Issue date: January 12, 2000
By MARION SOFTKY
It was the end of an era for Portola Valley when Water Jelich Jr., whose fruit orchards have been a valley landmark for generations, died January 5 in Stanford Hospital after a month's illness. He was 84.
Born in 1915, Mr. Jelich was the oldest resident of Portola Valley who was actually born there. He was an old-time farmer who worked his own land himself, and grew apples and pears and apricots that drew people from all over the Bay Area.
"He was tough. He worked every day of his life," recalls his daughter, Jeanne Ladley, who still lives up the street. "He really loved working at the ranch."
"He was a real institution, a gentleman of the old school, polite and helpful," says Bill Lane, one of Portola Valley's founders who remembers being given apples at the ranch during scout trips in the 1930s. "He was just great with kids."
Walter Jelich's story is a story of Portola Valley over the last century. His father, Walter Jelich Sr., emigrated from Croatia near the turn of the 20th century and set up farming at the foot of the hills where the Jelich Ranch still raises a few apples today.
He was followed by other emigrants from Croatia -- Skrabos, Duzanicas, Jurians -- tough, hard-working folk who farmed the valley and worked the big estates.
Amazingly, the family has stayed together, even to the fifth generation. Zelda, Walter Jelich's wife of 57 years, their two daughters and their husbands, together with three grandchildren and one great-grandchild, still live within a mile of the old Jelich Ranch in Portola Valley.
Walter grew up working the ranch with his three brothers and sister. He attended school in the historic, one-room "Little White Schoolhouse." In an interview three years ago, he remembered driving a little four-wheel racing car around the baseball field. Asked the high point in his school careers, he replied succinctly, "Girls."
The Croatian community in Portola Valley was very close and supported each other in happy and hard times. The late John Skrabo and others recalled Christmases, when the Croatians would start with Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside. They would then continue to each family's house in turn, where they would eat and drink and sing Croatian songs. "That night everyone would gather at Walter Jelich's house -- which is still beside the fruit stand for more eating and drinking and Croatian dances."
Walter Jelich later attended Sequoia High School, where he played tackle on the Cherokees football team.
About that time he met his future wife, whose father was a hay farmer outside of Redwood City where Canada College is now. Mrs. Jelich remembers after she was Redwood City's first Rodeo Queen in 1940, Walter drove with her to Salinas to compete in the California Outdoor Girl contest. She came in fourth in horsemanship, and married Walter two years later.
Walter Jelich was the kind of farmer you don't see today. He plowed fields and grew hay all over Portola Valley, including the meadow at the foot of Windy Hill and over Westridge before it was developed. "He loved his tractor," Mrs. Jelich says.
Besides managing his own orchards, Mr. Jelich took care of other orchards all over the Peninsula, from San Jose to Woodside to La Honda, for owners who couldn't care for them.
Thanks to Walter Jelich's love of children, thousands of adults from Portola Valley and the Bay Area have happy memories of visits to the ranch. For Brenda Lane, now Brenda Munks of Woodside, it was feeding the Jelich pigs. For junior trail riders, it was being given an apple as they rode by. For Eddy Cohen it was being able to ride his horse to the Jelich Ranch, and work there summers and winter weekends, and have lunches in the ranch house with the family and other young people.
"I've been riding my horse over there for 35 years," says Mr. Cohen, who operates a boarding stable on Stanford land adjacent to the freeway.
And for children in the 70s and 80s, it was visiting the Jelich ranch before Halloween to pick a pumpkin and receive an apple -- personally shined by Walt Jelich in his mechanical apple polisher -- to munch on.
Mrs. Ladley remembers that she and her sister Joyce used to take reservations for schools from all over the Bay Area to visit the ranch at pumpkin time. "Buses lined up along Portola Road. The orchard was packed with kids," she recalls. "But it got to be too much."
In recent years as Mr. Jelich has not been able to do as much, his daughter Joyce and her husband Jack Pilkington, who live at the old ranch house, have kept up the property somewhat, but the remaining orchards are old and run down. They are no longer selling apples.
Until just recently, Mr. Cohen enjoyed driving Mr. Jelich to Half Moon Bay and the Coast to visit the farms and orchards he loved so much. "Walter truly was a man of the land, and a devoted husband and father," he says.
Mr. Jelich is survived by his wife, Zelda of Portola Valley; his brother, Ed Jelich of Walnut Creek; daughters Joyce Pilkington and Jeanne Ladley of Portola Valley; grandchildren Karry Ladley, Shawn Forrest, and Frank Pilkington; and great grand-daughter Megan.
Mr. Jelich was remembered at a Rosary at Crippen and Flynn January 9, and a funeral Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church January 10.
The family prefers donations to a charity of choice.