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Second Half Of 2020 In Review
A close up of the State Championship ring showcases the shine it features; the rings were presented to the football team members some six months after their victory in the 2019 state championship game. Many players also had their name and number on the side, along with the EHS helmet and Cougar logo. Marg Jackson/The Times

Students remained on distance learning to start the new school year, the holidays looked decidedly different and COVID-19 continued to impact every aspect of people’s lives as the second half of 2020 unfolded. Here are excerpts from some of the top stories from The Escalon Times, July to December.



More than six months after securing the State Championship on the football field, members of the Escalon Cougars varsity football team got their championship rings. The hardware was a long time in coming … delayed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic … but players attending a special informal barbecue and ring ceremony said it was worth the wait. Presenting the rings was varsity head football coach Andrew Beam, who hosted the ceremony and had several assistant coaches on hand as well. The Cougars defeated the La Jolla Vikings by a final score of 52-21 on Saturday, Dec. 14 – 2019 – and were presented with the Division 4A State Football Trophy.

When American flags get faded, torn or tattered, there is a way to dispose of them. “This is a formal flag retirement ceremony,” said Escalon American Legion Post member Vince Giovaniello, as several members gathered for the event on Sunday, June 28. Hosted at the home of a Legion member, two burn barrels were utilized for the disposal of the flags.

It wasn’t really what he was anticipating when he did a ride along with Terry Pinheiro years ago. But now longtime Escalon police officer Robert ‘Rob’ Lackey finds himself in the department’s top spot, taking over as Escalon Police Chief as of July 1. He is settling in to his new office, desk and routine, trading patrol duties for administrative ones.

While Escalon Unified School District is taking extra measures and doing some deep cleaning this summer on all its campuses, the likelihood of the doors opening in August are fading away. On Monday, July 13, word came in a joint statement from the county Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park and San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas that they “strongly recommend that local schools begin the new school year providing only distance learning instruction through at least the end of August, 2020.”

The upswing in coronavirus cases combined with San Joaquin County remaining on the state’s monitoring list has all but signaled the end for summer recreational swimming and swimming lessons in Escalon. “I can’t foresee it’s going to happen this year,” City Manager Tammy Alcantor said of the community pool opening. “We’ve pretty much given up hope.”

The decision was made on Thursday night, July 23 as Park Fete committee members met virtually. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the group to finally announce that there will be no Park Fete in 2020. Organizers were keeping options open, hopeful for a fall celebration of some sort but circumstances finally, ultimately, made the decision for them. “It was getting pretty obvious,” admitted Lions Club member and Escalon Mayor Robert Swift, one of those on the planning committee. “There can be no big gatherings, whether it be the Miss Escalon pageant, Senior Mr. and Mrs. Escalon, the parade … unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense.”

After keeping some vendors on hold for the past few months, the Escalon High School Sober Grad Committee has had to pull the plug on their event. Once in-person graduation ceremonies –planned for late summer – had to be scrapped due to the rise in coronavirus cases, committee members knew there was no way possible to host the end of the year Sober Grad party for the Class of 2020. Every graduating senior was to receive a $75 Target gift card, she said, with the cards handed out during the recent ‘drive-thru’ yearbook pick-up at the high school, hosted Monday and Tuesday, July 27 and 28.



Persistence … and patience … pay off. Just ask David Velasco. The longtime Escalon Fire Department reserve firefighter has now officially joined the ranks of fulltime personnel there, selected to fill the firefighter position left vacant when Moe Silva was named a Battalion Chief. For Velasco, it is literally a dream come true. “I started as a volunteer here in 2000,” he said of his 20-year stint already with the department. “I stayed active the full 20 years, when I moved out of town, I transitioned to a reserve.”

Incumbent school board trustees Nick Caton in Trustee Area 3 and Martha Coelho in Trustee Area 4 were the only candidates filing as of the Friday, Aug. 7 deadline. Both will be appointed to another term on the board, without having to be on the November ballot.

