A few of his friends called him “Count.” But most of his friends, in Fontana and throughout California, affectionately called him “Cornie” (used as a noun not as an adjective). When he arrived in Fontana in 1921 it was an agricultural community of 300 pioneers raising grapes, citrus and poultry.
It was easy to understand how the nickname “Count” came about when you review his Hungarian background. Old World charm, ready wit, and cheery disposition. He was born in Hungary. His formal education was in Hungary where he attended college at Kassa in 1899 and worked on the local paper.
In 1901 he entered the Royal Hungarian University in Budapest where he combined the study of law with the continued practice of the newspaper profession. His first newspaper position in Hungary’s capital was that of managing editor for the county seat’s official newspaper. It must be understood that in Europe, during those years, newspapers were operated by distinct political parties, each stating its own point of view on political affairs. A few months later he became a staff member of a press bureau that served Hungarian, Croatian and Serbian newspapers.
Young De Bakcsy concerned himself with reporting the activities of the national minorities in the Hungarian Parliament. In this capacity he became acquainted with some of the outstanding personalities who served the various nationalities of the Danubian Valley. Among them was Ivan Ivanich, head of the Serbian Government Press Bureau at Belgrade. Through these contacts with the Serbian leaders, De Bakcsy was given one of the great newspaper scoops of the decade.
In 1902 he received a tip to travel to Belgrade. Without stopping for luggage, he caught a train, arriving at the Serbian capital on the night the royal couple, King Alexander and Queen Draga Mashina, were assassinated. It was the young Hungarian editor, De Bakcsy, who broke the news to the world. He often recalled the events of that night and commented that his scoop was quite a sensation throughout Central Europe. After that he received several job offers. He took a reporter’s job covering the Hungarian Parliament for the Daily Pesti Ujsag. At the same time he also served as city editor of the Budapest Ujsag.
During this period he became affiliated with the Kossuth party, which opposed the Hapsburg Emperors. He started a paper for this party that called for independence from Austria. In 1905 this party elected 75 percent of the deputies in the Hungarian Parliament, and the victory transformed De Bakcsy’s paper into the government organ. He followed this move by making his offices the central clearing agency for the wire services to the Balkan countries and dropping Hapsburg propaganda formerly supplied from Vienna to those points. His new contacts brought close acquaintances with leaders throughout the Balkans and Turkey. In Turkey he became an intimate of Ahamed Psha, who headed the Young Turks and was soon to overthrow the last Sultan and end the Ottoman Empire. In the 1912 elections the Kossuth party lost power and Vienna again took steps to control the news services in the Balkans.
De Bakcsy went to San Francisco in 1914 to represent the Hungarian Press at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. For the next year he wrote articles on the World’s Fair for various newspapers in Hungary as well as other Central European countries. World War I broke out between Serbia and Austria and rapidly spread throughout Europe. De Bakcsy was determined to stay in America. He went to Cleveland where he became an editor of the Hungarian daily newspaper Szabadsag. He made his home in Cleveland from 1916-1920, where he married Gizella Kramer. Their son, Alex, was born in 1918 before they left for California.
They settled for a short time in Southern California where he became acquainted with A.B. Miller. Not enough can be said about Miller, who founded Fontana and the Fontana Farms Company. His leadership and energy made it all possible. Cornie was attracted to Fontana and decided to live there in 1921.
In 1923 Fontana had 600 residents. When Cornie announced that he was planning to publish a newspaper there, even his family and friends thought that he had lost his mind. But he persisted because he firmly believed that a wilderness could be transformed if in its midst a voice cried out a message of faith and hope.
On “Fontana Day,” June 7, 1923, De Bakcsy published Volume I No. I of the Fontana Herald, a small, five-column, four-page paper. In a year the infant paper grew to standard size. Before the end of the decade, it had grown to have a statewide reputation and was the recipient of numerous awards and trophies for editorial excellence and public service.
De Bakcsy had become an American citizen in 1918 but many of the people in Fontana were not citizens. As publisher of The Herald, he started an Americanization page that had a digest of the week’s news together with short editorials on the advantages of American citizenship. This page was written in English, Hungarian, Spanish and Italian. Naturalization classes spurted upward. Congressman Phil Swing was so impressed with the fruits of De Bakcsy’s page that he called it to the attention of the Naturalization Department in Washington, D.C. De Bakcsy was called to Washington, where he met President Coolidge who, to De Bakcsy’s amazement, produced a marked copy of The Herald with most favorable comments.
De Bakcsy through his farsighted ideas was one of the men who founded the Fontana Chamber of Commerce. He also was the backbone of the revival of the San Bernardino County Chamber of Commerce. He took over the duty at the time when the organization had virtually given up the ghost. He put life into it, snapped it into energetic programs of promoting the valley, mountain and desert into a major influence in the Southwest and California.
