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John Harris: On top of the world when gas was 17 cents for a gallon
John Harris stands in front of the Manteca Museum, 600 Yosemite Ave. The museum is in the former Methodist church where as a young boy in the early 1950s Harris would climb the steps in the bell tower to ring the bell for Sunday morning services. - photo by HIME ROMERO
It was the days of rolled up cuffs on denim pants and cruising Yosemite Avenue.

Gasoline was 17 cents a gallon and John Harris didn’t have a care in the world.

It was 1958. Harris had just graduated from Manteca High.

He worked as a gas jockey first at Tom Looman’s service station on the edge of town at Union Road and Yosemite avenue where Western Dental stands today. Later he’d go to work at Carl Hansen’s Shell station where the dental offices are today across from Tipton’s on Yosemite at Maple.

Pumping gas earned him 97 cents an hour. It was back in the days when the attendant checked your tires, radiator, and oil and washed the windows. Customers also got trading stamps plus the trademark service with a smile. And if they needed an emergency car repair, a tire fixed and such the service station attendants did that too.

“I can’t tell you how many times a radiator cap blew up in my face,” Harris said.

He noted some customers thought it was great fun to hit the horn when he had his head under the hood.

Hells Angels were regular customers
“Guys would drive up on dates dressed in tuxes and act like big shots and say fill it up,” Harris recalled. “Then they’d stick their arm out the window and signal you with two fingers meaning they just wanted two gallons.”

When he worked at the Union and Yosemite station it was a regular occurrence on Fridays to have 40 to 60 Hells Angels roll into the station after making a stop first at the now shuttered Leo’s Tavern just down Yosemite.

“I was a naïve kid back then,” Harris said. “They (the Hells Angels) never caused any problems.”

Harris, 70, was re-elected to his fourth term on the Manteca City Council last month. Harris – who is retired from the San Joaquin County’s Probation Department – dabbles in history as his hobby. And no history is sweeter to him than Manteca’s.

Harris was an Army brat.

When his father Emmett was assigned to Moffet Field on the San Francisco Peninsula in 1927, he traveled toward Yosemite and came across Manteca. Harris said his father fell in love with Manteca as it reminded him of the West Virginia town he hailed from plus it was centrally located to the Bay Area and the Sierra.

When his father retired in 1949 as a sergeant master at McClellan Air Base in Sacramento, Harris, then 8, moved to Manteca with his family.

“I loved it,” Harris said of Manteca that had 3,500 residents at the time. “It was a lot of fun.”

His family lived on the edge of town in what is now the 800 block of Virginia Street. Next to his house was nothing but cow pastures. There were three nearby irrigation ditches where he’d swim in the summer.

Sugar Daddy & gun shot
cost him his tooth
A big treat was catching a matinee at the El Rey for a dime. He recalled one movie starring Gary Cooper where it was enjoying a Sugar Daddy when all of a sudden someone pointed a gun at Copper and fired.

Startled thinking Copper had been shot, Harris whipped the Sugar Daddy out of his mouth along with a tooth. It turned out the gun was aimed at a rattlesnake behind Copper.

When he graduated from eighth grade, there weren’t parties as they are today. His parents instead treated him to a banana split at The Creamery that was once located where Athens Burgers is today. It is the same place, Harris noted, that Clark Gable would often stop at on his way north to his duck range in the Sacramento Valley.

One of his teen haunts - The Patio that is now Johnny’s Restaurant - was where you could get lucky and catch a glimpse of Bing Cosby taking a break on his drive to or from his property near Sonora.

For two hours of gas jockey pay - just under $2 - Harris got his favorite meal consisting of a hamburger fires and soda.

His favorite meal is how his dad gave him one of his nicknames – Wimpy. Harris’ middle name is Wellington – was the same as J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in the long running Popeye comic strip that loved hamburgers.

Started working at age 12
As a kid Harris worked various jobs from picking strawberries as a 12-year-old at a South Manteca Road farm to working as a 14-year-old at Taylor’s Nursery that was located next to what is now Cabral Suzuki.

As a 13-year-old, he worked for Mike Picinini at Mike’s Market where Accent Carpets is now located in the 100 block of North Main Street.

