Ty Wivell didn't hesitate when asked to describe his brother, Ken.

“Hard worker,” Ty Wivell said Tuesday, and then went on to remember his brother's work ethic as far back as the 1940s – when Ken was 7, raising Bantam chickens and planting a garden, providing vegetables, eggs and an occasional chicken dinner for the family.

“That showed his ability to work hard, even that young, always fixing things, building things. He built an arena out at his ranch.”

Ken Wivell, former owner of Baer's clothing store on Washington Street in Sonora, and longtime Sonora High athletics booster and Sheriff's Posse member, died Friday at his home on Big Hill in Sonora. He was 80.

Known as Kenny, he was a fifth-generation Tuolumne County resident. His mother's family came to the area in 1847; his father's in 1851. Both families had ranches, and the Wivells also mined in Stent, Quartz, Melones, Coulterville and Virginia City, Nev.

The rock foundation of his mother's homeplace beside Sullivan Creek still exists beside what is now Mountain Springs Golf Course on Lime Kiln.

Ty Wivell said he and his brother would go up the hill now dotted with homes off Lyons Bald Mountain Road from their family home on Stewart Street. They'd hike the ditch and set traps.

“We thought the ditch went all the way to New York and we had the idea we were trappers,” Ty Wivell said.

That sense of place – that history – was integral to the man Ken Wivell became.

Sonora High

Their father was an athlete at Sonora High and they were, too. They were also president of the student body – several years apart – and their excellent grades earned them membership in the California Scholastic Federation.

George Durnall knew Ken Wivell in high school as an 85-pound kid who wanted to play football. Wivell was a halfback, and what he lacked in size he made up for by his sheer determination.

Durnall, who married Wivell's sister Joanne, said they would go up to the Emigrant Wilderness most weekends to hunt for deer. Once they were grown, they continued their trips, but Durnall would bring his fifth-wheel, which Ken Wivell called '”the Hilton” and joked about the rest of them having to sleep under the stars.

Rick Francis, longtime basketball coach and athletic director at Sonora High, said he considered Wivell a mentor as far back as when Francis was in high school in the 1960s.

“He was always there for me,” Francis said. And that encouragement continued through Francis' career as a teacher and coach.

By then, Wivell was working at Baer's Clothing Store and Francis would go by and say, “you ready for a cup?” They'd have coffee and talk sports.

When things were looking bad for the Wildcats, Wivell would tell Francis, “The sun will come up tomorrow. Get ready for the next one.”

When the Sonora High athletics budget was cut drastically in the late 1970s, Wivell was there to bridge the gap. He raised the money needed to fully fund the program by asking for $100 from each of his many friends. He called it the Century Club.

Francis said Wivell established the Coaches Award and the Jack Wivell Award, named for his father, both of which continue today.

“When I was coaching basketball, the players awarded me with my 600 th win and who was standing there? Ken Wivell,” Francis said.

Store owner

In its heyday, Baer's store was one of the fixtures in downtown Sonora. Meyer Baer founded it in 1851 to sell crockery and switched to clothing after drunk miners tore up the store. He was the first to sell Levi's and, until the store closed in 1995, it was the oldest men's clothing store in the state.

Wivell began working there in 1955 as a high school student. He joined the reserves and was stationed at Fort Knox. For a time, he owned at liquor store where Restano Way Liquors is now and then went back to work at the clothing store alongside members of the Baer family. When they were ready to retire in the 1980s, he bought it.

He and his wife, Carol, who he met when he was a senior and she was a freshman at Sonora High, ran it for more than a decade before they sold it.

They spent most summers after that at Kennedy Meadows, where they'd park their travel trailer. Carol ran the store; Ken worked with the horses and, as needed, led pack trips, Durnall said. Ty Wivell said his brother was an accomplished fly fisherman and tied flies like an old timer.

Carol Wivell died in 2003.

Sports for life

Cal Wivell said if he was playing ball at Sonora High, his dad was standing outside the fence watching. If he was late, his teammates would say, “Where's coach Wiv?”

“He was just involved,” Cal said.

One memory he recalled on Tuesday was of his father coming back from bowling and waking him up by tapping on the window. Ken had run out of gas and he needed him to sit in the car while Ken pushed it home with a truck. Cal was many years away from a driver's license at that point.

Ken also played softball.

In 1979, Wivell told The Union Democrat, “I'm a sports junkie. If there's a game going on somewhere I just have to be there.”

Wivell's community service extended to the Sheriff's Posse, where he was general chairman and president.

Durnall, who also is a Posse member, said Wivell's idea that the Posse needed a gathering place led directly to the establishment of the Posse clubhouse in Jamestown.

“We spent every weekend for a year driving around looking at land, Durnall said.

The posse bought property in Columbia that was sold to buy the Jamestown site.

And that's where his family and friends will gather on Sept. 29 to remember his life and times. The time has not been set.



Contact Lyn Riddle at 209-588-4541 or lriddle@uniondemocrat.com .

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