GUSTINE — This is the tale of a heart that's true.
Mayor Rich Ford didn't think it would happen, given the steep walls of state bureaucracy. Supervisor Deidre Kelsey had her doubts because it was a quirky idea.
But Leonard Holmquist forged on through every step. Wednesday morning he got his wish: Caltrans crews painted an 8-foot red broken heart in the crosswalk at Sixth and Grove avenues.
He decided Gustine needed one at the intersection where four years ago a 7-year-old girl was walking across Sixth Avenue after class ended at Gustine Elementary School.
"I've fought some pretty hard battles in life, and sometimes you get mentally discouraged," the 75-year-old Gustine man said. "You take a deep breath and keep going."
It took months to get the project approved in the halls of government and hours for Caltrans crews to roll red paint on the asphalt.
Holmquist is quick to point out that Gustine is the first city with a sanctioned broken heart on a state road.
Crews let Holmquist splash a little paint on the ground before they finished. The city held a ceremony to honor his achievement and threw a reception on Gustine's main drag.
"I think it's important that a private citizen could get this done," Kelsey said. "It's a daunting task. He persevered and, by golly, the testimony is on the pavement."
Holmquist began his quest last year after he saw a broken heart on a rural road outside the city of Echo. He later learned a man had fallen asleep at the wheel there and died.
The girl who inspired Holmquist was with her sister and heading toward their mother, who had left work to meet them. A Watsonville man driving along the road in a Chevrolet truck hit her. She died on the spot.
The family moved to Mexico and later told Holmquist they didn't want their daughter memorialized. But they were fine with his plan for a broken heart.
Holmquist went to City Hall, where leaders pointed him to the California Department of Transportation, an agency often bemoaned for its slow progress. For instance, Caltrans proposed replacing the Bradley Overpass, on the outskirts of Merced, in 1996. Work is expected to begin any day now.
He managed to cajole two officials to visit Gustine and hear him out.
In January, he testified in Lincoln before the California Traffic Control Devices Committee and learned about the minutiae of government.
If the heart was outside a crosswalk, it would be considered a traffic control device and thus require years of costly testing and research. If inside the crosswalk, it wouldn't fall under such restrictions.
Holmquist continued to pressure state officials, calling them to suggest ideas. Six weeks later, he would call back to see if they had made a decision. When they dithered, he would point out a that in the same six weeks a pregnant woman could feel her baby. Why couldn't they make a decision?
One Caltrans representative told Holmquist he was asking an awful lot from the agency. Holmquist retorted he wasn't asking for a tunnel to Reno.
Caltrans cleared the city's application during the summer, though it wanted to wait until the tomato harvest ended so trucks headed for processing centers wouldn't be delayed, Holmquist said.
Holmquist is thinking of other places in Merced County where he wants to paint broken hearts. He declined to specify where.
"We'll give it a couple weeks rest," he said. "Then we'll see if we can't start something else."