Gary Cheda, (1950 - 2011) — a white knight in a yellow truck

04/07/2011

Gary Cheda, a man who lived his entire life in West Marin, helping visitors and locals alike with his yellow tow truck, passed away last week on March 29 from cancer. He was 61. Gary was a hardworking family man, who enjoyed his life and his work. He found joy in his wife, Lorette, his daughters, Heather and Hilary, and his two grandchildren, Ella and Owen.

“Gary was a white knight in a yellow truck,” said his friend, Rob Borello. “So many people have moved on, moved away, but Gary stayed and made his life here. He was always here, and he’ll be missed greatly for that.”

Everyone who knew Gary was impressed by his generosity and candor. “He was an example of the type of person that I want to be, that I think more people should be,” said his daughter Hilary. “The world would be better if more people were willing to help, to give, to take their time and enjoy life.” 

Gary was born in 1950 to Sonny and Lena Cheda. Sonny was a skilled mechanic, who returned to Point Reyes Station after serving three years aboard an aircraft carrier in World War II. He worked for and eventually inherited Cheda Chevrolet, a dealership and garage in Point Reyes Station—owned by his father, Dolph, since 1923. Lena was a local girl from Olema, who worked at the Palace Market until her marriage to Sonny.

Gary was a quiet, thoughtful child who loved spending time outdoors with his father. “They grew up as rural Americans. They hunted and fished, and worked like heck the rest of the time,” said his friend, Joe Lunny. He was raised in a Catholic household, and was an altar boy.

He went to West Marin School, and later to Tomales High School, where he played baseball, basketball, and was quarterback of the football team. “He was always a pretty cool customer,” said his cousin, Tommy Nunes. “You’d see Gary working on cars, smoking cigarettes, he was so cool.” Gary’s classmates adored him. “He was the cool guy, the guy I looked up to,” Rob said.

He drove a restored, white and yellow 1957 Chevy hardtop. “Gary had the coolest car growing up. One time, we were driving and he almost ran the car off the road because he was combing his hair,” Joe said. Besides his popularity and athletic ability, Gary was kind to everyone.

When he wasn’t playing sports, hunting, or working at his father’s garage, Gary liked to cruise the rarely frequented roads of West Marin. “We both got a ticket in the same week, and Judge Baty at the old courthouse dropped the hammer on us,” Joe said. “He told me and Gary, ‘Pay your ticket—but if you come before me in the next year, I’m going to put you in jail.’ It scared us both to hell, and we never said a word to each other about it, but we were both driving slow after that.”

In his senior year, Gary nearly lost his arm while hunting ducks. He slipped, and the gun discharged into his left arm. He had multiple surgeries in San Francisco, which required an implanted metal plate and skin grafts. Miraculously, he retained good use of his hand. “He was lucky. The accident didn’t slow him down,” said his wife, Lorette.

Hunting remained a lifelong passion for Gary. When the National Park Service acquired Point Reyes and hunting became prohibited, he went on trips with friends out of state. “One time, he shot a beautiful buck. It was just an awesome, beautiful buck,” Joe said.
“He went running over to get to it, but it turned out he shot the antler, not the deer. It was knocked out. So I run up and see he’s holding onto the antler, and the buck’s running in circles around him, and he’s screaming ‘Joe, get the gun!’”

Though Gary was no longer quarterback, he still loved watching football. He was a perennial Miami Dolphins fan, though no one knew why. “Whoever the Dolphins were playing, he was all over them. I cannot tell you what the reason was,” Tommy said. His Dolphins obsession confused his friends. “I have no idea why he was a Miami Dolphin fan. I have no idea.” Joe said. “He didn’t do much talking about it.”

Work at the garage became a full-time job in 1970, and Gary started driving the tow truck. Sonny dispatched him to ranches, at first, pulling tractors out of mud, and giving jumps to stranded ranch vehicles. “One time we had a truck up at the ranch that slid all the way down the hillside, on the [slick grass],” Rob said. “Gary had to come up, and spool out all of the cable he had.”

Eventually, he became skilled enough to deal with tricky roadside situations, like bad crashes and toppled cars. “One time I went out on a [California Highway Patrol] call where cars had gone over a bank,” Gary recalled, several years ago. “The CHP said ‘What are you doing here? We need your father for this one.’ I said, ‘Let me try,’ and I got the cars out. They said, ‘Your father taught you well.’”

When Gary towed a car, he always gave a ride to the stranded driver and passengers. The greatest number of people he took in his cab was 11, including a couple of dogs. “He had to call down to the people lying down on the floorboards just to make sure they were okay, and still had air,” Hilary said.

He was always generous, and tried to help anyone who needed assistance. “He would accept trades, or just say ‘Pay me when you can,” Heather said. “He would help someone sitting by the side of the road as much as he would anyone else.”

Gary attended College of Marin and then the General Motors School in Fremont, to improve his mechanic skills and earn various certifications. During that time, he also worked for his father, pumping gas, installing windshield wipers and, of course, towing cars. He later took over Cheda Chevrolet when Sonny retired in 2003. He closed the dealership side, and renamed the business, “Cheda’s Garage.”

Gary met Lorette when they were both 17. Lorette’s family was living in Wyoming, and she came to visit her aunt and uncle in Olema for the summer. Gary spotted her for the first time in Point Reyes Station, across the street from the garage. “He happened to see me going to the deli, and he asked me out,” she said.

He took Lorette to see For Your Eyes Only, a James Bond film playing in San Rafael. “I thought he was quiet, but very polite,” she said. “He was very handsome.” They dated for a few years, and married at Sacred Heart Church, in Olema.

Gary and Lorette moved into a home in Point Reyes Station, which they rented at first, and eventually bought. Lorette gave birth to Heather in 1973, and to Hilary in 1975. Gary was a natural father. The girls grew up riding in the tow truck, waterskiing in the summer and going on frequent camping trips.

When Gary became a grandfather in 2004, he was thrilled. He loved playing with his grandkids, Owen and Ella—tickling them, giving them treats, teasing them and letting them spray him with the garden hose. “He wanted to go everywhere they went,” Hilary said. “He was extremely devoted to his grand kids.”

Gary was diagnosed with prostate cancer in May 2010. He remained optimistic, and never withdrew from his family. “He continued to be his normal caring, giving self,” Hilary said. He passed away peacefully, at home.

 

Gary is survived by his wife, Lorette; daughters Heather and Hilary; siblings, Randy and Cindy; and grandchildren, Owen and Ella. Donations in Gary’s name can be made to The American Cancer Society, or a charity of your choice.