By Rosalind Padilla
Special to the CBN
No matter what your age do you recall the number of times you walked through the mouth of the Great Punkin’ or waited for someone as they made their grand entrance at the mouth? Who was there to greet the little or big munchkins with his many Halloween jokes? What would the Great Punkin’ be without Dr. Pizza himself, Gary Birkett?
Even though Halloween activities began in 1961 when Bill Belobradich and Jim Postel gathered the children in town for trick or treating and a costume parade, it was in 1975 when Bob Blasco and Gary Birkett devised the Great Punkin’ for children to parade through the mouth. Gary was chairperson and Master of Ceremonies. There were only a few years
when others might have filled in as MC. Thirty eight years is a long time. Now you know why he has so many Halloween jokes which range from very funny to just simple riddles. Jokes like, “What do you do when a pumpkin is injured—go to the pumpkin patch,” or “What happens when it rains on a pumpkin? It gets wet.” We all laugh no matter how he tells it. Being the MC requires keeping up with the latest trends and cartoons otherwise parents who work hard on costumes might get mad if you call it wrong and the children are quick to correct.
Gary was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, later moving to Columbus, Ohio with his parents. A family move to Sierra Vista changed his life forever when he met Lorraine at Sierra Vista High School, Lorraine’s family lived on Fort Hauchuca Base. These high school sweethearts were married in June 1972 and celebrated 41 years of marriage this summer. Around this same time the Berle Birketts moved to San Manuel and Gary followed, working as the San Manuel lechero (milkman) and also working for his Dad at the Sears store for 75 cents an hour.
Gary and Lorraine moved to Kearny in 1974 to run the Sears store which was located in one of the buildings now currently owned by the ARC. Gary knew all of his customers by name, knew their likes and dislikes. In our household we had the first of anything new in the store because of his salesmanship. It was common to hear him say, you just have to have this new TV, eight track player (who knew), or the latest lawnmower. The great thing is that these products last a long time. Recently a former customer walked in to Old Time Pizza and needed maintenance on a product and one man jokingly asked for a refund. One Christmas a man walked into Sears and Gary asked how his new router worked, was he enjoying it? The wife later came in madder than a hornet, Gary had given away her Christmas surprise.
There are many more Sears stories but the best for this young entrepreneur is that at 21 years of age he purchased his store without help from family and successfully ran the business from 1974-1988. He took a short time off before entering
the pizza business.
When Gary takes on a project he does it full force and with passion. As a member of Rotary he has served as president for many years in succession and 15 years as the foreign exchange promoter for the District Rotary. Many families in this area helped by sharing their homes and family life with these great students from all over the world; the memories of these many students still linger and families still keep in touch with them. Have you ever thought about the three benches in the mall area, they were put there by the Rotary organization to commemorate the districts 75th anniversary,
Gary served on the city council for one term, Ray School Board for four terms, Elks in all capacities, and the Kearny Chamber of Commerce long before it became the Copper Basin Chamber. As a chamber member he has served on the board, served as president, and has been in charge of every committee and special event ever held in the community. He has gathered wood for the Pioneer Days BBQ, watched over the BBQ pit, where those who were with him have so many stories to tell. He has entered the Pioneer Days parade sitting on his unique toilet seat on wheels. He and Lorraine have hosted the Chamber’s Christmas dinners. In the 1990s he met with the newly formed junior chamber members to discuss their purpose for existence and suggested that they should have a service project for the community since they were representing the businesses that sponsored them. It was one of the junior chamber members who suggested the Adopt a Highway program.
With all of this it is no wonder that Gary was selected as Citizen of the Year in 1981. Receiving this honor has not stopped him from giving to his community.
Has he ever sung Happy Birthday to you? The older he gets the harder it is to hold that last note. He is quick to grab his guitar and sing for guests at OTP. He introduces himself to all new customers. It is him who makes OTP number one.
When attending the Bank of the West forum recently he addressed the group by saying, “I always thought people came to Kearny for my pizza but I just discovered that they came to do their banking and then eat pizza.”
Gary has also served as a Little League coach. Actually his brain holds so much baseball trivia that he loves to challenge his customers with great questions especially trivia from the 50s and 60s, there are books on the counter of OTP where you can check your answers not only for baseball but history. Over these many years I have heard the jokes and listened to the trivia questions. Gary asked me, “Who was the ‘winningest’ pitcher in baseball?” It was Warren Spahn who pitched 363 winning games in his career and later developed his own Spahny 363 beer. When Gary was 10 years old and Warren Spahn was playing for the Milwaukee Braves, Spahn asked five boys to ride in his convertible and go for ice cream. Gary’s dad would not let Gary go. On his dad’s death bed he apologized to Gary for not letting Gary go with Warren Spahn for ice cream. Gary said, “It is OK Dad.” During this interview Gary whispered to me, “But it really wasn’t OK.”
Gary honors his dad, Berle, every year on Veterans Day by offering free pizza and med drink to all Veterans. Since 2000, Gary has accompanied his mother, Stella, to the annual reunion of the World War II navy service men who served on the USS De Grasse. His parents had attended this reunion for many years and now children and widow’s attend. There are two Vets still alive. “The ship will not sail till all are there and ready for the Eternal Cruise,” Gary said with a tear in his voice.
His sister Mary was quick to tell me, “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my brother.” Many people have worked with Gary over the past 40 years. All say the same thing, “His jokes, his energy, his great ideas and passion for his community and customers defines who he is, what a great guy, wish we could tell you everything.”
Lorraine and Gary have raised three children. Kelly has a degree in aeronautics technology and is a pilot for KTAR radio in Scottsdale Monday through Friday and manages Carefree Airport on Saturday and Sunday; Jody is married to Shane Olson and manages OTP; Jimmy works for Copper Basin Railway and OTP and is a first responder firefighter for Kearny Fire Dept.
Quoting Gary, “Of all the things that I have done in the community, my claim to fame has to be the Great Punkin’, something I have enjoyed doing for 38 years.”
Dr Pizza is #1!