Robert Allen Griffin was the founder and longtime owner of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, but his influence and impact on the community, which the paper serves outdistanced even his position with the newspaper itself.
His interests and activities also spread far beyond the central coast of California. He served the country with distinction in two world wars, displaying the same determination and courage that marked his battles at home for community betterment. After returning to civilian life following World War II, he was called upon three times to serve with economic agencies of the federal government.
His crusades at home included campaigns for preservation and restoration of historic buildings, for retention of open space, for the saving of trees, for the minimization of coastline blight and for the elimination of eyesores such as highway billboards and overhead power lines.
In his military service, he advanced to the rank of full colonel and was wounded in each of the two wars. In his public service role, he was deputy chief of an Economic Cooperation Administration mission to China In 1949. After this tour, he was called on twice more by President Harry Truman — winning the appointments from a Democratic president although a life-long Republican — to head missions for the United States. In March 1950, he was named chief of a brief, special mission to survey Cold War needs In Vietnam, Malaya, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma. In October of the same year, he was appointed head of an EGA Far Eastern aid program.He returned home on Feb. 14, 1952, and remained active in The Herald, except for a number of business and pleasure trips abroad, until his retirement Aug. 31, 1970. He had sold his interest in The Herald in 1967 to the Toledo Blade Co., Toledo, Ohio, but had continued to direct the operation for three years under a management contract.
Mr. Griffin was born Sept. 27, 1893, in Kansas City, Mo., a son of William and Francesca Black Griffin. His father died in 1944, his mother in 1950. As a boy he dreamed of being two things, a soldier and a newspaperman. "I was a most fortunate person," he had told friends. "I became both."
While an undergraduate at Stanford University, Mr. Griffin decided that U.S. involvement in World War I was inevitable. He persuaded university officials to establish the first Citizens' Military Training Camp on campus. He was graduated in 1917 and immediately joined the Army with a direct commission as a captain. In the war he commanded Company F, 364th Infantry and was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
On leaving the Army in 1919 he worked for a time as a newspaper reporter in Portland, Ore., then was called to Washington to become confidential secretary to the first minister from the Republic of Poland. Later he went to New York where he established and directed the American-Polish Chamber of Commerce and the Polish Information Agency. Late in 1921 he came to the Monterey Peninsula on a vacation trip. Acquaintances and businessmen here persuaded him to stay and start a newspaper. He did so. "I came on a reform platform," he told a former associate. The first copy of The Herald appeared June 15, 1922. The Peninsula at the time had a reputation for being a graveyard of newspapers. Despite this, Mr. Griffin bought out the rival Monterey Cypress-American in February 1923 and consolidated the two ventures. It was many years before The Herald got out of the red.
From its first edition to the day Mr. Griffin retired, a daily Page One feature of The Herald was his "News Comments" column, a unique form of noneditorial-page commentary that enjoyed a wide readership. Even when he was away, he had his editors write the column and initial it to avoid interrupting its publication.
In the early years, Mr. Griffin, through The Herald, fought successfully for a city manager form of government in Monterey, to keep Monterey a "clean town" instead of an "open town" and for revitalization of the then Monterey Chamber of Commerce. In the latter 1920s and ‘30s, he became a spearhead in efforts to save and preserve old adobes in Monterey and was one of the founders of the Monterey History and Art Association and the Monterey Foundation. In the same period, he supported and encouraged the county's fight against billboards, and the county became a pioneer in legislation to restrict this form of advertising. He also campaigned against overhanging signs outside Monterey stores, and they came down in 1946.Mr. Griffin was in radio for a time. He founded KDON in Monterey in 1935. After several years he sold it, and KDON is now based In Salinas.
As World War II approached, Mr. Griffin, at age 47, rejoined the Army in 1941 and turned the operation of The Herald over to an associate, the late William M. O'Donnell, for the duration. As a regimental commander, he fought in Normandy, Brittany, Belgium and Germany. He was wounded at Messac and decorated. He returned to The Herald in August 1945.
