Mr. Lucas Comes To Town
Before George Lucas was the Grand Marshall of the 2013 Graffiti Parade in downtown Modesto, it was the 50-year reunion and anniversary celebration at John Muir Elementary School in Modesto a few years ago that brought the city's most famous native-son back to town. With almost 200 other former students, George Lucas joined in sharing memories of his childhood in 1950s Modesto.
Lucas, who is world-renowned for his "Star Wars" films, had captured his teen years in Modesto in "American Graffiti," a 1973 movie that celebrates cruising in downtown Modeso. While he did not attend the 50th anniversary of Thomas Downey High School, John Muir's celebration brought him home.
It's interesting to note that Lucas did not come to Modesto when a statue was dedicated in his honor, either.
Lucas lived near John Muir School on Ramona Street when he attended grade school there. The school, which borders Coffee Road, replaced a brick structure on Morris Avenue. The brick building had been deemed unsafe for use as a school, so the new facility was built. (The former school was destroyed by an arson fire taking with it many historical items stored there by the McHenry Museum.)
Those attending the celebration remembered the Lucas home as a place of respite. Those who knew Lucas when he went to school at John Muir, felt comfortable calling one of Hollywood's most influential film producers and award-winners, "Georgie."
George's father, George, Sr., ran L.M. Morris, a local business supply store that was located on I Street, across from the Stanislaus County court buildings. The company went out of business several years ago. Both of Lucas's parents have passed away.
Kate Nyegaard, a former member of the Modesto City Schools board of education, is Lucas' older sister and still resides in Modesto. His other sister, Wendy, also lives in Modesto.
Modesto's Lucas Plaza
When Modesto finally decided to honor George Lucas, controversy brewed around the fact that so many people were against city funds being used to build anything to honor anyone. Money was quietly raised, the city provided a space at Five Points (the intersections of McHenry Avenue, "J" Street, 17th Street, Downey and Needham). This particular location is probably the most ideal place, since it is the symbolic separation of the old downtown from the roadway into what was once the farmland surrounding the town - in Lucas's time, cruising was a downtown activity, using the one-way couplets of 10th and 11th Streets. Only later when the streets became two-way, did it become a McHenry Avenue rite of passage.
A statue was commissioned and work started on the triangular piece of property (strangely the pie shaped space resembles a Star Destroyer from "Star Wars"). Betty Saletta of Oakdale designed the teenage girl and boy and the portion of automobile, which was cast in bronze.
What better way to celebrate George Lucas than to represent a moment in time from "American Graffiti?" The film was a seminal work for Lucas and helped launch the career that has so affected filmmaking the world over.
The statue represents a teenage boy and girl sitting on a 1957 Chevy, no doubt getting ready to "cruise" 10th and 11th Streets. There is an inscription on a bench in back of the statue commemorating Lucas and his achievements.
The photos are courtesy of Kevin Shand, former Modesto Film Commissioner.
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George Lucas served as a crossing guard when he attended John Muir School in Modesto. The photo at left is courtesy of Jack Broome.