Harry Casey was a third-generation owner-publisher of the King City Rustler in Monterey County, and owner-publisher of three other Salinas Valley weeklies.
He was born in Watsonville, Calif., on March 31, 1925, although his family resided in King City. Except for service with the U.S. Navy as a signalman during World War II, his college days at the University of California in Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 1950, and a short stint with the Gustine Press after graduation, Casey had spent his entire life in Southern Monterey County.
It was in 1952, upon the death of his Uncle Bill Steglich, then publisher of The Rustler, that young Casey was summoned home from Gustine to take over management of the paper that had been started by his grandfather, Fred Vivian, in 1901. With his aunt, Ruth Steglich, he served as co-publisher.
Realizing that growth was vital to survival, he decided that there were gains to be made, both for the newspapers and the communities that they served, if he could consolidate the four struggling weeklies in Southern Monterey County under one ownership. Pursuing this goal, he acquired the Greenfield News in 1961, the Soledad Bee in 1967 and the Gonzales Tribune in 1974 to complete what he jokingly called “the shortest newspaper chain in the state.”
While the four papers were all printed in The Rustler plant, each had its own editor and editorial policy. Identity of the individual company and service to the community was not only encouraged but demanded by Casey. He had always felt that the local editor was best able to serve the interests of the people of that community.
Just as he had pioneered in consolidating the four small papers in his area under one management to better serve their communities, so he pioneered in bringing the benefits of the new “offset” printing technique to his communities. Having observed the remarkable improvement in quality being achieved by other publishers who had embraced this new technology, Casey was determined to bring it to King City. Although it meant going heavily in debt, he purchased a Goss Community Press and Compugraphic typesetting equipment in 1967 to become one of the first weekly publishers to “go offset.”
Two of the most vital – and without question – the most successful campaigns ever conducted by Casey and The Rustler pushed for construction of the Nacimiento and San Antonio dams. Their approval buy the voters brought about a recharge of the water level in and under the Salinas River, laying a foundation for the establishment of a major wine grape growing area in the foothills surrounding King City. They also insured a stable water supply for the multimillion-dollar vegetable industry in the northern Salinas Valley, long known as “the salad bowl of the world.” Backed to the hilt by The Rustler, the bond issues passed with a “yes” vote of 90 and 80 percent. King City voters were even more positive, voting 95 percent in favor of both dams.
Nacimiento and San Antonio dams, built in 1955 and 1963 for the ridiculously low prices of $7 million and $12.9 million, have in addition to providing needed irrigation water for the agricultural industry, prevented ravaging winter floods and created two of the state’s most attractive recreational areas.
But not all campaigns have been as popular and as well received.
Controversy and strong emotions surrounded the debate on the relocation of Highway 101. The highway ran through the center of town, and there were two proposals for its new alignment. One would have kept the highway on the west side of the Salinas River, bypassing King City. The other would cross the river, go to the east along the southern edge of town, and then proceed south on the east side of the river. Opinions were sharply divided.
As is so often the case in small communities, when an editor takes a strong position on a controversial question, it can easily run into conflict with long-standing personal friendships. Such was the case that Casey faced when he decided that in the long term, best interest of his community was to bring the highway across the river and to the south of town – lest the city be semi-isolated from the heavy highway travel and the business that it would generate. While the business community supported Casey’s position, eastside farmers were just as adamant in the feeling that the construction of the freeway on their side of the river would put them out of business.
Casey was as unwavering in his support of the cross-river alignment, which route had been approved some years before by the State Highway Commission. This came in spite of economic boycott by some of the eastside farming community. Friendships of many years were imperiled.
The through-town, eastside alignment was eventually adopted and the freeway constructed as Casey had advocated.
A prominent King City businessman, Jerry Keefer, credited Casey with doing “as much for the King City business community as anybody I know. His support held us together and gave us the direction we needed. He’s one hell of a man.”
A 1973 movement that attracted considerable attention around the state was an attempt to split Monterey County. At first, the proposal drew only mild attention and mostly laughs. Concerned with an ever-increasing loss of representation by the rural community, a group of businessmen and ranchers, including Harry Casey, started the ball rolling and soon it snowballed.
Casey wrote, “Country people – and here in Southern Monterey County we are all country people whether we live in cities, communities or on the farm – have little to say about government in Washington or in Sacramento, and lately in Salinas.
“Our only possibility of reversing this trend – loss of representation – is to have our own county government. No one can argue the point that a supervisor from the Gonzales-Chualar area, one from Soledad, one from Greenfield, one from King City and another from the San Lucas-San Ardo area would be more responsive to the people of Southern Monterey County than will a board of metropolitan-oriented supervisors.”
