By Carolyn Barbre
He said he just giggled after he was asked to be the subject of a Father's Day profile for the Gazette. Perhaps no one is more surprised at the turn Refugio "Cookie" Rios' life took after he met his future wife, Jennifer, than he was himself.
"I never had any intention of getting married," Rios said. "Then I met my wife and that was it. It was like a punch in the mouth. I was focused. People to this day will probably be amazed that I'm married. People want to touch her and see if she's real." He was holding his 6-month-old son, Brandon, about the brightest eyed, happy little guy you would ever want to meet.
It was only 8 a.m. and Rios was in Bermuda shorts, shirt and stocking feet. His home on Avenue 200 in Strathmore had a comfortable hacienda lived-in feel. Souvenirs of the contracting trade, perhaps, including a railroad crossing sign and a traffic signal, were posted outside along with an antique car, a motorcycle and a pickup truck. Outside toys for toddlers abounded around the entryway.
Inside was cool and dim, with ESPN on the television. Rios, relaxed and smiling throughout the interview, nonchalantly held Brandon who was torn between watching the sports and using his dad's thumb as a teething toy. "This is our routine," Rios said. "I wake up, give him a bottle and kick back and watch ESPN. There are three sports junkies in the house," he said, including his 2-year old, Isaiah. on that roster. Isaiah had been a little under the weather and was sleeping in this morning.
Asked to tell his life's story, Rios flew through the facts without interest. "Born and raised in Lindsay. Graduated Strathmore High School, college at Porterville, graduated Fresno State in '91. Went abroad. Worked all over. Worked at Wal-Mart Distribution Center three and a half years. Got a job with Patterson Dental Supply out of Dinuba. Started to travel extensively. Worked six years as General Manager of Patterson. Didn't spend much time in the Valley. Bought a home but never lived in it."
Then the story begins, much as it seems that this was when Cookie's life really began. "In 1998 I met my wife, Jennifer. I remember what she was wearing, and she says the same thing. She was visiting from Albuquerque. She was born and raised in New Mexico. We had two different experiences growing up." His every breath relates to his wife and their sons.
Rios comes from a very large family. He said he had 130 aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins - just from his father's mother's side, of whom 90 percent at one time lived within a 15-mile radius of grandma. He said he couldn't go to the supermarket without seeing a relative.
Rios has six siblings himself, three sisters and three brothers, the youngest of whom graduated Lindsay High School last week. He said his relatives filled the stands at basketball games.
"We decided to set down roots here. It's where we really want to raise our children."
Rios thought he was on the fast track, up the corporate ladder. "If you want to accelerate your career, the fastest and easiest way is moving where the opportunity is," he said. He said he has been to every major city in the U.S. and all through the Canadian provinces. "I don't miss it. I don't miss working for someone else." But something was missing.
"I was asking my dad - he's always been my confidant - I'd say, 'Dad, when do you know?' He'd say, 'You'll just know.' For 32 years it escaped me. Then I met my wife."
Most people in Lindsay know that Cookie Rios owns El Patio Restaurant on Honolulu Street. And the people who know that, know that it has been closed since last September. (See related story on page 1.) Meanwhile Rios has been working with his father, a general contractor in the building trades for 20 years. Rios is getting ready to take the general contractor licensing exam to be able to branch out with his own business, in addition to the restaurant.
"It's something I really enjoy doing. I worked my way through school in the trades. I've been in the trades all my life. Most people don't know that. They can't see me swinging a hammer." And he intends to re-open El Patio. He is keeping his hand in cooking with a booming catering business. He said they have catered large events, for 150 or more people every week for the last six weeks, including catering a graduate program at Fresno Pacific for 650 people.
Most of all he is happy to be able to support his family, and have his wife be a stay-at-home mom. "It's a struggle sometimes, but I know it's better. This little guy is giggling all the time. And we have a support group." Rios said his dad was about to become a grandfather for the 12th time.
Like many men, he was ambivalent about fatherhood in the abstract. "I didn't think I had what it took to be a good parent. I had no patience with my sisters' kids. If I was in a doctor's office and I heard a baby crying, it irritated me." He blames his change of attitude on his wife.
"I tell my wife, 'You make me want to be a better person.' We were laying there last night and she said, 'You know, you're my favorite person to be with.' I said 'ditto.'" Hey, there's nothing wrong with using lines from great romance movies like "Ghost," "As Good As It Gets," and perhaps a dash of "Jerry McGuire." That's what made them great movies, and great "Pillow Talk."
There is 13 years difference in their ages. Rios just turned 37. "I've told her I would always try to stay young and make the effort to be a great partner. I tell you, God could not have given these boys a better mother." Rios said his dad told him it was worth the wait. "And she's young. You see so many young mothers in Tulare County and they just don't have that." Jennifer is 23, very beautiful, quiet and serene, the opposite of Cookie's non-stop effervescent communications about his family.
And those still waters run deep indeed. Jennifer plans to become a doctor, a general practitioner. Two kids have slowed the process down a bit, but the couple has decided that two children is their limit. "Educationally she probably would have had a degree, but the boys are 20 months apart," Rios said. Jennifer has two more classes she can take at COS or Porterville College then she will re-enroll at Fresno State in the fall. She has 20 units left for her bachelor of science degree. Rios said she will probably attend medical school at the University of New Mexico. That will naturally precipitate a move. But they expect to return.
Rios backs his wife's career ambitions 100 percent. His occupations as cook and carpenter travel well. Jennifer's whole family is in the Albuquerque area. He said they knew it would be tough with two little guys, but he said, "Once you get over that you're smart enough, it just takes a tremendous amount of perseverance, but I told her, 'If you just keep at it you will have an MD by 30.'" Rios is positively gleeful at this prospect, and has a great good time reveling in the notion of being married to a doctor. He calls her a "self-made lottery ticket."
"I'm going to be a slumlord and golfer. Mom's about to support the whole crew. Daddy ain't workin' no more! No soccer mom - soccer dad!" In fact he does play soccer every Sunday. Rios said most guys at 37 aren't playing competitively, but recreationally. "I play serious, on a serious team in a serious division in a pretty serious league." He is so serious about the game, he doesn't see himself coaching his boys. He doesn't want to be one of those dads who scream at the coaches either.
More than anything he just wants to be a good dad. "I was talking to Mr. Hoskins, showing him the pictures in my wallet, thinking God, does this man really care about my kids? But then I don't care. I just keep talking. I tell him my little boy is almost two. He's having trouble putting sentences together, but he can count to five," Rios boasts a bit. He is surprised that Mr. Hoskins is listening, and cares. "He tells me, 'You see what your wife does to nurture your children and what your parents did for you, and that's what you do. It's called parenting.' I think he was giving me a complement," Rios said, still sounding surprised.
"It's really funny to speak in a family context and have a Father's Day. I am a father twice," Rios seemed to be reminding himself, a little awed.