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I was shuffling around in the online archives when I came upon Cecilia Vega’s byline on a 2002 news story and was reminded that, since January, this former print reporter has been the official White House correspondent for ABC World News.

Cecilia has been a rising star since she left print journalism, including nearly four years at The Press Democrat, for TV news.

When I mentioned this to our managing editor, Ted Appel, who remembered Cecilia well, he asked if there were other former PD staffers who made it, as baseball players say, “to the bigs.” That set me thinking about the people I have known, and some before my time, who passed through the hallowed halls of Santa Rosa journalism on their way to fortune and glory.

I didn’t tell him about the quirky writer out of San Francisco who sold a funny story to the Sonoma Democrat in 1869, signing himself (wait for it!) … Mark Twain. Readers may have chuckled but they didn’t get excited. Who knew he was really Tom Sawyer?

Nor did I mention to Ted that there was a kid from Colorado who wandered the West from the age of 13, working at a dozen different newspapers before World War I, including this one. His name was Harold Ross, which may not resonate like Mark Twain, but, after World War I and on duty in Paris on staff of the military’s new paper, Stars & Stripes, Ross came home to New York to become the founding editor of a magazine called The New Yorker.

Those brushes with literary fame are too long ago to be meaningful in local history.

But there are closer encounters.

In the early 1950s, The Press Democrat seems to have been a veritable cradle of literary and journalistic talent.


There was Michael Demarest, who broke all career advancement records at the PD by going directly from our newsroom to Time magazine.

Demarest worked in Time’s London bureau and in New York. He was on assignment, covering the opening of the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, when he died of a heart attack. In addition to his three decades at Time, finishing as a senior editor, he took turns as editor of both Money magazine and Playboy.

In Santa Rosa in the early 1950s his daily “Memo from Mike” was the first of the “around-town” columns in this area, adding a level of post-war sophistication, dropping a foreign phrase on occasion.


There was Denne Petitclerc — another success story, along a very different path.

As an SRJC student in 1949, fired from a part-time job by the PD’s sports editor who told him he should “learn to write an English sentence,” Denne accomplished that feat by quitting school and sitting down at his typewriter with a novel by Ernest Hemingway. Typing Hemingway’s prose, he would later claim, he learned clarity and the order and rhythm of the written word.

Soon he was back at the PD, working his way up to the crime beat in the best Hemingway style. He won awards for creating hometown heroes of police, helping to catch a murderer. He even took a turn at war reporting, ala Hemingway, spending a month with an Army unit in Korea in 1951.

He went to the Miami Herald in 1955, wrote a letter to his literary idol and found himself invited to Havana to go fishing with “Papa” Hemingway. This began a lifelong association leading to the release last year of the film “Papa,” a screenplay written by Petitclerc before his death.

In the ensuing years, Petitclerc moved back to Sonoma County, writing novels and TV scripts, heeding advice from his mentor while working at the San Francisco Chronicle, and later the SF News, to support a growing family. With the success of “Bonanza” scripts and his original TV series, “Then Came Bronson,” as well a several novels, he went to live near Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho, where he died at 76 in 2006.

Denne donated four of his early letters from “Papa” to Sonoma State University’s library in 1980.


Which brings us to Frank Herbert.

Yes, sci-fi buffs, THAT Frank Herbert.

He was the author of “Dune,” the novel set on the desert planet Arrakis, which beat out both “Lord of the Rings” and “1984” in a 1975 poll to determine the “most imaginative novel of all time.”

But first, before “Dune” put the world’s would-be space travelers on their ear in 1966, Herbert was an imaginative Santa Rosa reporter for four years and more, often teased by his PD colleagues for his propensity to embellish routine automobile accidents and house fires more than his editors felt necessary.

That imagination worked well for science fiction. “Dune” and its sequels (six by Frank and 14 more by his son Brian and co-author Kevin Anderson) became a science fiction franchise, including a 1984 film. Just last week I heard on my car radio that screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for “Forrest Gump,” has been selected to direct a new film version of “Dune.”

Herbert, who left here for a brief stay at the San Francisco Examiner in 1954, sold his first novel, “Dragon of he Sea,” in 1955 and never returned to a newspaper.

In 1978 he made a triumphant return to Santa Rosa, headlining a sci-fi convention at El Rancho Tropicana (think Costco today) and catching up with old newspaper friends. Herbert died in 1986.

But “Dune” lives on.


There are others for whom newspapering was a path to bigger and better known journals. One would be Ruben Salazar, who came from Texas in 1956 to spend just nine months at the PD before moving on to the San Francisco News, the Los Angeles Times and, ultimately to be news director of KMEX-TV in L.A.

Killed by a police tear gas canister while covering a 1970 anti-Vietnam War demonstration in East L.A., he is considered a martyr to the Chicano cause. Salazar Hall at SSU was named for him and, in 2008 the U.S. Postal Service memorialized him with a postage stamp.

There was Phil Foisie, an editor here in those fertile early ’50s, who became the widely respected foreign editor of the Washington Post and ended his career in Paris as editor of the International Herald Tribune.

And Herb Waters, a reporter and editor in the ’30s and ’40s who went off to Washington as an aide to Sen. Hubert Humphrey and served as an executive in several government and private organizations seeking to end world hunger.

But the champion in the governmental category would be the legendary state Sen. Herbert Slater, who worked as a reporter for this newspaper at the start of the 20th century and told the world about Luther Burbank’s genius.

Slater represented Sonoma County for nearly four decades in California’s Legislature — and never left his job at the PD. Blinded in an accident in 1919, he often recognized visitors by their footsteps as they approached his newsroom desk, which also served as his district office. His political column was a regular feature (in case you need a reminder that those were different times) and his Fish & Game report one of the best read of the PD’s features.

He was 77 and had served 37 years in office when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the corner of Fourth and E streets on his way to the PD office — to write his columns.