Gerald Haslam, SSU professor and ’working man’s writer’ who chronicled Central Valley, dies at 84
Gerald Haslam wrote because he made it a habit and because he had something to say.
The son of a blue-collared Kern County family, he established himself over decades as an admired chronicler of life in overlooked corners of California, where toil was the shared experience among rogues, farmworkers and unsung heroes. His award-winning prose, nonfiction and fiction, spotlighted striving and hardship, booms and busts in one of the state’s most iconic and productive landscapes, the Central Valley.
“He saw stories in every moment and wanted to tell every one of them,” said his daughter Alexandra Russell.
The longtime Sonoma State University professor, Penngrove resident and prolific author died April 13 after battling prostate cancer for more than two decades.
Born in Bakersfield and raised in Oildale, Haslam left the region that would fire his imagination and forge his acclaimed writing career in 1961, accompanied by his new wife, Janice Eileen Pettichord. Haslam went to San Francisco State for undergraduate and graduate degrees and the couple never moved back. The North Bay was their home for more than 50 years.
Haslam joined the English department at Sonoma State University in 1967 and taught there for 30 years. But he was a “writer who taught, not a teacher who wrote,” he clarified in a obituary he wrote for himself.
The sentiment was echoed by those who knew him best. “He was a working man’s writer,” Russell said. “He was not about the flash and the accolades. He earned a gillion of them but that’s not what he did it for.”
His body of work included 12 books of fiction and nine of nonfiction as well as editing roles in eight literary anthologies, a number of booklets and pamphlets and several hundred magazine stories and essays, according to his website.
He was honored with awards that included the Commonwealth Club Medal, a Western States Arts Federation’s Fiction Award for his book “Straight White Male,” a Benjamin Franklin Book Award and a Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. He was recognized with the Ralph J. Gleason Award for “Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California,” an ode to the music heroes who emerged from some of the same dusty towns where he’d grown up in the southern San Joaquin Valley. He and Russell, a local journalist, collaborated on the book.
His collection of personal essays “Coming of Age in California” was selected by a reader poll as one of the top 100 nonfiction books about the West by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 — accompanied on that list by writers such as Wallace Stegner, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey and Mary Austen.
His writing was plain-spoken, funny, rich with dialogue and colored by dialect. It was “knowledgeable but not condescending, warm and honest,” Russell said.
The story he most wanted to tell was that of his birthplace.
Though rooted in the North Bay for decades, first in Petaluma and later in Penngrove, Haslam’s gaze rarely drifted from the Central Valley.
As a boy, he’d delivered newspapers and later in life wrote for them, penning op-eds and columns for the Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times and Bakersfield Californian. He worked on oil rigs and on the farms, coming of age in a part of California that became an economic engine for the state and nation — but one still given short shrift by coastal denizens.
As a writer, he was bent on changing that outlook.
“The Great Central Valley was I would say the love of his life,” said fellow writer and SSU professor Jonah Raskin, who shared that he would challenge his colleague on why he wrote so much about his home region. The answer went beyond the clichéd maxim for scribes, to “write what you know,” Raskin said.
“He would always insist that he wanted to make people aware of what he called the other part of California,” Raskin said.
The place was one thing, but the people within it and what they did to earn a living concerned him all the more, Russell said.
“That’s what he focused most of his work on, was bringing those people and those places to life in a way that was not stereotyped and vilified,” she said.
Among his neighbors growing up in Oildale was Merle Haggard, who lived three blocks away and was a classmate in school. Haslam considered Haggard “the best country musician of all time,” he said in a 2006 interview with Raskin, the transcript of which was published as a slim pamphlet.
In that interview, Haslam also reflected on leaving the Central Valley and never moving back. Teaching jobs in the region may have been a possibility, but he said he did not believe Janice would want to relocate. Ultimately, staying away made him a more acute observer of the place, he said.