It was 120 years ago this July that a tent was pitched at Higuera and Nipomo streets in San Luis Obispo and a “… great celebrity for many years in the East, and all over the world in fact …” set up performances. Yes, Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy was in town.
I know this factoid because Wilmar “Tog” Tognazzini wrote about it in his “100 Years Ago” column on July 14, 1990, in what was then the Telegram-Tribune.
For 15 years, Tog faithfully wrote weekly about life in San Luis Obispo from 1888 through 1903, making him perhaps the best living historian for that period of time (although Tribune historian/columnist Dan Krieger, who had Tog as a seventh-grade teacher in 1946, may also claim that mantle). Tog’s 16-volume compilations can be found at the San Luis Obispo City/County Library.
Pushing 92 in February, Tog has led a well-examined life: educator, businessman, Hearst Castle guide and supervisor (where he met legendary actresses Raquel Welch and Loretta Young), historical columnist, root beer brewer supreme, patriarch, proud son of Swiss immigrants and sing-along piano player to convalescent home residents.
It’s little wonder Tog was designated a “living treasure” by the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce in 2000, as well as a “national treasure” by San Diego Union reporter Mark Sauer in 1986. (It’s a story of family, patriotism and a battle against bureaucracy that can be accessed by Googling “Wilmar Tognazzini” and going to his Web site.)
But among all the accomplishments Tog can rightly feel most proud of, the San Bernardo Creek resident has to regard his recent wedding anniversary to wife Henrietta as his finest achievement.
You see, the Tognazzinis have been an item for the past 70 years, having met in Greenfield in 1937 and then marrying there Dec. 26, 1939, which makes them legitimately platinum — rare and precious.
Tog struck gold in finding Henrietta Brown. As lovely then as now with an easy and beautiful smile, she’s a Paso Robles native, the great-granddaughter of Bernard Exline, who homesteaded land north of town.
Youngest daughter Anne believes her parents have forged such a remarkable union because they “have been absolutely unwavering in their commitment to being married.”
A cynic might scoff at such a simple maxim. But in light of high divorce rates today as opposed to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, it’s an uncomplicated truism for Tog and Henrietta: They’ve believed in working things out, not cutting and running in the face of adversity, hardship or even tragedy.
And tragedy has been a part of the Tognazzinis’ troth.
Parents of 10 children, they lost two of their sons (Dale as a young child and Henry as a newborn) in the early 1950s. The remaining eight are Jane, Alan, Susan, Noel, Mark, Mary, Todd and Anne, all — with the exception of Noel — who attended their anniversary party Dec. 26 at the Morro Bay Grange Hall. (They also have 18 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.)
Aside from having long-living genes and a commitment to marriage, there are other more intangible factors that come into play to be mated with someone for 70 years.
To those who know Tog and Henrietta, those qualities include a love of humor and fun (he makes a mean batch of home-brewed root beer for a continuous source of floats), deep respect for each other and an insatiable curiosity about the past, present and future. It means they listen carefully to each other and cherish one another without stipulation or expectation.
But there is more to the tapestry they’ve woven together. Tog and Henrietta entwined themselves as much with each other over the years as they have with the community they love so much, Morro Bay.
Starting in 1944, Tog was a teacher, principal and superintendent of Morro Bay schools before their unification with San Luis Coastal. It was on his watch and under his direction that Del Mar Elementary was built.
For her part, Henrietta not only kept the brood in line but also helped run the couple’s San Luis business, Tog’s Party Shop on Higuera. And, being a baritone sax player, she was an original member of the Morro Bay White Caps Band and served as the first woman president of the San Luis Obispo County Band. Those are just the high points.
What Tog and Henrietta have achieved is rare, a phenomenon really: A heart-to-heart match that, like all things vintage, has aged only better over time.
Congrats, you two. We’ll chat again at your 80th.
Bill Morem can be reached at email@example.com or 781-7852.