A feasibility study by a highly reputable firm proved the plan sound. It was indeed practical to split the county. The study even indicated the new county could be operated with a lower tax rate than the whole county.
Through the news columns and editorial page, Casey hammered away at the practicality of the plan, and enthusiasm grew. More than 65 percent of the voters in the proposed new county petitioned for its formation. Still, it was necessary to obtain the signatures of at least 50 percent of the remainder of the county, including the populous Salinas and Monterey Peninsula areas. Lack of funding and opposition from these areas precluded this, and the plan eventually had to be abandoned.
For many years, Casey and his local editors enjoyed a good working relationship with the police departments in each of the communities in which he served.
But in the mid-’70s, things changed in Soledad. The arrival of Police Chief Ben Jiminez brought with it an uneasy relationship. Soledad Bee reporters and editors consistently found themselves banging heads with Jiminez over a variety of issues, including access to police records. The Bee simply wasn’t getting a full and truthful accounting of police activities.
At issue was the public’s right to know what its elected and appointed public servants were doing with the trust vested in them.
The matter began to come to a head in January 1980, when the first of a series of investigative pieces alleging police improprieties appeared in the Bee. Over the next several months, stories on police brutality and the illegal sale of handguns by an officer appeared. A front-page story in March told of the resignation of all officers but two – Jiminez and his immediate subordinate, Sgt. Albert Mena … and the Bee reported that the local justice of the peace had disqualified himself from a trial involving Mena because he had personal knowledge of police abuses. Mena was subsequently convicted of two counts of police brutality and selling handguns illegally. Brutality charges against the chief appeared to be “well-grounded, but not provable beyond a reasonable doubt in court,” the district attorney said. Some time later, a King City man was awarded $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement involving allegations of brutality.
The Bee’s relationship with Jiminez obviously soured as story after story appeared. Indeed, the paper found itself at odds with much of the community, home of many residents (and friends of Casey) who felt Jiminez was doing a good job, even if there was an occasional administration of “curbside justice.” Many felt there’d be no problem at all had not Casey and his young reporters “stirred things up.” This complacency and apathy on the part of the manager and city council bothered Casey.
In a front-page editorial on March 12, 1981, Casey wrote: “This writer has a reputation editorially and personally as a strong advocate of law and order. We are not ever classified among the ‘bleeding heart liberals.’ We think the courts are too lenient and we generally support the police in what appears to be an uphill battle to control crime.
“But we care!
“We care because we believe that when we use the same strong methods as the punks we become just like them. When we accept the fact of beatings, bullying, intimidation and brutality by our policemen, we are ready as a society to accept the police state.”
Soon after this editorial, Jiminez retaliated. He established a policy of releasing only “media reports” to reporters and cutting off all access to the original reports prepared by his officers. Unlike the detailed information contained in the originals, the media reports contained only bare-bones information. The easily riled Casey was, as expected, riled. How could he be certain the Bee, and thus the public, were receiving a complete accounting of police activity? How could he be sure the chief was not singling out selected individuals who “didn’t want their names in the paper?”
The answer was all too clear – Casey couldn’t be more uncertain.
Several months after the implementation of the media report policy, Casey again editorialized:
“… it is left to the discretion of the chief of police or his representatives which arrest records shall be provided to the public and which shall be kept secret.
“In addition, information about a variety of incidents in Soledad over the past several months have been kept from the public by the Soledad police department.
“Thus we have an unusual brand of personal justice with the chief deciding who will be held up for public scrutiny and who won’t, which crime incident shall be swept under the rug and which exposed.”
Frustrated by his helplessness to overcome the “media policy,” Casey took the issue to the Freedom of Information Committee of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. They took immediate interest in his dilemma, recognizing it not so much as a confrontation between Casey and Jiminez, but that the loopholes in the California Public Information Act made publishers all over the state vulnerable for just such a conflict. As the act was written, it was all too easy for public officials to withhold information by classifying a crime as “still under investigation.”
The committee and the CNPA staff decided that it would be necessary to seek legislative clarification. They persuaded Assemblyman Terry Goggin to introduce a bill (AB909) that clarified the language in the Public Records Act and spelled out definitely the circumstances under which police could withhold information from the public.
Casey waged a strong fight for the adoption of AB909. With personal calls and correspondences to his many publisher friends throughout the state, he was able to mount a strong showing of support to the legislature, as evidenced by the fact that the bill passed the Senate with a vote of 29-5. Police organizations, however, were strongly opposed. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which claims 27,000 members, was, in its words, “utilizing all resources available to defeat this bill.” Gov. Jerry Brown, ignoring the strong support from statewide newspapers, succumbed to the pressure from the police chiefs and vetoed the bill.
