In 1924, Ernest “Chuck” Ayala was born in the South of Market neighborhood to a poor, single Mexican immigrant mother. He was the eighth of nine children. He knew he would need to make his own way in the world. Now age 82, he can look back at a life filled with hard work, civic engagement, family and multiple businesses and know he made that way.
He’s still working. Ayala owns Ayala Real Estate, a business operating out of the same second-floor Castro Street walk-up since 1966. The walls are covered with accolades from his many committees and professional and volunteer organizations: AARP, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, the California Commission on Aging and many others.
“I got involved in all these different things,” Ayala said.
Last month, he was honored by Realtor Magazine in its Good Neighbor Awards for his work with Centro Latino de San Francisco, where he is a founder and the current president and CEO. He founded the center’s senior lunch program 33 years ago, when he noticed while working on a youth-breakfast program that the senior volunteers were themselves hungry, he said. The Centro Latino lunch program now serves more than 2,100 seniors a year. He said he applied for the award to get the $10,000 prize, so he could put it toward the center’s new mortgage.
“I went from youth to seniors,” Ayala said. “Now, my motto is: There’s a senior in your future if you’re lucky.”
He worked on youth programs when he himself was younger. He dropped out of Mission High School and was drafted by the Army in 1942 to serve in World War II. He was a chemical-warfare poison gas handler and instructor, traveling in both theaters of the war.
“It scared me to death,” he said of his job.
After an honorable discharge in 1946, he returned to San Francisco and married his wife, Bernice Ayala. They bought a home and started a family. And he knuckled down, working as a night taxicab driver, an organizer of youth programs and centers (such as the Jamestown Youth Center) for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, a worker at the Stauffer Chemical Co. and an insurance agent. He thought it would be good to pick up real estate, too, to help with his insurance business.
“I like sales. I like people. It’s a great thing to do, getting people into homes, helping them get financing,” Ayala said.
He dropped insurance about 10 years ago. The real estate business has changed, become more complicated, and Ayala said he’s mostly managing five properties now.