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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.

“Now I am very glad that I didn’t go back,” Haslam said, according to the transcript. “Because going away gave me a perspective as a writer that I never could otherwise have had if I had stayed. Being away, I was able to see the Valley in a different light, without disdaining it as so many other people did who left.”

In Sonoma County, he had close friends and community ties to the university. Plus, “honestly he liked the weather up here better,” Russell said. Haslam retired from SSU in 1997 and later taught part time for another 15 years at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute.

He was president and board member for the Western Literature Association, and he served on the boards for the Yosemite Association, the Multi-Cultural Institute, the California Studies Association and the Petaluma Youth Soccer League.

A decorated track and field athlete at Garces Memorial High School in Bakersfield, Haslam swam, biked and ran marathons throughout his life. At SSU, Haslam kept his office in the physical education department, not the English department, a fitting choice for a man dedicated to physical activity and writing in equal measure, his friends and loved ones said.

“He would get up every morning at about five and write for a solid two hours,” Russell said. “He treated writing a lot like he treated sports and exercise. Just do it, make it a habit, do it every day.”

Students of his did not seem to mind that devotion to his day job — writer first, teacher second. Russell, who has led publications including Spirited and NorthBay Biz magazine, said she couldn’t escape the praise that former pupils showered on her father.

“It's crazy how many people his teaching touched,” she said.

In addition to Russell, who lives in Kenwood, he is survived by his wife, Janice; sons Fred, in Vancouver, Washington, Carlos in Petaluma, and Garth in Penngrove; daughter Simone Haslam of Petaluma; and by eight grandsons and six granddaughters. Those youngest ones, he wrote in his obituary, were “the great gifts of his later life.”

In his obituary, Haslam credited his family for supporting him and his writing dreams, from his parents in Oildale to his wife and five children. In the 2006 interview, he also tipped his hat to his story-rich home state.

“The fact that we can, and do draw from the value systems of so many different people makes life here very fascinating, indeed,” he said. “California has given me a gift for which I have always been thankful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosas policy, politics, crime, and economy affect the lives of North Bay residents inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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