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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hardship, happiness accompanied family

Jerry Bowen

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Ray Venning’s life one of dedication to the waterworks

When we last left the Vennings, Ray’s arm was in a cast from a car accident. Even though the arm had been improperly set by the doctor and followed by operations to correct the problem, he remained in on everything that was happening at the Fairfield Waterworks. He was dedicated and uncomplaining.

With all that had happened to them in the years from 1929 when Ray started working at the Fairfield Waterworks, he and Edith did manage “to get away from it all” occasionally.

They went on a vacation camping trip with a couple of friends during the summer of 1933. With borrowed camping equipment and what they could improvise, they set off for the Mendocino County coast. They stayed at a campground on the coast at the mouth of Little River.

In 1934 they took two weeks and went to Mount Lassen National Park and camped at Summit Campground. Edith reminisced, “The pines were tall and beautiful, the water was so cold that it hurt our teeth to drink it. Deer were thick. We saw a marten in camp one morning. We did not see the bears, but did see their tracks. They looked as big as dinner plates. We climbed Mt. Lassen. My name was in the book at the summit.”

Then bad luck returned with a thud!

Ray came home for lunch as usual on Friday, Feb. 1, 1935. He left after lunch, intending to pick up his check. Edith was in the middle of mixing a lemon pie for dinner when Ray drove back to the house. Edith remembered, “He stood in the doorway, his face all blood-smeared, but what really frightened me was that, as I watched him his eyes would go blank, then he would recover and try to tell me what was wrong. After a few words his eyes would go blank again, and he would say, ‘What happened.’ This going out and coming to really frightened me. I started to go and call the doctor, but he took the phone from me and called Bill Glusen. Bill came out, looked at him, listened to as much as he could tell in snatches; then they both took off for town, each driving his own pick-up. I begged Bill to stop Ray from driving until he recovered; but he just brushed me off. I didn’t really know what took place then but Ray did see Dr. Purviance.”

Later Edith found out that a customer, who shall only be referred to as “Joe,” had insisted there was a leak in a pipe somewhere. Ray found it was completely dry; but to please Joe, Ray dug it out and proved it was not leaking. Apparently, Joe was not happy at being proven wrong and became extremely angry. He knocked Ray down and out, and while he was unconscious, chopped at his face with the shovel.

Ray carried scars on his face for the rest of his life. When he came to, he did not know exactly all that had happened.

This same person, a street department employee, had been fired once for getting rough   with people, but the city had taken him back onto the job in 1932. Although he should have been fired for this, Bill talked the city out of firing him after the attack. Talk about being fair and impartial to the max!

Edith’s mother was operated on the following Sunday morning after the fracas Ray had with Joe. Then, on Monday afternoon, a friend brought Ray’s father down from Cobb Mountain. He had a stroke.

The week that followed was bedlam because Ray’s father was afraid he would die if he went to sleep and he kept the rest of the family up. Ray’s father’s friends filled the tiny house at all hours, further disturbing their much-needed rest.

Then Edith began to feel strange and ended up collapsing. Dr. Purviance said she had malaria and had to do a delicate balancing act in treating her for a combination of malaria and pregnancy! Her youngest child was born on Friday, Nov. 1, 1935.

Her father-in-law was taken to a hospital and for a long time after that lived with his daughter and then returned shortly before his death in 1941.

The two little bedrooms in the house were not nearly big enough, so Ray asked the City Council to build a sleeping porch, which they did. There was a carpenter-contractor on the City Council and they started the job, a bedroom and a porch, before Edith became pregnant.

She recalled, “The rains came in March and April that year, so the job sat with the floor open to the rain for many weeks. In April that year we had a flood. Everything was under from Broadway south, and water was running in the back doors of business places on Texas Street and out the front doors; for one, Mac’s Tavern and quite a few others.

“After that it cleared up; they finished my room except for papering and painting it; and I felt fine until about August.”

In July, they went camping, finally getting in a little relaxation that they really enjoyed. After returning, Edith started to faint one day, right over a roaring cook stove. She said, “I always kept my eye out after that for a soft spot to land on. I was not a bit well that fall, so those last months dragged, but on the first day of November I awoke to pouring rain, and knew this would be the day. After breakfast Ray took me to the hospital.

“I lounged in my room all day, and tried to read a book, while the rain poured down continually. About 2 PM Ray came out to see me. He left at a quarter to three to get his check cashed. After that things began to happen; and when he came back after supper; he had a lovely little seven and one-half pound daughter. Betty was a delight to us all. Ray adored her. I felt better after her birth than I had for a long time. I had time and strength to play with her and cuddle her a little.”

Over the following years, there were fewer disasters and more thoroughly enjoyable camping trips that Edith remembered as some of their finest times together as a family.

Ray Venning died of cancer on May 19, 1953. They had been married for 31 years. During his illness, he was more concerned about Edith’s and the family’s future than with his own problem. Edith commented, “He was my nomination for the most heroic person I had ever known, and still is; not the wisest, or the best educated, or the most polished person, but the bravest, most unselfish, gentlest, happiest person I had ever known.” He made her promise to stay with the waterworks as it forged into the future as a full-blown city government job.

Over the next years the department was apparently very disorganized. There were many great people to work with and some that were not, but Edith stayed with the job until she suffered a mild stroke in 1966 and decided to retire and pursue her hobbies. Edith Lucile died quietly in 1994 at the age of 91.

The Vennings’ tale is a story of a tightly knit family that accepted everything that was thrown at them and saw everything through to a proper ending without complaint. It’s a story that is typical of Americans who struggled to see to it that a better future would be available to the next generations. One can only hope that we recipients of their legacy will do the same.

One last thing:  The Fairfield Honors Committee is considering naming a street after Ray. I think it is an honor that is very deserving in the memory of both Ray and Edith, ordinary people who always quietly accomplished the extraordinary.

Thanks to Betty Venning Davis for providing me with copies her mother’s papers and allowing me to write their story. The papers will be placed in the Vacaville Heritage Council’s pioneer family files for the future generations to study.