11-foot granite monument to his father. Standing with him were his sister, Marlene, then 14, and their mother, Esther. Bill Vukovich Jr. would later follow his father into racing history.

“Scores of onlookers were crying,” the story said, while others bowed their heads during the “short but solemn ceremony” to dedicate the monument.

Three generations of Vukovich men were racing legends.

In July 1970 the Fresno City Commission, forerunner of the City Council, approved moving the Vukovich memorial because “the auditorium has been converted to a small theater and is not used for sports events,” as it had been in the past, according to The Bee.

Then-popular radio and television personality Al Radka spearheaded the drive to move the monument to the Fresno Convention Center. Radka collected $50 donations from 10 people to pay for moving the granite monolith, which was done by the Fresno Marble and Tile Co.

Wording on the memorial to “Vuky,” as he was known to racing fans, says in part, “The citizens of Fresno are proud of Billy Vukovich. We are proud of his accomplishments, his courage, his sportsmanship and his will to win.”

Q: What is the shortest street in Fresno?

Mike Kobata, Fresno

A: At 133 feet in length, Smith Street is the shortest street in Fresno. It runs north and south from Divisadero Street, just east of H Street.

Smith Street “looks like a parking lot, does not have a street sign anymore, but has never officially been vacated,” said Scott Mozier, Fresno public works director. Fresno’s city commission ordered the street closed in 1934, according to The Bee.

(Smith Street) looks like a parking lot, does not have a street sign anymore, but has never officially been vacated.

Scott Mozier, Fresno public works director

Originally part of H Street, it’s uncertain how or when Smith Street got its name, but there are two possibilities.

A 1942 Fresno Bee article mentions Scott Smith, who was Fresno’s street superintendent around 1900, and perhaps the little street is named for him.

But E.Z. Smith of Fresno says family lore has always held that the street is named for his great-grandfather James W. Smith, who came to Fresno in 1880.

According to Paul Vandor’s 1919 two-volume Fresno history, Smith was a carpenter and contractor who owned two planing mills. He built several buildings in early-day Fresno, including the First Presbyterian and First Methodist churches, the Masonic Temple, the Elm Street School and the Risley Block of business buildings downtown.

Q: I recently substituted at Powers-Ginsburg Elementary (previously Swift Elementary), which was originally erected by the Bullard Unified school district in 1957. What’s the history of the Bullard district and why is it no longer around?

Andrew Thornton, Fresno

A: Bullard Unified District traces its roots to 1915, when the Bullard Elementary District was formed from portions of the Lorena, Roeding and Wolters districts.

The district built an elementary school at Shaw and Palm avenues, where Ruth Gibson served as principal until 1923. The district operated until 1951.

Bullard Unified District was formed in 1952 when district residents voted 409-50 to create Bullard High School District, which had the same boundaries as the elementary district.

According to “History of Public School Organization and Administration in Fresno County, California,” creating the high school district was unusual at that time “as the district had no high school classes until 1955.”

“Trustees favored the proposal with the hope that a junior high school could be provided to relieve (overcrowding) and a high school (could be built) later as the need arose,” the book says.

The first trustees of Bullard Unified were Lucius Powers, Carroll H. Baird, Walker Clark, Earnest Munier and Dr. William Adams.

In 1958, Bullard Unified residents voted to join with the then-Fresno City Unified District. The issue was “hotly contested,” a Bee story said, but only about half of the district’s eligible voters came to the polls. It was one of the closest votes in Fresno County history at the time, decided by a margin of just 17 votes.

Supporters said that “the educational as well as the financial needs of the Bullard district would be much better served by annexation,” The Bee said.

Opponents caused a stir when a letter was sent out “Sponsored By An Enlightened Group of Bullard Parents,” a Bee story said. Fresno County election officials declared the letter was illegal because it didn’t carry the name and address of the person, or persons, who sent it.

After the election Bullard District Superintendent Weston Alt urged both sides to work together. “The public meetings to inform the people were carried on in an admirable manner, and little or no hard feelings should remain now that the verdict is in.”

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com 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.

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