Looking Back - San Diego, 1948-1952
By Lionel Van Deerlin
San Diego, 1948. Fifty years ago. A span of time equal to all the years from Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to our 1915 Exposition celebrating completion of the Panama Canal.
When San Diego Magazine was first published, three buildings dominated the city’s downtown skyline—the El Cortez Hotel, the Bank of America on Broadway and the Medico-Dental building (now named Centre City) on A Street. You could board a city bus for a nickel. San Diego’s only TV station could monopolize all three networks. And our leading downtown hostelry could refuse a room to celebrated black contralto Marian Anderson.
Charles Dickens might have deemed it the best and worst of times. In a span of five years, this naval and aircraft-production center plunged from boom to near bust. From a wartime high of more than 45,000 late in 1943, Convair’s San Diego payroll stood at 3,760 three months after V-J Day. Layoffs threatened an economic tailspin as workers scrambled for jobs elsewhere. Real estate values headed downward. Some visionaries decided we were overbuilt, questioning even a sufficiency of water to sustain future growth. As was happening in other cities, local newspaper competition was gasping.
But life regenerates quickly in California. At that very moment, four Convair engineers were at work on preliminary stages of a project they couldn’t talk about even to their families—one that would help relieve San Diego’s employment problem while nudging America into the Space Age.
The Atlas missile was the free world’s first ICBM. It provided the thrust for sending astronauts into orbit at 25 times the speed of sound, while eventually opening 35,000 jobs on Kearny Mesa. Led by a Belgium-born physicist, the late Karel J. “Charlie” Bossart, the Convair team were William H. Patterson, Jack Bowers and the late Charles Ames. Patterson, the company’s executive vice president, emerged as the group’s in-house “lobbyist.” He was a young ex-professor of math and physics at Whittier College with war service tracking German missiles and V-2 rockets over the English Channel.
No great scientific breakthrough—and certainly no weapons system—has been achieved on less money than this one. Persisting in their free time even when government and company funds ran out, the Atlas engineers put an initial rocket (the MX-774) through static testing at the Naval Electronics Laboratory on Point Loma, then three actual launches at New Mexico’s White Sands Proving Ground. The Air Force, at last convinced, gave Atlas its go-ahead in January 1951. Fifty more engineers were quickly recruited, and San Diego was on its way back to the Big Time.
Atlas helped shape the area in additional ways. Scores of electronic subcontracting plants sprang up to supply General Dynamics (most of them outlasting the prime contractor) with the type of small-unit, high-skill products that have blunted our “end of the line” image.
Space science encouraged expansion of higher education, too. In 1948, only four of 10 graduating high school seniors at our end of the state went on to college. But two small Catholic institutions (the College for Women and College for Men, which included a law school) came together to form the University of San Diego on 180 acres high above Mission Valley’s northwest rim. A great new state university campus, UCSD, would follow on Torrey Pines Mesa. Together with long-established San Diego State and an expanding community college system, these have made a continuing education today accessible to 78 percent of high school seniors.
Caltech, too, was nearby. The year 1948 saw Palomar’s 200-inch telescope mirror, weighing six tons, finally trucked to the mountaintop. Cast 14 years earlier in Corning, New York, its completion had been delayed by war. The Palomar mirror gave astronomers their best look at the universe in advance of today’s even more spectacular satellite photography.
But for some things there is no scientific fix. San Diego was not yet a secure haven for civil liberties. Without a Miranda rule in place, police were free to enforce obscure ordinances as they pleased. Laws against loitering were regularly invoked to criminalize persons “with no visible means of support.” Justice was served (and a 30-day sentence waived) if a vagrant promised to be “out of town by 1 p.m.” San Diego thus passed along its social problems to San Clemente or Santa Ana.
Vice squad officers stretched other ordinances to roust sailors caught with girls in hotel rooms or, as on one occasion, to move Painless Nell’s lower Broadway tattoo parlor. Nell was booked for failure to provide cuspidors on the premises.
A conspiracy enforced by its realty board kept La Jolla off-limits to Jewish homebuyers, a “gentlemen’s agreement” that remained in place until UCSD came to town. Meanwhile, San Diego’s white majority was adjusting, though not easily, to a wartime influx of black citizenry, mainly from the Deep South. Racial segregation was every bit as de facto at Woolworth’s San Diego lunch counter as in Montgomery, Alabama. Black faces did not make our society pages. Black merchants somehow failed to obtain licenses to do business north of Highway 94 or lower Market Street. The Bank of America and most department stores hired no black clerks. The county’s legislative delegation to Sacramento stood solidly against creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
The U.S. Grant Hotel’s undisguised biases went beyond barring Marian Anderson a full nine years after her exclusion from Washington’s Constitution Hall. Upon opening its swank new Grant Grill, management refused service to women of any color or professional attainment until after 5 p.m.
