Dr. Rudy Melone Leaves His Legacy
The legacy of Dr. Rudy Melone can be found throughout this fertile Central California produce community, located 30 miles south of San Jose.
He will be remembered by the Italian Catholic Federation, the American Red Cross, four Boy Scout Troops, Gavilan Hills Church, the Hospice of Hollister, the Community Breast Health Project, the Gilroy Gators Swim Club and several hundred other local non-profit organizations who have benefited from the revenue generated by 20 years of Gilroy Garlic Festivals.
“There would be no Gilroy Garlic Festival without Rudy.” -Don Christopher, Festival Co-Founder and President of Christopher Ranch
Dr. Melone who conceived the “crazy idea” of observing the annual garlic harvest in 1978, died September 17 after a bout with cancer. Few people anywhere have left their mark in a community as indelibly as Dr. Melone.
“There would be no Gilroy Garlic Festival without Rudy” said festival co-founder Don Christopher, President of Christopher Ranch Garlic. “Rudy was a wonderful, tenacious man. The event was his idea and he was the spark that made everything go. He loved Gilroy and because of his Italian heritage, he loved garlic. Putting the two together, he increased the popularity of Gilroy and likewise, garlic. He was a good man and a good friend.”
While serving as President of Gavilan Community College here in Gilroy, Dr. Melone approached Christopher, whose Christopher Ranch was, and remains, the largest shipper of garlic in the world, with the idea of: a celebration of “The Stinking Rose”, the pungent herb used by chefs worldwide. A projected first year attendance of 5,000 became 15,000, with admissions personnel forced to reuse tickets to accommodate the unexpected masses. And now 20 years later the Garlic Festival has been regarded by the national media as “the preeminent food festival in America.” And that light, Dr. Melone saw in the distance? It wasn’t Central California”s blazing summer sun, but a universe of over 4,000 local volunteers who have raised over five million dollars for local charities since The festival’s inception.
“We’ve been involved with the Festival since ’83,” explained Jeff Ross, Director of the Gilroy Gators Swim Club, an aquatic group for area youngsters. “Over that period of time we’ve raised $150,000 for Swim Club operations. There are 1800 children in this community who have benefited from what Dr. Melone first conceived.”
Born in Connecticut on January 29, 1925, Rudolph J. Melone was orphaned at age three and raised in the Bronx, NY. A Navy Seabee veteran of World War II, he entered the University of Portland, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education.
Dr. Melone gained his Doctorate at the University of California- Berkeley and later served as Dean at Pima College in Tucson, AZ, and at the Skyline College in San Mateo, CA, before assuming the Presidency at Gavilan Community College and effectively altering history for an entire community.
“Rudy’s idea 20 years ago has now blossomed into the most rewarding of civic challenges” said Jeff Martin, President of the 1998 Gilroy Garlic Festival Association. “Every year the new volunteers who come aboard are challenged with this event’s previous success and if they don’t approach their duties with the charge of continuing to improve The Festival, they are ultimately passed by. The growth of this event is exactly how Rudy perceived it.”
Dr. Melone is survived by his wife Gloria Melone of San Francisco, three sons and four grandsons.
“When I sat down over coffee with Rudy back in ’78 and he explained his ideas for a garlic festival, I told him he was crazy; nobody was going to respond to garlic that way,” remembered Val Filice, the Head Chef of Gourmet Alley since its beginning. “But he had it all mapped out and he truly saw the future. He believed that with the right emphasis and solid community support this would become a big deal. I laughed at the 20th anniversary luncheon back in June when someone asked him if he thought the Garlic Festival would become as big as it has… “Yeah, he always did.”
The Great Garlic Tale, 1998
By Jenny Midtgaard
Joe Tysdal was the kind of volunteer everyone wishes they had: Dedicated to the success of each year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, he carried out his volunteer duties to the letter, often with his oxygen tank strapped to his side.
Kept alive by the grace of God, love of family and medical technology, Joe would show up on Monday with his crew of workers. Starting from the ground up, they’d spend all week building the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s famous Gourmet Alley. Then, never one to quit, Joe would work for three days at the festival, cooking pasta con pesto for the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.
This perseverance, this enthusiasm – it’s not an abberation. The Gilroy Garlic Festival inspires dedication. It brings people together. And it has bolstered a community that needed pride and a sense of identity.
