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Ripon benefactor once thumbed nose at Nazis

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Ripon benefactor once thumbed nose at Nazis

Ripon developer Mark Wilbur, left, chats with Modesto Honda dealership owner Tony Mistlin.

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

POSTED January 26, 2010 3:09 a.m.

RIPON - Ripon’s Tony Mistlin has come a long way from the disciplinary wrath of teachers in a boys’ prep school in England to becoming the owner of a Honda dealership and the community’s No. 1 benefactor supporting its 120-acre sports park on River Road.

Mistlin last year donated 20 acres from Jack Tone Road at River Road acreage to expand the park named in his honor after an original land donation. This month he purchased another 20 acres and gifted it to the people of Ripon on the park’s east side.

“What we are hoping for now is that some millionaire would have the idea to build a stadium – the land is there to do something major with,” he said.  

He is currently offering to build another ornamental fountain at the corner of Stockton and Second streets including paying for its maintenance for three years.

The longtime Ripon resident lauds city administrator Leon Compton and Ted Johnston for their attitude in the community.  Everything has been well maintained and it is always a pleasure to do anything in Ripon – with the support of the city council, he said.

Mistlin clearly remembers his teachers in England repeatedly rapping his knuckles with a cane and the head master of the school using it on his back side as hard as he could swing.  He said those teachers even hung a sign around his neck urging other students to kick him.  Out of 22 in a class, he was always rated at the bottom, he said.

He remembers teachers telling him that he was no good and that he would never amount to anything in life – a reverse role model of self that he feels caused him to change.

Book reward changed
young Mistlin’s attitude

A change came when he was awarded a book on stage at the school for his impressive finish in a competition – “it was more fun being first,” he said.  From then on he promised himself he would work to always be number one in the future with a 4.0 grade average.   And “number one” he would later become again as a parent and as an auto dealer.  

“There’s no book on how to be a parent or how to be an auto dealer – you learn by the seat of your pants,” he quipped.

He was born in London and his family moved to Hove near Brighton on the South Coast.  At the age of 12 his family moved back to London where he attended Colet Court, a boys’ university preparatory school founded in 1881.  Connected to a sister school in Switzerland, he was sent there for a year coming back just before his 13th birthday, fearing World War II was imminent.  

Flying back home from Switzerland, he was on the plane by himself when Nazis came on board searching the plane.  He and “other giggling kids” held their index and middle fingers over their top lip and under their noses forming a Hitler mustache.

“We thought it was funny at the time, but we could have been taken off the plane and never seen again,” he said.  

Mistlin said when he got back to London there was a common fear the Germans would start bombing London.  His family moved to the suburbs of Torquay and Devon sending him to the U.S. when he was 15.  The government would not allow any male over that age to leave the country.

Traveling alone, he was on his way to New York.

He remembered b being in London when Dunkirk and France fell with the British Army leaving Dunkirk in small boats headed for England.  They had no defense, he said.  Older men would walk the water’s edge with 2x4s on their shoulders rather than guns – they had none.  It was the RAF that saved England and the world, he added.

Scared wondering
what woudl happen
when he arrived in US

“When I got to America at 15, I looked up at the big buildings – it was scary wondering what’s going to happen?”  He noted that his strict British teachers must have done their work well, because he was promoted ahead one grade in his new country – amazed at the more understanding instructors.

He said he really felt somewhat isolated when he starred in several school plays, and there were no family members to watch from the audience to see the performances.

He attended New York University for a year before realizing he wasn’t cut out for college – it was boring.   One thing he did learn from a professor was that when going through a door, notice it says “push”  on one side and “pull” on the other that refers to a student’s relationship with others. 

Later in life those who have been befriended can often be in positions where they can be of help or not – all about push and pull.

Mistlin turned 17 in New York, and he wanted to join the war effort in the U.S. Army Air Corps, but they wouldn’t accept him because he was not an American citizen.  He had been thrilled and motivated by seeing the movie “Captains of the Clouds” with Dennis Morgan, and heard that Canada was accepting volunteers for their air force.

The Canadian military said they couldn’t accept him until he turned 18 without his parents’ permission – they were both in London.  He convinced the air force that he would turn 18 in just two months, and it would be at least that long before his parents could send written permission – probably wouldn’t happen, though, since they sent him to the U.S. to be safe, not to join the military.

Mistlin became a pilot and a navigator first flying a twin engine Aaronson and then the AT-6 in February of 1943.  “When I was through with flight training the war was over in Europe and I volunteered for the Pacific, not realizing how easy it was to get killed,” he said.  He wasn’t needed in that theater after all ending his flying career.

Mistlin and his wife Joan have three grown children.  Son Gary served as the chief executive officer of a major health care organization and is now retired doing consulting work.  He’s a U.C. grad with an MBA degree.

Daughters Gala and Melody have also been successes in their own right – a continued pride for their parents.

Mistlins bought
Modesto Buick

Mistlin was working at the dealership in San Francisco and living in San Mateo when the Mistlins pulled up their roots learning of a Buick dealership in Modesto that was available and in economic trouble.

Mistlin and his wife Joan did the lion’s share of the work without hiring half a dozen managers to serve the various departments under them.  He had spent 15 years in San Francisco coming to the Valley in 1964 with Buick first, then adding Opel and Jeep.  In 1974 he gave up those brands and went completely with Honda, because those cars were showing a longer road life, he said.

He noted that opening the dealership in Modesto was a real gamble.  “We had to borrow from the bank – one bad month would have broken us,” he remembered.

“I wouldn’t have been able to have done any of the things I have done without the support of the family – leaving our home in San Mateo was difficult for my wife leaving her friends,” he said.  And she was there when he had to make house calls at night – waiting in the car at the curb – and she did most of the office work for him.  All the while, she has silently devoted more than 40 years in support of the Salvation Army.

One of Mistlin’s prize possessions is a picture that hangs in his office of his parents with Cecil B. DeMille taken when DeMille was working on “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  The senior Mistlin was also involved in producing films in London being very successful at the time.  After his mother’s death his dad came to the U.S. and settled in Florida.  He also remembers his grandfather well as being “a jolly character,” he added.

At his dealership office
seven days a week

“I’m here at the office in the mornings seven days a week, having done this now for 45 years,” he said. “People may wonder where all the money comes from to donate to the community – it comes from 45 years of investments and the sale of the old building at 3120 McHenry along with the body shop that sold two years ago.”

He added, “When I’m saying how great Ripon is, the city council has always supported me in anything I wanted to do,” adding, “We never give enough credit to our wives!”

His dealership – like others – needs more business.  

“It’s a pent up demand, but we’ve managed to keep our people.  We’re here to stay and we are going to make it.  We’ve got the best product so that has to help,” he said.  Mistlin also lauded Ripon developer Mark Wilbur for donating the money to build the batting cages in the sports park.

Mistlin says he plays golf sometimes – “but I’m bad – don’t play very well.”  His love in past years has been ice skating and skiing, but that has been sidelined for fear of breaking something, he chuckled.

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