Arizona man, 91, still relishes role as Angel of Route 66

Updated July 1, 2018 - 1:29 am

SELIGMAN, Ariz. — Most mornings, the 91-year-old Mayor of the Mother Road rides his bicycle the few short blocks to his office, a bustling souvenir shop along old U.S. Route 66, the venerable long-sidelined highway that has defined his life.

As he rests his bike against an outside wall, hordes of Angel Delgadillo’s fans often wait to greet him. Most arrive by tour bus, herded by guides during a respite from a Grand Canyon excursion, tourists from China, Japan, Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic.

For years, he has greeted each in their own language as they shake the hand of the polite gentleman who’s gone a bit hard of hearing, the one they consider a modern-day cultural hero.

They want to hear the story about how decades ago, as a middle-aged barber, Angel waged a public relations war against a government office that had decommissioned the highway through his beloved hometown, retiring a road that had become his life’s emotional thread. Eyes wide, cameras clicking, they want to hear how he rallied his community, and eventually a nation, to post a stop sign to progress, if just for a little while, and preserve a tiny piece of America’s motoring past.

And Angel obliges. He tells them how — backed by his stalwart wife, Vilma — he helped inspire a full-throttle Route 66 revival, bringing an old road, a deflated town and a regional economy back from the dead. He finally convinced state transportation officials, who in 1978 had decommissioned the route as a national artery, to memorialize the road as an historic highway. Eventually, others along the road’s eight-state route from Chicago to Santa Monica followed suit.

In recent years, Angel has become synonymous with the nation’s keepsake road, and dubbed the “Guardian Angel of Route 66” and often just “The Ambassador.” He’s been the subject of pop songs and even made a cameo appearance — after the end-of-movie credits — in the animated Pixar film “Cars,” where the spirit of his battle plays out in the fictional town of Radiator Springs.

Outside the tiny Delgadillo’s Route 66 Gift Shop, which sells all kinds of kitschy road-themed merchandise — from golf balls and oven mitts to whisky flasks — a life-size cardboard cutout of Angel stands ready to greet customers when the real deal isn’t around.

Nearby is a cardboard figure of Hollywood icon James Dean. But Angel’s fans say there’s a difference between the two — their rebel had a cause.

“Boy, oh boy,” he tells them. “Everything I’ve done has been done on Route 66. I’ve spent all of my life along this road.” Then his voice hardens and he stabs his finger: “To save this road, we had to fight a government! And we won!”

The personal thread between the mayor and his mother road remains profound. Angel was born in Seligman in 1927, the year after Route 66 was signed into law as one of the original U.S. Highways. In the 1930s, the route led Dust Bowl victims west to a new life following the devastation of their crops and way of life. John Steinbeck termed Route 66 the “Mother Road” in his book “The Grapes of Wrath” about a broken Oklahoma family struggling to reclaim its dignity.

Back then, Angel and his eight siblings — children of a self-taught local barber — played games along the road, creating characters with the shadows cast by the headlights of passing cars at night.

They saw an endless caravan of dejected Dust Bowl victims who passed through town. A Model-T Ford with one mattress dangling from the back signaled a poor family; two mattresses meant they were rich was a running joke.

ADD ALT TAG INFO
CLICK TO ENLARGE

Years later, Route 66 beckoned a more-carefree adventurer, serving as the main route for vacationers headed west to Los Angeles. Inspiring such quirky roadside attractions as tee pee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands and Indian curio shops, the road became a microcosm of the nation’s evolving post-war culture, now linked by the automobile. Some called it “The Main Street of America.”

Along the way, motorists snapped their fingers to the 1946 hit “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and in the 1960s followed the misadventures of Tod Stiles, who drove his Chevy Corvette convertible in the TV series that took its name form the iconic road.

As Route 66 matured, so did Angel. Yet he rarely ventured more than a few miles from the road. He attended barber college in one Route 66 town (Pasadena, California) and did his apprenticeship in another (Williams, Arizona). In 1950, he returned home to open a joint barbershop and pool hall. For years, he played saxophone in a family orchestra that played in honky-tonks along the road.

