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Year In Review Touches On Top Stories Of 2022
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Local American Veterans First CEO Duke Cooper of Oakdale looks at some of the notes left as part of a new display at AVF headquarters in 2022 honoring the California residents who have been lost in the War on Terror since 2001; among them, Navy Corpsman James Ray Layton, directly above the notes. Layton grew up in Riverbank and graduated from Vista High School in Escalon. Marg Jackson/The Times
Steph
After being hospitalized and in rehabilitation for several months due to battling COVID, local resident Stephanie Herrera waves to a crowd of well-wishers who came to share the celebration as she arrived back home. Marg Jackson/The Times

In a year where most activities got ‘back to normal’ following the COVID-influenced 2020 and 2021, there were plenty of events chronicled in the pages of The Times for the calendar year 2022. This week, we begin our annual Year In Review, highlighting some of the top stories from the first six months of the year, January through June.

 

JANUARY

Hoping that they won’t see a post-holiday break spike in COVID-19 cases – including any of the existing variants – Escalon Unified School District officials reported that students were back in classes on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. District Superintendent Ron Costa said the return to a normal schedule didn’t include any additional requirements from the CDPH, California Department of Public Health, but they are still following those directives already in place, including the masking of students.

Recognized prior to a home basketball game on Monday. Jan. 3, senior Russell Weinbrecht has become the third player in Escalon High School history to score 1,000 points in his varsity basketball career. He was presented with a special encased 1,000 Point basketball, and celebrated the moment with family and friends. Head coach Nate Bartelink made the presentation at center court, with Weinbrecht collecting the historic 1000th point midway through the fourth quarter of a tournament game on Dec. 30 against Ceres.

County public health officials and hospital leaders are urging San Joaquin County residents to avoid testing or treating mild symptoms at hospital emergency departments. Instead of the ER, officials advise residents to use SJReady.org for quick access to local testing sites nearby. Save even more time and register for COVID-19 testing at SJReady.org.

He grew up in Riverbank and graduated from Vista High School in Escalon in 2005. In 2009, he lost his life in service to this country, killed in action while serving as a Navy Corpsman in Afghanistan. Now, James Ray ‘Doc’ Layton is among the California service members memorialized in a new exhibit, on display at the American Veterans First facility at 6436 Oakdale Road in Riverbank. Layton was just 22 years old when he gave his life; he was tending the wounds of an injured Marine when both of them were struck and killed in Kunar province, during an ambush by insurgents. AVF CEO Duke Cooper of Oakdale said Layton is one of the many California residents remembered; all those included have given the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s primarily for teaching the basics of the game, and gyms on both the Escalon High School and El Portal Middle School campuses are abuzz with activity on Saturdays. The Escalon Recreation Department’s Youth Basketball Program sees the kindergarten/first grade division suiting up on Saturdays in the old gym at EHS from 8:15 a.m. until about 10:30 a.m., followed by the second/third grade teams taking the court from 10:30 a.m. to about 1:30 p.m. At El Portal, the fourth through sixth grade divisions play from 8:15 a.m. until about 1:30 p.m. Younger hoopsters play during the week.

 

FEBRUARY

Born and raised in the Tracy area, San Joaquin County Supervisor Robert Rickman now counts Escalon residents among his constituents. Recently named to serve as vice chair of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, Rickman represents District 5 on the panel. The district originally included Mountain House, Tracy, part of Manteca and River Islands in Lathrop. “Now, with redistricting, it covers Mountain House, Tracy, Ripon and Escalon, pretty much the whole southern part of the county,” Rickman explained.

A week of on-campus fun was capped on Friday night, Jan. 28 in Escalon with the crowning of a new Winter Homecoming King. Alfonzo Gonzalez, one of five candidates in the running, received the honor at halftime of the varsity boys basketball game against Ripon Christian. The Cougars, unfortunately, fell to the rival Knights in the contest but the rest of the festivities were a success. Special dress up days around the theme of ‘Ho Ho Homecoming’ were staged during the week while a Friday afternoon rally also saw the selection of a staff King and Queen, with teachers Michael Bower and Myranda Verdin receiving those honors. In the shopping cart float competition, the senior class took first place with their Elf movie-themed float and second place went to the sophomore class with their Grinch theme.

