Many Bakersfield natives have ventured out into the world that lies beyond that flat, low valley horizon and made names for themselves. Musicians, athletes, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs.

Steven Ramirez went out and took a job frying hamburgers.

He got around to some other meaningful undertakings, of course, but the part of his life we celebrate today started with a paper hat and a metal spatula.

Ramirez's late-career move to McDonald's, for whom he operated franchises in San Diego, Mexico and Sacramento, led him to Ronald McDonald House Charities, a nonprofit with a global reach that provides temporary housing to the families of hospitalized children.

Ramirez has been a global trustee for the international charity for 15 years, the last five as chairman. It's a job that has taken him around the world to several of the six continents and 64 countries where 365 RMHC-developed living quarters serve families often tottering on the precipice of financial and emotional stability.

He does it for one reason and one reason alone: the profound need.

"People say, 'You must make a lot of money in your job,'" Ramirez says. "I don't make any money in this job. In fact, this job costs me money."

He'll pay his own freight next week, too, when he returns to Bakersfield for the unveiling of a major renovation and expansion of the local Ronald McDonald House, located at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. The RMH is expanding from about 1,100 square feet and three bedrooms to nearly 3,000 square feet and seven bedrooms. The facility also has a common area, a kitchen and several bath/showers.

"It looks like the Santa Barbara Biltmore," says Jim Darling, the Bakersfield RMHC's lead fundraiser. "It exceeded my expectations in every way. I walked through there Friday and the guys were just touching up the paint. I didn't go in every room, but it's nice. For a family going through all the stress of a child in the hospital, it is just incredibly comfortable and soothing."

Some 500 people have RSVP'd in the affirmative for the grand opening of the Klassen Corp.-built addition at 10 a.m. July 11. Private donations paid 100 percent of the construction costs.

"I have never seen a community support a House like this one. Five hundred RSVPs is amazing," Ramirez says. "It really says something about Bakersfield. When I cut the ribbon for the Stanford House, it was 100, 120 people. I'm not criticizing, but the level of support in Bakersfield is phenomenal. (Local program director) Scarlett Sabin is a force of nature."

That level of support inspires Ramirez to wear his Bakersfield roots all the prouder, even if he spent only a portion of his youth here.

Ramirez was born at Mercy Hospital on June 30, 1949; his father and uncle owned a Golden Eagle gas station. But one gas station wasn't enough to support two growing families and, when Ramirez was 5, his father moved the family from its east Bakersfield home on Chico Street north to Sacramento, where he took an administrative position at McClellan Air Force Base.

But Bakersfield remained a part of his life.

Cousins on his grandmother's side owned two historic, old Bakersfield Mexican restaurants: Sinaloa (which closed this year, to his chagrin) and Casa Munoz.

"I would go back every summer to live with my grandparents, and play with my cousins, until I was in high school," he says.

Even at his Sacramento high school, he couldn't get completely away from Bakersfield.

He attended Christian Brothers High School, a boys-only institution founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers in 1876. His religion teacher was Brother Justin Meyer, an east Bakersfield native (known in his youth as Raymie Meyer) who later left the order and founded Silver Oak, maker of perhaps the most revered cabernet wine in the Napa Valley and, hence, the world.

"Corporal punishment was de rigueur at Christian Brothers," he says. "I always complained. But when I started looking to get into university, it was clear those four years really paid off. I was prepared."

Prepared enough to get into UC Berkeley on a U.S. Forest Service scholarship and then UC Davis grad school on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. He also took courses at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey.

Upon graduation from Davis, he worked in California state government for seven years as a Resources Agency executive fellow and as adviser to the chairman of the California Energy Commission.

The day he met Gov. Jerry Brown, in his first incarnation as governor, was memorable. Brown asked him how he would keep businesses from leaving California for destinations like Texas and the Carolinas, which was then in the midst of a big tech push. Ramirez was not immediately satisfied with his own answer, but Brown was. Brown appointed him director of the Office of Business and Industrial Development.

Ramirez also was an executive with the Southern California Gas Co. for seven years, serving variously as manager of regulatory affairs, human resources and public affairs. Later he was adviser to the president of Sempra Energy, the holding company that owns Southern California Gas.

Those duties came with an after-hours obligation: banquets rubbing elbows with corporate types from other industries. 

"I kept bumping into people from McDonald's at these rubber chicken dinners," he says. "One day they said, 'How'd you like to own your own business?"

He would, he realized.

He and Carmen opened their first McDonald's franchise in November 1988 in Galt, just south of Sacramento.

Steve trained for 2,000 hours, learning everything from hamburger garnishing to toilet cleanup.

He and Carmen were franchisees for 29 years, moving to Mexico, where they owned 14 restaurants in Tijuana, Ensenada and Acapulco, and then San Diego County, where they owned six.

All the while, Ramirez was serving on the global charity's board of trustees.

"Carmen basically ran the restaurants while I traveled the world," he says.

But eventually real life beckoned them home.

"Then our moms started to age," he says. "We told McDonald's 'We have to move back to Sacramento.' They thought we were crazy for giving up San Diego, but we only had one mom."

So in 2007, Steve and Carmen — also a fully accredited McDonald's licensee — moved to Elk Grove, just south of Sacramento, where they owned and operated seven franchises in Modesto and Elk Grove until retiring at the end of 2017.

"But the (Ronald McDonald House) board says, 'No, you're not getting out that easy," Ramirez says.

No, there was more work to be done.

The charity just opened RMHC chapters in Ukraine, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Jordan, and they are in talks with Greece and Egypt.

At 70, couldn't Ramirez decide he's had simply enough and go dip his feet in a nice lake somewhere with Carmen, his wife of 42 years?

"I could, but I wouldn't have the level of satisfaction this gives me," he says. "You're chairman of this iconic charity."

Ramirez and his wife did not have children. Or did they? Depends on how one counts.

"I have 28 godchildren, lots of nieces and nephews, and we take care of 3.5 million children each year," he says. "We don't have any children, genetically, but we have children. We have children."

For details about the July 11 event, or about RMHC in general, contact BRMH Director Scarlett Sabin at 661-437-4130 or ssabin@bakersfieldrmh.org.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.