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With Two Helping Hands Extended, 'Beck' Is Always the Man for the Job

July 04, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elmer Beckett is living proof that actions speak louder than words. While his fellow Ojai residents sing praises galore for his multitude of good deeds, the 82-year-old retired oil company worker is clearly uncomfortable with such attention.

"There are a lot of people who do more than I do," says Beckett, known as "Beck" to his friends. He leaves it to those friends to do most of the talking, not out of modesty but from a genuine belief that he merits no special appreciation.

Fred Weider, for one, would disagree: "If there ever was a helping hand out there, this guy has the biggest. He's willing to help no matter what," says the retired contractor. Weider ought to know. One night seven months ago, while he was asleep, the World War II veteran's leg began to hemorrhage. Fortunately Weider awoke before he bled to death, and he went to the hospital. The next day, Beckett invited Weider to move in with him.

"He wanted me to have a safe haven if something happened again," says Weider, who has shared Beckett's home since. "He was in the war, too. We have that camaraderie."

Beckett merely shrugs his shoulders: "Old soldiers stick together."

Then there is Sara Beeby, a former Spanish teacher who founded the Ojai Band five years ago and sought Beckett's assistance when she decided to sell balloons at the ensemble's Wednesday night summer concerts.

"I met Beck at a garage sale we had in 1990," she says. "Right then, it was an expression of generosity. There was furniture there that our son had had through college. No one wanted it. Beck said he knew someone who could use it, and hauled it off for her.

"His red truck caught my eye," she adds. "He said to me, 'If you ever need anyone for hauling, let me know.' When it came time to actually get the tanks of helium for the balloons, the only person I could think of with a pickup truck was Beck. He said he'd be happy to. That's the way he is--you name it, he does it, from A to Z. Any time anyone needs any assistance, if there's ever a need Beck hears about, small or large, he goes and helps."

Every summer since, Beckett has regularly transported helium tanks from a company in Ventura and set them up in Ojai. He also helped blow up the balloons, until arthritis affected his fingers. At the concerts, he heads a group of volunteer balloon sellers, the first couple of years also leading 100-200 balloon-toting children in a march around the band's gazebo and concert grounds at intermission.

"He's always there," says Beeby, whose own determination saw the construction of a new bandstand that is in use for the first time this summer. "He does not miss. He's a young 82."

*

For his part, Beckett says, "I was available and handy. I'm happy to have the time."

A native of Couquilla, Ore., Beckett came to Ventura from Nevada when he was a high school senior. After serving in Europe during World War II, he returned to Ventura for one year.

In 1948 he bought the Ojai home in which he still lives, a Quonset hut that he has built additions for over the years, and whose frontyard sports a charming cornucopia of frog statues, bunny and rooster figurines, miniature donkeys hauling carts, a metal pig he and Weider made and a stork he devised out of a metal pitchfork and tongs.

On view in the sideyard are airplane models Beckett found, made from soda and beer cans, and large iron chimes that were originally gas cylinders. His acre of land is, he says, a "junkyard" of odds and ends gleaned from garage sales, which people are free to borrow if needed. There is an array of old hunting traps and a seashell collection in front of the house; in the living room is Beckett's collection of kerosene lamps, including some of rare English hobnail glass.

A widower since 1970 and the father of a daughter now living in San Francisco, Beckett worked for 41 years for the Shell Oil Company in Ventura, in the refinery and on oil field towers. He has come to know well the gently sloping land and the twists and turns of the region's back country, and with good reason: For several decades now, he has taken it upon himself to beautify the area by dispersing matilija poppy seeds.

"Before World War II, I noticed the poppies in Matilija Canyon," he says. "They were quite scarce. They are the only native plant in the area, and it just seemed that Ojai should be known for its beautiful poppies and not just for being a beautiful city. So after the war, I started planting seeds for miles along Highway 33."

He scatters seeds in October, going out with friends for several hours seven to 10 times each year. The white flowers bloom in the spring, with May their peak month.

Why is Beckett so ready to help out, be it for people or poppies?

In characteristically taciturn fashion, he replies: "Because there's a need. Plain and simple."

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