Dan Walters: Prop 13, and a conflict 42 years in the making

Walters, Dan

It was 1966 and I was 22 years old and working for a small daily newspaper in Klamath Falls, Oregon when the publisher, Joe Caraher, called me into his office.

I had been at the Herald and News for three years, first as a reporter and then as news editor, the No. 2 newsroom position. Joe said that a managing editorship had opened up at a newspaper in Hanford, California, and asked whether I was interested in applying.

The Hanford Sentinel, a bit smaller than the Herald and News, was another paper in the Scripps League chain, which had a policy of moving middle management personnel around to fill open positions, rather than hiring from outside.

I was interested. I had looked at a couple of editorships in non-Scripps League newspapers, and with a wife and one-year-old baby daughter, was looking to advance my career and make a little more money.

The next step was to travel from Klamath Falls to Hanford — no small logistical feat — to meet with the Sentinel’s publisher and see if a move worked for both of us. The publisher of the Sentinel at the time was Dick Tilton and we clicked, so my wife, Diana, and baby Danielle soon found ourselves driving from Oregon to Hanford in the middle of summer.

We rented a very small house on 11th Avenue whose main virtue was that it had a very large swimming pool. Both Dani and her sister, Staci, who was born in Hanford Community Hospital, became water babies while still toddlers.

Meanwhile, I was learning on the job how to manage a newspaper, while writing a couple of editorials each day and even covering the city hall beat.

Like many small newspapers of the era, the Sentinel’s staff was a combination of older reporters who had worked there for years — Ruth Gomes was the Sentinel’s longest-term mainstay — and younger journalists just beginning their careers.

My three years at the Sentinel coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in American history and Hanford was not immune to its effects. There were civil rights demonstrations and debates about the Vietnam War.

Squadrons of A-4 Skyhawk bombers and A-7 Corsair fighters from nearby Lemoore Naval Air Station were flying combat missions into North Vietnam from carriers in the South China Sea and not all of their pilots made it home. In fact, Lemoore had the nation’s largest concentration of women with husbands being held as prisoners of war and one story we covered extensively was their effort to publicize the harsh treatment POWs were enduring.

However, the most poignant Vietnam-related story I wrote during that period was the combat death of a young man from the impoverished Santa Rosa Indian Rancheria south of Lemoore. He had been the only member of the tiny Tachi-Yokuts tribe to ever graduate from high school, was drafted into the Army and died in combat. Visiting his grieving family was a harsh reminder of war’s human toll.

Although we at the Sentinel mostly covered meetings of local government and school boards, high school sports and the other facets of rural California life, we occasionally dealt with other memorable stories, most of which centered on Kings County’s primary industry, agriculture.

One was the fierce winter of 1968-69 that produced record snowfall in the Sierra. As the snowpack melted, runoff almost overwhelmed Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River and briefly recreated Tulare Lake, which reignited long-standing legal and political hostilities between the lake’s two massive farming operations, Boswell and Salyer.

Another was an ongoing battle over water rights on the Kings River that pitted the big Tulare Lake farmers against small tree crop growers in the north part of Kings County. Still another was a conflict between farmers and the Hanford business community over implementation of the Williamson Act, a law that would reduce property taxes on farmland and thus increase them on non-agricultural properties.

We also covered a mostly successful effort by that business community — led by Sentinel publisher Dick Tilton, incidentally — to diversify Kings County’s economy by luring industry. An Armstrong Rubber tire plant, an oil refinery, a carpet factory and a firm that produced computer forms were among the non-farm industries that had been attracted. One story that comes to mind was a very contentious strike by the tire factory’s unionized workers.

Finally, as my time in Hanford neared an end, we began covering a story that continues to this day — the effects, positive and negative, of two immense public works projects in the western part of Kings County, Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct.

I left Hanford and the Sentinel in 1969, returning to Klamath Falls to become the editor of the Herald and News for a couple of years. My years of wandering from town to town and paper to paper ended in 1973 when I came to Sacramento to work for the Sacramento Union. I began covering politics in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, began writing a daily column about politics in 1981, moved to the Sacramento Bee in 1984 and 33 years later, moved myself and the column to CalMatters.org, a non-profit news organization where I still scribble.

My daughters who were water babies in Hanford went on to have very successful careers, Dani as a pharmaceutical industry executive and Staci as vice president of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. I have passed through the town occasionally while traveling on business, usually stopping for an ice cream cone at Superior Dairy.

On one trip I stayed overnight at the Tachi Palace casino’s hotel, where I spoke to a gathering of local government officials. It brought back memories of visiting the rancheria under much unhappier circumstances a half-century earlier.

Dan Walters is a former managing editor of the Hanford Sentinel, where served in the late '60s. He is now a columnist with Cal Matters. His columns can be found regularly in the Sentinel. 

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