Coming off a successful tri-tip drive-thru fundraiser, plans are moving ahead for a festive Sober Grad night party of the Class of 2022 at Escalon High School. Scheduled for Friday, June 3, the event is designed to provide a safe, secure environment for graduating seniors to enjoy their final night of high school together. Activities typically range from casino-style games to Bingo, inflatables, music, food, prizes and more. “EEF, the Escalon Educational Foundation, has taken us under their wing,” said Sober Grad committee member Krysten Lial. “We are kind of a subcommittee under the EEF.” Several volunteers are filling spots on the committee, with everything from working on securing vendors to bring in the various activities to lining up the food and coordinating prizes being covered.

For the first time since 1999, the Escalon varsity Lady Cougars are the Trans-Valley League champions. The girls secured the title in a road game during a busy week, playing against Ripon, Livingston and Hughson. Ripon and Livingston are battling it out for third place while Hughson entered the week with a shot at first place, along with the Cougars, but had to settle for second as Escalon played its way to the championship.

After spending more than six months away from home, hospitalized and in rehabilitation as a result of battling COVID-19, Stephanie Herrera came home. The milestone moment was celebrated in Escalon on Friday, Feb. 11 with a large crowd of family members, friends, neighbors and well-wishers on hand to welcome her back. Stephanie’s long journey included stints at a couple of rehabilitation facilities as well as hospitals. “She’s a miracle,” husband Michael said of his wife, who not only battles MS but was in a fight for her life against the Delta variant of COVID-19, first hospitalized last August.

It was what you could call a banner year for the Escalon wrestlers. The Cougars claimed the Division 5 Sac-Joaquin Section Team Duals banner and also nailed down the Division 5 Individual competition banner, bringing both home to Escalon.

Called in by a CHP officer responding to an unrelated non-injury accident, an early morning fire on Saturday, Feb. 19 caused extensive interior damage to the well-known Rossetti’s Deli outside Escalon. Located at the intersection of Lone Tree and Escalon-Bellota roads, this was the second time in less than four years that a fire has damaged the iconic eatery.

He started out as a volunteer firefighter in 1991 and his career has included stints with several other departments in the region but Matt Bailey is settling in to a new post; he has taken over as Farmington Fire Chief. The position became vacant with the recent retirement of former longtime chief – and also Bailey’s mother – Conni Bailey and the torch of leadership has been passed from mother to son. Bailey had been serving as assistant chief for the past few years and was in line for the chief position as his mom began considering retirement.

 

MARCH

The year-to-year change in calls for service for the Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District was slight, but there all the same. Fire Chief Rick Mello said the department responded to 1,204 total incidents during 2021, a rise from the 1,169 calls recorded during 2020. “Our EMS, Emergency Medical Services calls, declined slightly while our vehicle accidents, vegetation fires and structure fires saw a small increase,” the chief said.

“It’s not just about death … it’s about life.” That was the way Escalon High School senior Pietro Orlando summed up his view of the Every 15 Minutes program, played out on the EHS campus this past Thursday and Friday, March 3 and 4. “I have a new perspective on what it means to live,” Orlando added. The teen was one of ‘The Living Dead’ in the production, the black clad-ghostly face group that accompanied the Grim Reaper at a staged fatal auto accident scene along Escalon-Bellota Road.

After resigning his post on the Escalon City Council and moving to Stanislaus County late last year, former Escalon Mayor Jeff Laugero is now in line to become the next District Attorney for neighboring Stanislaus County. A longtime member of the council, Laugero resigned in order to pursue the elected DA post in Stanislaus County, where he currently serves as a Chief Deputy District Attorney. Outgoing District Attorney Birgit Fladager had announced her retirement previously and, following an extended filing period for the position since the incumbent was not running, Laugero was the only one submitting papers to seek the post.

With the lifting of the Kindergarten through 12th grade mask mandate last week, the wearing of masks is no longer required on Escalon Unified School District campuses. The mask mandate was lifted at the end of Friday, March 11, allowing for students and school staff members across the state to come back to campuses on Monday, March 14 without a mask.

Contrary to some rumors swirling about the area, the Escalon and Farmington United Methodist Churches are not closed … and have no intention of closing their doors. “I think maybe because Riverbank had shut down, people thought we did, too,” said Pastor Peggy Bosch, who serves both the Escalon and Farmington congregations.