By the late 1970s, three of Angel and Vilma’s four children were in college. Life was a challenge on a barber’s salary, but Angel was happy. Along with regular customers, the road brought a stream of tourists with their stories and regular revenue.

Ribbon cuts town lifeline

Then the world stopped.

Some towns fall prey to a prolonged decline; Seligman died in a single afternoon. Angel can recite the precise moment life as he knew it ceased to be:

At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, 1978.

That’s when state highway officials in nearby Kingman cut the ribbon on the latest stretch of Interstate 40, a modern road for a modern America, along which impatient travelers could drive faster and reach their destinations sooner, more directly, without negotiating the often dangerous two-lane Route 66, which for many had become as obsolete as the Model-Ts that once traversed it.

Seligman residents had known the interstate highway was coming. “We just didn’t realize how devastating it was going to be,” Angel says. “After I-40 opened, you could lay down in the middle of the street in Seligman and not get run over.”

Traffic through town went from 9,000 cars a day to a mere trickle. “The traveling public went its own way, and we were forgotten,” he says. “You don’t know how long 10 years is when you’re overlooked by the entire world.”

Back then, Angel was just 51, and knew he still had a few good years left in him. Still, he watched businesses fold. People left town.

‘We’re not moving!’

Daughter Mirna recalls a family dinner when her father announced that they might have to relocate. She and her sister, Clarissa, began to cry. Seeing his family so broken, Angel got angry.

“That’s when he decided,” she says. “He told us, ‘We’re not moving!’”

For years, Angel and his brother, Juan, sat under the outdoor awning of Juan’s Snow Cap drive-in and plotted how to revive Seligman’s economy.

Then came an idea.

Why not designate Route 66 as a historic highway — at first from Seligman to Kingman — market the stretch with ad campaigns and historic signs, and bring back America’s traveling public, if just for nostalgia’s sake?

In February 1987, Angel’s newly formed Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona began to pitch the idea to anyone who would listen — politicians, transportation officials, various chambers of commerce, even friends and neighbors. There were phone calls, letters and personal visits. Then more followup letters and calls.

“But you know what?” he says. “Nobody listened. They said, ‘Angel, it won’t work. You’re just a barber. What can you do?’”

Angel ignored the naysayers. “We waited and waited with no answer,” he recalls. “Then we waited some more. But we were products of the Depression. We knew hard times and didn’t know what the word ‘no’ meant. We didn’t let them off the hook.”

‘Stay who you are’

Finally, the efforts paid off.

That November, 10 months after Angel launched his campaign, Arizona officials added Route 66 to the list of the state’s historic roads. Other states soon followed.

Angel continued to cut hair in his little shop with the ripped barber chair but converted the adjacent pool hall into a souvenir shop. The reporters come in droves to interview the stubborn old man who stopped time.

The motorists returned to Route 66 and Seligman, now home to 10 souvenir shops. Older motorists said they missed the small-town whimsy of the route their parents once drove. The movie “Cars” brought an entire new generation of fans to Route 66 — and Angel.

Now he offers a bit of advice along with the occasional autograph: “If you want something bad enough, get out there and work for it,” he tells youngsters. “Extend yourself. Pay the price. And you’ll succeed.”

At the very start of celebrity status, Vilma had some advice for her headstrong husband. “Don’t you let it all go to your head,” she told him. “Stay who you are.”

Father of the rebirth

Angel hasn’t changed. He still plugs the merits of his old highway, even convincing a Canadian tourist to open a Route 66 fan group way up in British Colombia.

“Angel is the father of the rebirth,” said Lorrie Fleming, founder of the Canadian Route 66 Association. “The revival struck a chord with me. But Angel struck an even deeper chord. There’s something about that man. He grabs at your heart.”

