SAN RAMON -- They call him "The Pumpkin Man."
For years, retired Oakland firefighter Gary Gerner has raised a wide variety of pumpkins in the field behind his San Ramon home, handing them out for free to neighborhood children at Halloween.
But early last month, Gerner -- a 75-year-old widower -- took his usual morning walk, only to find much of his harvest-ready crop smashed to bits, a shovel protruding from one of the pumpkins. Saving some of the larger ones, Gerner covered the rest, thinking the vandals had their fill.
The following Friday, it happened again; a number of the casualties weighed nearly 150 pounds.
"It's a sad thing, but kids will be kids I suppose," Gerner said. "I would've felt better if they would have stolen them rather than bust them up."
Neighbors were outraged, children were disappointed, but one sympathetic soul did much to boost Gerner's spirits, leaving him a giant-sized reminder of how much neighbors appreciate his work -- a 230-pound pumpkin left on Gerner's driveway Saturday.
Affectionately known as "Farmer Gary" to neighborhood kids, Gerner also grows and freely gives away tomatoes, garlic and cucumbers and onions in his field, clearly visible from the Iron Horse Trail. His wife, Karen, who passed away nearly two years ago, was known for having quite the green thumb, and Gary has carried on, opening his field to children at harvest time. He was mere days from picking the two dozen pumpkins he'd planted in the spring when the hoodlums struck.
"It was a bummer," said Gary's son Scott. "(Raising pumpkins) keeps him going; that's his thing. ... Now it's gotten to the point where people expect it. It's taken on a life of its own."
Cynthia Giannini, a longtime Pine Valley Road neighbor of Gerner's whose grandchildren have chosen their pumpkins from him for past Halloweens, was outraged by the senselessness.
"They went out of their way to get to them," Ginannini said. "They don't know what impact they had."
Giannini's granddaughter Francesca Scheid, 8, of Livermore, said she already had her eye on a particular "fairy-tale" ornamental pumpkin.
"It's pretty sad," Francesca said. "I was really looking forward to picking them out and when I heard they were smashed, I was disappointed."
In a fairy-tale-like turn, Gerner came home Saturday to find an enormous, 230-pound pumpkin in his driveway, tagged with a mysterious note. The anonymous authors described themselves as fellow pumpkin growers who thought he could use one of their extras. It was signed, "From your San Ramon friends."
"That really made me feel good," Gerner said. "It's a great pumpkin."
Son Scott, who lives in Concord and started the family tradition of raising pumpkins, said the random act of kindness has helped ease the sting.
"I thought it was awesome," Scott Gerner said. "It would've been nice to know who it was so I could get some (growing) tips."
San Ramon police said no reports had been made about the incidents, but Gerner has his suspicions. The vandalism coincided with California High School football games, and the trail itself is commonly used as a passage from school for teens and children. Gerner said he would distribute the surviving pumpkins and wait for someone to step forward with information about the culprits.
"I would like to find out who did it," Gerner said, "so hopefully it doesn't happen to someone else."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.