He held every military decoration for valor except the Congressional Medal of Honor. His medals included the Distinguished Service Cross; Silver and Bronze Stars; Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster; Chevalier Legion of Honor; Croix de Guerre with Palm and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.
In 1948, Mr. Griffin went to China on his first EGA mission, serving as deputy to an old friend, former San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham. Lapham and Griffin oversaw the administration of aid to Chiang Kai Shek's government and pleaded for continuance of such aid. Congress, however, worried because of Communist advances in China, ordered a cutback. At this, in June of 1949, Lapham and Griffin quit and came home. Mr. Griffin had been in China for almost a year.
On Jan. 25, 1950, on accepting a doctorate of law degree at Occidental College, Mr. Griffin told an audience at winter commencement exercises that he favored prompt U.S. recognition of Red China. This, he said, was "the one chance, the fighting chance to keep the hand of a friendly West in China."
Mr. Griffin was named to head a special mission to Indochina on March 1, 1950. On March 10, a bomb was thrown at the Saigon hotel where he and other members of the mission were staying. None of the mission members was hurt, but 10 French soldiers were wounded. After studying ways to apply Truman's Point Four aid program in Indochina, Mr. Griffin returned home after a seven-week tour and predicted that Southeast Asia would reject communism. The U.S., he said, "should get rid of negativism and stop communism in its tracks."
Mr. Griffin was named by Truman to head the ECA's Far Eastern program in October 1950. On accepting the appointment, he said that EGA goals were three- fold: to strengthen the countries of Indochina, to help those countries expand their ability to develop their own resources and to furnish technical assistance to those countries. He spent all of 1951 on the Indochina mission, returning to Monterey on Feb. 14, 1952. He was wearing an "I Like Ike" button. Mr. Griffin, who had resigned his post after 16 months, said he felt it "would be inconsistent and improper for me to remain in government service when I feel it is my duty to work for a change in administration and for the nomination and election of General Eisenhower as President."
Following his return, Mr. Griffin prepared guidelines for the administration of U.S. aid to free nations, the paper coming to be known as the Griffin Report. He also lectured extensively to many organizations on the subject of aid to underdeveloped countries, especially those in Asia. On Oct. 24, 1952, he accepted membership on the executive committee of the National Committee for a Free Asia. As an authority on Asia, he consistently urged a U.S. policy of patience, persistence and humility to bring about the goals of economic and technical aid aimed at making Southeast Asia free from communist aggression.
In his role of publisher, he not only crusaded for good government but on many occasions placed his own money on the line in support of causes he felt worthy. He and other civic leaders used their World War I bonuses to raise funds in the late 1930s for public acquisition of the Monterey Custom House after private interests bid to turn the historic building, declared surplus by the federal government, into a restaurant. Years later, the late Joseph Knowland, publisher of The Oakland Tribune and chairman of the State Park Commission, called the Custom House "the No. 1 historic building in California."
Supervisorial districts had not been reapportioned in Monterey County for 76 years when Mr. Griffin initiated a class action on behalf of the citizens of the Peninsula in 1963. The suit was successful. Under court order, the board of supervisors carried out a reapportionment that gave the Peninsula two supervisors. With half the county's population and only one supervisor, Mr. Griffin had maintained the Peninsula had been woefully underrepresented in comparison with the Salinas Valley.
Because of a meningitis scare, the Army ordered Fort Ord closed to basic training in December 1964. Mr. Griffin, always a strong backer of the military, rallied to the side of Fort Ord. Editorially, he urged resumption of basic training. And again, he contributed his own money to help send a Peninsula delegation East to plead with the Pentagon to reopen the base to recruits. In spring 1965, the Army ordered basic training resumed. The Herald also played a part in successful efforts to block construction of a multimillion-dollar Humble Oil Company refinery in Moss Landing in the mid ‘60s, feeling it would damage Monterey Bay's clean airshed. Humble later built its plant at Benicia.
