Remembering Alex Madonna
Alex couldn’t possibly have left this world with a regret, because he “went for it” every single day. He never put the important things off, and worked fiercely to accomplish his bottomless list of goals. But he always took time out to enjoy his family and friends along the way. It just doesn’t get any better than 85 out-of-this-world years, lived beyond the fullest with joy, gusto and a grateful heart.
Alexander Paul Madonna was born November 19, 1918 to parents raised by hard-working Swiss immigrants. It’s fitting that Alex arrived quietly at his family’s quaint little farmhouse on California’s Central Coast. Even after a lifetime spent loving and improving his beloved neck of the woods, and building a ranching and construction empire measurable in megamillionaire terms, Alex never changed. He was humble and happy all the way.
I’ll always treasure the trip I took with the Madonna and Twisselman tribe to the Olympic Rodeo held during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Alex could have flown first-class, then finished the journey dining on lobster in a limo.
But he was much happier sitting back in the working-man’s section of the plane with the rest of us, visiting on the bus we hopped aboard at the Salt Lake airport, and enjoying a rodeo dog in the cheap seats at the event. Whatever it took to get the best view of the roping chutes.
I was there to cover the Olympic Rodeo for a number of national publications. Alex was there to cheer on his first-born grandchild, National Finals Rodeo heeler Caleb Twisselman. “YAHOO!” he hollered when Caleb roped, with the enthusiasm of the bright, blue-eyed boy that always lived within him.
Regardless of whether he was at our local California Mid-State Fair, out in some dusty, remote branding corral, or front, center and arenaside at the 10th round of the NFR, Alex loved and appreciated a special effort. And while he was quiet and shy about his own countless accomplishments, he was genuinely thrilled by the achievements of family and friends.
Alex Madonna meant the moon to the roping world. For starters, he was a pioneer and a cowboy at heart. If you didn’t think he could move mountains, he’d fire up the big tractor and prove you wrong, one boulder at a time. He had friends like John “The Duke” Wayne and President Ronald Reagan, but he made relative commoners like me feel just as special.
They called Alex “The Host from the Coast,” and he never wavered in his generosity, even when no one was looking. He’d roll out the red carpet for dignitaries visiting the world-famous Madonna Inn, which he built himself, pick and shovel in hand. But he extended that same royal treatment to women from the local shelter.
Alex always had a Madonna-Inn trademark pink pastry box in his extended hand. He never sent his second daughter, Karen, and I off to a college rodeo without a bulging box of cookies and a loaf or two of cinnamon bread.
He wouldn’t hear of having the timers and secretaries go hungry at one of the USTRC ropings held annually at the Inn. And when we flew back into San Luis late one night after the Olympics, he insisted I follow him to the bakery before heading home. Madonna Inn Black Forest Cake will forever be my favorite food on earth, and Alex knew that. I was thrilled, but giving me something that made me happy thrilled him even more.
This was a man who built roads and runways for the Army Corps of Engineers in the South Pacific during World War II; a man who built highways, bridges and a visionary landmark of an inn; a man who burned his pick-and-shovel brand into the hides of countless cattle over the years with his own two calloused hands.
We were all shocked by Alex’s sudden departure. We’ve never known life without him, and he made such a difference in so many lives. But spirits never die, and he’ll always be here with us and for us. We’ll lean on, “What would Alex have done?” the rest of our lives.
Alex and Phyllis raised four kids to be proud of in Cathie, John, Karen and Connie, and the legacy lives on in grandkids Caleb, Teale, Tara, Tristan, Sterling, Alexis, Audrey, Dalton, Serafina and Giovanna. They’re rich, all right, but you’d never know it. That’s because what their richest in is character. Each one looks you in the eye when they speak, and is trustworthy in a handshake deal. Their word is gold, just like the popular patriarch’s.John inherited his father’s love of the construction trade, and is a self-made man just like his dad. He likes to rope, and can sure do it, but it’s his sisters, Cathie, Karen and Connie, who share their dad’s love of horses and roping.
Besides being wonderful wives and moms, Cathie also heads up the pick-and-shovel horse and cattle operations, and ranches with husband Rowly. Karen, who’s married to Rowly’s brother Tim, owns and runs the successful Alexis Limousine service based at the entrance of the Inn, while Tim makes sure that all of the Madonna Construction Company’s jobs run smoothly and efficiently. Connie runs the Inn alongside Phyllis, and Connie’s husband, Clint, works in the Madonna Construction Company office on bids and job estimates. Everyone has his or her own niche in the family businesses that Alex Madonna built. They all worked together with their mom and dad before Alex died, and are determined to carry the torch of that tradition in Alex’s honor.
