Making a Father Proud

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San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson presents City Clerk Chuck Abdelnour with a proclamation in the 1980s (C. Abdelnour collection)

Longtime Bay Ho resident Chuck Abdelnour served 28-1/2 years as San Diego City Clerk under a multifarious variety of mayors: Pete Wilson, Roger Hedgecock, Maureen O’Connor, Susan Golding, Dick Murphy and Jerry Sanders.

Perhaps his greatest talent for survival at City Hall was a sense of humor.

As Father’s Day draws near, Abdelnour reflected on his accomplishments and humbly stated, “The highest goal in my life was to make my parents proud.”

Then, with emotion cracking in his voice, Chuck told about eating breakfast one morning at Hob Nob Hill (formerly named Dorothy’s Oven), a fixture on Banker’s Hill where San Diego’s movers and shakers have dined for over 70 years. He asked the waitress for his bill, but she said it had already been paid.

He explained that as a city employee, he could not accept gifts and asked her to thank the individual who offered to pay. A few days later, the same thing happened again. This time, the waitress pointed at the man who wanted to pay.

Chuck approached to say thanks and clarify why he couldn’t accept his generosity, but the man cut him off. He abruptly asked, “Are you Gabriel George Abdelnour’s son?”

The stranger disclosed how his family moved to Brawley, California from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. “We were starving and your father gave us food,” the man said. “We had thirteen kids in our family and he bought us shoes. We never would have survived without the kindness of your father. The least I can do is buy your breakfast.”

Chuck Abdelnour, his mother Mary, sister Rachel, father Gabriel and brother Mike outside their Brawley home in the late 1950s. (C. Abdelnour collection)

Gabriel George Abdelnour immigrated to America through Ellis Island as a Lebanese refugee following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War. His family were faithful members of the Antiochian Church, considered to be the first church of Christianity.

“Turks were killing Christians, so my father’s family fled to the Western hemisphere. Some ended up in South America. My father was happy to be alive and in a land of opportunity,” said Chuck.
“He sold clothes and shoes to farm workers out of the back of his car during the Great Depression. Then he was a milkman and saved his money to buy a store on the east side of Brawley. It was named Victory Food Market. He opened two restaurants, a Spanish kitchen, a bakery, dry good store and a soda fountain. He was a strong and generous and loving man. He built a chapel behind our house and I remember seeing him down on his knees praying. He started with nothing. I think he was generous, because he grew up in poverty and war. He knew how it felt to be poor and hungry.”

“My Lebanese mother was only five feet tall and a hundred pounds, but she was feisty. One time a guy tried to rob the market. He reached over the counter and tried to choke her. She said, ‘Charlie, you would have been proud of me. I got away and grabbed the shotgun and chased him out of the store. He was running down Main Street and I shot him in the ass.’”

Gabriel Abdelnour with his youngest son, Michael, outside the family’s Victory Food Market (Brawley, California) in the early 1950s. The signs read: “3¢ a pound for Watermelon” and “Best Prices in Town.” (C. Abdelnour collection)

She continued, “The police chief said, ‘Mary, Mary, you can’t do that. You can’t take the law into your own hands,’ but she said, ‘It took you 20 minutes to get here and I needed to protect myself. I’ll do that every time somebody tries to rob me.’” (The would-be robber survived the pellets in his posterior.)

Chuck laughed. “My mother was feisty and eccentric and she didn’t take **** off of people. My father was different. He was calm and strong. When people tried to rob him, he’d just disarm them and call the police.”

“My dad was a member of the Elks and Lions. He taught us to help others. He helped form the Mexican-American Association in Brawley. The braceros (legal Mexican farm workers) trusted him, because he didn’t cheat them.”

“During the summer of my junior year in high school, my dad took me to Lebanon and told me that I couldn’t come home without a wife. I told him that I was the quarterback of the football team, so I had to return to America before the school year started.”

That fall, with young Abdelnour calling signals for the Wildcats, Brawley High School won the 1955 Southern California small schools championship.

Gabriel and Mary Abdelnour sent their children, Chuck, Rachel and Mike, to college. All three earned postgraduate master’s degrees and Chuck continued to get a doctor of jurisprudence. It was the fulfillment of the American dream for their immigrant parents.

Chuck should also have a degree in comedy.

“One of the funniest things that happened to me was at a YMCA fundraiser to end domestic violence,” he began. “I was supposed to be a speaker and everybody in the audience was wearing those glasses with a big plastic nose and mustache. I’ve got another picture somewhere of me and Pete Wilson and he was wearing a pair of those glasses.”

Groucho glasses or Chuck glasses? (C. Abdelnour collection)

Most agree that Chuck Abdelnour is a genuinely funny guy. “My mother was beautiful, my dad was strong, but I ended up looking like Groucho Marx,” he joked.

Then he switched gears (which he often does) and added, “My dad was my hero. I’ve tried to be a good and gentle father like he was.”

Email: Bill@ClairemontTimes.com

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