It’s the ‘The’ people who make a community

Winters lost three icons in quick succession: Gary Bertagnolli, Dale Brewer and Howard Hupe.

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Some weeks in a small town are harder than others. This was one of those weeks.

Winters lost two of its icons, only three days apart — and on the heels of another last month.

They say bad luck comes in threes. Note to Universe: You’ve met your quota. You can knock it off now. Nobody likes an overachiever.

Our collective grief began with the sudden passing of Gary Bertagnolli on June 5. For many years, Gary was “The Pharmacist” in this town. Years ago, Winters was like a 1950s storybook, where certain people were “The Doctor” or “The Postman” or “The Lawyer,” and everyone knew who they were.

This is less and less true as the years pass and the town grows. One by one, the “The” people slowly, methodically, disappear like stars blinking out at dawn. I suppose that’s generational, because those people I’d identify as “The” this or that aren’t the same people that, say, 98-year-old Newt Wallace (who is The Publisher Emeritus and The Oldest Paperboy in the World) would identify as “The” person. I guess this is how the far side of 50 rolls — people and things you relied upon as staples gradually disappear as the community grows and changes shape.

Gary was a great guy. The reason Winters still has an independent pharmacy is because of Gary Bertagnolli, and his wife, Kathy. I shudder to think of Winters losing its pharmacy. The store has new owners now, and the transition was smooth, but we have the Bertagnollis to thank that it still exists at all.

The next blow came when “The Janitor” — Dale Brewer — died suddenly last Saturday morning, an apparent massive heart attack while happily trimming his hedges. While his wife was preparing their morning smoothies, Dale was gone in a blink.

I had a unique relationship with Dale: I was his massage therapist since 2001. For an hour every other week for 16 years, Dale would chatter through his appointment, telling me stories of his childhood in Oklahoma in the ‘40s, when a double feature cost 10 cents and there were cows to be milked (they’d kick if his hands were too cold) and of his daddy hoisting him by his overalls bareback onto his horse so he could ride into town.

Dale had an encyclopedic memory of Winters history collected over his 45 years as the high school janitor. Generations of Winters students grew up with him, and wherever he went, people would recognize him and greet him, which made him really happy. Because he was a quiet person, many didn’t realize that Dale was entirely more perceptive and witty than they possibly imagined. He’d crack me up with his little quips and observations during our massage hours, and I’d later tell my husband, “You won’t believe what Dale said today!”

Dale’s loving wife, Esther, told me that they were “peanut butter and jelly — we just went together.” So true. Wherever you saw one, the other wouldn’t be far away. Esther was one of the main reasons Dale enjoyed his retirement thoroughly, and this gives me some solace — knowing that Dale really was having the time of his life, just doing what he liked to do and enjoying Esther’s company.

Losing Gary was a punch to the gut. But losing Dale was a roundhouse kick that knocked me 10 feet head over heels into the wall. I was still dizzy from the impact when news of Howard Hupe’s passing came just three days after Dale. Sure, Howard had been frail for awhile and hospitalized recently, but still… it’s HOWARD HUPE. It stings.

Howard and his wife, Germaine, literally shaped this town through their years as Winters High School teachers, and then as co-founders of the Winters Theatre Company. Howard additionally served on the Winters Chamber of Commerce board of directors for many years, which is where I really got to know him as a fellow board member. There was not a harder worker nor more committed volunteer than Howard Hupe.

Howard and Germaine’s “The” is “The Winters Theatre Company.” Yes, they are the WTC. It wouldn’t exist in its current form without their shaping, tending and constant dedication.

A few years back, as Howard and Germaine delivered their traditional comedy routine/roast at a Citizen of the Year dinner, I was thinking what a treasure they were, and how we’d miss those routines sorely some day. Well, some day has arrived. Not only the WTC, but Winters itself, would not be what it is without the Hupes. Although they were/are Davis residents, they belong to Winters.

When you get to a certain point in life, it starts to seem like the only constant is change. I’m at the stage where the differences between “now” and “then” seem more and more stark — and I often wish I could revisit “then,” even if only for a few moments, to just sit and relish it. I guess that’s what memories are for.

When I arrived in this town in 1982 (which means I’m still a newcomer, because there are still old-timers who remember when I arrived — that’s the litmus test), it was so small and hokey. There were more people in my high school than there were in this town.

Entertainment was non-existent, and we didn’t even have a real pizza place, only this converted way-station called “Pizza Patio” that — so help me God — sold pizza with bologna and cheese slices on it, and it was wicked awful. But, it was that or nothing. How things change.

Winters is now the worst-kept secret on earth. Visitors flock here every weekend. With the PG&E training center and two hotels on the near horizon, and a massive housing development, Winters is poised for even bigger change. Will it be better? I dunno. I’d trade all the “improvements” to have all the “The” people back. In the end, it’s not the stuff that makes a community. It’s “The” people.

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