Opening day for schools in the Escalon Unified School District will look a lot different this year. Classes resume on Wednesday, Aug. 12 – but there won’t be any drop-offs of kindergarten students, no freshmen stepping on to the Escalon High School campus … Escalon, like all San Joaquin County schools, will start the year with distance learning.

A recently organized Community Ambulance Foundation hopes to benefit not only Escalon Community Ambulance, but similar community ambulance organizations. Spearheaded by former Escalon Community Ambulance Manager Mike Pitassi, he said the goal is to help provide funds for some of those necessary equipment purchases that otherwise might be hard for small organizations to handle.

Sentenced to death in connection with the deaths of his wife and unborn son in 2002, convicted murderer Scott Peterson has seen that death penalty sentence overturned by the California Supreme Court. It was announced on Monday, Aug. 24 that the state’s Supreme Court had reversed the death sentence. It did uphold his conviction but prosecutors would have to try the penalty phase of the trial again if they want to seek a reinstatement of the death penalty. Otherwise, said officials, Peterson’s sentence will be life in prison.

It was an assembly-line style production, with several volunteers from Escalon serving up lunch to fire evacuees. The effort was on Sunday afternoon at the Holiday Inn Express of Oakdale, which is housing several families that have been evacuated from their Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake area homes as a result of the Moc fire.



COVID-19 has put a damper on the efforts of a Scout Pack to gain a foothold in the community. Still, the new pack is working hard to recruit additional members and is looking forward to being involved in some new and fun activities. Scout Pack 263 – which is sponsored by the Escalon American Legion Post 263 – was formed earlier this year and is a Cub Scout Pack, open to both boys and girls.

As students continue with distance learning, allowances have been made to insure that they have fuel to keep their minds and bodies sharp. All children, from ages one to 18, are being provided with free meals right now, with distribution at several school campuses. Breakfast and lunch are both provided, with a drive-thru style pick-up for parents on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Under hazy skies, a sizeable crowd gathered outside the Escalon Fire Station on Coley Avenue for a 9-11 memorial service on Friday. This year marked the 14th annual remembrance in Escalon and was the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Escalon firefighters, police officers and Escalon Community Ambulance personnel, in addition to several citizens and special guests, were all on hand.

A successful Thursday curbside dinner fundraiser and a Saturday evening ‘Drive-Thru Luminaria’ event served to close out the year for the Relay For Life of Oakdale-Riverbank-Escalon-Waterford. Though the in-person event was not able to be held this past spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams continued to stay active, fundraising and planning for the final event of the year, the Saturday night drive-thru, Sept. 19.

Escalon Unified School District officials saw their wavier to get elementary students back into classrooms approved by the county’s Department of Public Health and the state, with plans to return to campuses during October. The waiver process is available currently for only the elementary level and, for Escalon, will involve TK through fifth grade students.

Escalon High School junior Ben Millard was promoted to the highest rank possible in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet program on Saturday, Sept. 26. In a pinning ceremony hosted at the city’s Hogan-Ennis Park, Millard was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, signifying his entry into the elite officer corps. Receiving his new rank insignia, pinned on by his mother Elizabeth, the ceremony was overseen by Lieutenant JG Nicholas Millard, his father, who serves as Commander for the Modesto unit of the Sea Cadet program. That unit is known as the Night Stalkers and they operate out of the California Army National Guard Armory in Modesto.



What started out to be a courtesy report regarding an open garage door instead led police to the seizure of hundreds of marijuana plants. The incident, on Thursday night, Oct. 1, occurred about 10:30 p.m. in the 2400 block of Jessica Circle, according to Escalon Police Chief Rob Lackey. “Over 450 mature marijuana plants were found,” Lackey said, noting that the residence – which was being rented – had been turned in to an illegal “crude” grow-house operation, with exposed wires hanging down everywhere and special lights on the plants as well as chemicals found on scene.

With many buyers – and sellers – wearing face coverings and plenty of hand sanitizer in use, residents by the dozens took part in the unofficial citywide yard sale on Saturday in Escalon. The Oct. 3 event was not officially sponsored or organized this year by the City of Escalon, which noted that “based on the current COVID-19 conditions” city officials didn’t feel it was “appropriate to invite large crowds of treasure seekers” to the community.