One of De Bakcsy’s outstanding promotions for the San Bernardino County Chamber of Commerce was that he was able to convince the Borax Co. to put together the colorful Borax 20 Mule team as a float in the parade in San Francisco for the opening of the Bay Bridge. The entry was so unusual that San Francisco Mayor Rossi ordered the parade rerouted to enable the lengthy team to turn on the city streets.
De Bakcsy also served California in the capacity of Advisory Board member from the Second Supervisorial District. In newspaper circles, De Bakcsy played a prominent part in the affairs of the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Newspaper Editorial Association.
He was host to more than 300 California editors during the CNPA Convention in 1926 and 1931. He served as a director of CNPA for two years and was president of the San Bernardino/Riverside Unit for one year.
In the 1930s and ’40s Cornie continued to meet well-known political personalities throughout California, including governors Merriam, Richardson, Knight and Congressman Swing.
Also during this time, besides working for the development and growth of Fontana, Cornie spent many hours making speeches on his deeply felt concern about communism throughout the world. He became recognized as an authority on communism and was constantly asked to speak throughout the state.
The Industrial Era that A.B. Miller had visualized finally arrived in early 1940 when Henry J. Kaiser announced that he would build a $50 million steel mill in Fontana.
On Dec. 30, 1942, distinguished guests from Washington, D.C., and 8,000 other guests gathered at the Kaiser Steel Mill in awe of the ceremony that marked the “lighting” of the blast furnaces by Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser.
Because of the “special edition” published by the Fontana Herald on the Kaiser Steel Mill, Cornelius De Bakcsy was presented the “Golden Trophy” by the advertising manager section of CNPA for “the best special edition by a weekly newspaper in California.”
The steel mill brought many other large and small companies to Fontana, among them Basalt Rock, Western Steel Koppers, Taylor Forge and Pipe Works. The pressures of the rapid growth of population made it difficult to build enough homes, schools and churches to meet the new demand.
Cornie was honored by the Riverside San Bernardino Unit of CNPA at a dinner celebrating his 40 years in publishing. Former California Gov. Frank Merrian said, “Cornie, you have accomplished not along in newspaper work but in civic betterment and other endeavors throughout California where you long served.” Also at the dinner were many CNPA publishers and other dignitaries and friends from all over California.
He served as president and secretary of the Fontana Chamber of Commerce. De Bakcsy was a charter director of the 28th Agricultural Association and District. He was a director of the San Bernardino Red Cross and a charter member and president of the Fontana Rotary Club.
In his 24 years in Fontana, Cornie became the voice of Fontana. From June 7, 1923, until his death, Cornie was that voice. He preached the benefits of democracy, cried out against the sins of totalitarianism and called for native-born Americans to sacrifice for freedom.
During World War II, De Bakcsy sent a magazine to the “Fontana boys” of the Armed Forces. The magazine, The Voice of Fontana, hopefully eased the strains of war. The Herald was the voice of the community by building a spirit of mutual cooperation among all participants.
It was Cornie’s lot to be the driving force for community expansion and betterment; starting with his four-column paper in 1923, The Herald grew with the community. They grew together from a community of a few hundred scattered grape growers and poultrymen to the great industrial, agricultural and residential community of nearly 20,000.
During these years, Cornie was regarded with affection and high esteem and considered a stimulating force for the community. Much of the community’s progress was solely the result of his efforts. He felt that nothing was too much for him to do for Fontana. He always had the respect of his associates in Fontana and California because of his spirit of courage and his availability day or night.
There is no better way to say “30” on the life and times of Cornelius De Bakcsy than to end this paper with a few of the obits that were written.
Henry J. Kaiser said, “The West has lost a great friend and builder on the passing of Cornie De Bakcsy. Although he will no longer be with us in person, he will always be with us in our dreams and plans for a greater Fontana, a great San Bernardino County and a greater West for which he worked so untiringly, will go on and on for the betterment of his fellowman to whom he was so devoted. I feel a great loss on the passing of Cornie, but I am proud, as so many others are proud, to have had the privilege of knowing him as a friend.”
John B. Long, general manager of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said, “California newspaperdom is shocked and grieved at the sudden and unexpected passing of Cornie De Bakcsy. CNPA, Fontana, San Bernardino County and the state of California have lost a sterling character, an enthusiastic builder, an exceptionally patriotic citizen and a fine friend.
“The influence of Cornie De Bakcsy for good in our association, in his home community, which he helped build from the beginning, and in the state which he served so faithfully, will long be felt. Our knowledge of it must give us courage.”
Ed Ainsworth, editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Every once in awhile – all too rarely – you run across some leader who seems to typify a whole community, to be the moving spirit that has made it what it is. Cornelius De Bakcsy is that mid of man out in Fontana.”
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*