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Cancer Is Latest Struggle for Activist Editor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been three months since Ralph Kennedy was last seen, camera at the ready, pedaling the streets of this North County city on his way to a story.

Three months is a long time between sightings of the 72-year-old former rocket engineer. Since 1978, when he traded his space industry career for that of newspaperman and crusader, Kennedy has been ubiquitous in Fullerton--as reporter, photographer and editor of the Fullerton Observer, a feisty community weekly he founded as an outnumbered liberal in a conservative town.

But suddenly, the proud activist with a reputation for never giving up is ill with a disease that could be fatal. His house, customarily bustling with the eager volunteers who help him write, edit and print the Observer, is filled now with nervous family members and vials of cancer-fighting drugs.

And the Observer, the closest thing to a community bulletin board in this sprawling suburb despite its sometimes unpopular politics, is limping along, its coffers depleted because Kennedy has no energy to solicit advertising.

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“You know, you think all these cities are just suburbs when you drive by them on the freeway, but Fullerton is special, and it’s this paper that is at the heart of why,” said Carolyn Johnson, former director of the Fullerton Public Library and, like many in Fullerton, a friend of the Observer.

“When we heard about Ralph’s illness, the first thought was not the humanitarian one of ‘Oh, poor Ralph,’ but ‘Oh, poor Fullerton.’ ”

For 19 years, even the Observer’s enemies will tell you, Fullerton has been the richer for having the Observer. Founded by Kennedy and a group of liberal community activists after Kennedy twice lost races for City Council seats, it first circulated as little more than a 1,000-copy newsletter.

But under the nurturing hand of Kennedy, whose house serves as newsroom, layout room and printing plant, and who until his illness hadn’t missed a school board meeting for five years, the Observer has thrived.

According to the Newspaper Assn. of America, a trade group for the more than 8,000 weekly newspapers published in the United States, it is one of perhaps 10 newspapers in the country run entirely by volunteers.

Those volunteers publish a paper with a combative editorial page and a readership that is nothing to sniff at. The Observer has 1,500 subscribers and about 9,000 readers in a city of 123,000 people. Its editorials are closely watched by the mayor and the City Council and are known to influence policy. Its advertisements and subscriptions usually pay the bills.

Among the 27 mostly retired people who contribute regularly to the paper, it has become something of an obsession. Among its detractors, it is a necessary evil.

“It plays a very important role in Fullerton, it plays the devil’s advocate at times. They tell it like they see it without beating around the bush,” said Gail Dixon, executive vice president of the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce and a frequent critic of the Observer.

“And people read it,” Dixon said. “I know that if I say the wrong thing to the Observer, then I am really in trouble.”

In a county where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than two to one, the Observer has had its share of detractors. When the city was fighting bankruptcy, some ridiculed Kennedy for using the Observer’s pages to crusade for bicycle lanes and low-income housing.

Once, Kennedy said, he narrowly avoided disaster by catching a typing error in a headline. Over a story about a new comic book store bookstore opening in Fullerton, a well-meaning volunteer had written “Commie Book Store Opens in Fullerton.”

“Can you imagine what would have happened if that had gone through?” Kennedy said. “In this area? A lot of people were suspicious of this crazy liberal paper anyway. Well, that would probably have been the end of this experiment.”

Kennedy’s son, Rusty, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said his father is respected for standing behind what he believes in.

“Interestingly enough, he’s been ahead on a lot of issues, issues that were controversial and that brought the scorn of the John Birch Society and such on our family,” Rusty Kennedy said.

“He’s not a smooth-talking diplomatic politician-type; no matter how much criticism he may take, he speaks the truth and takes the consequences. He’s totally devoted to justice for all people, and he’s not afraid of using the newspaper as a voice for that.”

Ralph Kennedy started making trouble with the Observer at the age of 54, a decade after he says he first began taking politics and social activism seriously. He had devoted most of his professional life to the company that today is Rockwell International, designing navigational systems for the Apollo spacecraft.

But in 1968, with his children out of the house and the military-industrial complex under attack, Kennedy had second thoughts about his job.

“It was wonderful exploring the problems of space travel, and exciting and technically challenging, but there were so many problems here on Earth, I decided to dedicate myself to solving some of those,” Kennedy said.

Before long, the engineer turned student, earning a master’s degree in urban ecology and then a doctorate in urban studies. He volunteered for groups fighting racism and discrimination in housing and employment. He became an analyst with the nonprofit Fair Housing Council, opposing legislation that would have permitted discrimination.

“I just became transformed by the times from a quiet engineer to a person whose heroes were Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez,” Kennedy said. “These things became such an important part of my life that it took a lot of the gloss out of the space adventure. I didn’t really see what it was all for.”

Founding the newspaper, Kennedy said, was a way to make his voice heard in the community. Before long, though, he was addicted, riding his beloved bike around town to City Council meetings, shooting pictures and learning how to write headlines and paste up the paper word by word.

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“This is local, small-town stuff, the sort of stuff that makes you feel like you’re part of something more than just a bedroom community,” said Tom Cooney, 75, a retired public relations manager who handles distribution for the Observer. That means throwing a few thousand issues in his car at a time and delivering them to markets, cafes and libraries.

“It’s our hometown newspaper, and it’s even better than the usual hometown paper because it really grew out of convictions, not as a business. People don’t know what they’d do without it.”

With Kennedy sick, even his closest friends admit that a future without the Observer is a real possibility. It is Kennedy, after all, who unites the volunteer staff. His home is the closest thing the Observer has to an office, and his political views and passion inform the paper’s message.

But these days, the man with all that energy is staying close to his teal-colored home. As the paper falls behind in payments to its printer, Kennedy is undergoing experimental chemotherapy to buy time against pancreatic cancer. His friends and colleagues are standing by him, struggling to publish the paper they love.

“It’s a little community newspaper, but it’s also a really crucial part of Fullerton,” Rusty Kennedy said.

“It is not about being a newspaper so much as about the overriding love for the community of the people who care for it. If we are not able to hold it together when my dad dies, whenever that is, it will be a tragedy for Fullerton.”


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