Mason County News
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Mason County Personalities
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 • Posted June 24, 2009

May of us in Mason have encountered this personality as he comes by the table with a big smile when we are dining at in a local restaurant. As a matter of fact, FIDENSIO LOPEZ ZAVALA better known as FRED, along with wife, Jane, are owners of that restaurant. He is just checking to see if you are satisfied with your meal.

Fred Zavala's life is a living example of how the right attitude and a lot of determination can overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to succeed.

Fred was born in Brownsfield, Texas on September 25, 1939. When his mother, Lupe Ortega, remarried, he came to live with his grandfather, Liberato (Lee) Lopez at the age of two. His Opa Lee was living and working on the George Leslie place in Mason.

Opa's name for Fred was Ancho, a pet phrase that gave comfort and love to a little boy as only a loving grandfather can.

Fred told me, "My young life was a constant round of moving about for the seasons of field crops. We usually went to Lubbock for spring and summer and came back to Mason for the winter. We picked cotton, hoed crops or whatever work was available.

"I remember one year we went to Minnesota for chopping beets and potatoes. That was when I got my first car. Opa didn't have a car. We usually got a ride with someone else or we walked. I got that car and a friend wanted to borrow it. I let him use it and he totaled it for me. So long car.

"I never got much education. We were always going after work. I was late starting or had to drop out. That put me behind. I never graduated."

Fred and Opa lived in harsh conditions most of the time. Money was always short. One comment Fred made reminded me how often we take things for granted and do not appreciate all we have.

He said, "Other kids always talked about Christmas and the toys they got. Opa and I didn't get to have Christmas. Our money went for food."

He went on to say, "You know things were different. I remember when we couldn't go into a cafe and sit down. Sometimes Opa would go to Mr. King's Cafe to get us a hamburger (they were pretty cheap then), but he had to go to the back door and knock and tell the cook what he wanted. They made it while we waited outside. Then, they would bring it to the door and we ate it outside."

Jane added, "Our people were refused haircuts in the barber and beauty shops." She got her beautician license and opened Jane's Beauty Salon that she operated from 1973-1983.

Fred was quite as he went on, "I didn't have many clothes. I probably looked pretty bad in school, but it's still hard when the other kids tease you and make fun of you."

Things began to change in Fred's life when he met a young college Bible student who was to become a minister and be a mentor in Fred's life. Daniel Castro began visiting Fred and Opa and inviting them to small Hispanic Evangelical Church here in Mason. The young student was in Mason as part of his training. He had such zeal and enthusiasm for life that Fred began going to church. Before the young man had to leave he wanted to help Fred find a job so he could earn a living and learn a trade. He got him a job at an auto-mechanics shop but this wasn't a fit for Fred. There was another job hauling rocks to building sites. Every day under the hot sun Fred faithfully hauled the rocks. It wasn't a glamorous job. But it was a job. He watched as the stonemasons cut and laid the stones into beautiful works. He committed to learn how to do this work himself and this he did. Fred is an accomplished stonemason.

About this time something else happened in Fred's life. At church he met Juanita (Jane) Castillo, daughter of Eleno and Rita Castillo. He was smitten. He watched from afar because Jane's dad knew of Fred's circumstances and was very cautious about his daughter.

Fred told Opa, "We are not leaving Mason again." They didn't. He had a goal in mind.

So, at 17 years old, he bought himself a house. He said, "Mr. Harold Schmidt helped me get the house. He told me, "Fred you are too young to buy a house in your name. I'll have to put it in your grandfather's name', and he put it in Opa's name until I paid for it. Then, it was mine. Mr. Schmidt didn't charge me a dime for all the paper work he did."

He got a job from Sam Eckert and saved up his money. He had a purpose! A ring for Jane.

Along about this time, Fred was looking better to Mr. Castillo. He had a house and a ring.

Fred and Jane, the girl he loved since he was 17, were married by Pastor Castro September 26, 1959. They have three children, Debra, Naomi and Michael. They had an infant son, Kelley who died in 1965. Grandchildren are Eric and Cassandra Silerio; John Michael Valadez; Johnathan and Andrea Rodriguez; Kory and Kyle Zavala.

Opa Lee died in 1958. He didn't get to see Fred married. Jane told me, "Opa's last words before passing were, 'Take care of my Ancho."

