Dan Beebe created controversy. He fought many unpopular battles. People said he was tough. They also said he was fair. Hardly an event took place, since his arrival in Oroville, in which he was not involved. Those who knew him will tell you: you would have loved him or hated him, but everyone respected him.
Many of the things Oroville residents enjoy today are the result of Dan Beebe’s involvement in the community he loved; from the 5th Avenue tennis courts and the golf course that he helped to build to the California Poppies that bloom each year in the vacant lot at Huntoon and High Streets. Helena Beebe, his wife of 53 years, said the flowers were planted not as a community project but because “Dan thought they would look nice and brighten up the area a little.”
Dan Beebe was a newspaperman. Although owner and publisher of the Oroville Mercury Register for 43 years, he never stopped being a reporter. He would have three radios going every morning, one at his bedside, one in the bath and one in the breakfast-room all blaring the morning news. He was not often caught unawares of the happenings while he slept.
During his early days, reporting news in the Midwest, Beebe earned the name “Dynamo Dan.” A bank had been robbed and Dan was hot on the story. He not only got the story but the robber, too. The “Dynamo Dan” tag remained with him all his life.
He was editor of the campus newspaper at Earlham College in Indiana, his alma mater. After graduating he became editor of the Richmond Morning News, a small Indiana paper, and later editor of the larger Richmond Item. The last two jobs earned him $12 a week. In 1911 he was employed by the Indianapolis News, still at the same $12-per-week salary. Obviously experience, not money, was his motivation.
Beebe’s time with the News proved to be an important period in his career. It was on this paper that he learned the importance of a competent copy desk. Through his years as a reporter and editor he strove for excellence in newspaper prose. While working for the News he began writing the editorials that would one day bring him notoriety from his fellows as being “straight to the point.” He was never paid for the editorials he wrote for the Indianapolis News.
By 1913, Beebe was really in the money. He earned $18 a week working for what was then called the United Press news service. He managed the Springfield, Ill. office. He upped the clientele of UP from 21 accounts to 53 in three years time and was transferred to Indianapolis. These accomplishments caught the eye of the competition, Associated Press. AP sent its soon-to-be president, Ken Cooper, out to recruit Beebe. Beebe was proud to announce later that the efforts drew a complete blank. He continued his career with UP, holding various news and business positions in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
In the 1920s Beebe bought into the Modesto News Herald and went to work as its city editor. Six years later The News was sold to The Sacramento Bee and Beebe was out of a job for the first time since he left college.
It was 1927 when he came to Oroville to invest his savings in the newly formed Oroville Mercury Register. There had been two dailies competing in Oroville — the Mercury and the Register. Oroville proved too small a town to support two papers, and they merged shortly before Beebe bought the paper. Today the Oroville Mercury Register is still the only daily between Marysville and Chico.
The first years of ownership were difficult. Only six months after Beebe arrived in Oroville, a group of entrepreneurs began the Oroville Morning Press. This competition lasted 14 months.
The Register, with Beebe in charge, survived the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent Depression. Beebe realized an average annual profit of $50 during the first 10 years he owned the Mercury. A major fire at Hulchinson Lumber Co. caused the destruction of a business that employed most of the men in town. Families left to find work elsewhere. The Depression caused more unemployment. A surge of bad weather resulted in a citrus freeze, and more people left town.
With businesses folding right and left, Beebe was deeply touched when the 10 men who made up the composing room at the paper actually asked to take a 5 percent drop in pay to help out. The Mercury managed to retain all its employees during those hard times. Beebe was always proud that no one had to be let go.
Beebe remembered a clannish town during his early days in Oroville. “It was six months before the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary invited me to associate with them. It took even longer for the more exclusive Fellows Club,” he said. Beebe later became active in all of these organizations.
For a time Dan Beebe owned the local radio station and operated with the call letters KDAN. During the early 1950s the Federal Communications Commission came down hard on radio stations and newspapers owned by the same person or companies. Constant conflicts of interest caused him to defer to his first love, journalism.
The two most important accomplishments to Beebe’s credit are the instigation of the Brown Act and his role as watchdog over the State Water Project that resulted in the Oroville Dam.
