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HERB BENHAM: This duo is full of character

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Mary and Joe Serna from Delano enjoy a meal at Mexicali. People like this make the valley the valley.

Mary Serna called with a newspaper question. 

"We're retired and along with the mail, the paper is one of the things we look forward to," Mary said.

Mary and her 83-year-old husband, Joe, have a cup of coffee in the morning while sharing the paper. Reading the paper, they're recounting the many things they love about one another and which have made their 34-year marriage a jeweled delight.

The Sernas live in Delano. Some people, skeptical people, fancy people, might roll their eyes at the thought of living in Delano, but the Sernas like Delano and so do 50,000 other people (the prisoners might be an exception). Joe grew up there and Mary adopted it as her hometown after being raised in Pixley.

"We have good friends," Mary said. "Good friends who check up on each other."

The Sernas live down the street from Delano High School and Cecil Avenue Junior High. In addition to reading the paper, one of their morning pleasures is sitting on the porch watching the kids go to school. Then watching them come home from school in the afternoon. It's akin to sitting on the beach and watching the tide go in and out.

Just when you think life couldn't get any better, it's Friday night dinner at the American Legion Hall with 50 to 60 friends feasting on hamburgers, tacos and tri-tip sandwiches. Every so often, there's dancing and live music.

I appreciated the call because these are character-building times for newspapers. Nice to know somebody reads. Nice to know somebody cares, which sounds dumb but doesn't feel dumb. 

I asked if they ever came to Bakersfield and whether they wanted to have lunch with a rock star columnist. I said the first thing then the second thing but left out the "rock star columnist" part.

"We do, because our doctors are there and we bought a Honda recently and we have to go to the dealership to see if they can help us get our phones hooked up to the car," Mary said.

We met at Mexicali, their favorite restaurant. Joe's eaten there for 60 years. The menu can change all it wants but Joe is ordering the cheese enchilada with rice and beans and Mary, the enchiladas with chile verde. I feel the same way about Esther's delight.

Joe's family came from Mexico over 100 years ago. His dad worked for a Japanese family in the 1930s and during World War II, the family asked him to take care of their apartments when they were shipped to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. In order to do so, they had to set him up in a grocery store, a store he later bought. After the war, Joe's dad returned their apartments to them.

Joe worked in his dad's store, was in the Army from 1961 to 1963 and then spent most of his career working as the parts manager for Striplin and Eberlein Plumbing and Appliance. Mary worked for Thrifty, Payless and then Rite Aid as a pharmacy tech.

Now she volunteers at St. Mary's on Mondays, the Elks Lodge and hosts HOW (Helping One Woman at a Time) dinners. Mary is who you call in Delano when you need another set of hands.

They have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who live in San Diego and Colorado. After lunch, we walked to their new Honda CR-V and I hooked up their phones to the car. A few minutes later, I called Mary to make sure that the phone was still working, given my warranty is good for an hour or 30 miles, whichever comes first.

Now I have friends in Delano. Salt-of-the-earth friends.  Better yet, they still read the newspaper. 

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.