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Bennie Gatto: A tireless volunteer that helped make his beloved City of Lathrop what it is today
bennie gatto
Bennie Gatto is shown with the Lathrop Senior Center sign logo designed by his wife Joyce.

Ask why Lathrop is thriving today, and Bennie Gatto might answer you with what seems like a repeat of your question.


The 92 year-old Gatto isn’t being flippant or dismissive — two adjectives that are completely foreign  to his character.

Gatto would be simply referring to the wye — a railroad term for where three tracks meet in a “Y” shape that allows trains to be turned in the opposite direction.

Lathrop got the wye because Stockton boosters basically told Leland Stanford of the Big Four of Central Pacific Railroad fame who founded his namesake university “to go fly a kite.”

Stockton was the state’s fourth largest city at the time with 10,006 residents. Civic boosters thought a wye complete with a  roundhouse with smoke belching engines 24/7 was beneath the stature of a growing city that was the nation’s 184th largest city back in 1870.

So, Stanford headed a little farther down the line.

Stockton’s loss would become Lathrop’s gain.

Stanford decided to name the place where he built a roundhouse 10 miles south of Stockton after his wife who was born Jane Elizabeth Lathrop.

The railroad’s operational presence in Lathrop was a boon for the community including Gatto’s family.


Gatto spans 143 years

of Lathrop history

Lathrop, at the time,  became a far bigger community and center of commerce than Manteca thanks to the wye and the roundhouse.

Gatto was one of 16 children of Luigi Gatto who settled in Lathrop in 1880 to farm.

Four children where with Luigi’s first wife. The other 12 were with his second wife. And of those, Bennie was born when his father was 71.

As such — based on is father’s recollections and what he has experienced for himself — Gatto is a virtual walking encyclopedia of Lathrop history spanning 143 years.

The establishment of a robust railroad stop in Lathrop enabled Luigi to open one of several hotels that popped up on the western side of the wye where Lathrop’s “downtown” to provide  passengers with dining and even sleep options during stopovers while the need of engines were being addressed.

A fire in May 1911 destroyed the two-story Lathrop Hotel.

Luigi opted not to rebuild. Instead, he focused his energies on farming.

Steam engines eventually gave way to diesel eliminating the need for a roundhouse operation in Lathrop.

It wasn’t all work on the farm and no play for the young Gatto.

He fondly remembers tasking trips in a horse and buggy down Harland Road past empty fields that today is home to a Tesla component manufacturing plant next to an area where a sea of Teslas are parked ready to ship to buyers

The family’s destination was the banks of the San Joaquin River.

It was there are a young boy that Gatto frolicked across the river from the levee where one day he would stand as a Lathrop City Council member with Alan Chapman — the CEO of Cambay Group — as the later shared his dream of building the planned community of River Islands of Lathrop with 15,001 homes.

Gatto was among civic leaders that played an active role in not only making sure River Islands was a substantiable complete package but also would lift up the entire community and not simply be off on its own.

As such, development at River Islands has transfused money into upgrading the older sections of the community.

The native Lathrop son played two years of football at Manteca High in 1946 and 1947 as an end.


After serving during Korean War

Gatto retrained home to Lathrop


But before he earned his high school diploma, Gatto was off to see the world.
He enlisted in the Navy and served from 1947 to 1956. During that time, he earned his GED.

And while he was pressed to make the Navy a career, the desire to be with his beloved wife — the former Joyce Brumley whose family came to California from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl — brought him home to Lathrop after 9 years, 10 months and 21 days of Naval service.

Several years before being discharged from the Navy, continued assignment changes led to a desire move his young family to Lathrop into a home his brother vacated and agreed to rent to him by Gatto’s taking over the payments  on Fifth Street after building a new home next door.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do everything I’ve done without the support and help of Joyce,” Gatto said of his wife.

As such, his wife was key to what happened next.

He ended up landing a job at Best Fertilizer — the forerunner of J.R. Simplot — where he worked for 32 years.

Bennie and Joyce set about raising their family and helping Lathrop grow,

Gatto served on the first Lathrop City Council elected in 1989 when residents voted to become an incorporated city with just over 5,000 residents. Today Lathrop is home to roughly 34,000 people.

Gatto was one of the five top vote getters from a total of 19 candidates who ran during the special election held on June 6, 1989.

During the same election, Lathrop voters were also asked to vote if they wanted to become an incorporated city. Incorporation passed by 81.6 percent of the votes cast, or 783 in favor and 177 against. Voter turnout was 44.6 percent, with 981 out of 2,198 registered voters at the time going to the polls. Finishing first was Steve McKee, who was named the city’s first mayor, followed by the late Apolinar Sangalang, Mac Freeman, Darlene Hill, and Gatto.

During his eight-year tenure on the council Gatto became Lathrop’s second mayor. He also has served more than 14 years on the Lathrop Planning Commission.
He served 22 years as a volunteer firefighter and served on the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District board from 1981 to 2010 including six years as chairman.
He has served on the Manteca District Ambulance board as well as the now-defunct Lathrop Water District Board. Gatto was inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame in 2001 for his tireless community service.
His  community service included helping at the high school his two children attended and gradated — East Union High where Lathrop students went for decades — and ultimately Lathrop High after it was built.

Between the two schools, he served for a half century on high school football chain gangs. That is in addition to a lifetime of setting the bar in terms of community involvement
In September 2012, the Lathrop High Spartans dedicated the football field “Bennie Gatto Field” in his honor for his tireless dedication not just to Lathrop but to its youth as well.

 Gatto noted he volunteered to help in the community because was “the right thing to do.”

The 92-year-old Gatto has literally had a front-row seat — figurately and literally — to Lathrop’s success and growth as a community.

Gatto remembered back in 1989 there were naysayers that thought it was a mistake for Lathrop to incorporate as a city.

But Gatto and others believed Lathrop’s future would be better if the community was in control of their own destiny.

In the past 34 years, Lathrop has emerged as major distribution hub with a healthy manufacturing base. It is also home to the largest planned community in the Great Central Valley.

Gatto reflected on that and more on a  recent rainy afternoon at the Lathrop Senior Center where for the better part of a decade volunteered as cook at monthly breakfasts.

It took just four words for Gatto to sum it all up.

“Look at us now.”


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email