Charley Huddleston wanted a big birthday party.And he got what he wanted.
The party, which filled up McNamara Park in South Merced, was huge, with more than a 1,000 well-wishers, friends and family from far and wide coming to celebrate his 88th birthday last week.
The smell of barbecue wafted in the air as Huddleston sat reclined in a pool chair surrounded by his loved ones. Children played on the playground as music blared from speakers set up at the park.
Usually, the family celebrates the birthday along with Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
But, "he told me a couple of weeks ago, 'I want a big birthday party,' " recalled his son Robby Huddleston, 50.
Huddleston has been a fixture in Merced, especially South Merced, for decades, with some even calling him the "mayor of South Merced." He was integral in changing the name of J Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way in honor of the black civil rights activist. He worked on changing the name to reflect the community and black culture in the area.
"He's done everything," Robby said. The shelter at McNamara Park is named after him, he added. "He's done a lot for the community."
Huddleston got out of the hospital about two weeks ago after spending six to eight months recuperating after hurting his hip, family members said.
"He's kicking," said Robby, laughing. "He wanted everybody to be looking at him."
Not only was Charley Huddleston a fixture in city politics, he also was the one who would take kids for skating parties at Flanagan Park or on expeditions to see the snow at Yosemite National Park, recalled his niece, Garnetta Beavers, 57. She's been Charley's primary caretaker since his injury.
Beavers recalled, laughing, how one time both she and Charley ended up at the same hospital, floors apart, after she had an asthma problem.
Patsy Teal, 67, came to the party from Modesto. Teal, who at one time was his daughter-in-law, said Charley is a "landmark" in Merced.
Also on hand to celebrate was Charley's cousin, Ola Winzer, 82. She recalled he had been in Merced since the late 1930s.
"We had a lot of fun, going skating in Modesto and going to ballgames," she recalled. She said her uncle, Charley's father, owned a restaurant and dance hall where the kids would eat and dance all night.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.