Gaye LeBaron: Press Democrat founder Finley’s public works continued long after his death
A “backstory” in journalist’s language is a straightforward account of events leading up to a current news story - to something that’s happening now.
In this case it is the subject of Chris Smith’s interview with Norma Person published last Sunday. It told us of a coming sea change in hometown philanthropy.
Person, the widow of the former Press Democrat publisher Evert Person, heads the Finley Foundation, which has set a new standard for charity in Sonoma County over the past 25 ?years. The news she brought is that the foundation is winding down.
The foundation was established in 1967 by the family of Ernest Finley, including his daughter, the late Ruth Finley Person. Finley was the founder and last “country editor” of The Press Democrat and, although he died 25 years before the foundation was established, more than $40 million in grants to local nonprofits have been made in his name since the PD newspaper passed from family ownership three decades ago.
This news deserves a backstory. It has to be a story about Ernest Finley, the bold young man who started his own newspaper, The Evening Press, at the age of 25 and two years later, with partners, bought out The Sonoma Democrat, the reigning publication in the area for 40 years.
Mr. Finley - he was always “Mister Finley” to PD staffers and it is an honorific he obviously earned, and should be observed - is the subject of many stories both written and told by people who knew him. So it is difficult to choose a backstory.
But there is one with a cast of characters, people Mr. Finley knew well who emerge from the faded pages of an 87-year-old newspaper to tell us something about him - about his humor, his power of observation and how well he knew the people of “his” town.
“Santa Rosans I Have Known,” he called them. Originally written for a 75th anniversary edition of the paper in 1932, his Santa Rosa memories became a 90-page book, published after his death in 1942.
His characters are a cross-section - all manner of people with just one thing in common. They all lived here.
There is Lil Roberts and Sam Hussey, drivers of the horse-drawn streetcar up McDonald Avenue who sometimes delivered groceries or minded children while their mothers shopped.
And there are cattle barons and real estate tycoons and bankers, many of whom had crossed the plains in wagon trains or even “come round the Horn.”
There are governors and congressmen of all political persuasions - although the “Democrat” clung to its name.
And there is a horseshoer named Jimmy Doyle “whose invariable response when asked to take a drink was: ‘And did I hear a voice from Heaven?’”
Mr. Finley’s Santa Rosans include the first mail carrier in town who was known to ignore the outgoing mail in a pickup box he deemed too far to walk on warm days; and the Third Street grocer who had wild game for sale - quail and ducks, squirrels and jackrabbits, all hanging outside his store.
There was the clever postmaster who “cleaned up” the post office with a sign reading: “If you expectorate on the floor, do not expect to rate as a gentleman.”
These, plus the town’s first doctor, whose first stop of the day was at the butcher’s for a chunk of raw meat to “give his two dozen drinks before nightfall something to work on.” And the famously grouchy tavern owner who died with a stack of IOUs on his desk he had never, ever tried to collect.
These were Mr. Finley’s “people” including Mariano Vallejo, whose “bushy side-whiskers” fascinated him as a child when his parents entertained the general at dinner, and Luther Burbank, in whom he saw value to Santa Rosa “from the advertising standpoint.”
There is Uncle Potter, a tall, black man “of dignified mien.” And, of course, there’s John Taylor, whose ranch was on the mountain just south of town, who famously gave a five-dollar gold piece for the first subscription to the old Democrat in 1857.
There are 75 of his people, at least, in the pages of that little book. They speak to the time. The two or three women - except for Dr. Annabel Stuart, the physician known to her patients as “Doctor Dear’ - are visiting performers. Residents of the tiny Chinatown didn’t make the cut. (His admirers would defend him on this score, pointing out that his exclusions speak more to the times than to his convictions.)
So what we see through Mr. Finley’s eyes is what scholars now call “a sense of place,” from a time when everyone’s lives weren’t open books on the internet and a tosspot horseshoer was worthy of a paragraph.
We also get a straightforward look at what happened when the 1906 earthquake leveled his printing plant. He leased two adjoining lots on Fifth Street - one for his Press Democrat and the other for his competitor, Allen Lemmon of the Santa Rosa Republican, who was rushing home from a trip to Mexico.