I never saw the iconic Manteca High tower.
I arrived in Manteca in 1991 some 22 years after it met its fate under the pounding of a wrecking ball.
Yet I can vividly see the tower in my mind. Not much as from photos but from the description and stories shared by Ken Hafer.
I thought of the tower and Ken Wednesday morning when I got home after jogging from the gym. There was not one, not two but seven text messages with the news that Ken had passed away Tuesday night.
I walked into my bedroom and picked up the quilt Ken had given me.
Anyone who knows my well knows I rarely accept gifts. But this wasn’t an ordinary gift and I didn’t come from an ordinary man.
The gift was a Manteca Historical Society quilt. On it are numerous Manteca landmarks: The old Southern Pacific depot. The Spreckels Sugar factory. The old Manteca Blacksmith Shop. The Manteca Cash Store. The Manteca Winery and Water Works. The Cutler Salmon Ranch. The Manteca Creamery. The old City Hall on Sycamore Avenue. The original St. Anthony’s Church. And Ken’s beloved Manteca High complete with tower.
I first met Ken 26 years ago this month after just three weeks in Manteca. I was warned by Darrel Phillips — the publisher who hired me — that Ken would talk my ear off about Manteca history.
Ken was a man with a mission. He wanted to collect, preserve, and share the history of Manteca. It was, I suppose, his desire to make sure people didn’t forget the past. But he was more driven to share with newcomers what makes Manteca special.
A sense of place is what keeps communities alive. Without it towns and cities become soulless blobs where people are just part of a population tally.
Don’t get me wrong. Ken loved Manteca’s history and all of its quirks, high points and low points. But he got what makes a community a community. He understood a good grasp of a community’s past is part of a strong foundation to build a future where Manteca is not simply an interchangeable name with countless other burgs.
Ken’s dream was simple. Establish a museum celebrating Manteca and its people. It’s a dream that Ken — a hard-headed guy who had a smile that could disarm you as well along with a heart as sweet as the Manteca breeze in late February — played a key role turning into a reality half century ago.
Ken was the Dean of Manteca History. Ask him a question about Manteca history and the odds were overwhelming that he’d know the answer.
You would be hard-pressed to find another museum in the Central Valley in a community Manteca’s size that has such an extensive collection made possible by an extremely active historical society.
The museum is the labor of love of scores of dedicated volunteers. But few — if anyone — would disagree that it was Ken’s tenacity that provided the fuel that not only helped launch the society and the museum but has gotten it to the point where it is an integral part of Manteca today.
Make no mistake about it. The museum would not be what it is today without its dedicated volunteers such as Judy Vasquez, Jeanie Mardsen, Maria Gully, Phyllis Abram, Evelyn Moore, Dave Winegarden, Leon Sucht, Mary Jo Sacjs, Vivian Sarina, Lillian Vieira, Earl Pimentel, Mary Hildebrand, Mike Brockman, Sally Mendes, Tommie Gallardo, and countless others.
Ken would tell you he was simply one spoke. Without all the other spokes they’d be no wheel.
A few years back another true blue Mantecan — Lucille Harris — shared a story about Ken. She was frustrated that he once again turned down being inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame. She thought the community needed to know about what good Ken has done.
She illustrated her point by sharing how back in their high school days, Ken cajoled the principal and journalism teacher into allowing students to clean up and renovate two storage rooms in the beloved Manteca High tower that is now history. One room was converted into an office for the yearbook and the other for the newspaper.
It may not seem like much but it was Ken through and through. He had a lifetime reputation of being committed to getting things done for the community.
And the only love probably stronger than his passion for Manteca is that he has for the love of his life — Alice — and family.
Ken and the society membership that is a healthy blend of longtime and newer Manteca residents have provided current and future generations with an invaluable gift.
That gift is the sense of being.
Ken over the past 25 years steadfastly refused to be inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame despite repeated nominations. He made it clear it would never happen while he’s alive.
Ken isn’t going to get his wish. It’s not that he isn’t going to be inducted. There is no doubt of that. It’s just that Ken will always be alive through the history he helped collect in the labor of love he created with so many others — the Manteca museum.
I’m sure Ken is up in heaven right now arguing — ever so politely as he steadfastly refuses to give an inch — with Evelyn Prouty about some extreme minutiae involving an event from 1920 that they each have a slightly different take on.
And if I know Ken he’s enjoying every minute of the exchange.