Rudy Melone remembers coming to Gilroy in the late ’70s and being shocked at the lack of pride about one of Gilroy’s top products and the source of its current fame.
“There was a general air of embarrassment about garlic – an absence of pride,” says Melone, who had been hired as president of the local community college. “But to me, garlic was everything to be proud about.” So he set out to remedy the town”s self-esteem and to raise some money for the local Rotary club, where he’d been elected fundraising chairman.
Community groups were big in Gilroy, a rural community of about 30,000. So were bake sales, car washes and door-to-door magazine peddling – lots of little sales to make money.
Enter the Garlic Festival.
Melone, an Italian who had been raised with lots of garlic, had heard of a small town in France which annually hosted 80,000 people at its garlic festival. In fact, they were claiming to be the “Garlic Capital of the World.” Ridiculous, said Melone, who knew Gilroy’s garlic production and processing far surpassed that of any other area. He set about trying to convince Gilroyans that we should have a garlic festival of our own.
Rebuffed by many of the town’s biggest wigs, Melone went to the garlic farmers, cornering them in the local coffee shop.
Finally, Melone and Don Christopher – owner of Christopher Ranch, now one of the world’s largest garlic shippers – hosted a media lunch with the help of chef Val Filice. The media was convinced.
City leaders were reluctantly pulled into the fray and seven months later, in 1979, the first Garlic Festival arrived – funded on borrowed money, planned by a small committee with big hopes and not a few doubts.
Melone remembers the quiet on the first morning of the festival – the stillness, little traffic and a light fog. “We wondered if anyone would come to our party,” he says. But the sun popped through, bringing with it hordes of garlic lovers. Because only 5,000 tickets had been printed, volunteers sold tickets, collected them and ran back to the ticket booth to recycle them. Local women frantically cooked pasta in a house on Bloomfield Road.
In his booming voice, Filice – appointed head chef of Gourmet Alley -ordered men to drive to Monterey for more prawns and squid. In the middle of that first day, the beer chairman called Budweiser: “Heck, forget the kegs. Start sending us the trucks.”
That first festival netted $19,000. In the 18 years since then, more than $4 million has been given back to the community. Volunteers from all parts of the community work hundreds of jobs, earning an hourly wage for their charity of choice.
Oh, there are still bake sales and magazine subscription drives. But consider that the Gilroy Gators Swim Team earns nearly $6,000 in three days. Hope Rehabilitation, which teaches disabled people to work, earns more than $3,000. Even the $330 earned by Sunset 4-H club is much more than they could earn selling cookies in front of the market.
“I guess what I’m most proud about is the way the festival has brought Gilroy together as a community,” says Melone, now 71.
And it’s true. Volunteers find themselves working elbow-to-elbow with someone they might have heard about, but never met. Rod Kelley School parents work with Gilroy Hispanic Chamber of Commerce members. Boy Scouts sell programs alongside 4-Hers. High school football players earn money alongside choir members.
They pick up trash. Park cars. Serve lemonade. And some stand in front of five-foot flames for three hot summer days, lifting 100-pound metal skillets for hours at a time, or draining hundreds of pounds of pasta – and loving it!
That’s how Joe Tysdal felt. Despite his leukemia, he never quit, never asked for preferential treatment. He did whatever was needed to get the job done – and keep the festival going.
Finally, during the 1996 festival, the Elks Lodge volunteers knew Joe was fading fast. He couldn’t come himself, but had sent his son and daughter-in-law and even several relatives from out of state to work their hours. As the exhausted crew began to close down Gourmet Alley Sunday night, they heard Joe was dying. Steve Morrow, his friend and fellow Elks member, says, “We were closing down at roughly the same time that Joe was, and as exhausted as we were, we became aware of the fact that he was there, watching over the last detail, forestalling what was to be just long enough to be certain that we had done a good job.”
Joe died that night, shortly after the festival closed. But his spirit – and that of every other community volunteer who has dedicated their time and energy – lives on in the most successful community festival in the U.S.
We work our fingers to the bone. Rub elbows with our neighbors. Smile at each visitor. And even hold our heads up now when someone says of our hometown, “Isn’t that the garlic capital?”
“Of the world,” we add.
The Garlic Capital of the World.
- Author Jenny Midtgaard is a native Gilroyan
who has volunteered at 13 Garlic Festivals.