Passenger service is returning to downtown Manteca for the first time since May 26, 1932.
It will happen sometime in late 2026.
That’s the target for Altamont Corridor Express service, after its rollout south to Ceres was postponed for two years.
And when it does arrive to a platform near Manteca’s most high profile civic structure that represents the city’s past and its potential for the future — the stunning brick and glass transit center complete with a four-sided clock tower — one Manteca nan deserves credit for pushing and working the most to make it happen.
That man is John Harris.
Harris served 20 years on the Manteca City Council from 1994 to 2014. That followed 12 years of service on the Manteca Unified School Board.
Along the way, the 83-year Harris who served 32 years with the San Joaquin County Probation Department before retiring, compiled a long resume of community service.
There is an endless list of other endeavors of which Manteca Kiwanis and Give Every Child a Chance deserve notation.
However, topping the list were his founding member roles for Valley Community Counseling Center, Manteca Bays & Girls Club, plus one other — founding member of the ACE service.
Harris also worked to make sure the transit center wasn’t just another civic building. He wanted to make it a community venue and to make sure it would be a building reflective of Manteca. As an added touch, the walls are graced with one of Harris’s hobbies — Manteca history..
There are historical photos of the city. And there are portraits of the people honored by the Manteca Hall of Fame for building Manteca and the surrounding area.
They weren’t just government and school leaders. They also represent parts of the community’s fabric woven in areas such as the arts, sports, community service and such.
Pumped gas for Hell’s Angels
The world was at Harris’ feet when he graduated from Manteca High in 1958.
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 real estate offices are today across from Tipton’s on Yosemite at Maple.
Pumping gas earned him 97 cents an hour. It was back 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.
“Guys would drive up on dates dressed in tuxes and act like big shots and say fill it up,” Harris recalled in a 2010 interview. “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.
Harris swam in irrigation ditches as a kid
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.
Manteca that had 3,500 residents at the time.
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.
A big treat was catching a matinee at the El Rey — now The Veranda events center — 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 the taqueria at Yosemite and Sycamore is today.
The Creamery was the same place 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, fries, and soda.
His favorite meal is why 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 Motors.
As a 13-year-old, he worked for Mike Piccinni 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.
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 Candini won as a Senators pitcher.
“I started to put it back in and Candini just said ‘use it’,” Harris recalled in 2010.
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 noted back in 2010. “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 Manteca residents 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 the driver’s seat.
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.
Dumped garbage cans for the city
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 in 2010.
Harris 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.
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.
Given Harris’ love for Manteca, his devotion to improving people’s lives, and the key role he played in making ACE a success it would be appropriate of the Manteca City Council could make it possible to hang a sign reading “The John W. Harris Transit Center” on the building at 220 Moffat Boulevard to celebrate the return of rail passenger service to downtown Manteca.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org