A $200 loan made a down payment on a linotype and a press and transformed Harry Lutgens into a publisher, a role he was to continue for 44 years.
Lutgens, the grandson of Danish-born John C. Lutgens, who sailed around Cape Horn in 1850 to mine the gold fields of California, was 22 when he and his brother took out that loan in 1915. Harry, who wrote for the Sonoma High School newspaper and yearbook while a student and worked for a San Francisco advertising agency following his graduation, became the editor and advertising manager. His brother operated the press.
The paper was the Sonoma Valley Forum, a four-page weekly that carried the local news, weddings, births and deaths. It built up a circulation of 700 subscribers in a town of 1,200. So successful was it that in 1917 Lutgens was offered $5,500 for it.
He sold the Sonoma newspaper and bought the weekly, eight-page Sebastopol Times.
In both Sonoma and Sebastopol, Lutgens took strong editorial stands on matters of community improvement. Lutgens’ fight to improve transportation for the isolated north coast region was to continue for more than two decades. Throughout those years, Lutgens supported transportation improvements editorially and through his personal involvement.
In Sonoma, the paper got behind the proposal for a road from Napa through Schelville and down to Black Point (now known as the Black Point Cut-Off) that alleviated the area’s former isolation. In Sebastopol, his newspaper fought for better roads to get the area’s produce to markets and shipping points.
In 1920, tempted by dreams of big city newspapering and bylines, Lutgens sold the Sebastopol Times for $12,000 and moved his family to San Francisco. He got a copy desk job with the San Francisco Journal, whose publisher had noticed Lutgens’ editorials favoring the American Plan (now known as the open shop). The Journal was modeled after the New York Times and was a strong proponent of the American Plan. Backed by prominent San Francisco business people and financiers, The Journal started as a six-day morning newspaper. It later added a Sunday edition, and its circulation reached about 27,000.
Lutgens spent two years at The Journal. He wrote news and sold advertising. One day in 1922, the managing editor realized that Lutgens was actually making more money than he did, and he demanded that it stop. Lutgens quit.
On his way to the San Francisco Press Club for dinner that evening, Lutgens happened to stop in at the Richardson for Governor headquarters. Lutgens was acquainted with Friend W. Richardson, who had ties to the newspaper industry.
Richardson, part owner of the Berkeley Gazette, was president of the California Press Association for many years. During his campaign for governor, Richardson was state treasurer, a post he had won with the help of country newspapers whose editors respected and admired him and were appreciative of the advice and guidance he had given them over the years he headed the press association.
When Richardson heard that Lutgens was out of a job, he asked him to join his campaign. Lutgens demurred, “I know nothing about politics.”
“That’s the kind of man I want,” replied Richardson.
After accepting the offer, Lutgens went to the Press Club for dinner. There he met the Journal managing editor who had confronted him earlier that day.
“There’s no hard feelings, are there?” the editor asked.
“No,” replied Lutgens.
“Well, you’ve left me short-handed,” the editor said.
“I’m sorry, but you just didn’t agree with what I was getting,” Lutgens reminded him.
“Would you mind coming back to work?” the editor asked.
Lutgens told him that he already had taken a job with Richardson.
The editor said, “Would you mind coming back at night and working four hours, a half a day, on the copy desk?”
Lutgens agreed. All during the campaign, Lutgens worked days in Richardson’s office and nights on the copy desk at The Journal.
Lutgens became secretary of the campaign’s San Francisco headquarters and was in charge in Richardson’s absence. He kept track of phone calls and talked to advertising and campaign people. Lutgens, campaign manager George D. Squires and a stenographer constituted the entire staff.
The country editors were 90 percent in favor of Richardson, according to Lutgens, but the only big city newspapers favoring his election were The Journal in San Francisco and The Times in Los Angeles.
After Richardson’s election, Lutgens went to Sacramento to handle Richardson’s correspondence and calls in the state treasurer’s office.
The day Richardson moved into the governor’s office in 1923, he asked Lutgens to be his executive secretary. There he handled the governor’s correspondence and made his appointments. Joseph W. Vickers was the governor’s first private secretary, a job Lutgens later inherited.
During this time, Lutgens began his involvement with the California Press Association. In 1922, Lutgens became the executive secretary, a position he held for the next 26 years until 1948. During his tenure, the group continued its practice of holding two meetings a year: one in December to conduct business and hear important speakers and one in the spring to tour some interesting area, either in the state or outside. As executive secretary, Lutgens was deeply involved in arranging the programs for the annual meetings and thus exerted influence toward the steady improvement of newspaper journalism in California.
During Richardson’s unsuccessful bid for a second term, Lutgens managed the San Francisco office. After Richardson’s defeat, Lutgens returned to newspaper publishing.