Cathie blazed the trail for all of today’s women ropers back in the day when she and Sammy Fancher were the only girls entering major ropings like the Chowchilla Stampede and Oakdale 10-Steer.
“When I wanted to do something, my dad always told me to go ahead and do it,” Cathie recalls of her younger years. “I never knew girls couldn’t do everything.”
Thanks to their can-do upbringing, the girls have grown into strong and capable women. And listening to Phyllis sing with amazing grace and strength at Alex’s service at the packed and overflowing Mission San Luis Obispo reminded me that Alex met his perfect match in Phyllis. She always stood strong behind her man, but make no mistake-the Madonna kids got their power and personality from both parents.
Alex was Phyllis’ husband, partner and life for 55 years. She passed his daily challenges and life-lesson tests with flying colors, and soars because of it. I love that Alex and Phyllis married at The Little Church of the West in Las Vegas, and that her wedding band cost a mere 12 bucks. They call it true love.
We all signed the guestbook at Alex’s service with a green-felt pen, in his honor. Alex always wrote with a green-felt pen. He loved waterfights-the wetter, the better. He loved good food and good company. He loved to rope. He loved life.
The town of San Luis Obispo-Alex Madonna’s town-loved him, too. They shut down the main drag-Higuera Street-for a funeral procession befitting the king of this part of the country. Every storefront was decked out in pink balloons, ribbons and heartfelt signs. The surf shop sported pink bikinis and surfboards; the children’s clothing store the cutest pink outfits in the place.
A beautiful old horse-drawn hearse carried the simple wooden casket, that his kids hand-branded with the pick-and-shovel, Alex inside, lid open, right before the rosary. That’s a visual that makes me smile. I know how much he loved it.
I gave Cathie a big hug as we left the mission. Thousands of family, friends and even admiring strangers swarmed the town to share the Madonna family’s most private and trying time. But they weren’t annoyed. They were honored. “Everybody is so nice,” Cathie said, honestly amazed, tears streaming down both our cheeks.
I know Alex blushed at us all wearing pink lapel ribbons, and felt so honored by Cathie wearing a pink dress and braving blazing blisters in those high heels while she led his horse Special K behind that hearse. Alex had a sparkle in his eye for all those kids, and they, in turn, feel the very same way about their own children. It’s like, “Wow. We are the luckiest people alive.” I feel the same way.
I spent that day with a woman who feels like family to me, just like she felt like family to Alex. JoAnn Switzer was a forever friend of Alex’s and a trusted member of hisinner posse. They shared a love of the cattle business and a deep respect for one another. When a youthful Alex outgrew his beloved pony, Louis, he handed him down to JoAnn, who was 3 at the time. Later in life, Alex entrusted JoAnn with his cattle operation.
There wasn’t a pink flower to be had anywhere near San Luis Obispo after Alex died. Even the M on his San Luis Mountain was thinking pink as it overlooked the hoopla of saying goodbye to the city’s No. 1 native son.
“Why pink?” I asked JoAnn.”Because ladies like pink, and a woman is always right,” she explained matter-of-factly, just before solemnly swearing that the word “can’t” never once passed his lips.
Alex had it all. But most important, in my eyes, he had the hugest heart. He could have spent holidays on secluded Hawaiian beaches sipping something with an umbrella in it. Instead, he spent every Thanksgiving Day of his adult life on the phone, personally thanking friends and employees-heck, friends and employees were one and the same to Alex-for all they’d done for him. He wasn’t fueled by recognition, but by a happy heart and generous spirit.
Cathie turned 50 a few days after Alex died. Alex had jumped right in with the rest of the family in planning a surprise party to celebrate her first five glorious decades. He and Cathie shared a unique love for such questionable delicacies as pickled pigs feet and cow tongue, and he’d gone to great lengths to be sure guests could share in more than the delights of a chocolate fountain.
We got the news of Alex’s death just after the postcard invitations to Cathie’s party arrived, but we figured they’d go on with it. That’s how these people operate. Whatever the task, if it needs to be done, they roll up their sleeves and make it happen.
Alex’s family and friends honored him like you can’t even imagine when he died, but no more so than he honored them in everyday life. He had a gift for making us all feel like we truly mattered to him, and I believe we did. For that, we treasured him, too.
“Shoot for the moon,” Alex always said. “And if you miss, you’ve always got the stars.”
When that mission full of family and friends exploded with appreciation after Phyllis’ song that day, JoAnn leaned over close and whispered, “That deserves a great big YAHOO, if we had the guts.”
“What’s stopping us?” I whispered back.
We looked each other in the eye, blurted out “1-2-3” in unison, and yelled “YAHOO!!” at the top of our lungs. We hope Phyllis heard us, and know Alex did. Hey, it was the least we could do.
This community will never be the same, not because Alex Madonna died, but because he lived.STW