BY JEFF BENZIGER
One would be hard pressed to find a couple more committed to serving the Ceres community than Paul and Sharon Caruso.
Both have led amped-up lives centered on improving the lives of others. Both have a resume of staggering list of civic engagements and charitable endeavors over the past several decades that have made a lasting imprint on the community by bringing about significant benefits for Ceres and area.
Paul is best known for his work in local government circles; Sharon for hers in the effort of the Soroptimist International of Ceres to make a difference in the lives of women and girls. The dynamo couple doesn’t appear to be slowing down with Paul still volunteering on local boards and committees and overseeing the operation of his Caruso Shopping Center at the northwest corner of Crows Landing and Hatch roads; and Sharon very active in the social network of the club and community.
The couple has always shared the same DNA of commitment to community. Paul remembers his dad modeling community service as he slipped off to meetings as a commissioner on the Industrial Fire Protection District in the early 1950s. In 1972 or 1973 Paul remembers a watershed incident on Highway 99 in which he narrowly escaped hitting a car. He jammed on the brakes of his Fiberglass-bodied Corvette and started skidding when an audible voice told him to let up on the brake and steer to the left into the oleanders – and the admonition to serve the public. His foot came off the brake, the car fishtailed into the dirt shoulder and missed the highway obstacle by inches. Moments later, friends who witnessed the near-miss and Paul escape almost certain death commented they could not believe their eyes.
“That’s kind of where my calling was to step it up. It’s a story but it’s true.”
For Sharon, born in Modesto, the divorce of her parents when she was 14 forced her into the caregiver mode. The eldest child, Sharon helped her single working mom daily by looking after her four siblings.
“I became very responsible for my younger siblings,” said Sharon. “I basically became the caregiver. My mom worked. She had to work to support us … working at Gallo Glass on rotating shifts. Part of my responsibility was making sure my brothers and sisters had food.”
Sharon’s mom, Beth Green, modeled service to others. Mrs. Green was involved in company and union affairs, and Sharon watched her organize a fundraiser for a leukemia-stricken co-worker in order to get a bone marrow transplant.
“You love your community and want to make it the best that it can possibly be and in order to do that you kind of have to get involved and know what’s happening so you can present your idea of what you think is the right thing for the community,” said Sharon.
When Sharon accepted the “Citizen of the Year” award in January 2017 at the Ceres Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet, she explained her motivation, saying, “We do the things we do because we love the people that we’re doing them for.”
Sharon’s community service has included planning and setting up for the Ceres Harvest Festival (now Street Faire), chairing the committee that reinstated the Miss Ceres pageant, modeling in the Soroptimist fashion show fundraiser for years before she became a Soroptimist member in 2003; serving on the Soroptimist board of directors while sitting on the Distinguished Young Women’s contest committee; giving presentations for Soroptimist Empowering Teens (SET) program at junior highs in Ceres; actively participating in Soroptimist projects, including chairing the club’s Fabulous Fall Auction for years; serving ice cream at the annual Daniel Whitmore Home Ice Cream Social; and supporting the Salvation Army Red Shield and Redwood Family Center.
That kind of dedication is rare today, she acknowledges.
“People don’t get involved any more. I think we’ve lost that sense of community a lot. I think time has a lot to do with it and I think a lot of it came with the commuters coming.”
Paul thinks the “me first” attitude of today’s newer generation has quashed the desire to help others.
Fireworks booth meeting
The life partnership between Paul and Sharon began at a chance 1972 encounter when she showed up with her family at a fireworks booth set up in the Caruso Shopping Center. Paul, then a 25-year-old college student, was volunteering inside the booth.
“He was selling – I was buying,” jokes Sharon.
“I found out she worked at the drug store – which I hardly ever went in – in our shopping center,” said Paul, four years her senior who graduated Ceres High School in 1966.
The weather and fireworks weren’t the only things sizzling that day. Paul was attracted to the pretty 1969 Modesto High School graduate. They dated for six years until they were married in 1978.
“I was kind of renegade,” said Paul, when asked why they married so much later. “I did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it.”
Politics was a big part of Paul’s and Sharon’s dating experience. He had been a Modesto Junior College student senator and student body president. In 1972, Paul became friends with Gary Condit, who was mayor of Ceres as he worked with Sharon at L.M. Morris Company and later National Medical Enterprises in the McHenry Village.
“They owned Doctors Hospital at that time. They owned hospitals all over the United States. We were what was the Public Relations arm. Hospitals weren’t allowed to advertise so we were called Public Affairs, Community Affairs. They kept changing the name. Basically, we did patient information brochures … and did the company newsletter.”
Encouraged by the political success of Condit, in 1974 Paul mulled a jump into politics as the District 5 seat was opening on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. However, when Paul heard Condit was running for the seat, he bowed out and joined the Condit campaign effort.
