Gerald Haslam, voice for California’s Central Valley, dies at 84
He spent summers laboring in the fields under intense, Central Valley heat, toiled in the oil patches of Kern County, did a stint in the U.S. Army and had a knack for writing and storytelling from a young age.
Although he spent much of his life in Penngrove, Gerald “Gerry” Haslam was, in many ways, the perfect person to give a voice to the other California.
And for most of the past eight decades, that’s exactly what Haslam did, publishing 21 books, most set in the San Joaquin Valley, including, of course, “The Other California.”
Haslam, a longtime Sonoma State University English professor and Oildale native, died April 13, succumbing to prostate cancer after keeping it at bay for more than 20 years. He was 84.
His death triggered an outpouring of support, inundating Haslam’s wife, Jan Haslam, five children and 14 grandchildren with well wishes and heartfelt messages.
“Every note we’re getting is just full of love, full of respect, full of, just, almost awe of what he created,” said Alexandra Russell, Haslam’s second-oldest child. “Somebody said to me recently, ‘I didn’t know your dad was such a celebrity.’”
Until this year, when she spent days helping her mom go through Haslam’s works and accolades as part of a nominating process for a lifetime achievement award, even Russell wasn’t fully aware of her dad’s impact.
“So much of his work kind of ties together,” said Russell, 56, who has enjoyed her own decorated career as a journalist, with stints at the helm of Spirited and NorthBay biz Magazine. “You can see where his heart was when you stop and look back at all of it as a piece of work, and I don’t think I had ever taken the time to do that before.”
As a voice for the Central Valley, and the rural west writ large, Haslam drew comparisons in his career to John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and William Saroyan, writers who delved deeply into the human condition.
He was classmates with Merle Haggard, and his writing style was once fittingly described by a former The Nation magazine editor as “country music set to prose.”
As the author of “Coming of Age in California,” “The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland,” “That Constant Coyote,” “Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California,” “Okies” and “Haslam’s Valley,” among many others, Haslam put his mark on his native state – and the west.
The Los Angeles Times once wrote that Haslam “created a tradition from scratch.”
Along the way, Haslam’s works earned a host of honors, including a Commonwealth Club Medal, Western States Book Award, an Eric Hoffer Award and two Josephine Miles Awards. He also earned a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association, a Sequoia – Giant of the Valley Award from The Great Valley Center and a Certificate of Commendation from the California Arts Council, among other accolades.
Haslam gave back as president and board member for the Western Literature Association, and he also served on the boards for the Yosemite Association, the Multi-Cultural Institute, the California Studies Association and even the Petaluma Youth Soccer League.
Haslam taught for 30 years at SSU before retiring in 1997. Then he spent another 15 years teaching part time at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute.
Haslam said he became a professor to support his writing habit, and referred to himself as “a writer who taught, not a teacher who wrote.”
Prolific to the end, Haslam even wrote his own obituary, excerpted here:
“He married Janice Eillen Pettichord in Oildale on July 1, 1961, and they departed for college in the Bay Area, where they became a team.
‘Jan was not only my love, she also became my editor and dearest pal.’
They took advantage of educational opportunities to accumulate five degrees between them.
Stricken with incurable prostate cancer in 1996, Haslam made himself available for clinical trials.
“Somehow, every modality tried on me worked, at least to some extent.”
During those years, he and Jan became the grandparents of 14.
‘My survival seemed miraculous to us,” Haslam said in his pre-written obituary. “Living to see all those grandkids has been a wonderful, unexpected gift.’”
His own childhood, set in Kern County’s Oildale, outside Bakersfield, morphed into summers spent doing farm labor, then oil field work. Haslam was a solid athlete for Garces High School’s football and track teams, and he was a champion in speech and drama and an award-winning scholastic journalist.
He continued to visit Bakersfield several times each year into his 80s, according to The Bakersfield Californian, making appearances at Bakersfield College, one of his alma maters.
Russell, Haslam’s eldest daughter, acknowledged Haslam’s celebrity, but she said “He was also a character. He was a storyteller. Every conversation with him turned into a storytelling session – and it was great.”
Haslam’s family, Russell said, was able to share more stories in the weeks and months that preceded his death, spending time with him as his health deteriorated.
“It doesn’t mean you’re ever ready for it,” Russell said. “We had time with him, he had time to talk with us. We knew his time was coming, and we were able to all visit with him and say our goodbyes.”
Russell said Haslam was always her and her siblings’ biggest fan in sports and scholastics. Jan ran the show, Russell said, but Haslam was always involved. Others might remember his love of life, his knack for finding the good in people and his ability to “look for the laugh in any situation,” Russell said.
“Everybody he met he made a connection with. I think that’s remarkable.”
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.