John J. Serpa, patriarch of San Joaquin Valley’s Serpa family, passed away due to heart failure at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital in Tracy on March 5, 2013.
A highly respected Tracy businessman, deeply involved in community and civic affairs, John was much in demand as a keynote speaker and well known for his efforts in bettering and developing services for veterans under the auspices of his beloved Marine Corps League.
A quiet person, not given to self-aggrandizement or the revelation of his true self, his mere presence spoke volumes. Despite many accomplishments and a fascinating, colorful career, he never forgot his roots and always said with a tough of subtle humor “I’m just a country boy.”
John was born in 1925 at the family’s ranch house in the wilds of Siskiyou County. The first son of immigrants Joseph Cardoza Serpa and Luduvina Texeira, John attended grade school in Etna and at Mound School, one of California’s disappearing one-room schools that’s located in the Scarface Hamlin Gulch area of the Scott Mountain Range. He and two of his sisters traveled to school in a horse and buggy, sometimes through drifts of snow in the dead of winter. Even as a young boy, John’s concern was always the welfare of his family. The great depression had swept through the country like wildfire, bringing loss of the family’s ranch, its livestock and its way of life. John’s sense of family responsibility sent him to work driving derrick for more fortunate neighboring ranchers. He earned 75-cents a day, which he gave to his mother for groceries although he, himself, was without shoes.
John’s parents were entrepreneurs in the truest sense of the word. Despite their financial set-back, the family moved to Stockton in 1936 when John’s father learned of an opportunity to obtain ranching property there. John soon became his father’s right-hand “man” in managing the family’s holdings.
He graduated from Stockton High School where he excelled in sports and business curriculum, enrolled at College of the Pacific (now UOP), and quickly became a member of the university’s renowned football team under guidance of its famed coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, John’s classmates were drafted into the military to serve their county in War World II. Although he was a principal in running his father’s ranch and qualified for exemption for the draft, John interrupted his education to enlist in the United States Marines. “I could not, in all good conscience, stay home while all my friends were fighting a terrible war,” he said. It was a decision that changed his perspective and the direction of his life forever. He was sent to boot training at the Marine Corps Depot in San Diego, California.
His love of sports and boxing arena had taken him to the Golden Gloves during his teens and carried him to the boxing heavy weight championship of the Marine Corps. After completing basic training, John was transferred from San Diego to the Asiatic Pacific Theatre, seeing action in the Philippines and Okinawa where he was severely injured.
At the time, combat wounded were being flown to the military hospital in Guam, and it was there with other war causalities that John heard the news that the atomic bomb had destroyed the city of Hiroshima and that the war’s end was imminent. Despite metal plates in both knees, John was determined to be of consequence and not allow his injuries to change his zest of life.
When he returned home, John invested his military savings in ranch property that his father wanted to buy on Corral Hollow Road in Tracy. That property would later be developed by Surland Development into the city’s gated community, and a street was named Serpa Ranch Road in the family’s honor where the family’s ranch house once stood.
John loved law enforcement and soon left ranching to join the Tracy Police Department where he quickly rose to the rank of Captain. Being an officer of the law became his life. Not one to set behind a desk in a business suit, John was always in uniform and out with his men on patrol. “I never thought of it in the context of a job,” he once said. “I love the mean streets, because that’s life in its essence.” He earned the reputation of a tough, no nonsense officer, and word on the street was “Don’t mess with the Captain.” He was an accomplished marksman, gun enthusiast, hunter and outdoorsman and spent his off-hours hunting elk with his brothers in the wilds of Idaho.
A graduate of Delta College with emphasis on police science, John continued his law enforcement studies at San Jose State, UC Davis, Chabot College, Modesto JC and Contra Costa Jr. College. He also held an advanced certificate from California Peace Officers Standards and Training as well as an NRA Lifetime Masters Shooters certificate in the police combat category under which he created and trained a police combat shooting team, winning many state championships.
John retired from the Tracy Police Department after 20 years of dedicated service during which he greatly advanced the department’s training program.
