By Bob Pinheiro , Modesto Radio Museum
I first met Chester Smith at KTRB in Modesto in 1961 when I went to work there as an announcer. Chester was in his 14th year of twice a day programs playing country music and being heard up and down the northern half of California on the 10,000 watt signal of KTRB. He was a pleasant and religious man who always had a smile on his face and a warm greeting. We worked together until 1963 when he left to start his own radio station. Down through years we kept in touch and the last time I saw him was about 2 months before his death when he called one day to invite me to lunch. I met him the following day at his office on 14th street in downtown Modesto where he conducted the business of his television stations scattered up and down the state.
Chester guided me through the office to a small garage at the rear of the building where we got into his new Rolls Royce. I had never ridden in a Rolls Royce before, let alone ridden with a multi-millionaire. His wealth had not changed him over the years, he was the same Chester I had met nearly 50 years earlier.I knew Chester liked Mexican food and I wondered if we would go to El Faro’s Mexican Restaurant on McHenry Ave in Modesto? El Faro’s had been one of his sponsors on KTRB for many years, and in fact had created a plate in his honor called the “Chester Smith Special”. It became a very popular dish at the restaurant. El Faro’s is still there, I wonder if Chester’s special plate is still offered?
We went instead to another restaurant in Modesto because Chester said he liked the Chicken soup there. He said he had not been feeling all that well and felt the soup would help.
When we arrived Chester scouted the parking lot looking for a safe spot to park his Rolls. He selected a shady spot under a small tree and next to a planter.
Over lunch we chatted about the old days and how things were today. He was obviously happy and content as we talked about his comeback in the recording business and how he and his lifelong friend Merle Haggard got together in 2002 to produce and record their California Blend CD at Merle’s ranch just outside Redding, CA.
They used Merle’s modern recording studio he had built at his ranch and Merle’s band to make the CD. “It has been a huge success”, he said. His second CD recorded with his new wife Ann-Lesley in 2005 was recorded at a studio in Hayward. He praised Ann as a wonderful singer and songwriter and said she had written many of the songs on the CD, including one of his favorites, “Grandma”.
Upon leaving the restaurant he wanted to show me a nice feature on his Rolls Royce. Before unlocking the doors and getting in he pressed a button on his keypad which opened a very small door near the trunk. From the opening he retrieve a full size umbrella. He grinned and said he had not had the need to use it yet, but enjoyed showing it to friends. I asked him what year the Rolls was. He informed me that Rolls are referred to by model name and not the year they were handmade. He had only had this one a few months… and it was not his first.
After getting into the car he pushed another button which engaged the CD player and the beautiful voice of his wife Ann singing “Grandma” filled the car. “Ann wrote the song” he said, and he wrote the arrangement and played with the band when it was recorded. It was obvious that he loved Ann very much and her beautiful voice was soothing to him. When they met she was a prison chaplain for the California Department of Corrections.
Chester wanted to show me his home only a few miles away near Riverbank. His ranch is located on the north side of the Stanislaus River just a mile or two from downtown Riverbank and the old Riverbank Club House where his performing career began back in the 50s.
His beautiful 25,000 square foot home is located on the eastern edge of his 156 acre gated property, the majority of which he and Ann have planted in grapes and olive trees. They marketed their olive oil on the internet under the name of Olivewood Estate.
Chester introduced me to his full-time ranch manager and then borrowed his utility vehicle for a tour of the property with an explanation of the crops and their plans for the future. I was looking forward to meeting Ann, but she was out shopping at the time I was there.
We then returned to his office and chatted in his office before saying goodbye for what would be the last time. He died out a few months later.
It was a wonderful couple of hours we spent together that day which I will never forget. I’m deeply saddened by his death and the loss of a true friend and gentleman. I keep remembering the lyrics to his hit record “Wait a little longer please Jesus”. I guess Jesus just couldn’t wait any longer for Chester to join him in heaven and hear him say in person… “This is Chester Smith speakin’ right atcha!”