Some 200 Panthers arrived on the campus of Escalon High School on Friday morning, March 18, eager to learn a little bit more about the ag program and the opportunities it provides. The eighth grade Panthers of El Portal Middle School visited the Cougars of EHS and had the chance to rotate to several different stations within the agriculture department along with hearing a number of presenters from the ag field.

After two years on hiatus, it was a welcome return for the Arts Alive student art showcase, hosted in the old gym on the Escalon High School campus. The show features artwork from students at all grade levels within the Escalon Unified School District and it was also open to the public during the high school Open House on Wednesday evening, March 23. Throughout the week, March 21 through 25, elementary and middle school students came through to view the artwork and younger students had the chance for some hands on art projects to do and take home.

 

APRIL

It was literally a picture perfect day for strolling the streets in Knights Ferry on Saturday, April 2 and taking in the wide variety of classic cars and trucks on display. The setting was the annual Knights Ferry Classic Car Show and some Escalon residents were among those making the trek to the hamlet for the event. Staged on the main street through the community, there were cars, trucks, works in progress and plenty of shop talk. There was also food, music, raffle drawings, car show merchandise for sale and more. “This is a 1970 Mustang Coupe,” Eric Mello of Escalon said, as he relaxed with some friends next to his vehicle.

Now nearly six years in operation, the Escalon Youth Center recently gained a new manager, with Nathan Haley taking on that role earlier this year. The center, 1328 Escalon Ave., at the corner of Escalon and Yosemite avenues, was formally dedicated and opened in mid-August of 2016. It offers a place for local teens to go for a chance to socialize, get some homework help, buy snacks, play basketball, video games, pool and more. Haley, who lives in Ceres, said it was a chance meeting with Pastor Arney Corbin of Trinity Church – both involved in a project in Turlock – that started the discussions regarding the need for a center manager. “I was in between jobs at the time,” said Haley, who previously worked in tech support for 10 years. The discussion went well and Haley came to Escalon to get a look at the center and learn more about the operation. From there, he made the move in to the position.

In partnership with the First Partner’s Office and the California State Library, State Parks is providing free vehicle day-use entry to over 200 participating state park units operated by State Parks to library card holders in the Golden State. The California State Library Parks Pass is valid for entry of one passenger vehicle with capacity of nine people or less or one highway licensed motorcycle. Stockton-San Joaquin County Library system is participating in the new program, and passes can be checked out at many of the library branches throughout the county, including the Escalon branch.

As families gathered throughout the community to enjoy Easter dinner together on Sunday, April 17, another ‘family’ of sorts was preparing for their own celebration. At the Escalon firehouse on Coley Avenue, the small crew on duty for the day got busy peeling potatoes after returning from a service call, as firefighter David Velasco prepared to make mashed potatoes for the Easter menu. This year, the on-duty personnel were invited to the home of Velasco’s parents in Escalon for a holiday dinner. Often times, family members of those working a shift come to the firehouse to eat with their loved ones. They usually try to spend at least part of the holiday together, and it is just one of the sacrifices that families of first responders make … sharing them with the community on a 24/7 basis.

The San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) recently announced this year’s San Joaquin County Teacher of the Year finalists. Among them is El Portal Middle School’s Staci Diaz, a language arts instructor. All Teacher of the Year finalists and Classified Employee of the Year winners will be honored on June 9 at the San Joaquin County Classified Employees and Teacher of the Year Awards Celebration Dinner.

Escalon High School senior Soleil Gouzenne is in some pretty outstanding company. The CIF Sac-Joaquin Section has announced its A. Dale Lacky Scholar Athlete Award winners for outstanding athletic performance, community service and academic success during their four years of high school. Gouzenne is among the winners.

 

MAY

Donations for the Escalon Animal Shelter, dusting and organizing the books on shelves in the Escalon Library, adding a splash of bright color for fire hydrants – there were many projects going on Saturday, April 30 for the Love Escalon community work day. Organizer Jessica Wylie said she was thrilled with the event overall, seeing dozens of volunteers tackle multiple projects throughout the city. “We had about 70 volunteers and more than 10 projects,” Wylie explained. The day began with a kickoff rally at the city’s Main Street Park. Among those addressing the crowd was Brenda Davis, whose late husband, Pastor Jim Davis, was the first to propose including Escalon in the ‘Love’ effort that is done by many communities throughout the region. He got the idea after seeing Love Modesto in action and brought it to Escalon.

