Lewis Griswold

Owner of Visalia’s iconic Mearle’s College Drive-In dies

Mearle Heitzman, right, chats with Annie Silveria and wife Marilyn in 2006 outside Mearle’s College Drive-In in Visalia.
Mearle Heitzman, right, chats with Annie Silveria and wife Marilyn in 2006 outside Mearle’s College Drive-In in Visalia. Fresno Bee file photo

Mearle Heitzman, owner of the legendary Mearle’s College Drive-In on Mooney Boulevard in Visalia, has died. He was 94.

Tributes are being posted at Miller Memorial Chapel’s online guest book.

“Mearle’s was my first job and I have wonderful memories of working there,” wrote Jeanie LaRue of Boise, Idaho. “Your dad was a fair, honest, and hard working man. It was an honor working for him.”

Vanessa Brown (formerly Navarrette) of Gardena remembers being the salad maker the day the head cook walked out. Mr. Heitzman recruited her to fill in at the grill.

“Between him and I we work non stop for about 3 hours straight when it slowed down he gave me a high five and told me I was no longer a salad maker I was his new head cook, and gave me a raise right then,” Brown wrote. “I worked for him for 5 years. And can truly say it was a great 5 years.”

Annie Silveria of Visalia, unofficial historian of Mearle’s, said Mr. Heitzman took pride in his restaurant.

“He told me he wanted to make it a home away from home,” Silveria said. “Mearle created that – the way he would treat people.”

His steady nature and work ethic perfectly embodied Visalia in that era, she said.

“They called him ‘the Mayor of Mooney,’ ” she said. “What a legacy he leaves. How many people had their first date there? How many people brought their first car there? You can’t duplicate it … That was the place in this town until the day it closed.”

Mr. Heitzman was born in Denver, served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and graduated from the University of Utah, where he met Marilyn Stayner.

They married and moved to Tulare, where he managed five drive-ins around the Valley.

With Marilyn’s support, Mr. Heitzman bought the restaurant in 1960, renamed it Mearle’s College Drive-In and worked there until the mid-1990s when he retired.

Hamburgers and fries were the staples – “he knew exactly how many pounds of french fries were used each week,” Silveria said – and the fountain did blockbuster business in ice cream, shakes, sundaes and banana splits.

“At one time, he had the biggest Carnation account in California,” Silveria said.

When high school and college games finished, Mearle’s would overflow with customers. So the staff would write numbers on a pad of paper, give them out, then call out the number when a table cleared.

The Heitzmans had three daughters – Rosalie, Shelley and Amy — who all worked at Mearle’s.

Rosalie recalls the day a limousine drove up, well-renowned Visalia area farmer Luther Khachigian got out and went inside to place an order to go.

Khachigian asked Mr. Heitzman, “ ‘Would you like to meet the man you are preparing the food for?’ ” Rosalie said.

Mr. Heitzman went outside and was introduced to two men in the back seat – former president Richard Nixon and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Florida businessman who was a Nixon confidant.

“He shook their hands,” Rosalie said.

On a personal note, I frequented Mearle’s when I worked at the Visalia Times-Delta. On days off, sportswriter Mike Novin and I would meet there for dinner.

I ordered the roast beef dinner. It included everything – roll, coffee, entree, vegetable, potatoes and ice cream. I don’t remember the price, but it was reasonable.

Mr. Heitzman worked both in his office (next to the jukebox) and behind the counter as needed.

“He had a lot of regulars,” Rosalie said. “He knew most of them.”

WOODIES: The 10th annual Woodies in the Valley car show, one of the charms of Visalia in March, will take place next weekend.

“We draw woodies from all over California,” said Central Valley Woodies Club President Wayne Yada of Visalia. “These are very unique and nostalgic automobiles.”

Woodies – wood-sided automobiles– were manufactured in the U.S. from 1928-51.

About 12 years ago, Yada and a friend attended a woodies car show in San Diego.

“There were some 300 woodies there, and I immediately fell in love with them,” Yada said.

What caught his attention was the variety and the vibe.

“I remember finding it a bit different to see original beaters parked next to completely restored cars,” he said. “Some looked stock on the outside but had modern drivetrains and creature features.”

Others were hot rods.

“They were very friendly, outgoing and anxious to share their cars with the public,” he said. “They are not there for the judging.”

Within a month, Yada purchased a 1950 Ford woodie.

Woodies in the Valley expects about 75 to 80 cars from around California.

The best opportunity to see them is Saturday morning and early afternoon on the front lawn of Redwood High School.

It’s free.

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

Woodies in the Valley Show ’n Shine

When: 8 a.m. - 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Redwood High School, 1001 W. Main St., Visalia