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Lifestyles

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Brent Parsons
06/26/2014 1:07 PM

One of the perks of this column is the freedom I have had in picking my subjects. Thus far, I have had a tolerable rejection rate — about one in six has said “no” and a few others have said “maybe later.” Whether I check back later is a question of if I want to appear desperate or pesty. I’d prefer to be neither. I choose who I know or think is interesting and then hope for the best. All 29 have met or exceeded expectations. My goal is to do 50 before deciding what to do next. The interviews have been a joy.

Although I have picked the people, there has been lobbying. Fortunately, a few of those suggested were already on my radar. The others I either say, “maybe later” (rejection revenge on the totally innocent) or I pretend that person, if a good one, was my idea. Jim Rooney, our un-shy appraiser, has lobbied for Bill Vukovich every time I’ve seen him. On my bike ride home from Jackson and on my way down Spanish, I saw a white ’77 Toyota pickup with a Phillies sticker in amongst all the gun ones parked in front of the yard Jim’s pick cares for. I stopped, thinking “I’m going to make my appraiser proud,” I found Bill with a wheelbarrow in the back 40. This was a huge yard, almost an acre, and it was all meticulously landscaped on a fairly steep but terraced hillside. Bill acknowledged my greeting, but turned down the interview. “I’m not interesting,” said Bill, “and I’ve never done one.”

“Jim Rooney begs to disagree on your first point and we can take care of the second,” I countered. He said maybe later — he’d talk to Lee, his wife. I asked him how long he has been taking care of this yard.

“Since 1952,” he answered. “Mervyn and Audrey Sheppard were looking for a boy to garden. I tagged along with my older brother, Richie, who lasted two weeks. ‘The heck with it,’ he said. ‘It’s too hot. I’m going swimming.’ I made it 62 years and went from 25 cents an hour to $20. Richie should have stuck with it.”

I interrupted him. “This sounds like a story. I have a pen and note pad in my pack. What about it?” He shrugged, “Well, alright. I don’t have any chairs, but we can sit on the porch wall.” As much as I hate to admit it, Jim was right, for once.

Bill’s grandfathers on both sides were from Serbia and worked in the local mines. His mom’s dad was killed underground in his early thirties. His mom (a Vuscovich who married a Vukovich) was born on Boston Alley, in Sutter Creek, and Bill’s dad, Pop, in Jackson. Pop began teaching and coaching at Galt High School in 1934. He transferred to Sacramento High and the family moved to that city, where Bill was born in 1941. (I hope to look that fit in a decade, but, if gardening is the key, I’m in trouble).

The family moved to their Randolph Street home in 1946 and their third son, John, was born in 1947. John went on to a professional baseball career as a third baseman and coach. He coached with the Phillies for a club record 17 years and was part of the 1980 championship team. In 2006, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died at age 59 a year later.

“It really doesn’t make sense,” Bill said. “He was in wonderful shape. There is some evidence that players from hot Astroturf stadiums are suffering a higher rate of that type of cancer. Three players from that 1980 team died from the disease. Darin Daulton, another Phillie, is stricken and Gary Carter, who also spent a lot of his career on synthetic grass, died awhile back from the same cancer.”

Bill’s older brother, Rich, passed away on June 29, 2013, at 75, on the exact same day that his dad died, at 94, in 2004. “My mom died at 74, I’m hoping that I got my dad’s life expectancy genes. He was deer hunting with us at 90.” Bill is the last male Vukovich in the county of either his Sutter Creek clan or the Jackson one. “The Gillman boys, Beau, Bry and Brad, are the closest to being one. Maura’s dad was Jackson’s Ned Vukovich, my dad’s cousin.”

Bill attended Sutter Creek schools and played all the sports. His younger brother John came along later and played them even better. He planned to attend Davis upon graduation in 1959, but a chest x-ray caught a spot on his lung and he was treated for TB and spent six weeks in a sanitarium before three more weeks of rest at home. He worked at T&A Market on Sutter Hill the rest of that year before going to Sac City College with his buddy, Mike Chisholm. He went on to Davis, graduating in 1964 with a P.E. major and a history minor and a credential to teach a year later. He taught at Pioneer School for 23 years and came down to Jackson with the 7th- and 8th-graders when the district consolidated in 1988. He also refereed high school football for 23 years, retiring in 2003. Hundreds of Amador’s adults learned U.S. history from Mr.V.

