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Gaye LeBaron: Press Democrat founder Finley’s public works continued long after his death

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lemmon arrived to find that Finley was already making plans for the two papers, despite their fierce political competition, to share printing and press facilities, the Republican in the daytime and the Press Democrat at night.”

Kanaye Nagasawa from Fountaingrove loaned several cases of body type that had been used years before for the “celestial” publications of the late Thomas Lake Harris.

Apparently everyone in town came to watch the first “real newspapers” after a tiny, abbreviated paper printed at Fountaingrove on the day after, roll off a press rescued from a Sebastopol printing plant that had been damaged beyond repair. It stood in the open, on a hastily built floor, Mr. Finley’s book tells us, and when the power was turned on and “the lumbering old press commenced to turn out papers, a shout went up and hats were tossed in the air” by the “big crowd that had gathered, knowing what was going on. … The town was in ruins and under martial law. The light in our office was the only one to be seen.”

“In some respects,” he wrote, “This was the most satisfactory experience I ever had as far as getting out a newspaper is concerned.”

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The oft-told Mr. Finley stories are about the big things, like his insistence on placing his desk beside the door to the newsroom so everyone coming in or out could stop for a short visit. If, that is, he wasn’t engaged in his second favorite pastime, which according to his daughter, Ruth Person, was “standing on a street corner talking politics or hop prices.”

His political power was prodigious in the years when Northern California ruled. He was on a first-name basis with governors and had enough “juice” to reach FDR in the 1930s to stop a foreclosure on a Forestville apple orchard that had become a symbol for California farmers rallying in protest on the courthouse steps.

We know about his social meetings with banker Frank Doyle and beer baron Joe Grace to launch events that would last into the 21st century, like the Sonoma County Fair. We know about his response to a warning from the railroad moguls who owned the San Francisco Bay ferry system that he risked a boycott of his newspaper if he continued to support the Exchange Bank’s Frank Doyle and promote the building of a bridge over the Golden Gate.

Mr. Finley’s response is writ large beneath his portrait in the California Newspaper Publisher’s Hall of Fame — “Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!”

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That was about as profane as Mr. Finley would get. He was a minister’s son, arriving in Santa Rosa at age 6 in 1876 when his father was named president of the Pacific Methodist College. (That institution stood for decades on the current site of Santa Rosa Middle School and gave College Avenue its name.) If his father was a scholar, his mother could be described as a “modern woman” in her time — a local leader in the fight for women’s rights long before the 1920 vote on Woman Suffrage amendment. She not only led Sonoma County women to victory and, for several decades before, contributed her essays to national publications; she must surely have influenced her son, whose newspaper was among the first and few in the state to support the women’s movement.

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For almost 50 years he was the very essence of the frontier journalist, the one person in town who had a way of communicating with all the residents and who learned as he went along how to use that power — fortunately for the good of the town, which was not the case everywhere in early California.

So how fitting is it that the Finley Foundation has covered his name with glory? He would, to be certain, be gobsmacked by the value of his newspaper when the New York Times bought it in 1985.

In a day and age when newspapers are fighting for survival, it’s good to remember that this pot of gold began with a pioneering newspaper editor who laid the groundwork for the journalistic glory and financial riches ahead. Mr. Finley died 25 years before his widow, daughter and son-in-law, Evert Person, established the foundation that bears his name. We need to remember his story — how he cared about “his people,” all of them, because it is his abiding concern for the community that is reflected in every coin of those $40 million.

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