San Diego’s millionaire mayor of 50 years ago, Harley Knox, was a dairyman whose formal education had stopped at the eighth grade. Yet historian John Gunther (Inside USA, 1947) described him as “one of the best-educated Americans I know.” Knox once noted that a campaign opponent had raised $30,000. “Anyone spending that kind of money is not buying good government,” he said.
Friends of the mayor occasionally asked him to fix traffic tickets. He would accept them with a smile—not letting on that he never asked to have a ticket canceled, but paid for friends’ transgressions out of his own pocket.
This was already America’s biggest city with a manager form of government. A squeaky-clean manager, O.W. “Hump” Campbell, came here from San Jose in 1949. Campbell quickly sniffed out a sweet arrangement under which San Diego’s Big Four paving contractors took turns submitting the low bid on major street projects. Needless to add, this kept the “low” bid unrealistically high. These contractors also had persuaded the city bureaucracy to specify needless layers of rock and sand under new pavement—entailing huge purchases from gravel quarries owned by the Big Four.
His reputation established for curbing such abuses, Campbell moved on to become the nation’s first countywide manager—of Miami’s Dade County.
Then, as now, San Diego bristled with controversy—and with voters usually in a negative mood. First came imaginative plans for a Cedar Street mall. This east-west street was to be designated for all future public buildings, forming an orderly approach to the Civic Center, a Pacific Highway edifice then shared by city and county offices. The mall would have meant shortening Santa Fe’s rail approach to the city. And the people said no.
There was a ballot measure requiring builders to provide auto parking commensurate with the projected traffic their new apartments or office buildings were likely to generate. This sound proposal went down under an advertising barrage by an ad hoc “Committee for the Defense of Free Enterprise.” A similar fate awaited the next big ballot proposition—this one for fluoridating the city’s water to reduce tooth decay in children.
Indeed, local voters earned such a reputation for negativity that early-day TV hucksters saw San Diego as a reliable test market. If a new product could sell here, they reasoned, it would be a cinch anywhere.
To their credit, those same voters made an exception in 1949 when asked to enlarge and renovate school buildings that had been neglected during the war years. Challenged by the campaign slogan “Don’t Cheat Children,” they gave better than 70 percent approval to a $250 million statewide bond issue benefiting 25 “impoverished” districts in our county.
At least two civic thorns of the mid-century—airport location and the public library —remain painfully familiar. A fledgling Stanford Research Institute was the first of several outside entities hired to recommend where San Diego should put an international air terminal of the future. After months of study, SRI’s wrinklebrows said the best solution would be joint military-civilian use of North Island Naval Air Station.
A reporter asked if the Navy had been consulted about this recommendation.
“No,” came the institute’s answer. And from the rear someone was heard to say, “There goes the old ball game!”
It happens that a new main library was then headed for a decision, exactly as its replacement hangs in the balance today. Astonishingly, the City Council of 1948 bypassed its planning commission on both the location and design of the new edifice—a mistake we live with 50 years later.
But the most spirited civic fight of those times was a short-lived faceoff involving the proposed location of the Interstate 5 freeway through our North County. State highway engineers had designed a route neatly bisecting every coastal community, from Del Mar north, along its principal street. Federal law required approval by local officials—in this instance the County Board of Supervisors, which went along with only slight discussion and a 5-0 vote.
There was an immediate uprising among the aggrieved north coast residents. Their businesses shut down on a day hordes of protesters descended on the Civic Center—enough to overrun the supervisors’ chamber and jam the grounds outside. A shaken board quickly reversed its earlier vote—this time 5-0 rejecting the freeway plan. The hand of bureaucracy thus stayed, future freeway traffic was nudged an appropriate distance inland.
At a time when the county had only seven Superior courts (there are now 71) and the yellow pages listed far fewer lawyers, our legal circles abounded with colorful practitioners. Having survived the Bataan Death March, Judge Dean Sherry ran his courtroom as sternly as any military tribunal. A colleague, “Hanging John” Hewicker, castigated juries that failed to convict. On the Municipal bench, gentle Madge Bradley was San Diego’s first female judge. District Attorney Tommy Whelan’s impressive prosecutorial talents seemed even sharper after a three-martini lunch. Divorce lawyer John Holt’s waiting room bore the decorative trimming of a French boudoir. And in an era before law school was a requirement for elective judges, the police magistrate, John J. Brennan, almost made legal history.
Offended by the demeanor of a witness in a “drunk and disorderly” case one morning, Brennan decided he’d absolve the defendant and find the witness guilty. An astonished prosecutor whispered, “That is possible, Your Honor, but you will first have to file charges against the witness. And then the case will be assigned to another court because Your Honor will be the complaining witness.”
Demurring only briefly, Brennan banged his gavel. “Case dismissed!” he thundered.
The town had other unforgettables:
Lena Sefton Clark, the permanent Charity Ball chairperson and unchallenged arbiter of San Diego society.
Sailor Main, the first of many used car-dealers to proclaim his zaniness through paid advertising.