I asked about the local educational situation now. I could tell he was glad not to be part of it. “It is a mess, and it certainly is not Dick Glock’s fault. The teachers haven’t gotten a raise in years and now the facility consolidation fracas has thrown gasoline on the fire and gotten everyone stirred up about everything.” He went on to tell me how hard it is to keep teachers and cited Paul Neville’s departure as sad evidence. “The compensation disparity is embarrassing. A young family man or woman can’t ignore the difference when it gets to where it is now, no matter how much they would like to stay.”

I taught middle school for five years and we compared notes. I was Mr. P. We agreed that a good teacher can turn a kid around in those years but it used to be easier to do so. I worked in a Catholic school, where teachers had a little less restraint. I could physically pick up a trouble-maker and carry him to the office. Sometimes, another teacher would summon me to do so. The parents, as a whole, supported the effort. Bill related that paddling by the principal was sanctioned — with a witness present. “The student was given the choice between suspension or a spanking. A few chose the paddle because their parents might be kept out of it. It seemed that in my final years, the kids were calling the shots and the parents were out to please them. I’m not sure what changed, but that was a factor in my decision to retire.” He went on to applaud the era at Jackson Junior High with Mel White and Pat Miller. “The students knew and respected discipline. They didn’t even dare put on a hat.” I asked about Pat. “He is on the school board now. That is crazy. You can’t win in that position. That is the easiest place in this county to make enemies.” I asked if he thought that the population projections that have been so wrong over the last 25 years were to blame. “That certainly is a factor but even if they were right on, the school board would be wrong.”

Bill married late, at age 46. I asked if that was because teaching allowed so little room. “No, I guess I just had not met the right girl until Lee.” She was a special ed. aide and her kids went through his school. They scheduled the wedding and honeymoon on Thanksgiving week in order to miss a minimum of work days. He was docked two days’ pay and grieved it down to one. “Ironically, I had 365 sick days banked when I retired. I was never sick but I should have been that week.” They lived on Bryson Drive in Sutter Creek before buying a home in Jackson. I asked about his parents’ home on Randolph. “I’ve been taking care of that one for years, too. My parents willed it to my older brother, Rich, because he was family-less and hadn’t bought a home. He lived there for a decade or so until he needed long-term care for his kidney-related illness. He left it to my brother John’s two children, who had three houses already in New Jersey but wanted to hang on to it. It became too much for me to manage and so they are selling it. I think it has a buyer.”

His 62-year caretaking job at 280 Spanish is also winding down. “The Sheppards had no children and left it to a niece in Sacramento. She sold their other house in Volcano, and the one next door, and this one is next. We have had two estate sales and two full dumpsters. The Sutter Creek police made us remove the third and hopefully last dumpster because they said we need a permit. Did you know about that law?” I didn’t have to play stupid on that one. “I suspect someone filed a complaint.” I wisely reasoned (always a safe guess). I asked about Bill’s limp that I had noticed some years earlier as he refereed basketball games. His answer was one of those life-changing ones. “In 2006, I drove the Sheppards up to Paradise to pick up a cousin. On the way back, I collided with a semi, not far from the Feather River Canyon Bridge. It was a bad one. Mervyn and the cousin were killed and my femur shattered. I don’t remember a thing. They had to cut me out of the vehicle. How it happened remains a mystery, but I definitely was in the wrong lane. I must have fallen asleep for a second. That is the only thing that makes any sense at all. Coincidentally, my brother, John, suffered his first seizure 3,000 miles away at almost exactly the moment I crashed.” That was a story much bigger than I suspected. He had obviously been dealing with it both mentally and physically for eight years and seemed to have processed it as constructively as one could. I wondered if he had the work lined up to replace his seven day a week landscaping and maintenance jobs that were ending. “We just moved my mother-in-law from Washington into Rollingwood, and my fences at home need painting.” He said they hope to travel more, but I bet you can catch him in his yard, unless he picks up another contract for someone else’s.

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