In recent years, however, Angel has shifted into a lower gear. He spends less time at the shop, leaving the business to his two grown daughters and son-in-law. He prefers to spend more time at home with his wife, but still pedals over on his bike when he gets the call that fans are asking about him.

Eventually, the couple will be buried not far from Route 66. “I’m happy it will be here for a few more generations,” he says. “I want this road to outlive me.”

Even after he’s gone, Angel’s life size cut-out figure will be there at the front door, greeting fans with that wide, big-toothed smile, his hand extended, ready for a shake, as the timeless Mayor of the Mother Road.

News Videos
Report knocks Las Vegas for ozone, but local officials cite improvement
The American Lung Association says Las Vegas has some of the highest ozone levels in the nation, but Clark County air quality officials insist the community is improving when it comes to the smog-causing pollutant. (Michael Quine)
It's Rattlesnake Season
As temperatures start to rise in the Las Vegas area, people are heading outside for various activities. Possibly hiking and maybe with a dog. People and pets aren’t the only creatures coming out of their winter homes – so are snakes. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP Trooper sustains dog bite during rescue
A small dog loose on the freeway bites the hand of an Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper that saved it.
Henderson fails to investigate the drug overdose death of one of its officers
Henderson Police Department's internal affairs did not investigate the 2014 drug overdose death of an officer. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP trooper and good Samaritans save a life
Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Jacob Fisher and a group of good Samaritans performed lifesaving CPR on a driver suffering a heart attack last month in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Syphilis Awareness Day
Dr. Joe Iser, District Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District, discusses the effects and issues with syphilis in the Las Vegas community on April 16, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas diocese IDs 33 ‘credibly accused’ of sexual abuse
The Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas released a list on Friday of 33 “credibly accused” of sexual abuse who at some point served in the Las Vegas Valley. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CCSD Arbor View meeting
The Clark County School Board hears from the public about racial tensions at Arbor View High School on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Amelia Park-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Parents of autistic student battle Clark County School District
Joshua and Britten Wahrer, parents of a special education student, are battling the Clark County School District for the right to equip their son with a monitoring device. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Metro homeless outreach a shift in strategy
Lt. Joe Sobrio discusses the new homeless outreach team for Metro. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prayer for Opportunity Scholarships
Las Vegas students and adults hold a prayer meeting about the Opportunity Scholarship program on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Solar scams on the rise in Nevada
As Nevada’s solar industry has made a resurgence, solar scammers have followed suit.
Clark County schools and the late bus issue
Year after year, late or no-show buses in the Clark County School District draw the ire of parents and students alike. One year the problem even prompted a parent to crack a school bus window in frustration over a late drop-off. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
I-15 southbound congested near Primm Sunday afternoon
Drivers heading toward California on Interstate 15 should expect heavy traffic and a 13-mile backup Sunday afternoon.
Learning lifesaving skills in advance of fire season
Students and firefighters attend a training session at Fire Station 80 in Blue Diamond, Saturday, March 30, 2019. The training session helps volunteer firefighters obtain necessary annual certification to work wild fires.
Car restoration behind prison walls
Inmates share their experiences working for the Southern Desert Correctional Center auto body shop in Indian Springs while learning valuable skills.
Parent remembers Las Vegas boy killed by car
People visit a memorial at the intersection of South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue at at Faiss Park Wednesday, March 27, 2019, where Jonathan Smith, 12, of Las Vegas, died after he was struck while crossing Fort Apache Monday. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Couple left with surprise medical bills after visit to the hospital
Michael Pistiner took his wife, Marta Menendez-Pistiner, to the ER in January after she fainted twice and appeared to be having a seizure. Despite paying $856 monthly for health insurance, the two, self-employed musicians, were stuck with more than $5,700 in hospital and doctor bills after than hour-and-a-half visit. Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Las Vegas police brief the media on fatal crash
Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Nick Farese addresses the media about a car accident at South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue that left one minor dead and one hospitalized on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Mike Shoro/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Arbor View parent talks about racial issues at the school
Lawanna Calhoun, a former Arbor View parent, talks about the state of the school. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jim Foley talks about 30 years of living HIV-positive
Jim Foley, who was diagnosed as HIV positive 30 years ago, talks at his home in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Traffic Slows to a Crawl on I-15S Near Primm
Traffic slowed to a crawl around 2:30p Sunday, on I-15S near Primm, Nevada.
Homeless residents speak about safety
The homeless residents living at the corner of Owens Ave. and Main St. reflect on how they feel about their safety after two homeless men died, one was hit crossing the street and another was beat to death by another homeless man. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
CCSD Superintendent address alleged racially motivated threats at Arbor View
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara gives update on alleged racially motivated threats against Arbor View High School, and says such threats will not be tolerated. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Super Bloom Near Lake Elsinore, California
Crowds packed the hills near Lake Elsinore on Saturday to capture a rare selfie amidst the super bloom of poppies turning the landscape purple. The super bloom was caused by the larger rainfall this year. (Todd Prince/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fiery accident in Las Vegas
A three-car accident on Spring Mountain Road around 6:30 pm on Monday night
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Stardust implosion anniversary
Twelve years ago today, the Stardust Resort and Casino was imploded. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Lawsuits filed against security contractors at Nevada National Security Site
Two lawsuits were filed today against the current and former government security contractors for the Nevada National Security Site, one on behalf of Jennifer Glover who alleges sexual discrimination and assault and the other on behalf of Gus Redding who alleges retaliation after he gave statements supporting Glover’s claims. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New housing option helps Las Vegas moms keep kids while kicking drugs
WestCare Nevada Women and Children’s Campus in Las Vegas has added a new transitional housing wing for women who have completed the inpatient treatment at the behavioral health nonprofit to help them as they go through outpatient treatment, shore up their finances and prepare to secure long-term housing. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Local Videos
Library director talks about library as community center
Ron Heezen discusses his hopes for the new East Las Vegas Library. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Property Brothers visit Michael’s in Las Vegas Valley
Twin brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott are the hosts of Property Brothers, the hit HGTV show where they help couples find fixer-uppers and transform them into dream homes. In 2018, the brothers collaborated with Michael's on their first custom framing program. Today they're releasing new frames into that collection that range from natural to bright looking. Jonathan and Drew discuss their brand and why frames was something they wanted to pursue. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
I-15 traffic jam
A semitrailer stopped in the middle of Interstate 15 near Charleston Boulevard has slowed traffic in central Las Vegas Wednesday morning, April 17, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rainy Tuesday
The Las Vegas Valley saw cooler temperatures and rain Tuesday afternoon. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Tiger Woods Bettor Collects
James Adducci bet $85k on Tiger Woods to win the Masters. He collected his $1.19M from William Hill sports bet in the SLS today. (Mat Luschek /Review-Journal)
Endangered frogs released at Springs Preserve
Dozens of endangered Relic Leopard Frogs were released at the Cotton Grove inside Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Thursday, April 11, 2019
Vintage World War II aircraft arrive at Henderson Executive Airport
The Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour comes to Henderson Executive Airport with a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, P-51 Mustang and a P-40 Warhawk. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Honoring Pearl Harbor veteran
Ed Hall, a Pearl Harbor veteran in Las Vegas, is honored with Quilt of Valor during an event in a Las Vegas. (Erik Verduzo/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UNLV Anthropology professors excavate Maya ruin site of Caracol, Belize for 36 years
The husband-and-wife team of UNLV anthropologists has spent several months a year at the remote site of Caracol in the jungles of Belize, excavating ruins and uncovering secrets from the region’s once-dominant civilization. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Things to remember when adopting a rabbit this Easter season