One thing I detected about Fred was the fact he was willing to work. Whatever it took. After his marriage he worked for Harkey and Pluenneke raising hogs for a year.

He began working in 1961 as a carpenter's helper for Edgar Leifeste Sr.. As with the rocks, he observed and learned a trade. He worked for eight years at $2.25 per hour. When he was passed over for a raise, he decided he was going into business for himself. He did it. In 1970, he began his business of building houses, concrete work, and stonemasonry.

Fred bought a small 1200 sq. feet house on Colorado Street. He began adding on to it. My husband, Dennie Jackson, told me, "I would go over to our church and you would see Fed up on the roof working away and you could hear him whistling. He was always whistling." He kept adding to that house until it is now 3500 sq. feet and is a beautiful and comfortable home for his family.

He worked at the carpentry trade until he was injured as a volunteer firefighter when the fire broke out in the drug store in 1979.

He was standing by the fire truck when the building exploded from pressure build up and he was thrown back sever feet and the fall splintered his wrist and hand.

The fire burned the former Mason Drug Store that had been purchased by Rocky Davenport. With the help of the firewalls surrounding the building and assistance from Brady, Llano and Hext Fire Departments the town was kept from burning. This information was taken from the June 7, 1979 Mason County News.

Fred said, "I believe I was the first Mexican firefighter in Mason."

He tried to go back to work, but the bone specialist, Dr. Seaquist, told him he needed to find another occupation or he would lose his hand. Another challenge faced him.

He entered the food business. An opportunity to open a barbecue place in San Saba presented itself. Jane was operating her beauty shop and stayed in Mason with the children and Fred has a small trailer he used. They were doing what it took to keep things moving.

The restaurant at the Truck Stop in Mason became available in 1983. Zavala's Cafe became a reality. He and Jane (she closed her shop) both invested time and energy into this project as with all others--full steam ahead. Jane's mom, Rita, became their cook. And could Rita cook!

Fred said, "With help from Bob Chapman and Harold Geistweidt, I built the place where we are now. There are a lot of good people out there willing to help someone."

As word of mouth spread about the good Mexican food in Mason, the business grew. When the Hilltop became available he and Jane tried their hand at Fred's Steak House across the road. They operated it for three years. Jane told me, "It just got to be too much. We closed it and concentrated on Zavala's Cafe.

Many times you would go into the cafe and the young college student, now a pastor, and his brother, Lee, who had come for a visit would be singing gospel songs. Daniel Castro was and continues to be a major influence for good in Fred's life even though he passed away five years ago. Fred's love for him was very evident.

Pastor Castro was the minister who did the wedding renewal vows for Fred and Jane on their 35th anniversary. This year they are looking at 50 years. Fred knew a good thing when he fell in love with his Janie at 17.

The family is members of First Baptist Church.

Fred was a volunteer fire fighter, member of the Jaycees and was in the Military Reserves.

I asked him what one thing does he feel changed in our society for the most good. He sat very quietly for several moments until he responded, "There is equality for more people now."

The depth of this man's life touched me deeply. Many times because of things in people's lives they feel this is the way it will always be: deep poverty, prejudice, failures, disabilities, or the things that pull our spirit down. They quit on life. They allow ill will to fill their heart and become society's problems.

Fred is my neighbor, and he has a ready smile when we pass by each other in our daily life. If it seems a little ironic that the young boy who might have been hungry at times now has operated a successful restaurant for 26, we can know God rewards faith and attitudes. Fred allowed me into his life and said, "This is how is was."

Fred said, "If it had not been for the wonderful people for Mason supporting us, we would never have made it all these years. I appreciate living in our town."

I am quoting in part from the tribute at the funeral of Daniel Castro written by his son entitled "What a Difference One Life Makes" depicting his father's deep desire to see Fred's life changed...It started with a poor, young college student with a passion for people. He saw what no one else in that little town saw. He saw jewels, where others saw rubble. The vision then spread and grew in the heart of a man who chose to believe in a higher force than himself and thus came believe in his own abilities. It happened because two unique men pursued their dreams with passion, consistent dedication, and blood, sweat and tears. Neither Fred nor the young Bible students will ever be famous, but both accomplished their dreams. Both have lived happy, fulfilled lives. Fred obtained all he ever hoped for. The student accomplished his goals as well; he helped turn the life of a young man around...

This story changed me. Let us look at each other with a new vision.

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