Mike Tharp: Friends -- one gone, one new

08/15/2009 12:34 AM

08/15/2009 6:36 AM

When a close friend and guide to life dies, you'd be lucky to know or meet Johnnie Ramondini.

Bob Sharp died Tuesday. You may recall his columns and blogs in the Sun-Star and on our Web site for the six months he was able to write them.

Always original, often provocative, mostly iconoclastic, they added an authoritative voice and elegant style to the Sun-Star's lineup of columnists. After he was diagnosed late last year with terminal cancer, an editor's blog recounted his substantial and sometime courageous contribution for more than three decades in helping Americans and Japanese understand one another better.

He was half-PO'd, or pretended to be, when his eulogy was written before he died. But he appreciated the tributes that came flooding in after the blog. And he responded as a Valley man (born and bred in Linden) would: he grabbed what was left of his life and wrote about subjects he knew were important: same-sex marriage, immigration, religion and, finally, his own shuffle off this mortal coil.

He wrote what he slugged the "Sayonara/Farewell" column in the spring. In mid-June he sent an e-mail: "Pull the trigger." In response to a hope-against-reality reply, he explained why it was time.

His son Robert e-mailed Tuesday a few hours after Bob died: "My dad passed peacefully away this morning. All six of the Sharp siblings were at the house with our mother, and we spent the last week by his side.".

The rest of Tuesday was a daze.

News budgets for the next day's newspaper, sent out to our newsroom and the four other McClatchy California dailies. Personnel stuff. (Human Resources, HR, is such a bland title for what comes down to treating people-personnel-like responsible grownups and holding them accountable to the basic family principle of performance.)

Answering 30 e-mails. Approving stories and assigning photos. Editing freelance articles. Dealing-with-death duties.

Including jury duty. From 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. A faint hope that you'll be picked, to experience firsthand the American judicial system. It never happened in 17 years of annual reporting for service in Superior Courts in Long Beach and El Segundo.

Once the judge or prosecutor or defense attorney learned that a prospective juror was a journalist, the chance to sit on a jury evaporated like L.A.'s marine layer at noon. That's a mystery. Why wouldn't both sides want someone on the panel whose daily credo is impartiality, fairness and fact-finding?

All that and more went through a man's thoughts Tuesday afternoon. Bob Sharp's voice lingered in the back of the mind, like the first song you hear after you wake up. His braying laugh, so out-of-character with his Gatsby appearance and thoughtful speech and prose.

The tears kept threatening to come to the front of the eyes.

Enter Johnnie Ramondini. A lot of you know him. Born here in 1916, which makes him 93. His dad a dairyman. He milked cows at 12. His family fed poor folks during the Depression when no money was coming in for their milk and cream and butter. For free. For 40 years he ran Johnnie's Plumbing, 14 workers, handing off jobs to competitors he couldn't do because he was booked up.

A 60-year subscriber to the Sun-Star.

Over a cinnamon roll at Paul's Place (he ate three bites -- "I'm not much for sweets") Wednesday morning, he tells how life is good. How he'd live it all over, just the same, if he had a chance.

Twice a widower, two daughters, Sharon Wainwright and Deborah Gangwer. Two granddaughters, six great-grandchildren. An Army Air Corps flight engineer. A big backer of 4H kids for 18 years. County supervisor from 1964-80.

Lives at the Hampshire. Spends his days visiting people. His sister-in-law who loved his late brother and now has health problems. The woman who rents the house he and his second wife lived in, who takes care of her son, wounded and flat on his back from one of America's wars.

He never smoke or drank booze. A churchgoer. Bought his first car for $700 cash, a 1931 Ford coupe with a rumble seat and side windows. Became partners with a man who accused him of raising the property taxes on the land he bought in rural Merced to graze his bulls. Bought his hay for 10 years: "Best partner I ever had."

Monday, he visited a friend in the Atwater facilityl. Saw three or four other folks he knows, so he stopped by to visit them, too. He goes to a lot of retirement homes to see people from his past.

Maintains the same mindset he did when all that customers could pay him for his work was a peanut-butter sandwich. "I enjoy doing things for people," he says, sipping his half-water, half-coffee. His own coffee maker at home starts burbling at 4 a.m.

Broke seven ribs awhile back falling off the bed of his truck while feeding cattle. Had to give up some of what he used to do. Grows a garden outside his apartment tomatoes, vegetables. "I made the boxes for the flowers."

Compromise. He's done that a thousand times in his life. Let the other guy get some good out of the deal. Marriage, too. He loved both of his wives -- the first died of cancer -- with uncompromised love, but gave and took to make it all work.

"Give," is what he says at Paul's. "We can all give just a little bit. I have to do it."

Johnnie Ramondini could hire himself out to folks who are down or lost or sad.

Somebody who's just lost a friend and guide for 33 years walks away from Johnnie's company and handshake -- hard from holding bridles and wrenching faucets all his life -- knowing that Bob Sharp's legacy will live on. His family. His record -- Navy officer, international banker, unofficial but effective ambassador. His writing in our newspaper and on our Web site.

Bob and Johnnie would have got on well together.

They shared the same rule:

Give.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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