As Easter and spring time approach, some people may be tempted to adopt a rabbit for the holiday. But like adopting any animal, it is important to be responsible and know what a rabbit requires to be a happy, healthy pet. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bike Giveaway in Las Vegas - Piero’s Italian Cuisine
Evan Glusman of Piero’s Italian Cuisine hosted a party in the restaurant’s parking lot to distribute over 150 bikes to local kids. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Charleston/I-15 ramp configuration
The new Interstate 15/ Charleston Boulevard ramp configuration was unveiled Tuesday morning. (Mick Akers/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Northwest Vegas farm's abandoned pig problem
Someone abandoned a several hundred pound pig at Sharon Linsenbardt's farm. Her farm is a rescue for animals, but she doesn't have room or resources to take on another such creature, so she's asking the community for help. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Chalk Talk: Black Student Union
Students talk about the Black Student Union in the latest episode of Chalk Talk. (Angus Kelly and Amelia Pak-Harvey/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Individuals with Parkinson's participate in dance class
Pamela Lappen leads a dance class for individuals with Parkinson's Disease at the Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas, Thursday, March 28, 2019. Caroline Brehman/Review-Journal
Animal Foundation Preps Pups For Best In Show
The Las Vegas Animal Foundation is preparing its prime pups for their 16th annual Best in Show event, which takes place at the end of April. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Dog Yoga At Hydrant Club
The Hydrant Club in downtown Las Vegas, is a social club for dogs and their people. Recently the club started hosting dog yoga. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Butterflies At The Springs Preserve
The butterfly habitat is now open at the Springs Preserve. Learn about butterflies and take in the peaceful surroundings. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
The Bellagio Conservatory's spring display has a Japanese theme
The Bellagio's conservatory is hosting around 65,000 flowers, to form a Japanese theme this spring. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bonnie Springs closes (Caroline Brehman/Kimber Laux)
Bonnie Springs Ranch near Las Vegas officially closed its gates Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Honoring a fallen North Las Vegas Police officer at his namesake school
The 20th Annual Raul P. Elizondo Honor Day celebrates the fallen North Las Vegas Police officer's legacy at his namesake school. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Windy day in Las Vegas Valley
The Review-Journal's camera on the under-construction Las Vegas Stadium the was buffered by high winds on Wednesday, March 14, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
March gloom falls on Las Vegas
After a rainy overnight, gloomy skies hover over Las Vegas Tuesday morning. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
John Katsilometes gets his head shaved at St. Baldrick's
Las Vegas Review-Journal man-about-town columnist John Katsilometes gets his head shaved by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman during St. Baldrick's Foundation shave-a-thon on the Brooklyn Bridge at New York-New York in Las Vegas Friday, March 8, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Blue Angels take flight over Las Vegas Strip
The Blue Angels’ U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron flew their signature Delta formation over a part of the Las Vegas Strip, McCarran International Airport and east Las Vegas and were scheduled to fly over Hoover Dam. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Gross World Records
A group of about 20 children gathered around a TV at Sahara West Library on Feb. 27 for a history lesson on the most disgusting world records.
Graduation for Renewing HOPE program
The Renewing HOPE program graduation for homeless who spend nine months in Catholic Charities program. Graduates are preparing to enter the workforce. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Car crashes into Starbucks near Las Vegas Strip
Lt. William Matchko of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police gives details about a car crashing into a Starbucks at Sahara Avenue and Paradise Road, near the Las Vegas Strip, on Friday, March 1, 2019. (Jessica Terrones/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Car crashed into PT’s Gold
A 60-year-old man who police believe was impaired drove into a PT’s Gold at Silverado Ranch and Decatur boulevards Thursday night, Metropolitan Police Department Lt. William Matchko said. The driver was hospitalized and is expected to survive. A man inside the bar was hit by debris but drove himself to the hospital, Matchko said. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Driver crashes vehicle into PT’s tavern in south Las Vegas (part 1)
A driver suspected of impairment crashed a vehicle into the wall of a PT’s Gold tavern, at 4880 W. Silverado Ranch Blvd., in Las Vegas on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It is a rainy Valentine's Day in Las Vegas - Video
These scenes come from the Las Vegas Stadium LiveCam (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TOP NEWS
Home Front Page Footer Listing