By Jeb Bing
Bob Athenour: Our sister city champ turns 80Uploaded: Jun 19, 2009
Having just turned 80, Bob Athenour won't be skydiving out of a plane as former President George H. W. Bush did--and again two weeks ago on his 85th--but he will keep making those frequent trips to Mexico and Latin America to deliver wheelchairs to the needy and build ever-better relations with our sister city of Tulancingo.
Athenour, who was the Pleasanton Weekly's Man of the Year for 2001, has become a household name for thousands of Mexicans in Tulancingo where he has led delegations of Pleasanton supporters for the last 26 years.
It was Athenour who "discovered" Tulancingo, a city nestled high in the mountains that is still steeped in old Mexico traditions. When he proposed establishing a sister city association, then Mayor Bob Butler agreed and formed a committee to find one. Athenour, fluent in Spanish, was tapped to travel to Mexico in search of a city with the cultural influences and interested local residents who wanted to share a partnership with Pleasanton.
Athenour had gone to school in Mexico City in the 1950s and started his pursuit with the Fuentes family, where he had boarded. They suggested three cities, with Tulancingo first on his list. He never went farther. He found that it's a city that was then and still is today immersed in a culture fast-disappearing from contemporary Mexico. Tulancingo with its traditional downtown square and slow-pace lifestyle, despite a growing population, is old Mexico at its best.
Athenour's efforts also focused on building a program that would interest youths in both cities, to tear down the stereotypes on both sides of the border. The result has been a highly successful exchange program where five students from each city are chosen to visit the other for two weeks in the summer, staying with host families. These have produced lifelong friendships.
Five Tulancingo students just arrived this week with Athenour, as always, greeting them at the airport and helping them settle in their host family homes here in Pleasanton.
Athenour also was part of the Pleasanton sister city delegation that went to Tulancingo in April, staying at the historic Hotel Colonial where long-time owners keep the place just as it's been for the last 100 years (although Athenour found that it now has Wi-Fi). On Sept. 23, Tulancingo will send a sister city delegation here to keep the tradition going.
Every trip involves tours, receptions and visits to local sites---and gifts. Many brought to Pleasanton by the Tulancingo delegations over the years are on display in a special room in the Civic Center, and Tulancingo displays gifts from Pleasanton.
Among the most cherished gifts, however, are the wheelchairs, now numbering in the thousands, many of which which Athenour has personally delivered to Tulancingo Rotarians on behalf of his Rotary Club here in Pleasanton, which donates them. Athenour has seen firsthand many times how the gift of a wheelchair can transform the lives of those immobilized by illness or injury. He has also delivered hundreds of used eyeglasses to the Tulancingo Lions Club, again a gift of local Lions Club members.
I've known Athenour and his wife Marilyn for at least 20 years, when he was a a Spanish teacher at Amador Valley High School, where he chaired the language department, and when he worked with Marilyn at her downtown Athenour Travel Agency. Born in Sunol June 8, 1929, he graduated from Amador in 1947 and went on to earn his undergraduate degrees in French and Spanish at San Jose State University, followed by a graduate degree in Education.
After four years in the Air Force, he returned to Amador as a teacher in 1956, when Amador had just 165 students. He retired in 1984 to devote all his time to the fast growing travel agency, although Amador called him back twice to fill Spanish teaching vacancies. Later the Athenours closed the agency to do some traveling on their own. They've lived in their home on Silver Street across from Amador for 52 years and have three children, Ann, Eric and Carl, and now six grandchildren.
Still, when it comes to Tulancingo and the sister city association which Athenour has headed three different times, there's little rest. With the five Tulancingo students in town, he'll be with them for many receptions, and then involved in planning for the fall delegation visit.
Healthy and active at 80, he plans on more trips to Mexico and possibly other Latin American countries to deliver wheelchairs. He even goes there occasionally as a guest of honor at a local wedding for someone he's helped or for the bride or groom of his many friends in Tulancingo.
If you're interested in getting involved in the sister city program, call Bob Athenour as 846-2966 or meet with him any morning at 8:15 when he joins a group at the Rising Loafer for breakfast on Main Street.