Ralph Lea, considered by many to be Lodi’s preeminent historian, died on Thursday. He was 93.
Lea kept a chronology of Lodi’s history through an expansive collection of photos, journals, maps and trinkets.
“He arguably had the most historic photos of Lodi. His collection ranges in the thousands,” Steve Mann said.
Mann worked with Lea while writing books that explored Lodi’s history and cataloged the historical pictures of Lodi through the ages. Mann’s collections of books were composed of photos taken and collected by Lea.
“He was always very generous about lending his photographs because he loved Lodi,” Mann said.
Lea leaves behind a fine legacy for those closest to him. The historian was rooted in his commitment and love for his family.
“Family meant everything to my father,” said Nancy Schmer, one of Lea’s five children. “When he was 15 and my aunt was 7 he used to come home from high school and play catch with her because that was the type of older brother he was. He was always kind and compassionate,”
Lea grew up in Lodi and attended Victor School and Lodi Union High School before attending the University of California, Berkeley. He left Berkeley before graduating because he had to help his family take care of their farm. The property had been in the family since 1903, according to Schmer.
“After his father told him they would be forced to sell the property because he was too old to handle the day-to-day chores, my dad made the choice to come home,” Schmer said.
After returning home to Lodi, Lea enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He served stateside as a navigator on a Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
“Being abroad, he continued to collect things. He had a collection of stamps from all over the world,” Schmer recalled.
Lea, who was an avid collector of trinkets and memorabilia, first indulged his obsession as a boy at the age of 8. He would take the pouches for loose-leaf tobacco and would put them in a cigar box, which he hid under his bed.
Lea had a vast collection of pieces that ranged from photographs to antiquated toys, left in their original packaging.
“He knew what things were. If I saw something that seemed old, I could ask him what it was and he would know, and he would tell me a story about it,” said Christi Kennedy Weybret, a local historian who authored a column with Lea for the Lodi News-Sentinel called Vintage Lodi.
“We did that for 16 years, and before that, he used to write a weekly column for the Stockton Record,” Weybret said.
Weybret first met Lea after she interviewed him while working to publish her book “Lodi: A Vintage Valley Town.” Lea’s recollection of Lodi’s history made him a go-to source for information with his collection and journals preserving the history of the town.
He was a founder of the Lodi Historical Society and has been the editor and primary contributor for the group’s quarterly publication, the Lodi Historian. Lea’s interest in history was fueled in part through his friendship with the late Maurice Hill, a history buff and collector of vintage photos.
“He spent his whole life collecting things. If you were someone that liked history, Ralph would like you,” Weybret said.
His calm disposition and his aptitude for storytelling, complemented by his quick wit, made people want to talk to him, according to Weybret. She recalls his profound appreciation for joke telling, and his willingness to share the joyous laughter.
Lea, who was a devoted patron at the Richmaid Restaurant, would go to the diner every day because he loved to run into old friends and meet new people.
“He had such a sweet tooth, and would always order pie,” Weybret said. “If he didn’t order pie, he had this concoction made up of spumoni ice cream and chocolate pudding. Sometimes he would go to the diner, and they would have it ready for him before he even ordered.”
After Lea was placed in a nursing facility, Schmer continued to take her father to lunch at Richmaid. Less than two weeks ago he had lunch one last time with Schmer and close friends Richard Preszler and Paul Burkner.
Lea is survived by his son, Warren Lea and daughters Susan Lea, Patricia Parkin, Nancy Schmer and Jane Lea. Arrangements for his funeral service and memorial have yet to be determined.