Robert Payne is not a native of Chico, but he may be the quintessential Chicoan. A retired Naval commander, he moved here from the Bay Area in 1968—30 years after being enchanted by the community’s small-town charm during a chance encounter. In those days, homes sold for a song, so he started buying up real estate—first so that his children attending Chico State would have a place a live, then as rentals for other students. Payne is probably best known around town as Pa Payne, a nickname given by his children long ago and one that has stuck with friends, neighborhood kids (to whom he gives candy) and many of his tenants. Payne turned 90 last week and still has a hand in overseeing dozens of rental properties. He’s active in other ways, too, including playing tennis every Monday evening. His six children are well aware of their father’s zest for life, so on his birthday (Dec. 18), they picked him up for a super-secretive trip to Cache Creek Casino Resort. Payne’s wife of 66 years, Mary Frances, had no idea where her husband was going when she packed him a bag for an overnight stay and Payne only learned of his destination when he arrived there. When he returned the next day, he was preparing for an annual family gathering taking place the weekend before Christmas.
What brought you to Chico?
I guess it was right at the end of high school or the start of college. Our family used to go to the Klamath River every year, fishing. Well, it was ‘38, I think, and on our way home we came through Chico and stayed overnight. I had a couple of younger brothers and we swam at One-Mile or Five-Mile, and I just said, “This is the kind of town I want to live in.”
What are your plans for the holiday?
We have a family get-together every year. We usually have it the Saturday before Christmas … The good thing about it is when we do it, then we watch everyone else run around like crazy and we’re all done.
What would you say is your life’s biggest accomplishment?
Of 90 years, my biggest accomplishment is my marriage, my six kids and their spouses, my 18 grandkids and my nine great-grandkids, of which all of them, add ’em up, are healthy. How can anybody be any luckier than that?
What are you looking forward to in 2009?
Staying healthy and all of my kids staying healthy. As far as the country, I hope everybody gets better off, of course.
What’s the secret to a long and healthy life?
Letting my wife think she’s right.