Preparing for a limited run this summer, the Escalon Chamber of Commerce is putting together a Farmers Market to be hosted in the city’s Main Street Park. Coordinating the market will be Chamber Ambassador Megan McNinch, who said they are planning the market for the second Thursday of the month, starting on May 12. “We are having it in May, June and July,” McNinch said of starting small, hosting the event just once a month this summer.

In the last five-plus decades, there have only been two head coaches for Escalon varsity baseball. Bob Loureiro – who had the baseball field named in his honor – came back on Friday, May 6 to toss out the ceremonial first pitch as his successor, Greg Largent, is retiring at the end of this school year. A longtime teacher at El Portal Middle School, Largent has also served as head coach of the varsity baseball program at Escalon High School for the past 17 years, taking over from Loureiro. Between the two of them, they have amassed more than 900 wins and have provided leadership for the baseball team for 58 years. During Largent’s tenure, the Cougars have won 10 Trans-Valley League championships, three Sac-Joaquin Section titles and two California State baseball championships.

The goal was to raise $20,000 and the two-day Fill the Boot drive for the Escalon Fire Department surpassed that total. Money raised goes to the Firefighters Burn Institute of Sacramento and officials said that the total had gone over $22,000. It will go higher, as that figure does not include the change collected from motorists over the weekend, only the bills and checks. Firefighters, armed with their turnout boots, were set up at the main intersection of Highway 120/McHenry Avenue/Escalon Avenue on both Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15. First year coordinator Kaden Christensen said there were 10 to 15 volunteers that rotated through to cover the shifts over the two days.

After a couple of years away from the community, working and going to school, former Escalon library assistant Amanda Clifford is back … and this time, she’s in charge. Now the Escalon Librarian, Clifford said she couldn’t be happier, as she loved her time spent in Escalon and is eager for the challenge of serving the community as its librarian fulltime. “This is my dream job,” she admitted.

An afternoon tea party was on the agenda recently for members of the Escalon Senior Fun Bunch, complete with festive hats, live musical entertainment, finger foods and some prize drawings. Hosted at the Escalon Community Center on May 18, the gathering saw dozens of local seniors come together for the event, billed as ‘The Guys and Dolls Tea’ and were treated to violin music by Rodolfo ‘Rod’ Mendoza. There were also sandwiches, pastries, fruit, water, and cold and hot teas. Many also took the opportunity to model some unique and colorful hats.

A late morning vegetation fire at the corner of California and Irwin in Escalon ultimately destroyed a long abandoned house on the property. The call was received by the Escalon Fire Department – and Escalon Police – shortly after 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 22. Escalon Police had received multiple calls of a fire and Escalon Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Pelot said the call originally came in as a vegetation fire when the department was dispatched.

 

JUNE

A brisk breeze was blowing, keeping the flags flapping, as residents gathered for a Memorial Day ceremony at Burwood Cemetery on River Road, Monday morning, May 30. Escalon American Legion Gustafson Thompson Post 263 hosted the ceremony, the first of three they would be putting on during the day. The Burwood gathering, said Post Commander Curtis Vaughn, is considered as the ‘main’ ceremony and featured guest speaker Pastor Bill Barnett. He serves as pastor at Shelter Cove Community Church and is also the Chaplain for the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department. Vaughn welcomed attendees to the event and then turned the podium over to Barnett.

Considered the most prestigious honor presented to a member of the graduating class each year from Escalon High School, the Wendell Eliason Memorial Award went to Jacob Dugo for the Class of 2022. Eliason, born on July 11, 1940, was Escalon’s lone casualty in the Vietnam War, killed in action on March 31, 1965. He served in the United States Marine Corps and was a First Lieutenant when he gave his life in service to this country. He was a helicopter pilot and was struck by hostile fire while flying a mission to evacuate injured American soldiers. Wendell Theo Eliason is buried at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon. The winner of the award is announced each year at the Senior Awards Night that occurs shortly before high school graduation. The recipient is selected by the combined faculty, staff and student council of Escalon High School. It was first presented in 1966.

