- September 12, 2021
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Longtime Fairfield resident Yolanda Elmo Messer, left, in her 1942 senior yearbook at Armijo High School, and right, in 2016. (Courtesy photos)
Note: “Ordinary Folk History,” written snapshots of local residents, will appear periodically.
Longtime Fairfielder Yolanda Elmo Messer, who will turn 97 Tuesday, was actually a resident of Suisun City when she was born.
“We lived at 310 Sacramento St. in Suisun City in a house that was built in 1906 and is still there. I was born at the Solano County Hospital in Fairfield, because while we had a lot of hotels in Suisun, we didn’t have a hospital,” Messer said.
Messer’s maiden name was well-known among Suisunites back when. Her father owned Elmo’s Barber shop on Main Street, which he ran for 57 years. After he retired and the building was run down and condemned, it was destroyed in a controlled burn by the Suisun City Fire Department. Messer’s family sent their dad to Reno so he didn’t have to see his beloved shop burn.
Tony Wade: Back in the Day
In addition to the Elmo name on the barber shop, Messer’s cousin Al owned Elmo’s Club and Pool Room, also on Main Street. It was a favorite hangout for many old-time locals.
A story that Messer loves to tell is how she met her dear friend Dorene Siebe Darville.
“Dorene and I, we were both 13 years old and we were standing in line to get our classes at Armijo High [then on Union Avenue, now the Solano County Hall of Justice]. She turned to me and said, ‘Do you know anybody?’ and I said, ‘No, there’s only 13 of us that graduated from Crystal Elementary School’ and she said, ‘Well, let’s be friends.’ That was in 1938 and we have been friends all these years,” Messer said.
Some of the favorite memories Messer has of long ago include attending the dedication of the Chief Solano statue June 3, 1934, when she was 9 years old. It was out near the present-day truck scales on Interstate 80 before it was moved to its current location four years later after repeated vandalism.
She also recalls legendary Suisun City Fourth of July celebrations.
“They would have free ice cream, free watermelon, a parade, races and more,” Messer said. “We would invite everyone because we had a big porch to watch the fireworks. They always had them on the other side of the slough where the City Hall is now.”
Messer’s father would not allow her to go on dates. She had to go to dances with two female Armijo teachers.
“I guess my dad thought I would be a nun,” Messer said with a spirited laugh.
In her senior year of high school, Messer and others were shocked by the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II. In 1943, she married her boyfriend Earl, who was in the Marine Corps.
“We had dated for a year and a half, got married, were together for 35 days and then he shipped out for Guam and Iwo Jima and was gone for three years,” Messer said. “He was injured in Iwo Jima and I got a telegram that said he had sustained an ‘atmospheric blast concussion.’ I didn’t even know what the heck that was. I phoned my physician, Dr. Rossi, who explained it to me. I didn’t hear from Earl for nine weeks after that until other servicemen found him in a hospital in Guam.”
While she did stay home with her daughter for four years after her birth, Messer worked from a young age, starting with cutting fruit in the Suisun Valley when she was 12 years old. After high school, she worked at the post office, then worked at Sheldon Oil in Suisun City for four years and then became the deputy county clerk at the courthouse. Many longtimers here – especially men – remember Messer at the job she had after the courthouse gig: working for the local Draft Board.
“When I started I didn’t even know what a draft board was, but I stayed there 24 years and retired. Before I retired, the head man in Sacramento offered me the job of executive secretary to 177 draft boards, but my husband wouldn’t let me take it. I would have had to drive to Sacramento every day and he said I’d kill myself because I’m a terrible driver. Now, I’m not – I’ve never had an accident and I still drive. I recently passed a test and I’m good to go until I’m 99,” Messer said.
A few years after she retired, Messer’s husband died from brain cancer. Soon afterward, a Fairfield police lieutenant asked her if she would come and work at the police station. The starting pay was only $3 per hour, but by the time Messer retired from there – 28 years later – her hourly wage had increased nearly nine fold. Even though she had never written a grant before she started working there, eventually she won 22 of them for the department, which helped them obtain equipment for computerized fingerprinting and numerous other public safety upgrades.
In addition to a strong work ethic, Messer also is creative. Decades ago she saw someone painting on china, fell in love with it and was in a class the next day. She also has dabbled in ceramics and doll making and at one time held workshops in her Fairfield home.
Messer had two brushes with Hollywood nearly half a century apart. In the late 1940s the film “All The King’s Men,” which eventually won the 1950 Best Picture Oscar, shot some scenes in Suisun City and used a few local folks. In 1993, Messer visited the set and met stars of the Neil Simon film adaption of his play “Lost in Yonkers” because a neighbor boy she’d baby-sat in Fairfield, Mike Damus, co-starred in it alongside Richard Dreyfuss and Mercedes Ruehl.
Messer’s Class of 1942 classmates didn’t have their first reunion until their 40th, but soon they were having an annual luncheon each February at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fairfield. They were organized by Messer’s lifelong friend and former mayor of Suisun City, Guido Colla, who died last year. The remaining classmates hope to meet next year.
When queried about her secret to living a long life, Messer doesn’t have any, but does have a strong municipal allegiance.
“While my dad lived until he was 82, I lost my mother when she was 42. I don’t know why I’m still here but I’m glad I am because my grandson and his wife are having a baby and I am going to be a great-grandma,” Messer said. “My daughter and my two granddaughters all live in Vacaville and they would love for me to live there, but I’m a Fairfield girl! Come on!”
Reach Fairfield humor columnist, accidental local historian and author of The History Press book “Growing Up In Fairfield, California” Tony Wade at [email protected].
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