On Nov. 1, 1926, Lutgens bought the San Rafael Independent, a weekly newspaper in the county seat. In March 1927, the newspaper became a semi-weekly, and by October of that year, The Independent was a daily. Lutgens continued at the helm of the afternoon newspaper until he sold it in 1937.
During his years at the San Rafael Independent, Lutgens maintained his strong support for progressive transportation improvements that would link the isolated coastal communities north of San Francisco.
One of his first editorial fights was with the Northwestern Pacific to improve commuter transportation to San Francisco. In conjunction with Marvelous Marin Inc., the local Marin County improvement association, he finally appealed directly to the railroad commission. As a result. Southern Pacific, co-owner of the line, had to spend $2 million building new stations, eliminating the third rails, replacing old wooden cars with heated steel ones and hiring a more progressive president.
In the early 1930s, Marvelous Marin Inc. learned that an air base was going to be established on the Pacific Coast. Foreseeing the economic benefits an air base would bring to the area, Lutgens’ San Rafael Independent joined the campaign to secure the appropriation for what became Hamilton Field.
Lutgens and his newspaper also were strong supporters of the Redwood Highway (known today as U.S. 101) from San Francisco north through the coastal counties to the Oregon border. When they started, there was no road along that route. In addition to editorially endorsing this highway project, Lutgens served on the Redwood Empire Association to fight for the road improvements. He served as president of the association in 1931 and 1932.
While pushing the Redwood Highway project, Lutgens and The Independent also were strong advocates for the plan to build a bridge crossing the Golden Gate.
The now world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge, in the planning stages since the late 1920s, had strong opposition. Lutgens pressed for the bridge project and joined forces with the Redwood Empire Association, Marvelous Marin Inc. and some interested San Francisco businessmen. During the fight, The Independent was boycotted by railroad workers who had been led to believe that they would lose their jobs if the bridge were built.
Organizers held public meetings in San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties to get support. Then they formed a Golden Gate Bridge advisory committee to raise money for construction of the bridge by floating a bond issue secured by the taxable wealth of those counties. To do that it was necessary to secure two-thirds approval from each county for the formation of the Golden Gate Bridge District. Lutgens was named to the board governing the district in 1930 and served for eight years, years that saw the building and completion of the bridge.
All along during the hard fight, there were legal suits, first to halt formation of the bridge district and then to halt the actual construction.
In later years, Lutgens referred to the Golden Gate Bridge as the outstanding achievement of his newspaper career because it opened up the county to more people and business.
The newspaper and its campaigns didn’t occupy all of Lutgens’ time. In 1934, Gov. Frank Merriam asked Lutgens to become director of institutions. He told the governor he would if he were allowed to run the institutions without political interference.
As soon as he was appointed, he made a survey of the mental hospitals and other institutions run by the department. He found them seriously overcrowded. Mental patients were sleeping in basements and halls. Recreation rooms had been turned into dormitories. There weren’t enough attendants.
He presented the legislature with photographs of the overcrowded conditions and distributed the photos to the state’s newspapers. After that, he had little opposition to his financial requests.
Later, he fought for the establishment of Langley Porter Clinic to receive new patients and to train psychiatric nurses.
In 1937, Lutgens sold the San Rafael Independent. At that time, the newspaper had a daily circulation of 6,000.
After Lutgens left Marin County, Gov. Merriam appointed him to the state personnel board and the state board of control.
When his term of office was over, Lutgens returned to his first love: publishing.
In 1941, Lutgens bought the Coast Banker, a monthly newspaper for bankers. While Lutgens made plans to expand his publication, the United States was drawn into World War II. In January 1943, Lutgens — at 49 and well past the age for ordinary call of duty— joined the U.S. Army as a major. He became director of the technical information service of the army medical department, with headquarters in the army surgeon general’s office in Washington, D.C. In 1945, he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and awarded the Legion of Merit for his service. He left the service in April 1946.
He returned to his publishing work after the army. He changed his banking journal’s name to Western Banker and expanded the coverage area. Eventually, the publication covered banking interests in the Twelfth Federal Reserve District including New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington and Hawaii. He also was a director of the First National Bank and the Bank of San Rafael.
As publisher of the banking journal, Lutgens enjoyed traveling all over the world in its service.
A man described as cheerful, friendly and mild-mannered throughout his eventful life, Lutgens had this to say just one week before his death: “I have had a wonderful life. I have traveled the world and only missed one country, Taiwan, but I will get there.”
At the age of 75, Lutgens suffered a fatal heart attack as he was being driven home from his San Francisco office on Oct. 29. 1968.
*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.*