Local historian Bill Talbitzer says the Brown Act should be called the Dan Beebe Act. The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law. It states that no public agency can conduct a meeting that is not public. Special meetings can be held only if 24-hour notice is given personally or by mail to each newspaper, radio or television station that has requested such information.
The legislation came about during a time when the Butte County Board of Supervisors held private meetings concerning the building of the present Hall of Records in Oroville. Beebe noticed members of the board gathered at a restaurant, on a street corner, in a park — wherever. They seemed to him to be consulting. A meeting would later take place with no discussion, policy set, important matters decided — all without the public’s knowledge or the press being informed.
These events infuriated Beebe. He knew something must be done. As president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, he personally wrote the publishers of each newspaper in California. He urged them to support legislation controlling public agencies. He received their support 100 percent. The Brown Act was written by then Speaker of the State Assembly, Ralph M. Brown. The Legislature passed it in 1953.
“Beebe never stopped,” said Ray Leonard, former district attorney of Butte County. After the Brown Act was law Beebe asked the grand jury to indict the board of supervisors for taking illegal mileage reimbursement from the county. He printed numerous editorials accusing the supervisors of violating the new legislation. The board knew that Beebe was watching, said Leonard.
Beebe always had a special love for the Feather River. He favored the dam project and even purchased personalized license plates that read ORO DAM, but he watched the state water project like a hawk.
It took over 10 years to complete the dam that would form Lake Oroville and store water for the state of California. It is the largest earth-filled dam in the world. Beebe felt a responsibility to the community of Oroville and to the state to do what he could to inform the people as to the progress, cost and excellence or lack of quality of the work being done in Oroville’s back yard.
At one point, shortly after construction had begun, he termed the project a “boondoggle.” Senate subcommittee hearings resulted from his harsh editorials exposing “complete disregard” of specifications prepared by engineers. Beebe said inferior materials mere being used, plans ignored and work altered to benefit certain contractors without notice to the public.
During the first days of construction, Beebe could not understand why a senate committee had not been formed to evaluate the progress and quality of such a huge undertaking. Although he felt the job too big for a small newspaper like The Mercury, he took it on. He watched and he wrote about what he saw.
It was discovered that inferior concrete was being used in the construction of a tunnel, that specifications were again being ignored and money wasted. “Why,” Beebe asked in an editorial, “did it cost only $15.65 a square foot to build the new Las Plumas High School and $31 a square foot to build an overlook shanty at the dam that would soon be under water?” He wrote again that the project was a “slipshod boondoggle.”
State officials naturally denied the charges, but because of Beebe’s constant badgering, a Senate Investigative Committee was formed. Beebe testified before that committee in March 1964. Although most of Beebe’s charges were made light of and covered up during the investigation, major newspapers throughout the state took up his cause and termed the hearings a “whitewash.” Because of Beebe’s efforts, the project was completed to the satisfaction of the people and the Senate.
A great lover of the outdoors and a horseman, Beebe will be remembered by the Dan Beebe Trail at Lake Oroville and the Dan Beebe Campground at Hartman’s Bar on the middle fork of the Feather River where he spent so much time.
Bill Peterson remembers Beebe from the Trail Riders, which they both helped found. “We would go on three-to-five-day horseback trips,” Peterson recalls. “Once Dan was to supply and prepare the food for a five-day trip — we’d take turns. There were 15 of us and Dan managed to supply enough food for about four meals. That earned him the nickname “Gut-robber,” and Dan wound up making extra trips into town. He never pulled that duty again,” Peterson said.
Friends remember him to be honest almost to a fault.
“He even considered paying his income tax a privilege,” recalls an old-timer. In 1964 Beebe wrote to a young friend who sought his advice on a political matter, “It is nothing to be ashamed of if one has difficulty taking sides at your age. I remember that I had great difficulty deciding what was true and what was false, and I assure you that it is just about as difficult now. In fact, for my first three or four presidential elections I hit upon the device of voting against the party in power, believing that any party in power tends to become corrupt. For that reason, as much as any, I voted the Democratic ticket led by Wilson Cox Davis. Then Roosevelt came along and I voted for Hoover. I also voted for Hoover against Smith, but that was because I knew Hoover personally and admired him. Young people of today are much better informed than I was when I came out of a sheltered religious college where campus life was everything.”
