Dick Velloza, who drove diesel to ranches, dies at 89

08/21/2014

Richard “Dick” Velloza, a lifelong West Marin resident who built a house and a family in Point Reyes Station while delivering gas to ranches and tinkering for a water utility, died, on August 1 at age 89.

Dick’s father, Richard Velloza, Sr., was a Portuguese native who grew up in Porto Santo, a secluded island off the coast of Morocco, and Hawaii, where his father worked in the sugar cane fields. Around 1914, as the world fell into crisis and war, the Vellozas sailed to Oakland. There, Richard met Lenore Armanino, and they married on New Year’s Eve in 1922.

Their only son, Dick—or “Sonny,” as his parents called him—was born on July 21, 1925, in Oakland. Three years later, the family moved to Blue Jay Gulch Ranch north of Point Reyes Station, where Lenore’s brothers lived, before settling permanently in Inverness. Lenore took a job at the post office in town, and Richard worked as a manager at the Lunny’s G Ranch near the newly built Radio Corporation of America wireless station. He later became a foreman for the county’s public works department, paving the roads around Tomales Bay and to the lighthouse.

“He worked hard in those days,” Dick recalled when his father died in 1998. “It was pick-and-shovel work, and there was no equipment, except for dump trucks. He had to do everything by hand,” an innate dexterity with which Dick himself was gifted.

Dick went to school with the other kids on the peninsula in a one-room classroom converted from a toolshed on the Mendoza’s B Ranch. He rode a pony each morning, at least until a bull chased after him one day. Flung from the horse’s back, Dick broke his leg and was later skittish about riding. After the family moved to a home in First Valley he finished grammar school in Inverness, and soon attended Tomales High.

Everybody at the school knew each other, so no one can say exactly how Dick fell in love with his sweetheart and soon-to-be wife of 65 years, May Velloza, who lived on a ranch in Marshall. “It was a small area. There was not the amount of people there is now by any way shape of form,” Mervyn said. “She was a sophomore when Dick was a senior. I think they were friends and rode together in the school bus all the time, going back and forth.”

Dick volunteered for the U.S. Navy his senior year, rather than risk being drafted to fight on the front lines for the army. (Nine Tomales High students never came home from the war.) Dick’s father picked up his diploma because he had been shipped to boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago before the high school graduation ceremony. 

Eventually as a Seabee—a member of the navy’s construction batallion—Dick became one of more than a quarter of a million civil engineers in the war, 55,000 of whom worked on the Pacific theater’s last major operation on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The island had been all but devastated, and 132,000 troops from both sides slaughtered in an 82-day assault by American and British forces. With the Japanese mainland only 400 miles to the north, the Allies planned for Okinawa to be the last stop in their island-hopping campaign, the perfect spot for an air base to invade Tokyo.

Hasty construction was regularly accomplished using steel pontoons, colloquially known as “the magic box.” The five-by-five-by-seven-foot boxes could be piled together as docks or piers, roads or bridges. Some cunning Seabees are rumored to have found additional uses for the boxes: storage, pop-up hamburger stands, even liquor distilleries on faraway islands. But on Okinawa, faced with a serious task and the possibility of ending the war, the Seabees put together makeshift ports, airstrips, storage and repair facilities, housing and hospitals. Dick was never sent to fight on the front lines, though he did take some sniper fire.

Much of Dick and May’s courtship occurred in love letters from overseas. Like other Seabees who were known for their souvenir-making, Dick combed the beaches for shells to send home with his handwritten notes. He carved hearts from thick pieces of windshield and imprinted them with a woman’s profile by heating up a dime, which bore the face of a young Lady Liberty until F.D.R. replaced her in 1945. “How did you get it so perfect?” May asked him. Dick seemed to shrug, “I just had to keep messing with it.” 

The couple married on July 21, 1949 and moved into a yellow house in Point Reyes while Dick and his father hand-built a home on Lorraine Avenue. “When the house was done, I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” May remembered. They never left, raising two sons, Mike and Bob, at the home. (Dick only considered moving once in the mid-1960s to help build an aqueduct from the eastern Sierras to Los Angeles.) 

