John Spevak: The spirit of Los Banos

May 2, 2008 

This column is about two men who epitomize what I'd call "the spirit of Los Baños." One passed away recently, the other recently retired.

It's appropriate I write this column during the week of the Spring Fair, when many people who read the Enterprise are visitors to this city. I hope visiting readers get a sense of the spirit of Los Baños from the brief depiction here of two persons--Joe Mello and Bill Stenberg--who have done so much to enhance this spirit.

Joe Mello passed away last month at the age of 85. He was one of the kindest and most congenial men I've met. Anyone who has lived in Los Baños a while was bound to run into Joe, and he would help make your day.

As his obituary in the Enterprise noted, Joe lived in Los Baños all his life. It's not surprising, coming from a Portuguese family, that he started milking cows when he was 10. Nor is it surprising that he met the love of his life, Irene, at a Portuguese celebration in Dos Palos. And given that he was such a hard worker, it's not surprising that he started his own business--in hay baling--when he was 31 and continued it as a successful enterprise until he retired when he turned 65. In his retirement, for 20 years Joe was as active in his community as ever.

I've known Joe for 36 years, almost from the day I moved to Los Baños, and I have admired and respected him so much it's hard to know where to begin to write his praises. I guess I should begin with his devotion to his family.

Joe and Irene were married for 63 years. They complemented and complimented each other. Long before books were written in the 60's about independent women, Irene was one. She definitely has an opinion about almost anything; just ask her.

But as a caring wife and mother, Irene also values family. Joe and Irene together have been dedicated to their children as much as any couple I have known, taking great pride in Kathryn, Arnold, and Darrell. They were a model to me of what parenthood should be, and I needed that, because when I moved to Los Baños I was clearly a rookie parent.

I observed in particular how proud Joe was of Arnold. Together they often served as ushers at St. Joseph's Parish, and they both greeted their fellow parishioners with smile and a strong handshake. Joe showed pride in Arnold when he gave hours of his time to KingsView, the organization that has provided so many wonderful adults the opportunity for a productive and successful life.

I always enjoyed talking with Joe and Irene at various events, especially at Portuguese festas. Usually they had different approaches on what should be done. They respected each other so much, however, that they let each other have what's now called their "space," to be unique individuals within a loving relationship. Inevitably when I talked with them, either Irene or Joe or both would say something that led to laughter, both mine and theirs.

Along with his devotion to his family, Joe's dedication to his faith most impressed me. While Irene was actively involved in the Young Ladies Institute, Joe was an energetic member of the Knights of Columbus for many years, and he didn't mind when I kidded him about the feathers in his hat or sword in his scabbard. He also donated many hours to St. Joseph's Church, Our Lady of Fatima School, and the Our Lady of Fatima Society.

But he did much more than put in time for his religion. He lived deeply by its principles of faith and hope and love. No matter how tough things got, he had a smile for everyone he met. No matter what cards were dealt to him, he turned them into a winning hand, because in his heart he knew that divine love permeated his life.

Much could also be said about Joe's dedication to his community. He was a member of the Grange, the Native Sons, the hospital board, and--for more than a half a century-- the Lions Club. His life was truly one of service, thinking of others more than himself.

To say that Joe will be missed is so evidently an understatement--his smile, his laugh, his joy. But his spirit that was part of Los Baños for 85 years will remain with us as long as people value commitment to family, faith, and friends.

The second man I'd like to praise is, thankfully, still with and will be with us for a long time to come (although he--or rather his heart--did give us a scare a few years ago). Bill Stenberg is retiring from his full-time role as pharmacist and owner of Los Baños Drugs.

Those of you who saw the Enterprise ad last month know that Bill has sold the drug store to his friend and partner Mel Hartsoch. The fact that Bill paid for a full-page ad to thank all of his customers and friends reveals a lot about the man.

Visitors to Los Baños often remark about "the little drug store that could" on the corner of Sixth and J Sts. They are often impressed with the nostalgic lighted Rexall sign outside, and even more amazed to see a soda fountain and lunch counter inside.

Many people have commented that they have "gone back in time" when they visit the drug store, to an era when pops and moms ran stores and provided a feeling of home to their customers. All the external trimming is well and good, but what truly makes Los Baños Drugs such a welcoming place is the store's owner Bill, along with his partner Mel.

Over the years the Spevak family has had hundreds of prescriptions filled there with competence and care. I've always felt confidence in what was given to me from behind the counter, because the pharmacists not only treat their customers like family, they believe their customers are indeed their extended family.

I first met Bill when he, as the president of the Los Baños Rotary Club, presented a Rotary scholarship to a student from the Los Baños Campus of Merced College. (Back then he had dark hair.) Gradually I came to know him from his prescription dispensation station in the store.

I came to know that I could ask Bill any question about anything related to drugs and medicines and get an honest answer from him, as well as smile and a laugh. In really tough times in my family's life, Bill was willing to open up the store on a Sunday to let me use a wheel chair or renew a desperately needed prescription that had run out.

I understand Bill will still be working part-time at the store. My guess is that he'll have more stories to tell his customers about taking his motorcycle out for a drive and maybe, every one once in a while, a tale of a honey-do project Bev has given him. I wish Bill the best in his (semi-) retirement.

So, all of you visiting readers, I hope you understand a little more why Los Baños is such a good place in which to live, as well as visit. It comes down to people like Joe Mello and Bill Stenberg, people who care deeply and laugh heartily.

(Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged and can be sent via email to spevak@telis.org.)

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