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A Manteca couple for all seasons

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POSTED August 31, 2013 2:01 a.m.

Southwest of Manteca hugging a levee separating a wooded area on a bend in the San Joaquin River and fertile farmland you will find the thinking man’s — and the thinking woman’s — Shangri-La.

It is a modest home by any standards. Elevated above the river’s floodplain, its front driveway is a graveled road atop the levee. Inside you will quickly see the owners’ reverence for books that line numerous shelves.

It is here that Manteca’s ultimate quiet power couple lived. They raised a family. They farmed. And they left a legacy behind for future generations.

This is the home of Alex and Barbara Hildebrand.

They were down to earth, brilliant, and forward thinking. Barbara was educated at UCLA and got her masters at Stanford. Alex was a Cal Berkeley man. They met in a Sierra Club cross country skiing excursion.

On the cusp of the Space Age, they did something that was light years ahead of the coming trend. They shunned urban life and fled to the Northern San Joaquin Valley. But it wasn’t just to raise a family. It was to make a living by farming the land. At the time that would have seemed more than strange. California was ramping up. The aerospace industry was starting to boom. Higher education opportunities were exploding. The state was laying the foundation for what would one day become regarded as the greatest freeway system in the world. And the finishing touches were being put on the largest water transfer system in the history of mankind.

Both had the skill sets to thrive and prosper in such a climate. She was a physical therapist and educator by training and he was an engineer.

Instead they came to Manteca creating a blended lifestyle that had a dab of Walden’s Pond sensibility rooted in farming.

Alex nor Barbara were content to simply farm and raise a family although by any measure they did a superb job at both. Instead they had a passion for civilization. They understood the future is shaped by individuals dedicated to the concept that their labors don’t have to benefit them or even the next generation.

Alex’s forte was water. Or more precisely it was the crazy thing called California water politics with a heavy emphasis on its mind-numbing disciplines ranging from water rights and hydraulics to the Mad Hatter-style regulations and over-commitment of federal and state water agencies.

It was born out of a desire to protect the riparian water rights of the South Delta Water Association. His farm was supplied the old-fashioned way by water from the river.

But his vision and drive wasn’t fueled by a “me only” approach. He worked tirelessly for decades to influence in any way he could water policy so everyone in California benefited. He worried about feeding future California as well as keeping taps flowing in urban areas and protecting the environment. He wasn’t just a farmer. He wasn’t just an environmentalist. In fact, Alex, who once served as Sierra Club president, quit the organization when they started going far afield and taking stances on subjects such as population control.

Alex was regarded by politicians, bureaucrats, and water titans alike up and down the state as one of the most level headed and well versed “shakers” in the arena of California water.

The commitment Alex had to working for a water solution for California was matched in intensity by Barbara’s passion for books and the doors they unlocked for opportunity and enlightenment.

Years prior to moving to Manteca in 1962, Barbara had noticed all Manteca had been a storefront that served as a library. She was a tad apprehensive about moving her three daughters to a community that tolerated such a Spartan approach to what she considered a key foundation to civilization itself.

As fate would have it, the community passed a bond measure before the Hildebrands’ actual move. The library was dedicated on Jan. 13, 1962 just months before Barbara arrived in Manteca.

From the start, Barbara was committed to making sure the library succeeded and to allow people to maximize the knowledge that it offered. She was a charter member of the Friends of the Library. She served as a volunteer and substitute staff person. Name a library-related committee and Barbara was on it working tirelessly for improving the library and community access.

Barbara was the Marathon Woman of library volunteers. Devoting more than 1,000- hours a year was just a warm-up for her.

Librarians may have come and gone but Barbara was always there supporting the staff and helping those who looked for knowledge, and self-improvement.

She also was responsible for setting up and then volunteering to staff the original Nile Garden School library back in the 1960s.

Barbara passed away this week. Alex preceded her in death in January of 2012.

While Alex and Barbara have ended their time here on earth their legacy will live on every time a Californian turns on a water faucet or someone opens a book or clicks on a computer at the Manteca Library.

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