When longtime reporter and columnist Phil Dirkx retired in October, his former co-workers chimed in online — celebrating his kindness and generosity and describing him as “a stately gentleman.”
Phil started writing for the then-Telegram-Tribune in 1972. I first met him a decade later when I interned as a Cal Poly student photographer at the newspaper.
Phil wrote everything from a small-town human interest profile to a breaking news story about a shooting at a courthouse to a multi-part explainer on the State Water Project.
My earliest memory working with Phil is tinged with tragedy. The tiny community of Cholame had lost four children when a church van collided with a semi-trailer truck. Six other people in the van were also killed.
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An almost overwhelming sense of dread accompanied me on the drive to Stella’s Country Kitchen, a small cafe west of the Cholame Y, where Highway 41 meets Highway 46. (The restaurant, now under different management, is today known as Jack Ranch Cafe.)
I found the magnitude of loss beyond my ability to interpret. Death is a subject that many avoid.
Phil conducted the interview with quiet dignity, noting the information needed and giving the Randall family space to express what was in their hearts.
Ed and Stella Randall and their pastor shared their steadfast faith and were concerned about their guest’s comfort, offering pie and coffee.
The moment I will always remember was of crash survivor Charity Silva, 4, bounding around the room with a child’s irrepressible energy as the adults shared their memories.
The following story was published in the Telegram-Tribune on Oct. 30, 1982:
Death, faith touch Stella’s Country Kitchen
Death has laid a heavy hand on the tiny community of Cholame in the northeastern corner of this county, but faith has touched it too.
Ed and Stella Randall run the cafe in Cholame, Stella’s Country Kitchen. Earlier this month four members of their family were killed in a traffic crash.
“If we could bring them back today we wouldn’t do it because they are in a much better place,” said Ed Randall this week.
Stella’s hair is gray and Ed’s is more like white. They are soft-spoken and of medium build.
“The Lord had a reason for it and didn’t let any of them suffer, that’s for sure,” Stella said.
The four were riding in a church van when it was hit head-on by a trailer truck in Lemoore Oct. 9. Ten of the 11 people in the van were killed.
The four Ed and Stella lost were their foster daughter Sherie Randall, 16, their foster son Allan Lampkin, 13, their niece Terry McGee, 15, and their granddaughter Karen Randall, 1 1/2.
Karen’s father Lonnie is a full-time cook in his parents’ restaurant and Terry’s mother, Ellen McGee cooks part time there.
In fact the business district of Cholame is mostly a Randall family affair. The only other business in town is the Chevron station run by Ed’s brother Melvin.
The rest of Cholame consists of the post office, a monument to movie actor James Dean — who was killed nearby in a traffic crash in 1955 — and not much else except a seismological instrument to detect movement on the San Andreas earthquake fault that passes about a half a mile away.
About half the people who work at the cafe are members of the Randall family, including McGee, Lonnie, Ed and Stella, and the couple’s older son Eddie, who also cooks.
Until Oct. 9, three other members of the family also worked around the restaurant.
Niece Terry McGee was employed as a waitress; foster-daughter Sherie, who had multiple sclerosis, helped out as cashier; and foster-son Allan helped out around the yard.
Much of the Randalls’ strength in this tragedy came from the pastor of their church, the Rev. Leonard “Bud” Silva of the Avenal Calvary Baptist Church.
“God has turned it into a blessing,” Silva said at the restaurant this week.
“There are things many people think are terrible that God gives us for a blessing.”
Silva was speaking from personal experience. His wife Patricia was killed driving the van and two of his children — Joy, 2, and Nathan, 3 —were also killed.
The only survivor out of the 11 people in the van was Silva’s other daughter Charity who will be five in January.
“My daughter is a miracle,” he said.
“She had only a few scratches on her face and suffered no pain.”
Asked how such a tragedy could be a blessing, Silva said, “It’s touched many hearts and because of it many have come to the Lord and been saved.
“People woke up and realized life is short and it’s time to make it right with the Lord,” he said. “People realize its time to be saved now.”
The funeral service for all 10 was held in the Avenal High School auditorium five days after the crash. About 1,000 of the 4,500 residents of Avenal attended, Silva said.
“Forty or fifty people came down the aisle at the close of the service to trust the Lord,” he said.
Since then people have continued to join Silva’s church. He said he baptized another six the night before being interviewed.
Lonnie was cooking at the cafe Oct. 9 when his wife called him to tell him of the crash.
“She said there’d been a wreck but she didn’t know how bad,” he said. “then I heard that some were killed and I called the CHP and the CHP said very few survived.”
The van was taking the children to the Sequoia Baptist Academy, where they attended school. It was a 55-mile trip one way. The parents took turns driving the van. On another morning Lonnie’s wife might have been driving.
When Silva heard there was an accident that may have involved his church’s van he drove immediately to Lemoore. When he saw the swarm of flashing red lights he stopped and went to look for the van.
“I asked where the people were and they said they would take me to where they were,” he said. “They took me to a funeral home where the bodies were.”
He then had to identify nine of the dead including his wife and children. He also identified three members of the Randalls’ family and three children from two of the other families in his church.
The Randalls’ niece Terry was taken unconscious to a hospital at Hanford. She was pronounced dead three days later when her life support systems were disconnected.
After identifying the bodies, Silva found he also had other pressing duties.
“The other families started coming in so I had to comfort them,” he said.
“He sure was a help,” said Ed Randall.
“He helped everybody; his strength rubbed off on a lot of other people.”
A friend of the Randalls’, Dee Saunders who operates the Avenal Inn, took over their cafe in Cholame until after the funeral.
The Randalls live in Avenal and make the 30-minute commute to Cholame every day. Ed said his working day starts about 5:30 a.m. and often lasts 12 to 15 hours.
The Randalls’ regular customers and friends have reacted to the tragedy in many different ways.
“Some don’t say anything because they are afraid they won’t know what to say,” Ed Randall said. “Others put their arms around my shoulders and say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
“One tanker-truck driver came in yesterday and said, ‘I’ve been avoiding it but I just had to come in and talk to you,’ ” Randall said.
The Randalls and Silva said they have heard from people all over the country. Silva said he received a bundle of letters from an elementary school class in Indiana.
He said people from other cities have dropped in on him too.
And he has been granting all interviews he possibly can. He feels it’s important for the public to hear about the tragedy.
“People try to ignore death and they try to ignore having eternal life through Jesus,” he said.
Cholame Postmaster Lily Grant said, “Some people speak to me to see if it would be OK to speak to the Randalls about it.”
The people in the area have also been wondering when the Randalls’ composure will break down, but it hasn’t so far, Grant said.
“There’s not going to be any breakdown in our life,” said Ed Randall.
“Things only break down when there’s a bad foundation,” Silva said.
“If we didn’t know the kids are in heaven it would be a lot harder to take,” Randall said. “They took a shortcut and beat the rest of us.”