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Lathrops 20th birthday low key but big in a small-town way
Dennis Johnson, 15, gets the signal from Lathrop mayor Kristy Sayles that he is the winner of the watermelon eating contest. - photo by HIME ROMERO
LATHROP – No fireworks lit up the evening sky. No long lines waited for free hot dogs being barbecued by community volunteers. And there was no band playing patriotic songs during the five-hour Picnic in the Park celebration Tuesday evening.

But Lathrop’s 20th birthday as an incorporated city was big in a small-town way.

Families and friends having fun with food – both of the home-made variety and commercial fare courtesy of local nonprofit organizations – were everywhere at the new and improved Valverde Park, arguably the jewel among Lathrop’s dozen-or-so public parks.

Young children enjoying literally hours of fun in a trio of bounce houses spread out on the park’s spacious and lush green grass.

Adults and young ones alike lining up for a fluffy yellow or pink cotton candy for a buck a stick in the Lathrop Seniors Club booth which enjoyed brisk business for the duration of the evening.

Lifelong and longtime Lathropians, including wheelchair-bound octogenarian Lottie Bishop, Jim and Arnita Montiel, Don and Margaret Luevano, Mike and Penny Okamoto, Linda Rose, Ken Mullins,  Frank Mendes and former mayor Bennie Gatto – just to name a few – catching up with the latest news about everybody and everything about the town.

There was even an old-fashioned watermelon-eating contest, which proved to be one of the evening’s biggest attractions – if not the biggest attraction – even though it was done as a spur-of-the-moment fun entertainment. Even the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District and the Lathrop Police Services jumped into the action with a good-natured face-off between Deputy Sheriff Robert Cleary and Fire Engineer Quinn Honore. The bragging rights went to the police department.

The city’s low-key birthday party on Tuesday was decidedly a stark contrast to the 10,000 crowd that filled the new Mossdale Landing Community Park to capacity last year, when Valverde was under renovation and out of commission for nearly the entire year.

The return of the celebration to Valverde Park this year did not have anything to do with the switch. It was all due to the city’s financial belt-tightening taking place as San Joaquin County’s youngest incorporated community faces a bleak fiscal future like everybody else with an estimated $2.5 million annual budget deficit looming in the next five years.

But Mike and Penny Okamoto think the crowds were not there probably because the celebration was happening in the middle of the week instead of on the weekend. Many people now living in Lathrop are commuters, Mike said, so “they have no time to come out.”

They, as well as several others, also said that the people simply did not turn out this time because there was no fireworks display.

Teresa Flores was one of the residents who wanted to see a bigger crowd at the park.

“For a celebration, you need a lot of people,” said Flores who was part of a group of friends from the Lathrop Post Office who enjoyed a true old-fashioned picnic at the park complete with barbecued pork and ribs, egg rolls and corn prepared by the day’s cooks, Danny and Joy Farinas. The picnic also served as a celebration for the birthday of Flores’ son, Ricky.

But for Salvador and Carmen Andrade and their three kids, the smaller crowd just suit them fine.

“There was too much traffic last year (at Mossdale) last year. This is better, more relaxing,” Salvador Andrade said as he and his wife settled down on lawn chairs they brought along with them and watched their children play in the grassy field nearby.