It seemed a natural next step, after getting involved in the formation of the ‘Escalon Fun Bunch’ for local senior citizens. Ann Shaddix has now expanded her scope, with a recent appointment to the San Joaquin County Commission on Aging, tapped as the City of Escalon representative to the countywide panel. She was appointed to a three-year term by the Escalon City Council.

Morris Newspapers of California (MNC) which includes The Manteca/Ripon Bulletin, Turlock Journal, Oakdale Leader, Ceres Courier, Escalon Times, Riverbank News and 209 Magazine — is being purchased by 209 Multimedia Corporation. The new company has deep roots in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Owners are Hank and Kelly Vander Veen, both Central Valley natives.

Thursday, Oct. 8 – about two months after the start of the new ‘virtual’ school year – students in TK through fifth grades made their return to the Farmington and Collegeville elementary campuses. Teachers, who have primarily been teaching from their classrooms via the online format since school resumed in August, were able to welcome the students on to campus.

It was a day to celebrate creativity and support young artists at work. The first of two planned ‘Maker’s Markets’ event was hosted both inside and outside the Happy Artists Children’s Creative Studio on McHenry Avenue on Saturday, Oct. 17. With nearly two dozen participants, the youngsters – up to age 18 – had the chance to show and sell their wares. Merchandise had to be made by the young seller, and items ranged from candles to bath salts, key chains to bracelets, decorated T-shirts to baked goods.



A pair of Escalon High School graduates – members of the Class of 2020 – recently had the chance to graduate together a second time. Garrett Nash and Clayton Ferreira, both of whom were three-sport athletes at EHS and participated in a variety of campus activities, left for boot camp in September. “They both left for the U.S. Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois on September 1,” explained Garrett’s mom, Carrie, a teacher and coach with the Escalon Unified School District. “They ended up being in the same division, ship 14 division 417.” The graduation ceremony was on Friday, Oct. 30. Due to COVID restrictions, members of the families were not allowed to attend the ceremony.

Residents in the Oakdale-Riverbank-Escalon area will continue to have bipartisan representation at the state and federal level following the Nov. 3 election, as both of the incumbents representing Congressional District 10 – Josh Harder – and State Assembly District 12 – Heath Flora – held on to their seats.

Secondary schools – El Portal and Escalon High School – were able to welcome back students in a hybrid model on Monday, Nov. 9. On Monday, Nov. 16, Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Ron Costa confirmed there was a student testing positive for COVID-19. The student was at the high school and attended class on Tuesday, Nov. 10, experiencing some symptoms later Tuesday afternoon, said Costa.

Effective Tuesday, Nov. 17, San Joaquin County was officially moved back to the more restrictive Purple, or Widespread, Tier after the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced changes to its Blueprint framework on Monday. Neighboring Stanislaus County also dropped back, as did multiple counties around the state.

Several dozen families will benefit this Thanksgiving from donations provided by the community, helping to make sure they have a festive Thanksgiving meal. Local C.A.R.E., Community Action Resources of Escalon, Coordinator Sherrie Vaden said with money provided by local residents, they were able to purchase 100 turkeys for distribution to local families in need. Also, shoppers who contributed to a program offered through MarVal Main Street Market have helped provide pre-packaged bags of groceries that will help round out the holiday meal.

The annual Samaritan’s Purse holiday program, Operation Christmas Child, saw the collection of hundreds of shoeboxes from Escalon and the surrounding area over the past few weeks. Pam Elsholz, longtime coordinator for the effort in Escalon, said the boxes were headed out to Fullerton, in southern California, on Monday, Nov. 23 for the first leg of their journey. Eventually, each shoebox will end up in the hands of a needy child, bringing some hope and joy for the holiday season. Elsholz said the numbers this year showed 168 boxes donated by the Heritage Church congregation in Escalon and 264 more donated from the community, either through other churches or private citizens, to total 432 boxes.