Although he was a model of military bearing and conservative philosophy generally, Mr. Griffin also had a flair for the dramatic gesture. A case in point occurred in the early '70s as a group of young environmentalists and hard-line conservationists carried their placards through downtown Monterey to protest pollution from the nearby Moss Landing power plant of PG&E. As Mr. Griffin fell in step beside them, he murmured to a fellow marcher, "At least, we'll get the bastards' attention." Joe Fitzpatrick, a longtime Herald reporter, commented at the time of Mr. Griffin's death that it was one thing at which he excelled — getting the bastards' attention.
"Perhaps he may have been guilty of overkill on occasion," Fitzpatrick wrote, but one thing you could count on: ... You always knew where the Colonel stood. ‘No comment' was not his style."
For many years, Mr. Griffin waged a fight to prevent the state from building a freeway through Monterey, saying it would constitute a "Chinese Wall." Later, conceding that the freeway was inevitable, he tried to persuade the state Division of Highways to improve its design and routing of the freeway. He used the phrase "can of worms" to describe the appearance of a complex layout of bridges and ramps the state had proposed in the early 1960s for aninterchange at Fremont and Salinas highway. Under public pressure generated by The Herald, the state finally modified its plans, accepted planning advice from Peninsula citizens and produced a freeway considered by many as one of the most beautiful in the state.
The Monterey urban renewal program was one of Mr. Griffin's keenest disappointments among civic projects. Originally, he endorsed the concept, declaring renewal was need to remove the blight from lower Alvarado Street. Later, as the ill-starred program dragged on interminably with costs running into the millions, he became one of the program's sharpest critics.
Honors were heaped on Mr. Griffin year after year. His foremost Peninsula recognition came in January 1964 when the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce named him its first "Outstanding Citizen of the Year." He was honored for his many contributions to the area over the years, especially for his successful pressing of the reapportionment suit. On April 7, 1967, he was honored at Fort Ord by Major Gen. Robert G. Fergusson, then commanding general, for his years of vigorous and zealous support of the Army. Fergusson said that Mr. Griffin has "forcefully and accurately presented to the public a favorable Army image."
Former Lt. Gov. Robert Finch named him one of six voting members of the California Bicentennial Commission in 1967, one of many appointments accepted from governmental leaders over the years. As Mr. Griffin traveled abroad, he often sent back dispatches covering travels, personalities and events in foreign lands. A member of the International Press Institute, he attended conventions of the organization in such far-flung places as Nairobi, New Delhi and Hong Kong. Mr. Griffin retained the title of publisher until 1963 when he assumed the title of president. Later he added the designation of executive editor.
On Oct. 4, 1970, on the occasion of his retirement, he was again honored by the Army and also by the civilian community of the Peninsula. At Fort Ord, in a morning ceremony, 4,000 troops passed in review for him. He received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award in recognition of his many contributions as a civilian to the Army. And, because of Mr. Griffin's military service and his fondness for the foot soldier. Major Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, commanding general at the time, gave him a small statue of an infantryman. After the military ceremony, more than 500 of his Peninsula friends honored him at an informal outdoor luncheon at Memory Garden behind Pacific House in Monterey.
Mr. Griffin's favorite literary character was Cervantes' Don Quixote. Every Jeep he used In World War II was named Rosinante for Quixote's horse. A drawing of the knight tilting at a windmill hung in the publisher's office.
Mr. Griffin was a member of the Monterey Elks Club, Monterey American Legion Post 41, the Old Capital Club, Cypress Point Club, University Club of New York, Metropolitan Club of Washington, Press Club of San Francisco and Pacheco Club, among many other clubs and organizations. He also was a life member of the Monterey Rotary Club. He was a longtime director of the chamber of commerce and maintained a keen interest in chamber activities. He also was on the board of Community Hospital. He was a member of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Mr. Griffin died in his Pebble Beach home on Sunday, July 19, 1981, at age 87.
*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.*