After retirement, John’s interest in business and community service moved him to the city of Lathrop where he invested in real estate and became a leader in civic activities. He served two terms on the San Joaquin County Grand Jury, one term as its vice-chairman; served on the County Board of Zoning Adjustments, the Lathrop Planning Commission; served two terms on the board of the Lathrop County Water District; served on the Lathrop Advisory Committee; Lathrop City Incorporation Committee; and was a powerful voice in numerous municipal legislative hearings. He was past president of the Interstate-5 Association and past president of a number of community service clubs, including the Rotary, the Kiwanis, and the Lions Club.
John has received numerous honors and national recognition for his continuing involvement over three decades with the United States Marine Corps League. He was named Honorary National Past Commandant of the League at its national convention in Rochester, Minnesota, only the fourth time in the history of the Marine Corps League that a member has been named Honorary National Past Commandant. The honor was recently presented to John at a western U.S. Marine Corps League meeting at Camp Pendleton.
During his term as Vice Commandant of the League’s Southwest Division, which has responsibility for California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa, he established new units of the organization and worked diligently to increase participation. He was also a member of the Leagues’ National Legislative Committee, and was named outstanding member of the league’s Modesto Detachment of which he is a Life Member.
In February, 2012, John was named “Marine of the Year” for the Southwest Region of the Marine Corps League.
A Life Member of the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the AMVETS and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of which he was California Department Chief of Staff, he was also Post and District Commander and National Aide de Camp of Tracy Post 1957. A Patron Life Member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), he also held membership in the North American Hunting Club and was a staunch supporter of a number of wildlife preservation and conservation groups.
As president of the Tracy War Memorial Association, an organization he helped found in 1987, he always participated in Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs for the past half-century.
John worked tirelessly to improve benefits for returning veterans, meeting with local and Washington power brokers and politicians such as Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, Governor Jerry Brown, and past governor Willie Brown, among others.
John well knew the power of the spoken word, and this love of verbal expression made him a speaker much in demand at numerous civic functions, particularly those in support of his beloved veterans. He took his audiences to unspoken places for which they found no words, and didn’t have to, because he verbalized their thoughts and feelings for them.
With great foresight, he always said he was indestructible, and he is, for such spirit is indeed indestructible. His life’s philosophy was a concern for his fellow man and a belief that, in the final analysis, we are all indestructible. For himself, he simply wanted to be remembered as a good and decent man.
In January of 1952, he married Dolores Azevedo, the mother of his children, whom he met when they both were members of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. She preceded him in death on March 17, 2007.
John is survived by his current wife of 27 years, Linda “Lyn” Ann-Marie Serpa, his children Gaylene Serpa of Tracy, Michael Serpa of Galt, Paul Serpa of Manteca, and John Thomas Serpa of Lathrop.
Step-children Scott Rosenquist, Kristen Wight, Wendy Frink and Susan Rosenquist.
Other survivors include grandchild, Nicole Vertar, Gregory Serpa, Marissa Serpa, Nicholas Serpa, Anthony Serpa and Matthew Serpa, one great granddaughter Aria Serpa, 11 step-grandchildren and two step great grand-children.
Sisters Alma Carroll of San Francisco, Mary Compton of Fair Oaks, Margaret Buckingham of Cambria and brother Edwin Serpa of Tracy.
Also preceding him in death was his son, Christopher Serpa, his brother Leslie J. Serpa, Sr., a well-known Tracy City Councilman and former member of the Tracy Fire Department, passed in 2003, and his sister Lucille Serpa Daniels, who also served in the United Sates Marine Corps during World War II, passed in 2010.
Fry Memorial Chapel, 550 South Central Avenue, Tracy, is honored to serve the Serpa Family.
Visitation will begin at 2:00 pm Thursday, March 14, 2013 followed by a Rosary/Vigil Service at 7:00 pm. A Mass of Christian Burial will follow on Friday, March 15, 2013 10:30 am at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, 163 East Eaton Avenue, Tracy.
Mr. Serpa will then be laid to rest at Tracy Public Cemetery, 501 East Schulte Road, Tracy, with full military honors. An online guest book is available at www.frymemorialchapel.com for condolences and special messages to the family.
Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin
Tuesday, March 12, 2013