Though Dick always had a gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, the residence became known for its barbecues and parties, particularly its annual New Year’s Eve celebration, when someone would fire off 10 shots at midnight. “That’s what people did before television,” his son Mike Velloza said. “They’d light a fire, and there’d be a lot of talking, a lot of stories, music and dancing.” The Velloza’s neighbor Edna and her children came over so often that Dick built a ladder over the fence to their adjoining yards so they wouldn’t have to walk around the block.

Dick’s first job out of the military was a quick stint for Pacific Bell Telephone Company handling ship-to-shore voice telephone calls at the KMI building just west of the R.C.A. station, but he quickly moved on to a job delivering Flying A gas and diesel and later managing Joe’s Filling Station, the two-pump gas station he owned in town. 

The bulk of his customers were the ranchers on Point Reyes, who needed a regular supply of diesel to run their tractors. Singing songs or listening to Paul Harvey on the radio, Dick drove his truck across West Marin. His sons often sat beside him, eager to help their dad turn on the pump, see the other kids on the ranches or sneak inside at Manka’s and eat a pie. “He was known as the lollipop king because he brought suckers for the ranchers’ kids who never got off the point,” Mike said. “He’d pull up with the fuel truck and the kids would come running out of the house.” 

Never rushed, Dick chatted with the customers along his route, leading some to wonder how he was able to get everything done after an hour-long conversation. Dick confessed to his wife that he tried to avoid arriving at noon because he’d inevitably be invited to lunch. “It slows me down,” he said. But he also used to tell her, “Why rush? You’ll get there.”

After 25 years in petroleum, a friend asked Dick if he was happy. “Not too much,” he replied, and the friend encouraged him to apply for a job in North Marin Municipal Water District’s warehouse, the start of another 21-year career. He loved the new job monitoring and repairing meters: he was earning money toward his eventual pension and no longer had to deal with the financial stress of owning a business. Plus, he loved being able to work with his hands.

“In those days there weren’t a lot of career jobs. Unless you owned a ranch, you couldn’t really get much work,” his son Mike explained. “The water company had a great retirement, so everybody tried to get those jobs.”

Dick worked his way up to managing the warehouse in Novato. When the utility decided to computerize the whole system, Dick said it was finally time for him to retire. He trusted his handwritten records, and said the computer system was never right. “No computer for me,” he used to say before he left.

An active member of the community, Dick attended mass at Sacred Heart every Sunday, and his salad dressing was a favorite at the annual St. Patrick’s Day barbeque. He was one of the oldest local members of the American Legion and a regular attendee at the Native Sons of the Golden West meetings in Nicasio. And as a trustee for the Tomales High School District, he advocated for a $1.1 million bond measure that passed on the third attempt to build a new, earthquake-safe high school that opened in 1969, despite a vocal group of critics who wanted to dissolve the district and send kids to larger schools over the hill.

He was always an outdoorsman, from an early boyhood attempt to hunt ducks in Tomales Bay by exploding a pipe filled with nails—the only casualty was a tree that was blasted right over—to shooting his first buck with his son Bob at Bay Ranch. When the tide was low, the family would wake up in the middle of the night and pick abalone from the rocks. As the sun peeked over the hills, his mother would start a fire and they’d feast with butter and garlic. 

Dick particularly loved spending time with his grandchildren, driving all over Northern California to watch their football and baseball games. His 22-year-old grandson Jake Velloza had always followed in his footsteps, working for a time reading water meters for the North Marin and wanting to join the military since he was young. In 2009, Jake was shot by a lone gunman at an outpost near Mosul, Iraq. The family buried him at the Olema Cemetery, and the post office Jake’s great-grandmother Lenore once staffed was named in honor of his sacrifice. “To lose a family member in a small family, it’s really hard,” Dick said.

Over the years, Dick continued to expand his home, building a patio, then a shop and a garage. He mixed all the cement by hand with help from his two sons. “One scoop of cement to five of gravel, plus water,” Mike still remembered. Dick’s longest project involved lining the property with stones, a 30-year effort the family called “The Great Wall of Point Reyes.” 

Anyone who stopped by to visit always left the house with a wooden, hand-painted tulip—a small garden soon lined the tellers at the old bank—or a sample of his prized cooking—a bag of biscotti, “cookies so good that would make any Italian bakery stand up and take notice,” Edna said, or the fresh sausage he and his sons made and hung from nails in the basement. She always suggested that he should open a store or sell his handmade wares at a crafts fair. “No, I don’t want to do that,” he told her. “I just make them for my friends.”