It was also Harris’ job to ring the bell Sunday mornings at the old Methodist Church where the Manteca Historical Society museum is now located. The bell today is on display outside the Lutheran Church on Northgate Drive.

He also worked taking tickets on Saturdays for George Peters Sr. at the El Rey Theatre. His pay was a free ticket to see the movie and a bag of popcorn. It was there that he first met Dennis Weaver who ended up spending several years living in Manteca with the George Hogrefe family and attending school. Weaver was earning his keep and spending money sweeping and cleaning at the El Rey.

Mowed Milo Candini’s lawn
He also mowed lawns including that of Manteca’s first major league baseball player Milo Candini.

“That was a real honor for me” Harris recalled.

Several years later when Harris said he tried to play baseball and was learning to pitch, Candini was running a practice when he reached into the ball bag and pulled out a ball inscribed with “Washington 5, Yankees 1.” It was a game ball from a game he won as a Senators pitcher.

“I started to put it back in and Candini just said ‘use it’,” Harris recalled.

When Harris as an 18-year-old told his dad he had to buy him a car so he could learn how to drive, his dad simply said “get a job and buy it yourself.”

His first car was “an ugly” battleship gray 1950 four-door Chevy sedan that cost him $100

“My father told me one time (after getting the car), ‘son, if a police officer ever brings you home you’d better go by PL Fry’s first,’” Harris said. “When my dad said something he meant it.”

He learned to shift in their front yard and his neighbor – Lee Elliott father of Brock Elliott who was the first of 18 Mantecans to die in the Vietnam War - taught him how to actually drive.

He remembers one night “dragging” down Yosemite riding shotgun as a 16-year-old when Manteca Police officer Tillie DeNero - who is depicted in the cruising mural in the 100 block of North Manteca Street - pulled them over in the Lincoln School parking lot.

Tillie ordered them out of the car. The driver John Dollarhide asked what Tillie was looking for and he simply replied “I haven’t found it yet.”

Much to Harris’ surprise, Tillie pulled an opened bottle of whiskey from under te driver’s seat.

“I had no idea it was there,” he said.

Harris thought he was about to incur his father’s wrath.

Tillie then opened the bottle, poured the contents out and told the two that they’d better get in the car and go straight home and not stop anywhere.

When they came to the stop sign at Yosemite and Main Harris – fearing Tillie might see them stop and then tell his dad – told the driver, “you remember what Tillie said don’t stop.”

Dollarhide ended up blowing the stop sign.

Years later Harris as a probation officer would work with DeNero.

Harris said one of his biggest honors was serving as a pallbearer at DelNero’s funeral.

Met his future wife while pumping gas
Harris met his future wife Kay while pumping gas.

She came in one day and he was immediately smitten. Then when she got out of the car he was hooked.

“She had great legs,” Harris said. “Still does.”

Kay refused to marry Harris until he got a college education.  He had flunked out. It motivated him to go back to Sacramento State and get his degree ultimately deciding on criminal justice.

He worked at the gas station during the winter but during the summer he worked as a city crew helper.

“It paid better at $1.17 an hour than the gas station,” Harris said.

The Manteca City Councilman spent five summers after he graduated from high school going into people’s back yards, hoisting the old metal garbage cans, and carrying them to the garbage truck as a city crew helper.

“It was great fun,” he said.

That’s when Ray Okerson oversaw a seven-man full-time crew that handled all of the city’s maintenance needs.

When he wasn’t needed there, he was assigned to help Manteca’s one-man parks maintenance crew back in 1958 - Frank Rose.

Harris, who has served on the City Council since 1994, will tell you he had a lot more fun working at the old Shell station that once stood at Yosemite Avenue and Union Road.

“I learned more about people working at the gas station than in all the classes I took,” Harris said.

He entered Manteca High as a 6-foot-1, 210-pound freshman and wanted to play sports. But his father would hear nothing of it. It wasn’t a serious diversion. So Harris missed his chance to play football for Artie Fairbanks, who wasn’t thrilled that one of the biggest kids - and the third fastest at that - wasn’t going to play football.