More advice, this time to a Goldwater backer: “Don’t be disturbed if your candidate loses. I have backed lots of losers and never in my life have climbed on a bandwagon.”
Although a Nixon supporter of 14 years, in a 1964 editorial Beebe wrote that Nixon should not re-enter politics. One can only surmise Beebe’s reaction to the events surrounding Watergate and Nixon’s eventual humiliation. He also mused that Kennedy’s causing Khrushchev to lose face during the Cuban Missile Crisis could have been the cause of his murder. Beebe was never a Kennedy supporter, but he wrote after the assassination: “The torch, a symbol, was handed: Jackie, Bobby to Ted, but the source of power is gone.”
Helena Beebe, recalling her first impressions of Dan, said, “He was the handsomest man I had ever seen.” Helena, a registered nurse, cared for Beebe’s aging mother at the family home in Portland, Ore. At this time Beebe was working for UP in San Francisco. Beebe’s first wife had died and Dan Jr., his 3-year-old son, also lived in the Portland home.
“I knew the family well before I even met Dan,” Helena said. When he first came to visit, I opened the door. He was standing there in a blue suit and straw hat, very dapper. That was it. They married a year later. The Beebes were married for 55 years. Helena always keeps a photograph of Dan pasted to the side of the refrigerator in her kitchen. “When I glance at the picture during the day, I feel he is near,” she says.
Beebe did not believe in family publicity. He went out of his way to avoid it. These feelings came, he said, from a man who during the early 1900s was the owner of one of San Francisco’s five newspapers. “Hardly a day passed that his name or picture did not appear. Thus it was that when I came to Oroville one of the fixed rules was that there should be no publicity about me or my family ... unless we got arrested.” When his daughter was named homecoming queen for Oroville High School, a small photo appeared on the back page. When his grandson was arrested, the story made page one.
In December of 1968, when he was 81, Beebe did get some publicity. He and his grandson were fishing on Lake Oroville when their small canoe capsized. Bill Beebe, 17 years at the time, tried and tried to right the boat but to no avail. It had to be abandoned. Beebe said, “I said that Bill was better able to take care of himself than I, and he seemed to realize this for he swam to me to try to help. That wouldn’t do though, for I could see that he was nearly exhausted. I told him to get back to the boat, then to a life-jacket and then to shore, which he finally did.” Beebe felt he could not make the swim.
The two raised a considerable commotion, and Fred Huntington, Jr., who was fishing across the lake, heard it and started off in his jeep for help. A rescue boat arrived an hour and a half later. Beebe said he did not feel the cold, but in fact his body temperature had lowered toward that of the freezing water. At the scene of the rescue, then Lt. Carl Spinelli of the Oroville Police Department said, “We mustn’t let this guy get away, he’s for law and order.” Beebe never hesitated to mention that after only a day of rest he was back on the job. Helena flatly refused to allow her husband near the canoe again. He got a new rowboat instead. He never stopped fishing.
Beebe helped to elect Lucian Vandegrift as a superior court judge. Vandegrift described Beebe as a man who was unyielding when wearing his editor’s hat. “We disagreed many times, on many different issues,” Vandergrift recalls. “But we were always friends. Dan would never carry a disagreement into a personal thing. Work was work, then we’d go fishing, talk of other things.”
Bob Winston, longtime mayor of Oroville, said he never knew anyone as outspoken as Beebe. “He was one hell of a newspaper man,” said Winston, whose mother, Lois Winston, owned and ran a weekly newspaper in Calistoga for many years.
Floyd Sparks, of the Sparks newspaper chain and former partner of Beebe’s, said Dan was responsible for bringing about investigations of numerous suspicious characters through his relentless pursuit of justice.
Dan Beebe enjoyed life for 86 years. He will be remembered in many ways. In 1963 he wrote regarding the Oroville Dam, “...They’ll build a quake-proof dam and we don’t have quakes — so don’t worry.” The Oroville earthquake in August 1975 is history. He wasn’t always Right — but he was always fair — a watchdog for the people who never compromised his convictions.
*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.*