Feisty labor commissioner Staney Gue, the first public official to pursue unprincipled growers for wages owed to alien workers.
Father Leo Davis, the “labor priest” whose impassioned invocations told God everything He needed to know concerning earthly matters.
Author Stuart Lake, whose smash network TV series canonized a highly dubious frontier lawman, the “bold, courageous and strong” Wyatt Earp.
Herman Hetzel, a south-of-Broadway bookie enjoying respectability under the label “betting commissioner.”
And Belle Benchley, after nearly three decades still running the San Diego Zoo with an iron hand and an animal cunning appropriate to her venue.
Newspaper competition? There had been reason to suppose it had ended in San Diego a full decade earlier when the Union-Tribune absorbed the failing San Diego Sun. But when Hitler overran the Scandinavian countries, American publishers lost an assured supply of low-cost newsprint. The Union-Tribune found itself without space for the heavy advertising schedules it could have sold in a swollen economy.
Enter Clinton D. McKinnon, a diminutive and calculating San Fernando Valley publisher who now saw an opening in San Diego. McKinnon persuaded the War Production Board during a Democratic administration to allocate scarce newsprint for a new daily here—one of Democratic persuasion, he emphasized. His Journal was the nation’s only World War II newspaper start-up after Pearl Harbor.
But when war ended, the dominant morning Union and Evening Tribune began reclaiming their lost advertising. In the face of declining revenues, McKinnon sold off the Journal in 1948 to a West Virginia broadcast mogul, John A. Kennedy—whose subsequent losses prompted him to accept a Union-Tribune buyout offer in June 1950. A year later Kennedy acquired KFMB radio and Channel 8 television, this at a time when TV began siphoning away an ever larger share of the total advertising dollar.
Channel 8 enjoyed a local monopoly for nearly five years—from a 1948 start-up until its only TV rivals, Channel 10 and Mexican-licensed XETV, began broadcasting five years later.
The dearth of early television here had three significant results: a single station’s access to the programming of all three networks; an environmental outrage caused when householders erected 40-foot antennas in quest of Los Angeles station signals; and eventually the nation’s first and largest cable-TV market.
Print journalism in many places was slow to recognize this major new source of competition. The highly respected dean of San Diego newspapermen, Harold Keen, was doing a nightly program of interviews on Channel 8, People in the News. Ordered to abandon TV or quit his newspaper job, Keen opted for the air—remaining this area’s best-known reporter-commentator for nearly another quarter-century. Keen also began a long and distinguished career writing articles for San Diego Magazine.
Who really ran things in our town? Late in 1952, this upstart magazine dared to name the “Seven Most Powerful San Diegans.” Two were drawn from media management: TV tycoon Kennedy and Bill Shea, general manager of the Union-Tribune. (Not named was Shea’s boss, the newspaper’s publisher, James S. Copley.) The other powers were adjudged to be school superintendent Will C. Crawford, financiers Andy Borthwick and Ewart Goodwin, merchant George A. Scott and that pioneer power symbol, Colonel Ed Fletcher.
The seven were posed full-page atop a downtown office building, against a backdrop of San Diego’s upper Broadway power alley. But changing standards tell us something was amiss. Could a comparable search for today’s power structure exclude two or possibly more women?
Politically, the county ranged from mildly Republican in 1948 (Dewey 101,552, Truman 98,217) to emphatically so four years later (Eisenhower 175,281, Stevenson 101,880). The banker-industrialist C. Arnholt Smith and contractor R.E. “Pappy” Hazard headed an impenetrable financial front for the GOP in a day before workable campaign spending laws.
Wisconsin’s red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy darkened councils here as elsewhere. City officials agonized over dedicating a veterans memorial building to The Four Freedoms—freedoms that to some in the community seemed vaguely un-American. The Mission Hills home of a retired Army general became a volunteer FBI outpost as the general compiled voluminous, though unofficial, files on suspected subversives. The Birch Society was yet to be heard from.
There was irony, too. Running for U.S. Senate in 1950, fast-rising Richard Nixon painted his opponent, actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, as dangerously leftist. Democrats planning a Douglas rally looked to Hollywood for an additional drawing card. But the suggestion of actor Ronald Reagan was rejected out of hand. Too liberal for this town, the committee agreed.
In a pedantic style long since abandoned, San Diego Magazine’s January 1951 issue undertook to render editorial advice—including what was possibly the earliest warning of urban sprawl from the north.
“... Our next growth spurt may be fatal,” the editorial intoned, “fatal in the sense that the city will no longer be livable if the present trend of planning failures continues. Like Colossal Angeles to the north, San Diego may become a place to make money fast and die slowly, with glaring failures which merely repeat the failures of other cities: disorderly decentralization of business centers; mediocre public buildings, badly located...”
The editorial’s baleful title: “Can San Diego Wake Up and Grow Up in Time?”
Some will insist we did just that.