ATASCADERO — Former Atascadero planning commissioner, veterans’ advocate and pillar of the community Charles (Chuck) Lee Ward passed away Friday, March 3 at the age of 82.
“He was a great man and I know he meant a lot to this community,” Ward’s son Whitney said. “I’ve just been overwhelmed with how much support there is for my father.”
Ward was an active member of the community, especially when it came to matters concerning veterans.
Ward has played an integral part in several projects in the city over the past several years, including the Faces of Freedom Veteran’s Memorial, the Your American Heritage monument at Colony Square, and a project to secure signage designating Atascadero’s portion of the Purple Heart Trail. He also served as a member of the Atascadero Planning Commission and unsuccessfully ran for City Council twice — once in 2010 and again in 2014. Most recently Ward worked to secure funding for a life-sized statue of Charles Paddock, the founder of the Charles Paddock Zoo.
Whitney Ward said his father’s interest in veterans’ projects began when he stumbled upon a booth at an Atascadero event offering information about the yet to be built Faces of Freedom memorial.
“That sort of tickled his fancy, so he jumped on board that and it just sort of snowballed from there,” he said. “When he retired he had this void of time and he still obviously had a lot of energy and he chose to focus that on veterans’ affairs instead of self-enrichment or investment or projects that would have benefitted him. So he just sort of reverted back to his military days, I guess.”
Whitney Ward said that many in the area are familiar with his father’s civic projects, but may not be as aware that he was also a very dedicated family man, raising two boys, Whitney and his older brother Eliot, in Marin, north of San Francisco.
“My dad was just a sweetheart of a father,” Whitney Ward said. “He never raised his voice to either me or my brother. My brother was a wild child for sure and I had my moments, but in all of our misadventures he was never harsh and never pushed us in a particular direction against our will. He was always a pillar of support and he worked very hard to get us into good universities and make sure that we were academically successful, but it was never with an aggressive bent whatsoever. He led more by example than by giving lofty speeches about what it meant to be a good person. He was super honest, super generous and super hardworking.”
Whitney Ward said that he consider’s his father’s “joyful curiosity” as one of his defining traits, adding that he would often stop to watch craftsmen and builders on the street and ask questions.
“He had an appreciation for talent, if that was manifest by a guy laying bricks on the sidewalk or a master craftsman putting gold leaf on a fancy picture frame,” he said. “He could sit and read books and just ask a million questions and just with the force of his intact and attention to detail, he could do anything and at a very high level.”
Whitney Ward said that his father basically built the house where he grew up in Marin.
“He just completely, 100 percent fully remodeled it, mostly by his own hands and turned it into just a showpiece home,” he said. “It was gorgeous. Every weekend, all of his free time, he was never hanging out with his buddies or drinking beers or doing any of this, he was just always productive. Every free minute he had he was either working on the car, or building a fence, or remodeling the kitchen or just doing something. The same enthusiasm he had for his work here (in Atascadero) he displayed his whole life and around his family.”
Ward recalled his father building a treehouse for his two sons.
“When he built us a tree fort, it wasn’t just a platform in an oak tree, it was like a miniature house up there — it had a deck and a fence and collapsable, fold-down beds and intercom system that was electronically linked to the house,” he said. “It was like a proper little house 30 feet up in a big oak tree. So every project that he did, he did with the same attention to detail and the same effort.”
A Boston native, Ward lived in Atascadero for more than 10 years. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in chemical engineering before serving for six years in the United States Marine Corps. After being honorably discharged as a First Lieutenant, Ward spent the next 35 years working for a Fortune 500 company and eventually starting his own company, Trans Meridian Incorporated. As a child, Whitney Ward recalled his father working on one of the top floors of the Trans Meridian Pyramid in San Francisco.
“They were up at the top in a corner office — sort of big shot style — but when I would visit as a kid, he would take me out to lunch and we would walk through these little alleys in Chinatown or something and visit these little hole-in-the-wall noodle shops that he knew about and loved or these greasy spoon burger joints,” he said. “So he just loved that kind of thing, even though he was sort of a high-profile business guy.”
Whitney Ward said that his father’s business began to unravel after his business partners became involved in some “shady deals,” and at the age of 65 he decided to switch careers and began to work as a building contractor, designing and building remodels for wealthy families in San Francisco. At one point he was working on several different homes on Union Street and had keys to most of the homes in one neighborhood.
“He was sort of known as the Mayor of Union Street,” Ward said.
It was his new business that brought Ward to Atascadero. His older son Eliot, who lived in the area, convinced his father to buy a home in Atascadero as an investment property but while remodeling the house, he decided that he wanted to live there.
“As we began remodeling it, we saw that it was such a great house,” Whitney Ward said. “So instead of selling it he decided to move down here. It was just a great move for him. Marin was a very hippy place and now it’s a very yuppy place and quite liberal and my father’s republican and very into veteran’s affairs obviously, so the culture of this area was much more in line with him. It was just a great fit and the community was so welcoming and so friendly and he was able to dive into all these different organizations and was able to launch all of these initiatives in Atascadero and he never would have been able to do that in Marin. It was a good fit and it was the right place at the right time for him and he was always very grateful to the community for being so welcoming to both him and my mother.”
Whitney Ward had recently purchased a house in Paso Robles and was working on renovation plans with his father. They were planning to move into the home together so that Whitney could serve as a caregiver to his father and his mother, who is in the advanced stages of dementia and requires constant care.
“We were just about to start the big project here when he passed away, so for me, it’s a big heartbreak being in the house, now that I’m sitting in this project house that me and my father had spent three months in drinking coffee and planning and now I don’t get to swing hammers under his supervision.”
Toward the end of his life, Ward endured many hardships including the death of his son Eliot, his wife Barbara’s declining health and his own health problems which included debilitating arthritis, but he never let it get him down, Whitney Ward said.
“He could barely walk and he was in pain all the time,” he said. “So all of this work he did in Atascadero, it was just through force of will, while also taking care of mother. The amount of weight he was carrying on his shoulders, leading these veterans groups and caring for my mother, it was just really oppressive what he was able to handle and always in a good spirit, never complaining. He was one of those guys that just wakes up in a good mood every day. It was very, very rare that I ever saw him discouraged or down in the dumps.”
Ward served as a past president of the Military Officers Association of America and a past Senior Vice Commander of the Military Order of Word Wars and was recently awarded the Gold Patrick Henry Award for patriotism from the national MOWW organization.
A memorial service for Ward will take place at the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial in Atascadero on Saturday, March 18. The service will begin at 12:45 p.m. and will include a motorcycle escort, flag line, Marine Corps honor guard presentation and a ‘missing man’ formation fly-over.
According to Whitney Ward, his father’s many friends and colleagues are preparing a “tremendous show of thanks and respect.”
The memorial will be followed by an informal barbecue at Atascadero Lake Park.