The annual Escalon Community Thanksgiving Dinner, underwritten by the Escalon Ministerial Association, saw more than 400 dinners served up on Thursday, Nov. 26. “The need is great this year, a lot of people are hurting,” said Dianna Dunn, who helped coordinate the annual event. She and DeeAnna Jackson worked cooperatively to organize the deliveries and curbside effort. Dunn said that, between the sign-ups prior to Thursday for the home delivery and pick-up, another 100 or so drive-thru meals were served. The final total count for the day was 436.

eTrans, the local bus system within the City of Escalon and to Modesto, is now being operated under contract with the City of Modesto, through Modesto Area Express. This new arrangement replaces the previous contractor, San Joaquin Regional Transit District (RTD) and is a five-year contractual relationship, according to John Andoh, City of Escalon Transit Coordinator.

The second year of his two-year term as mayor of Escalon was not exactly what Robert Swift anticipated. Closing out a two-year term as the city’s mayor as of Monday, Dec. 7, Swift said he is proud of the city, his fellow council members and the way the community has rallied in light of the pandemic.

With the recent certification of the Nov. 3 election totals in San Joaquin County, the newly elected Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District Board members have been sworn in. Running unopposed, seeking to fill out two years remaining on a term, Laura Catrina was not on the ballot and automatically returns to her seat. Incumbent Josh Cummings was seeking re-election to another four-year term and longtime board member Steve Reichmuth declined to run, leaving two seats available on the November ballot. Former Escalon Fire Battalion Chief Terry Pinheiro and firefighter/paramedic Mark Paulsen were on the ballot along with incumbent Cummings, the three battling for the two seats. Paulsen, with 3,423 votes (41 percent) and Pinheiro, with 3,039 (37 percent) won the available posts.

Councilmembers were sworn in, a new mayor selected and an outgoing councilman honored at the Dec. 7 Escalon City Council meeting. Ed Alves was named Mayor and Jeff Laugero the Mayor Pro Tem, with Laugero and David Bellinger taking the oath of office after winning seats in the November election. Outgoing councilman Walt Murken was presented with a plaque for his years of service as both a council member and mayor.

Not able to host the traditional parade and festivities in the Main Street Park due to COVID restrictions, the evening instead featured a drive-thru parade on Main. Floats were set up alongside the roadway, which featured one-way traffic control from First to Third streets, as the floats were brightly lit up and helped entertain a long line of cars making their way along the route.

The Escalon Community Center is now a local site for drive-thru COVID testing. The testing is available on Mondays only, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at the Community Center, 1055 Escalon Ave. This past Monday, Dec. 14, was the first day that the local site was operational.

A late night fire in a rural area between Farmington and Escalon gave firefighters – and law enforcement personnel – more than they bargained for. The fire, in the 11000 block of Van Allen Road, near the intersection of Mariposa and Van Allen on Dec. 15, destroyed a couple of barns and also led to the discovery of several hundred pounds of marijuana.

Monday morning, Dec. 21 featured plenty of fog and very damp, chilly weather – providing a wintry backdrop for the Escalon Fire Department’s annual toy distribution for youngsters. Working in cooperation with organizations including the Escalon American Legion Post, Escalon Lions Club, Escalon Police, Community Ambulance and local businesses, the Escalon Fire Department helped make the holidays brighter for more than 120 children from throughout the fire district.

A Department of Defense, DOD, medical assistance team consisting of 39 members is being deployed to San Joaquin County to expand the much needed hospital ICU capacity. Team members include two physicians, two physician assistants, seven respiratory therapists, 24 registered nurses and support staff. The DOD medical assistance team was scheduled to arrive on Dec. 29 for orientation and should be operating in time for the New Year’s weekend.

Clayton Ferreira, saluting, at left, marches into his graduation ceremony from Navy boot camp with fellow Escalon High School graduate Garrett Nash beside him. The two were in the same division during the training in Great Lakes, Illinois. Photo Contributed
First-year teacher Brooke Silva settles in to read to her socially distanced class of first grade students at Farmington Elementary. Students returned to the rural Farmington and Collegeville schools, TK through fifth grade, on Oct. 8. Marg Jackson/The Times