by Jim Bulls
Editor Lorie Ham says, “interview,” and my stomach ties up in knots, I grind together what few teeth I have left, and my usual gift of gab gets up and goes to be replaced by an unusual fit of shyness. Then she says “Ron Surabian,” and I say to myself, “Self, I can do this,” and I start downtown to visit the known haunts of the “Reedley Troubadour.”
If you have ever been one of the lucky diners at Uncle Harry’s or Mainstreet Café when Ron has broken into song, you will agree it is an unforgettable experience. It is even more special when you are the one being serenaded! Ron (who somewhat resembles photos I have seen of famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso) has a beautiful, clear tenor voice. He sings while circulating between the tables, and if you are really lucky he will do a request.
A while ago, Burl Walters Jr. convinced him to participate in The Great Talent Challenge at the Reedley Opera House—this was the first time Reedley really got to hear Ron sing. The experience was exceptionally pleasing to Ron because he got to sing two of his favorite pieces: “This Is the Moment” from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. But there is a lot more to Ron, than just singing.
The year 1947 was an exciting one for the Bulls and Surabian families. For the Bulls, we moved from the little Anglo-Saxon town of Earth, Texas to Reedley where I started kindergarten. Was I in for a culture shock on the first day of school. My classmates were Armenians, Danes, Finns, Japanese, Mexicans and Filipinos—just a few of the nationalities calling Reedley home. Some cultures I had never heard of. This sure wasn’t Texas.
David and Margaret Surabian are of Armenian lineage, and they were blessed with their second child Ronald in 1947. The Armenian people refer to themselves as “Hye.” They came to this country after fleeing their native homeland during the teens of the last century when the Turks invaded Armenia and began perpetrating genocide on the native people through ethnic cleansing. The majority of Armenians who emigrated to America came through Ellis Island and settled in the east initially to build up a “nest egg” before moving to California.
Ron’s grandparents first lived in Hartford, Connecticut before making the long trip to California. The earliest Armenian immigrants settled on land around Yettum in Tulare County; they found it to be much like their native Armenia. The first Armenian settlement near Reedley was in the Wahtoke District. The Surabians call the farm at Adams and Buttonwillow avenues, the “old home place.”
Ron started school at Great Western, then moved to the old Alta School for first and second grades. Third grade year was in the new Alta School and this is where Ron met Miss Betty Peterson, who became his favorite grammar school teacher.
One day, about age 13, while reading comic books, Ron noticed the Charles Atlas body building advertisement on the back page. He sent away for the literature, but unlike many boys who did the same thing (me included), Ron actually used it. The techniques helped him excel in athletics throughout his life. Ron earned his Reedley High letterman’s jacket in football; he also participated in track and field by throwing the discus. In high school, Ron says his favorite subject was math and favorite teacher was Don Jones.
In high school, Ron sang in his church choir. He also auditioned and won a spot in the Reedley High School a cappella choir, directed by Dean Semple. Ron continued his education at Reedley College and then Fresno State College.
It was in Fresno, while attending an ACYO potluck dinner at St. Paul’s Armenian Church, that Ron met Carol Corbett. She invited the group to another function later in the week, but Ron was the only one to show up. He asked her out for dinner afterward, but her parents insisted he come home and have dinner with the family. Ron and Carol were married the following year. I commented on how ‘food is the way to a man’s heart’ (remembering that ham sandwich Diana made me). Ron laughed and said Carol was such a good cook that he was the one who got a cookbook for a wedding present.
Ron has farmed the home place and has been a field supervisor for both Kapprelian Brothers and Ballantine Produce. Carol is a career educator, looking forward to retirement this year. The Surabians have three children, Jennifer, Shelley, and David. All three were in the Reedley High Pirate Band the same time as my Amanda. I remember being a band chaperone on Reedley Day at the Big Fresno Fair with Ron and Carol. The band paraded through the fairgrounds on the same night as a sold out Charlie Daniel’s concert. Some of the flag girls were being heckled by a few disgruntled and inebriated wanna be concert goers when Ron “accidentally” bumped into them. One of the men turned to his buddies and said “Look, this band has their own bodyguard!” I was glad that Ron took his Charles Atlas program more seriously than I did.
Ron and Carol are now grandparents (for the fourth time), and Ron loves to show off his new grandson.
I asked Ron if he would share some of the more memorable occasions when he serenaded someone at one of the local cafes. He thought for a moment and then broke into a broad smile, saying “singing for Carol on her 60th birthday.” His other memory was of singing to someone in Uncle Harry’s on their birthday or anniversary and noticing another customer, an older Armenian lady, with tears of happiness running down her face. From then on, whenever her son would bring her to Uncle Harry’s for dinner, one of the waitresses would call Ron and he would “mysteriously” show up to sing to her.
In closing this interview, Ron and I thought we should plug a sponsor, so after “Shopping Reedley First” if you find yourself in Dinuba, stop in at Glen Surabian’s Port-A-Subs for great sandwiches and wonderful soups (served only in winter). Glen is Ron’s younger brother.
Remember that Charles Atlas program? Taking that program seriously has really paid off for Ron; he placed first in the 50-54 age division at the 1998 AAU World Bench Press Championships. But his accomplishment goes even further when you read: LIFETIME DRUG FREE! If you are an aspiring young athlete looking for a role model, you can do no better than choosing Ron Surabian: a man of faith, good humor, and high morals. He might even give you a few pointers on how to sing better.