In reporting his veto the CNPA Governmental Affairs Bulletin commented, “California’s number one medley landed October 1 (1981) on the fruits of a one-year effort by CNPA to ensure public access to routine police reports.”
Assemblyman Goggin, commenting on the governor’s veto, stated that it was “contrary to the premise of an informed citizenry in a democracy and is almost the equivalent of sanctioning secret police actions.”
But Casey and CNPA were not willing to quit. In a meeting with Assemblyman Goggin and Gov. Brown, some of the governor’s objections were resolved, and the essence of AB909 was amended into another Freedom of Information bill (AB227) being carried by Goggin.
In the meantime, CNPA conducted an extensive survey of its membership to determine the extent of information being withheld by local police departments. The survey revealed that many newspapers were experiencing generally troublesome law enforcement relations, and a substantial number mentioned chronic cases of basic information being selectively or tardily provided – or both.
Having resolved their differences with the governor, Casey and CNPA renewed their efforts in the Legislature, where AB227 easily passed both houses. On March 15 1982, the governor signed the bill, which CNPA General Manager Mike Dorais termed “a bill of rights for police reporters.”
A prolific writer, Casey’s contributions to his paper were not limited to editorial writing. His weekly column, “Casing the Town,” was The Rustler’s most popular feature. A potpourri of local happenings, “Casing” reflected his keen Irish humor, compassion and community attachment. There was no bigger booster for King City and the Salinas Valley than Harry Casey.
His column was not always light or humorous. At times it became very personal and serious. An example was the column he wrote shortly after the death of his wife Shirley at the age of 50 from lung cancer. She was a heavy smoker, and he directed this column at a young high school girl he witnessed in front of the high school campus smoking a cigarette. The column, entitled “Let me tell you about my Shirley,” was reprinted in Readers Digest, translated into German and French, and appeared in hundreds of newspapers and youth publications throughout the world.
Casey’s involvement in his community was not limited to his newspaper’s participation. Early in his career in King City, he and other community leaders recognized the need for a modern hospital to serve the southern part of the county. He was one of the founding directors, and later president of the George L. Mee Memorial Hospital. He was a past president of King City’s Rotary Club and a founding member of the King City Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was an active member in the Knights of Columbus, Toastmasters, the American Legion, Monterey County Cattlemen’s Association and the Monterey County Agriculture and Rural Life Museum.
He and his newspaper were instrumental in the location of Basic Vegetable Products (now Gilroy Foods) in King City, one of its major employers. He was always a strong supporter of local school, and no bond issue supported by The Rustler was ever defeated.
The Junior Chamber of Commerce named Casey “Jaycee of the Year” in 1961, and he was honored as “Citizen of the Year” by the King City Chamber of Commerce in 1981.
Casey’s community and professional service extended far beyond King City. He was for many years a director of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and its president in 1976. He also served as a director of the California Press Association from 1986 to 1996, and was its president in 1993-94.
He was a founding director of the Associated Buyers Co-op, a consortium of small newspapers and printers who banded together to compete against the large newspapers chains to get favorably newsprint pricing for small, independent publishers. The California Press Association named Casey “Publisher of the Year” in 1981.
This was not the only time The Rustler has been recognized by the California Press Association. In 1988, Casey’s grandfather, Frederick Godfrey Vivian, founder of The Rustler, was inducted into the California Newspaper Hall of Fame. He was recognized for his vision and leadership in bringing the first irrigation water to the sumptuous Salinas Valley.
In 1995, Casey faced declining health, and he recognized that since all of his children had established successful careers outside of the newspaper industry, there was no one to continue to provide the personal, hands-on management of his newspapers. He sold his newspapers to News Media, an Illinois-based newspaper chain that specialized in the ownership and operation of newspapers in small, rural communities.
After selling his papers, Casey continued to maintain an active participation with his two sons, Richard and Bill, in the operation of Casey Printing. In spite of serious health problems, Casey found a new outlet for his productivity. He turned his writing talents to fiction. He said jokingly, “That’s what some of our newspaper readers accused me of anyway.” In the last three years of his life, he managed to produce three books of historical fiction. The first, “Land of the Eagle,” was loosely based on his Irish ancestor who left Ireland, and the oppressive landlord system there during the potato famine, and eventually migrated to the Salinas Valley. He followed it with “Pen and Plow,” and completed the trilogy with “Centennial Edition.” Although the characters are fictional, all three books are strongly influenced by his family’s experience in newspapering and ranching in the King City area. His love of history and the Salinas Valley are reflected in his meticulous research. His final book was completed just three days before his death on Aug. 19, 1998.
*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.*