Tonia Reyes has a very personal reason for suiting up for a weekend bike ride in Lake Tahoe. She has joined with the local Team in Training, raising money and awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She rides in honor of her daughter, Faith, who battled a cancerous brain tumor diagnosed in July of 2016 while attending Collegeville Elementary School. Now finishing her sophomore year at Escalon High, Reyes said Faith still has challenges as a result of the tumor but the support they received during the journey prompted her to give back in a positive way, taking part in the Team in Training program.

Temperatures were near perfect and a breeze that blew steadily during the day calmed down some for the evening, as members of the Class of 2022 entered into Engel Field for their graduation Friday night, June 3 at Escalon High School. It was a festive night, with the class sharing in the joy of having a mostly ‘normal’ senior year, able to attend classes, play sports and have extracurricular activities; all of which were curtailed somewhat during their sophomore and junior years due to COVID. But this night was about perseverance, accomplishment, and looking ahead at what is to come in the future.

The San Joaquin AgFest Junior Livestock Show and Auction will take place from Friday, June 10 through Saturday, June 18, 2022 at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds in Stockton. All San Joaquin County 4-H, Grange, and FFA members with projects in the beef, swine, sheep, goats, dairy, rabbits, poultry, turkeys, cavy, and dog areas will compete at the show and auction. Members who have vocational projects such as welding, wood, plants, and vegetables will also exhibit their projects during the nine-day show.

A Saturday night crash along Jack Tone Road in Collegeville, near the intersection of Mariposa Road, claimed the life of longtime Escalon Unified School District maintenance technician and Collegeville Fire Department Assistant Chief Kurt Pettitt. The CHP report indicates that Pettitt, 56, was driving a Kawasaki cart northbound along Jack Tone Road, just north of the intersection with Mariposa Road about 9:15 p.m., June 11, when the Kawasaki was struck by a 2020 Volkswagen Jetta, driven by a 20-yearold man from Ripon.

Several members of the Escalon Police Officers Association (POA)stepped up to the podium on Monday night, June 20, asking members of the Escalon City Council to raise pay for officers. Contract negotiations with the city are at an impasse, POA Vice President Anthony Hardgraves said, and those attending the council meeting stressed that officers need to make a living wage in order to work for the city. Many officers, said those testifying, have left Escalon for higher pay elsewhere, including departments nearby such as Oakdale and Manteca. While the topic of a contract was not on the open session agenda, it was scheduled to be heard in closed session. Mayor Ed Alves said the council could not take any action in open session other than to hear the testimony of those taking the podium.

As a cool breeze blew in off the Stanislaus River on Saturday evening, June 18, a sizeable crowd gathered at Del Rio Vista Garden along River Road. Music, dinner and drawings for prizes were all part of the night’s festivities, with the event serving as a fundraiser for the Escalon Historical Society.

San Joaquin County’s Fifth District Supervisor Robert Rickman was elected Chair of the San Joaquin Council of Governments Board of Directors. The action came on June 23; Rickman represents Escalon on the county’s Board of Supervisors. The Council of Governments Board establishes regional transportation policies and programs and decides on funding allocations for transportation improvements.

The distribution of mosquitofish by the San Joaquin Mosquito and Vector Control District took place this past week at several locations around the county, including Escalon. That, even as officials with the district announced detecting the first evidence of West Nile Virus in the county for 2022. Officials with the District’s mosquito borne disease surveillance program recently detected West Nile virus (WNV) in six samples of mosquitoes found in zip codes 95209 and 95219, both in Stockton. “These WNV positive mosquitoes are the first indicator that WNV is active in San Joaquin County this year,” said Aaron Devencenzi, Public Information Officer of the District.

 

Next week, a look at the top stories of July through December, in Part 2 of the Year In Review.

HC king
Smiling after accepting his brand new crown and Homecoming King sash, senior Alfonzo Gonzalez was joined at center court by his mom Lidia for the announcement of the king at halftime of the Escalon vs. Ripon Christian varsity boys basketball game in late January. Marg Jackson/The Times
BBQ2
Grill masters Kenny Taggart, left, and John Lial load the seasoned tri-tips on to the grill outside El Portal Middle School, starting the process to have them ready for the Sober Grad fundraising drive-thru dinner, hosted each year to raise funds for the graduation night party for local high school seniors. Marg Jackson/The Times