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Taken aback by a photo from way back

A picture at a new Wells Fargo office in Alhambra shows 5-year-old Fame Rybicki at her father's service station in 1926. On Saturday, the now 91-year-old will attend its unveiling.

February 22, 2013|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Euphemia "Fame" Rybicki, 91, stands near the mural she is depicted in at a Wells Fargo bank in Alhambra. A photo of her as a 5-year-old standing outside her father's gas station, at left, is part of the artwork.
Euphemia "Fame" Rybicki, 91, stands near the mural she is depicted… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)

A bank's branch office in Alhambra is helping Fame Rybicki become famous.

The 91-year-old former school administrator and community activist was startled to discover that a photograph taken of her in August 1926 had been incorporated into a large mural that decorates a newly opened Wells Fargo office on the city's Main Street.

The mural is a montage of historic photos that salute 112-year-old Alhambra's early days. A 5-year-old Rybicki is shown standing with family members and uniformed attendants in front of several cars gassing up at her father's service station.

"My father had just opened the service station at the corner of Fremont Avenue and Valley Boulevard," Rybicki said. "My mother and my uncle from back East are also in the picture."

Rybicki learned of the mural when she spied a photo of it in a newsletter mailed to her last month by the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce. She and her husband, Anton, 95, now live close to daughter Joan Steen in Newport Beach.

The gas station, named Fremont Service, was a focal point in Rybicki's life.

Her father, Giles Ratkowski, a civil engineer for the Chicago North Alton Railroad, had contracted tuberculosis on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he had gone to testify before Congress about government payments owed for services during World War I.

"It was believed at that time that the only cure for TB was sunshine," she said. "One of his friends had already quit the railroad and moved to Glendale, so my father wrote to him for information and we came to California in January of 1925."

Her father decided to open a gas station so he could work outdoors in the sunlight, Rybicki said.

He looked at a spot on Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue but "decided that there weren't enough residents there to warrant building a station," she said. "That corner is now worth millions."

Instead, Ratkowski settled on the corner of Fremont and Valley and bought a double-sized lot that contained a citrus grove and a rambling, 16-room Asian-themed house that had been built 24 years earlier by an engineer named Antonio Cajal, who had served in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion.

To clear space for his gas station and a planned mini-market, Ratkowski removed rows of orange, acacia, avocado and palm trees, Rybicki said.

Being an engineer, her father designed his eight gasoline pumps himself. "They were built to keep anyone from tampering with them and stealing gasoline at night. They were the first of their kind — the gas would go back into the tanks in the ground when they were turned off," she said.

Her father closed the station and its small market at midnight and carried the day's receipts back to the family home. He was never robbed.

Rybicki, whose first name is Euphemia but is known to friends as Fame, spent much of her childhood at the station. It was from there that her father taught her to drive the family's big Packard — at age 10. And it was in the Fremont Service mini-market that as a 13-year-old she met the man she would eventually be married to for more than 70 years.

"He was 17 and was in there buying something," she said. "He later told me that he told himself that day that someday he was going to marry that girl."

The Ratkowski family operated Fremont Service until the 1950s, when they rented the station to the Union Oil Co. It remained a Unocal station until the mid-1990s; a Jiffy Lube and a Jack In the Box restaurant occupy the corner now.

After graduating from Alhambra High School, Rybicki married in 1938 and then went on to work as an administrator with the Alhambra Unified School District and as a savings and loan association vice president. She was the first woman to be president of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce.

Rybicki plans to return to the Wells Fargo branch Saturday for the official opening of the office at 701 E. Main St. and the 11 a.m. unveiling of the mural, one of 1,800 installed at the bank's branches nationwide. Other photographs included in the 12-foot-wide artwork depict a 1920s Alhambra fire station, a 1925 Valley Boulevard produce shop, Alhambra's 1910 City Hall and a 1926 view of Main Street.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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