Baratta passes away at 101
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune File Photo
Bill Baratta is shown here celebrating his 100th birthday last year. Baratta passed away on November 24.
Madera pioneer Bill Baratta has left the town he loved so much. He died on November 24, having passed the century mark by one year. With the exception of the three years he spent fighting for his country in World War Two, he lived all of his 101 years in Madera.
Bill first drew breath in a little house that was located where Sierra Vista School now stands. His father, Guiseppe (Joe) Baratta worked for the Madera Sugar Pine lumber company to support his wife Rinalda, sons Guido, Bruno, and Jack and daughter Adriana. On April 20, 1921, Bill made his appearance.
As one of Madera’s most revered centenarians, Baratta recently took this reporter on a tour of his childhood haunts. He pointed out where Barnum’s circus set up operations every year not far from where Sierra Vista School would one day be built. We visited the site of Madera’s first golf course on Road 28, just north of Avenue 14. He pointed to the vineyard just across the street where he went hunting for golf balls. Then his voice shook with excitement when we reached the spot where he and his boyhood chums would jump off the lumber flume and into the pond near Millview school.
After a little calculating, he wondered out loud if it was possible that he could be the last living person to have “walked the flume” in Madera.
Bill went to Pershing and Lincoln schools, and for a short time Madera Union High School. In his freshman year, he contracted encephalitis and had to leave school. This was to have a significant impact on his life when he became an adult.
By the time he reached his mid-teens, Bill was working on his family’s tomato farm, and that is what he was doing when the United States entered World War II.
No one was surprised when Baratta tried to enlist, nor were they surprised when the draft board refused to let him go. He had a 3-A classification (agricultural deferment) His country needed ranchers and farmers.
Bill tried and tried, and with each attempt to join came the same answer—No. Finally, however, Baratta wore them down, and he was allowed to enlist. In October 1942, Bill was off to learn the art of becoming a fighter pilot. Little did he know.
Before he could graduate from flight training, the Army discovered that he had once suffered from encephalitis, which excluded him from duty as a pilot. Bill was given a choice; he could return to civilian life or accept an assignment on a ground crew. He chose the latter.
They shipped him to Denver for armament training, and that’s when he got another chance to become an officer.
The Army had a program for making officers out of highly qualified and motivated enlisted men. Word came down that one soldier out of the fifty men in Bill’s outfit would be chosen to go to Yale University for the special Officers Candidate School. On January 19, 1944, Bill Baratta wrote his mother that he had been the chosen one.
Then fate stepped in again.
Just as he was preparing to leave for Yale, Bill had second thoughts. He did not want to wait until he had graduated from the Army’s program at Yale to get into combat, so he remained with his armament outfit.
Shortly thereafter, Bill got another chance for a quick promotion. Recognizing his natural leadership skills, his superiors put him on the fast track to jump from Private to Master Sergeant, but here again his yearning to get into the fight derailed another opportunity for advancement.
Bill heard about a group that was headed for the Pacific theater right away. He turned down the promotion to Master Sergeant and joined the deployed unit. That’s how Bill spent the rest of the war — in combat.
After the surrender of Japan, the waiting list for American soldiers to get back to the states was long, and as an article from the Madera V.F.W. put it, “… Bill was short on patience.”
“He badgered the powers that be and… was told to ‘hitch hike’ back to the states as best he could.” Bill caught several military hops and finally made it back on his own.
After his discharge, Bill began driving a truck. He drove 12 hours a day and worked in his vineyards the rest of the time.
After his retirement, Bill settled in to enjoy life; little did he realize that he would have so much left to enjoy and share. Visiting with Bill was like walking into a library. With the crispness of a memory that could slice through the layers of time, he opened up the doors of the past to let one see first-hand what life was like in Madera from the 1920s to the present.
That alone made Bill Baratta a 101-year-old treasure.
Bill is survived by his step-daughter Karen Pierre, his daughters Linda Elliott and husband Tom, Jill Gamble and husband Bill, Nina Williams, Rita Hansen and husband Chris, Gina Tedder and husband Rick, 10 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Also surviving are 3 nieces, 1 nephew, and Donna’s nephew, Stephen Lowery, who was a valued caregiver for Bill.
Visitation will be on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022 from 9 a.m. to noon at Jay Chapel, followed by a cryptside service at 1 p.m. at Arbor Vitae Cemetery in Madera.
Remembrances may be made to the SPCA or Animal Shelter of the donor’s choice.