Tami Jo Nix/The Madera Tribune
Vera and Gene Phillips are planning an afternoon jaunt to Bass Lake on their 2014 Harley Davidson FLD 103 Dyna Switchback. These longtime foothill residents will served as grand marshals for the 31st annual Raymond Parade at noon Saturday in downtown Raymond.
Springtime in Madera County and the third Saturday of April brings the annual Raymond Parade to the small mountain community that lies north-northeast of Madera this coming weekend. The parade grand marshals this year are a married couple who have lived in the area for more than 44 years.
When their love story began, the former Vera Wills was the youngest of 11 children living in Fairmead with her widowed mother. She was just 14 years old when she met her future husband, the 19-year-old Gene Phillips from Los Angeles. He and his father came to the small suburb of Chowchilla to visit cousins.
“Apparently it was love at first sight according to his daddy,” Vera said. “He drove back and forth from LA every weekend to see me.”
Her mother moved them to Los Angeles and they were married not long after her 15th birthday. Life wasn’t easy for the young newlyweds.
“We had a long hard row to hoe,” said Vera. “But back then, you made your bed and then you laid in it.”
Following the nuptials, Gene worked construction for a while, he said, and then worked as a warehouseman for Adams Brothers Plastics earning $1.10 per hour. He learned he could increase his salary if he got his truck-driving license.
Adams made parts for the Mattel toy company in El Segundo. Driving a 40-foot semi-truck, Gene earned a whopping $1.65 per hour.
“Mattel assembled the toys including the Barbie doll with the bendable legs, from the parts I delivered,” he said.
While living in Southern California they were blessed with their two sons Danny and Michael.
Then nine years later the young family moved back to Madera County. The couple returned to Fairmead to live with Vera’s mother after a rocky patch in their marriage. With their sons in school, they both worked in the fields hoeing cotton and taking whatever odd jobs they could find.
It was his mother-in-law who suggested Gene apply for a job with Raymond Granite.
Gene was hired by Pat Alexander, the owner of the quarry in 1973. His starting wage at the job was $2.85 an hour, he said.
“It surprised our son how little his dad was paid, but the work was steady and the money went as far then as the (current) minimum wage does now,” said Vera.
In the last 44 years Gene has seen the parent company, Coldspring Granite Company, grow and expand. He is still working at essentially the same job they hired him to do, cutting and shaping the distinctive stone for the company’s Raymond Division.
His tools and the technology used to process granite have evolved and the 73-year-old Gene still enjoys his job with no plans to retire.
“They bring me a slab of polished granite that is 5 feet wide, 8 feet long and 8 inches thick,” he said. “Using a diamond saw, I cut it up into little pieces.”
These pieces are used to make headstones, for landscaping and building material. The facade of the new Madera County Superior Courthouse is made from some of these granite pieces carved by Gene, he said.
“I made that,” he said. “Those granite pieces came off my saw.”
He is very proud of the work he does. On a visit to Washington, D.C., he was dismayed to see the Vietnam Memorial isn’t made of American granite.
“They built it out of imported granite from India,” he said.
During his career at the quarry they lived in several places in the Raymond area including in company-owned housing.
“The rent on company housing in 1976 was $90 a month and included all utilities,” Gene said.
With down-payment assistance from its previous owner, they were able to buy their home on an acre of land tucked behind a hillside on Road 606 in the mid-1980s. Together Gene and Vera have made renovations on the home that include the installation of Raymond granite floors and countertops.
After their sons were grown, Vera worked as a driver of special needs children for the Madera County Office of Education. She retired after 27 years. She continues to work part-time as a substitute teacher’s aide with the special needs students at Coarsegold School, she said.
She fondly recalls memories of her former employers, having worked many years for Dr. Sally Frazier, the former Madera County Office of Education superintendcent. She was initially hired by the original MCOE superintendent, Norman Gould.
Their elder son Danny retired from the Marines and their son Michael served a hitch in the Navy. He now works as a mechanic at the Friant Dam. Danny and his daughter, Stephanie Phillips, live in Virginia. Michael has two adult sons Michael Jr. and Ryan.
When invited to be this year’s parade grand marshals by Robert Casaurang, the owner of the Hills Pride Inn, their first instinct was to decline. They are not the type of folks who crave the spotlight, she said.
“I guess you could say we are shy, until you get to know us. We are not good public speakers,” Vera said.
They feel it is an honor to be recognized by the community and they have lived in the area a long time, she said.
After careful consideration and when they learned all they have to do is ride in the parade, throwing candy to the crowd, they finally agreed. The plan is to travel in a rented convertible with their son Michael behind the wheel she said.
They are spiritual people and most often worship at the Assembly of God Church in Chowchilla.
“I am witness to my own testimony of God’s grace,” said Vera.
This year is the 31st year of the Raymond Parade, which begins at noon on April 15 in downtown Raymond. The Raymond Museum will be open during the day.
A raffle benefiting the Raymond Community Association will be held at 4 p.m. at Hills Pride Inn. Prizes will include gift certificates a granite item and many others. Winning ticket holders need not be present to win.