Deal, 93, had been a journeyman carpenter who taught woodworking for 60-some years, mainly at Columbia College, a community college in Sonora. He even served as dean of the vocational programs, which included hotel and firefighting training.
But a double hip replacement — including a badly infected one — brought him to Stanford Hospital for treatment, and he decided to move to the assisted-living facility nearby.
Very quickly he saw a need for large, painted wooden game boards.
"They had Jeopardy but no Wheel of Fortune," he recalled, so his first project was to create a giant-sized wheel to spin. Next came Scrabble.
Deal has built a series of 8-foot-by-8-foot plywood boards for playing old standards like Scrabble and Chinese Checkers, as well as lesser-known Sequence, Triominoes and Quirkle. Each comes with its own set of proportional painted, lettered "tiles" for Scrabble or shapes and colors for Quirkle, for example. Chinese Checkers tokens are tennis balls; another game uses colored CD disks instead of poker chips.
To play a horse-racing game, he's built (and painted) a racetrack, complete with two handicaps — blue mirrors to represent water and a stone wall. "Hit one and you lose a turn," he said. Of course, the horses don't actually "run"; instead, participants roll the dice to determine how far their horses will go.
As for that spinning Wheel of Fortune, he said: "I built one half size for my grandchildren. They took it on a camping trip, and it was the hit of the campground."
When his children were young, they "played some of the games in miniature, around the card table. ... So, I thought we'd blow them up and more people could play," he said.
The games are played at least once a week at Palo Alto Commons and often involve up to 20 people on four teams. Participation varies. "Sometimes they come full blast and sometimes I have to play to even up the teams," he said.
"It's fun to watch them bicker about what their next play is," he laughed.
The games are also trotted out for carnivals, where grandchildren, great-grandchildren and children of staff get together to have fun with balloons, darts, shuffle board — and Deal's larger-than-life game boards.
Since his hip replacements, Deal uses a motorized scooter to get around. He's still able to get to a lumber yard to choose his materials, but has the larger pieces delivered. The large game boards are stored in the Palo Alto Commons basement.
Upstairs, in his one-bedroom apartment, Deal is constantly creating. He's working on a series of artworks made of painted, layered plywood that depict the Golden Gate Bridge (two layers, one for sky, the other for the bridge) and Half Dome at Yosemite (seven layers, representing trees, rocks and sky). On his easel is a work in progress: Yosemite Falls, with different layers for the sky, falls and boulders.
"I don't know what to call it (my multidimensional artwork). I have a lot of fun with it," Deal said.
On another surface is a drawing for a storage shed, which he's helping one of his sons design for his home in Jamestown. His other sons live in San Francisco and Hayward.
And yet another project is in process: He's creating wooden bases for artificial candles, one shaped like a heart.
Asked what he's most proud of, Deal quickly says, "Making people happy."
Then he glances at the wall, where his framed medals hang. "I'm very proud of my bronze star. I was in the medics in the Army. ... Now they use helicopters."
Although he's not exactly living around the corner from his sons, he said, "I think of the people here as my family ... all 90 of them."
And every afternoon at 4:30, Deal gets a call from his high-school girlfriend, who lives in Canton, Ohio. "We chat for about half an hour," he said, recalling that the last time he saw her was at their 50th high school reunion in 1989.
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