Valley Voices

The charms of Fresno that drew him 40 years ago still hold true

Fresno State coaches, from left, Fred Litzenberger, Ron Adams, Boyd Grant and Jim Thrash put together arguably the most successful Bulldogs team ever — the NIT championship squad of 1983 that featured Bernard Thompson, Ron Anderson and Tyrone Bradley.
Fresno State coaches, from left, Fred Litzenberger, Ron Adams, Boyd Grant and Jim Thrash put together arguably the most successful Bulldogs team ever — the NIT championship squad of 1983 that featured Bernard Thompson, Ron Anderson and Tyrone Bradley.

To say that this month marks an important anniversary in my life would be a gross understatement. It was 40 years ago, June 1979, when my family, including our two young boys, moved into a Hallmark home just south of Herndon, a couple of blocks east of Cedar.

Born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, I had spent the previous seven years in Texas, having been promoted and transferred to Dallas in 1972. Unhappy in my job and homesick for California, my wife and I decided it was time to come home. Not anxious to return to L.A. because of recent dramatic spikes in home prices, we opted instead on moving to the Central Valley.

gary walker
Gary Walker Fresno Bee File photo

Why Fresno? An economic study I undertook indicated that while recent growth trends in California were positioned primarily along the coastal area between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border, the San Joaquin Valley was a likely suspect for a substantial increase in economic activity, particularly Fresno, over the next 20 years. This was important to me as I was about to begin a new career as a life insurance agent with the Equitable, which had a successful agency here.

Since my only memories of Fresno from childhood had been that it was the last stop for gas on our way to Yosemite, and extremely hot in the summer, I came here in advance to scout out the local area for a couple of days. I was impressed by the great number of parks, churches, schools and even a notable university, Fresno State.

Upon moving here, I was greeted by a sign on Highway 99 indicating a population of 300,000 people. The figure is now 500,000, an increase of 67%. As I turned onto Highway 41, it came to a sudden end at Tulare Street. A couple of years later it was extended to Bullard and, eventually, all the way to the Madera Ranchos. Now there are two more freeways, the 180 and the 168. The malls back then included Fashion Fair, Manchester and the Fulton Mall downtown. We’ve added the Sierra Vista Mall as well as large retail complexes like River Park. Among the restaurants I enjoyed were Nicola’s, the Refectory, the Velvet Turtle, Reubens and the Outpost. All of these establishments are long gone and, in some cases, replaced by eateries which are also now history.

A lifelong sports enthusiast, I learned that our local baseball team, the Fresno Giants, played at Euless Park in the Class A California League. Now our Triple A Fresno Grizzlies occupy beautiful Chukchansi Park, with a seating capacity over 10,000 people. Fresno State played football at Ratcliffe Stadium, located on the premises of Fresno City College. They now play in the 41,000 seat Bulldog Stadium. The real local sports story back then, however, was Fresno State basketball under Coach Boyd Grant. Their home court at Selland Arena, known popularly as “Grant’s Tomb,” was often packed to capacity (11,300) as the team got better and better. They now play at the Save Mart Center, which holds 16,000 fans.

There have also been important cultural changes. Men employed by banks, insurance companies and other businesses and professions wore coats and ties to work. When you saw a woman with torn jeans, you assumed she was poor. When you saw someone with a tattoo, it was almost always a man, usually up on his shoulder, and it often meant he was a Marine. Seeing couples of different races together was rare. A lot more people were smoking.

While most of the changes noted above are positive, some of them perhaps neutral, negative impacts are also evident. For example, I don’t recall any churches or businesses that kept their doors locked during weekday business hours, which, unfortunately, is the case now.

All of the charms of our congenial city that brought me here originally are still true. The problems are more reflective of population growth pains and changes in our national culture. I would move here again in a heartbeat.

Gary Wayne Walker, a resident Fresno, is a writer and lecturer on American history. He can be reached at gwwalker61@gmail.com

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