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The Irony and the Ecstasy : He Now Enjoys Safeway Lettuce

March 15, 1985|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer


— The first time Safeway supermarket officials called on J. Patrick Liteky, he was a Santa Cruz County supervisor and it was to invite him to say a "few appropriate words" at the opening of a new store in 1973.

Liteky went to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and stunned his hosts by refusing to cut the ribbon "in honor of Cesar Chavez and the just cause of the farm workers," who were boycotting the supermarket at the time.

A month ago, Safeway called again. Liteky, now a 44-year-old debt-ridden poet who lives at an artists retreat near here, thought, "maybe I bounced a check." Instead, he had won first prize in the company's "Win for Life Bingo" game.

The prize: $1,000 a month, for life.

"God has a great sense of humor," said Liteky, a former student for the priesthood. "I hope Safeway appreciates the humor too."

Safeway officials aren't letting on if they do.

"All I know is the guy won," said Cal Gunnell, Southern California advertising manager for Safeway. "When I was young I did a lot of things I wish I hadn't."

But Liteky, who has shopped regularly at Safeway since farm workers ended their boycott years ago, has no regrets. "I'm just glad they ended the boycott, otherwise I would not have won."

Contract Ends, Leaving Him Jobless

Winning the contest could not have come at a better time for Liteky. On March 1, the day that his first Safeway check arrived in the mail, his one-year contract as director of Dorland Mountain Colony artists retreat near this Riverside County community, ended, leaving him jobless and strapped for cash.

"I don't even have good debts--no house, car, or boat," he said. "These are mostly personal loans."

Most of the first $1,000 went toward fixing his 1968 Volkswagen--which needs a new engine--and for child support. Part was used to chip away at the $12,000 he owes friends and relatives.

"The peaks and valleys of my life are getting more pronounced--like the Alps," observed the tall, lean and soft-spoken man.

At 13, he entered the seminary in Holy Trinity, Ala., with the goal of becoming a priest. As a young man in his early 20s he decided it wasn't the vocation for him because "of the celibacy situation."

He moved to California in 1971 to study theology at the University of San Francisco, teaching part time at a local Catholic high school. He left the university without getting his degree, however, and entered the restaurant business with a friend in the Santa Cruz mountains. "It was a funky place; Hell's Angels

hung out there," he recalled.

In 1972, he quit the restaurant and became an activist in the area fighting for the rights of transients, who had become a thorn in the side of local officials.

A year later, he was elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. His colleagues on the board nicknamed him "the hippy supervisor."

"He didn't have a job when he came on the board," recalled Santa Cruz County Supervisor Dan Forbus. "When I heard he'd won that prize I couldn't believe it. It's almost mind-boggling."

"He's always been struggling," agreed attorney and former board member Dale Dawson. "I don't think this county's had a supervisor like him before or since."

Liteky resigned his supervisorial post in 1975 when "I began to see politics was not my bag at all--too many compromises."

Over the last 10 years, Liteky has, among other things, married, fathered two children and divorced, publicly announced his homosexuality, operated a wood-cutting business called the Wood Fairy, and worked as an administrator for the California Conservation Corps and the California Arts Council. Now he is writing poetry and looking for work.

In early February, he entered the Safeway bingo game and became the company's first grand-prize winner.

"If I live to be 80," Liteky said, "this will add up to around $500,000."

Then he smiled up at the clouds that drifted over the mountain retreat.

"I think it's a cosmic joke," he said. "I can almost hear it: Somebody up there saying, 'OK, he's had enough. Let him have some fun now.' "

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