“We all hooked up and worked like hell,” remembers Paul.
“We walked door-to-door for a year every Saturday and Sunday,” Sharon said.
Their efforts helped Condit beat out Patterson businessman and civic giant Corlis “Corky” Bessey.
“When we hooked up with Gary Condit that opened up the government (service) aspect of our lives,” he said.
Sharon said she never resented sharing her husband with his political ambitions. She found great friendships with political types, and enjoyed learning the inner workings of political operations and issues facing those who were elected to government. The Carusos thrived as political junkies as they worked on the campaigns of Gary Condit, Sal Cannella, Burl Condit for sheriff, Tony Coelho’s congressional campaigns and several judges.
In the meantime, Caruso placed his political ambitions on the back burner while he helped run the family shopping center, built at the northwest corner of Crows Landing and Hatch roads in 1951 by his grandfather Leo Caruso and father Bill Caruso. In 1975 Paul became vice president of the corporation board overseeing the shopping center. He felt the stress of dealing with the aftermath of a major fire at the center that year which kept Paul busy for months. Two years later he was the general manager. In 1988 Paul became president of the family corporation and CEO.
In 1984 Paul served as a commissioner of the Industrial Fire Protection District which eventually was taken over by Ceres Fire Department. He held that position until he was elected to the Ceres City Council in November 1987.
Caruso’s three years on the Ceres City Council were frenetic. He helped push for the revitalization of downtown Ceres. He also supported the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan which sets higher development standards when new commercial buildings are proposed. He sat on the council which set up the Hatch Road Improvement District. Caruso helped get the Concerts in the Park off the ground in 1987. And the city also formed its Public Safety Department with police and fire under the same administrative structure.
In October 1990 Caruso finally made a run for the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. Even though Caruso was outspent three-to-one he defeated incumbent appointee Supervisor Bill Mattos. The race included a pivotal issue about eliminating the offense odors drifting into Ceres from the Modesto Tallow Company yard. The Ceres Redevelopment Agency was formed as was the Stanislaus-Ceres RDA. Caruso also pushed for Ceres to acquire the Industrial Fire Station. He also supported limiting Ceres growth on the east side along Faith Home Road.
Paul was very busy and not home a lot.
“I raised my daughter on my own,” Sharon laughed. “I was very involved in Amanda’s life because I knew he had his things that he had to do. I’m a firm believer that you stay involved with them (children) and that keeps them on the right track. Manda was easy.”
As supervisor, Caruso was instrumental in the county building the Public Safety Center, Social Services and County Agricultural Center just outside of Ceres’ western limits. He also worked to expand commercial and industrial uses along Sperry Avenue at I-5 near Patterson by having the county invest $4 million in infrastructure and negotiating for that city to extend water and sewer and share in tax revenue.
He was elected four times and served as chairman of the board in 1995, 2000 and 2004.
Caruso was stunned when he was defeated by Westport farmer James “Jim” DeMartini in March 2004. A bitter campaign concluded when DeMartini pulled ahead in a 4,846 to 4,609 vote outcome. Caruso said he didn’t take the loss hard because he was “really tired.”
“I was by far the most active supervisor. I was kind of like Condit – I’d go see the dead dog. I was on the west side all the time, Ceres not too much. I was really tired. I was on like 23 assignments; some heavyweights and the others were quite a bit less.”
Caruso may have been a casualty of bad press surrounding the scandals of county CEO Reagan Wilson who was exposed as giving a friend and business associate a county contract. Wilson also had to repay the county $20,000 for inappropriate purchases on his county credit card. The board pressured him to resign in 2003 but the county’s image was tarnished.
A political consultant in Sacramento suggested that he not put out campaign signs while his opponent was ramping up robo-calls featuring an endorsement by former state Assemblyman Sal Cannella. He was also hurt when $40,000 worth of walking brochures ordered from political consultant Richie Ross were late by five weeks.
“I lost by like 236 votes. We didn’t do a lot of walking. We could have done more. All I had to do is walk one weekend and I would have probably won it.”
Aside from elective office, Paul has been extensively involved in community service for decades. He served as president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, the Salvation Army Modesto Cops and Red Shield Center Board of Directors and the Ceres Rotary Club. Today he heads up the Ceres Centennial Committee and is an officer with the Friends of the Ceres Library. He was honored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3199 “Man of the Year”; Ceres Rotarian of the Year in 1986 and 2000; and Citizen of the Year in 1985. The same year he was named a Paul Harris Fellow – the highest award that may be given in Rotary. He served as chairman of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (Stan COG), the San Joaquin Valley Regional Association of California Counties, and the Mountain Valley Regional EMS.