By Pamela Dozois
For Oscar Delgado, a chance encounter led to a safe harbor late in life.
Delgado was once Rona Barrett’s gardener when she lived in Beverly Hills, some 30 years ago. Now he and his wife Toni are residents of Barrett’s affordable housing project, Golden Inn and Village, and Delgado continues to care for all the plants in the garden, purely for the love of gardening.
Born in El Paso, Delgado moved with his family to Selma, Calif., then to West Los Angeles, where he attended University High School. After graduating he went straight to work doing gardening.
“I started part time with my cousin, who owned a gardening business, and he taught me all he knew,” said Delgado.
“My stepfather owned a nursery and Rona Barrett called one day requesting to have a tree planted in her front yard. She had a beautiful home in Beverly Hills. It looked like a mansion to me. With the help of two other workers, we planted a big beautiful tree in her garden. She was so pleased with the work we had done, she hired me to do all of her gardening,” he said.
“Working in Rona Barrett’s garden was a pleasure. But the traffic between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills was unbelievable. There was so much traffic, I couldn’t handle it, so I told her I had to quit and found her a new gardener,” he recalled. “I didn’t expect to see her again, but I did, 30 years later.”
“I like to read newspapers, and one day I discovered that Rona had built the Golden Inn and Village in Santa Ynez, which is affordable housing for seniors. I applied to the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara and my wife, Toni, and I were accepted. We moved here in 2017.
“It was a surprise to Rona that my wife and I had moved in here. One day Rona came into the dining room and everyone got up to greet her, as they usually do. Rona recognized me right away and came over to me and gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek. I must have turned red. I will never forget it! I was so embarrassed being kissed by Rona in front of all those people,” he said, still flustered, remembering the moment.
Delgado, who will be 86 years young on July 6, busies himself daily doing all the gardening at the Golden Inn and Village, just because he loves it.
“I just love to garden. It keeps me moving and in shape. There are lots of things to do here, but I just love to be outside in the garden. I love to care for all the plants. I love the flowering ones best.
“There are also four herb gardens which I take care of as well. I have to have something to do during the day, not just sit and watch television. I just love to keep busy. I can’t help it, it’s just inside of me. I have to keep moving,” Delgado said.
“I get a lot of compliments about the garden. I keep it up for my own health and to make my surroundings beautiful,” he added.
Delgado recalled some of the interesting people he met as a gardener in Beverly Hills.
“I worked for Vincent Price. He was such a nice man and so was his wife. His favorite thing to do was make desserts in the kitchen, and he called me over one day and asked me to taste what he had made. It was delicious. He just loved to make desserts.
“His wife wanted me to move into their home but I refused. I was married to my lovely wife Toni and had six daughters and one son,” said Delgado. “Maybe if I had of been single I would have taken them up on their offer.
“I also worked for Lee Van Cleef, who acted in many Western movies. His wife was so nice, she let my children use their pool. One day he called me in to his office to give me my check. His checkbook sat between two chrome-plated and loaded Western-style guns. He had to put his nose so close to the checkbook to write my check, and with those two guns sitting next to it, it made me nervous. I started to shake. So I had to quit. I don’t like guns, especially pointing in my direction. His wife was really nice, though,” he said.
“One day while working in a garden I noticed this big limousine pull up, and out stepped Ronald Reagan. He got out of the limo and waved to me. I never forgot that. He was quite a guy,” Delgado said.
“Gardening keeps me in shape. I’m headed for 90 and I’ll still be working. I love the area here in the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s beautiful country. The trees are so thick and beautiful. And it’s close to El Rancho Market and I can walk to Nielsen’s and the shops in that area and get some more exercise. I love it here,” he said.
“But mostly I love to garden, to make things beautiful. It’s a win-win situation – everyone is happy and I’m healthy, and that’s all there is,” he concluded.