Heritage Award winner JoAnn Dodson dedicates half her life to Exeter’s small town charm
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
EXETER – It’s hard to imagine Exeter without JoAnn Dodson. The self-proclaimed Marilyn Monroe of Exeter is never shy, always pleasant and ever ready to throw her support into a good cause. But there was a time when Dodson wasn’t fond of Exeter.
In 1975, JoAnn and her husband Joe were living in Camarillo, Calif. with their two young daughters, one preparing to enter middle school and the other entering high school. Joe had the opportunity to return to his hometown of Exeter and run the farming operation with his seven siblings. JoAnn shuttered at the thought of moving to a new town where she didn’t know anyone and where her adolescent daughters would have no friends during difficult transition in a child’s life. Reluctantly, JoAnn uprooted her family from their coastal home and made their way to the hot and cold Central Valley.
“I didn’t want to move to a town where I didn’t know anyone but it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made,” she said.
Joe’s family introduced her to the Moffets, a longtime Exeter family who had girls close in age to their daughters. All of the girls played sports, so JoAnn got involved in fundraising and PTA.
“I’ve never met anyone who was sorry they moved to Exeter,” Dodson said. “If you are looking for a place to live other than a large city, Exeter is where you want to be.”
When her husband passed away in 1988, Dodson decided to get more involved in Exeter rather than retreating to her quiet home. She, and several other widowers, started a group called the SOUL (Single, Outrageous, and Unique Ladies) Sisters. For the last 30 years the group has planned weekly night outs, taken annual vacations together, hosted fund-raisers, such as Bunco for Relay for Life, and made blankets for patients at Valley Children’s Hospital. She also became more involved in the community by becoming an ambassador for the Exeter Chamber of Commerce.
“Exeter has the charm we always talk about because of the people that make it,” she said.
Dodson was the 2004 Woman of the Year and last year her brother, Bob Sperry, was named Man of the Year for 2016, making them the first brother-sister due to earn the designation. They also have the distinction of being the only siblings to play Mr. and Mrs. Claus during the Christmas Open House. Held annually on Thursday nights between Thanksgiving and Christmas, families from as far away as Fresno come to experience an old fashioned Christmas in Exeter’s bright and bustling downtown. Dodson has played Mrs. Claus for the last two and a half decades and seen generations of families bring their children to see Santa Claus at Mixter Park. She also made it a personal mission to raise enough money to buy new decorations for downtown and to provide Christmas lights for businesses that can’t afford them. “I don’t take no for an answer when it comes to getting people involved,” she said. “If they say they can’t afford it, I just walk to my car, open the trunk, pull out some lights and hand them to them.”
Dodson now lives in a small community with her entire family, including her two daughters, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She said the greatest joys in life are playing grandma and “GG” (great grandmother) to her growing family.
“The love I receive from all of these kids is so wonderful and I have been so blessed to be healthy enough at this age to be involved in their lives,” she said.
Dodson will turn 77 next month but shows no signs of slowing down. She still makes her daily rounds to coffee klatch’s in the morning, exercise programs to stay in shape, volunteers weekly for the Exeter Pink Ladies Thrift Store and attends monthly ambassador meetings and afterhouse mixers for the chamber. She also helps out the chamber of commerce in Pismo Beach, Calif. where she has a second house, but not a home.
“People always ask me if I’m going to move to Pismo,” Dodson said. “I’ll never leave Exeter. You can’t find people like this anywhere else.”