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Town's 'Savior' Came Up Short

COLUMN ONE

Wealthy Vons grocery heir gave Mariposa residents visions of wealth and civic revival. But it didn't pan out.

August 31, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARIPOSA, Calif. — When Wilfred L. Von der Ahe Jr. arrived in this struggling Sierra town 16 years ago, just about everybody saw gold. After all, he was the wealthy scion of a storied Los Angeles family: founders of the Vons Grocery Co., devout Catholics lauded by the Vatican for their charitable giving, and power brokers who presided over the finest country clubs.

He seemed to be just what Mariposa needed: a deep-pockets savior.

Perched at the intersection of California 140 and 49, Mariposa lives and dies by tourism. It boasts the oldest continuously operating county courthouse west of the Mississippi River, the esteemed Mariposa Museum and History Center, and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum.

But Mariposa relies almost exclusively on Yosemite traffic, and as the national park suffered in the 1990s--from recession, a federal government shutdown, rock slides and floods--the town did too. Already low property values were depressed still further. Unemployment soared into the mid-teens and stayed there. Businesses struggled and failed.

Von der Ahe, then 51, didn't waste much time.

He bought thousands of acres around these forested hills. He purchased half the tiny historic downtown. He took over the Mariposa Mine, once owned by Civil War general and explorer John C. Fremont, and snapped up the town's rattiest motel. Von der Ahe planned to bring it all to life, and everyone here wanted in on the action.

Realtors sidled up to him. Every club and cause competed for a handout. Strangers smiled at him with nervous yearning. Even the ambitious county assessor stepped in, advising Von der Ahe on his growing portfolio. Suddenly, one man seemed to promise a renaissance.

"With all the money he had, everyone was thinking, 'Oh boy, this is going to be nice,' " said Mike Wright, the county's former chief appraiser.

Now, many in Mariposa think, be careful what you wish for.

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Plenty of people come to these pine-studded hills to start over. Some run from the law. Others simply crave the peace and quiet of the rolling ranchland, just an hour's drive from Yosemite Valley's humbling power.

Von der Ahe was seeking refuge too, from his family's outsized expectations.

Charles T. Von der Ahe immigrated from Copenhagen to Los Angeles, and opened his first Vons Groceteria at 7th and Figueroa streets in 1906. He built a chain of 87 stores, then sold in 1929 in time to avoid the stock market's collapse. In 1932, he gave sons Wilfred and Theodore the financial backing to relaunch Vons Grocery Co. Their flagship store offered a bakery, deli, meat, grocery and produce departments under the same roof and was dubbed a "supermarket"--a term that caught on nationwide.

From the Jonathan Club to the Wilshire Country Club and beyond, the Von der Ahes were civic powerhouses and prolific donors. Among the many buildings that bear the family name are several at Loyola University in Westchester. The family sold the Vons chain in 1969 in a deal valued at $120 million, but remained involved until Wilfred's retirement in 1975.

From the beginning, Wilfred Jr. was drawn to a different path. The eldest child in a staunchly Catholic family, he graduated from St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo in 1964 and, following in an uncle's footsteps, became a priest.

Then he and the conservative Von der Ahe clan parted ways. He marched with Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, backing the historic grape boycott even though that stance hurt supermarket owners such as his father.

He gave impassioned homilies. He backed the Catholic Worker peace and justice movement and attended group therapy sessions with other hippie priests. But his sermons deviated from church dogma. He offended congregants in Long Beach by using profanity, and he socialized liberally with nuns.

Ultimately, he was called in by conservative then-Cardinal Francis McIntyre for a reprimand. His father accompanied him. But after the second scolding, Von der Ahe Jr. was suspended. When he was ordered to move out of his parish rectory, he was so mortified that he holed up in a motel rather than knock on his parents' door.

"I think it crushed him," said Dan Delany, a former classmate who left the priesthood in 1967 just before Von der Ahe did. "He never associated with the Catholic Church after that, never had his kids baptized.... His response was to abandon the whole thing."

His brothers had followed their father's entrepreneurial example, launching a successful real estate development company in 1970. Wilfred Jr. dabbled in that family business, but "he didn't trust the other Von der Ahes," said Maureen Murphy, a former nun who later became Von der Ahe's longtime girlfriend. "If you peeled away the layers, it was, 'I want to be like my dad, but I want to be making it on my own.' "

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