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Happy birthday, Poppa Ralph

For The Madera Tribune

A 1977 calendar from Quality Dairy Farms, with an inset photo of Ralph Hill. On Aug. 25, Hill, father of columnist Tami Jo Nix, would have celebrated his 91st birthday. The calendar featured recipes from the American Dairy Association and was used as an annual customer appreciation holiday gift.


I have often complained in this spot of how much I dislike being an adult orphan. Mom died at age 60 in 1990 and Dad at age 67 in 1993. My husband lost his parents 10 years earlier.

On Friday, Aug. 25, Poppa Ralph, as he was known to all our friends, would have been 91.

His primary occupation throughout my childhood is a job that no longer exists. He worked for Quality Dairy Farms delivering milk house to house. For many of the customers he would enter the house through the kitchen door and put their products directly into the refrigerator.

He sold milk, fruit juice, cottage cheese, eggs and even ice cream. Customers had standing orders or left notes if they needed something extra.

Being out and about in the community he picked up all the gossip on Madera’s grapevine. This made it extremely difficult for my brothers and me to get away with any mischief in town. Daddy knew what we had been up to better than we did.

After my brothers left Madera to serve in the United States Army, I was the only child left at home. Mom and Dad split up when I was a high school freshman. I became very adept at staying mostly off either parent’s radar. I learned to keep a low profile by maintaining passing grades in school and staying out of the dean of girls office. I got my driver’s license my junior year, which added to my sense of freedom. Each parent believed I was at the other parent’s house. I mostly stayed with friends and had very little adult supervision.

If there was any potential trouble or prank that would result in my being in hot water with my father I learned to exercise damage control by telling on myself before a teacher or other adult could tell the tale.

The story always sounded better with my personal spin on the events. It wasn’t the things I did that made my father angry per se, it was hearing about it for the first time on the street that upset him. After the dairy closed my dad needed what today is called a second act. He started his next career as a chef at Straw Hat Pizza. He worked the early shift mixing the dough, sauce and creating its signature sandwiches called the “Hot Hat.” They were baked, filled with assorted meats and cheese folded into an envelope of pizza dough sprinkled with sesame seeds.

After a few months making pizzas, he was hired by his niece, Oletha Parson, as a chef at Madera Valley Inn. When she left the hotel’s employ, Daddy took the job as coffee shop manager. He worked there for several years. He loved cooking and was very good at it.

After one too many disagreements with Mario DeSilva, he left MVI and took a job as chef at the Fruit Basket. He took a second job as chef at Farnesi’s Restaurant, working four 10-hour shifts at each place. He got along quite well with one day a week off.

His specialties for both restaurants were the fresh baked pies. His pie crusts were made from scratch and textbook perfect.

Unfortunately I never learned to bake a pie like Dad’s. He would take a mixing bowl, pour in flour, add shortening, water and salt without ever measuring a thing. Pies with a single or double crust, lattice topped or one covered with meringue would just magically appear. At Thanksgiving, instead of pumpkin pies he made sweet-potato pies and I could tell the difference.

Although they couldn’t be married, neither parent ever wed again. When Dad had his stroke, my mother adopted her nurse’s mode and, when he was released from the Veteran’s Hospital, she helped him recover at home. After his second stroke, he spent the next 10 years at Westgate Convalescent Hospital.

Families have a secret language of phrases unique to those people. In our family, the term, “I love you,” had three levels. The first person would say, “I love you,” followed by the “I love you more,” from the recipient, topped off by “I love you most!” The term “We love you most” is the epitaph on my father’s headstone.

I love you most Daddy.

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