For historian, knowledge is ingrained

Anyone can brush up on old stories, but according to Huntington Beach city historian Jerry Person, a good historian needs to have lived it.

"You can't just have a degree in history. You have to have lived in the town or city for at least 20 years," he said.

Person, 70, said he has earned his title, having lived in Huntington Beach for 40 years. He's also given tours of the Newland House for the past 31 years. In addition, he helped found the Historical Resources Board in 1987, is a lifetime member of the Historical Society and wrote history columns for the Huntington Beach Independent for 12 years.

"I've seen kids from back when I started [at the Newland House] come by now with kids of their own," he said.

For six years, Person has served as Huntington Beach's third historian. He follows in the footsteps of Delbert "Bud" Higgins, the city's first year-round lifeguard, and Alicia Wentworth, a former city clerk.

Each applicant had to prove to city staff why he or she was the best person for the job. In the end, the City Council voted in 2007 to name Person city historian for a four-year term. He was approved for another stint in 2011.

Long-time friend Andy Arnold wasn't surprised when he found out that Person was going to volunteer his time to help the city maintain historical documents.

"He knows as much as anybody in the city as far as the oral history and such," Arnold said. "And he has the patience to do the things that are necessary, like going through old microfilm copies of old Huntington Beach newspapers to gather the information. It makes him uniquely qualified."

Person grew up in a history-oriented environment in South Los Angeles. His father was 57 years old and his mother 41 when he was born, he said, and he was told stories of World War I by his father and uncle.

"All my relatives were in their 60s when I was barely a teenager," Person said.

He would later work at an antique store in Huntington Park for 10 years and open one of his own in downtown Huntington Beach in 1979.

It was there where Person started building his knowledge of the city, spending almost every day talking with "the old timers," he said.

While working at his antique store in Huntington Beach, Person said a customer told him about a homeless man who did selfless deeds for others during the 1900s. So Person looked in the city archives and found information about Thomas Bishop Watson in a 1924 article from the Huntington Beach Post. It would become his favorite story to tell because of its message.

"He built a little home in the Santa Ana River and would open it to anyone that needed to stay over and would help out anyone in need," he said. "He was unselfish. He would help people even if it took him his last dime. I don't see much of that anymore."

Person is constantly looking to unravel more Huntington Beach history. He's currently working on trying to identify a World War II soldier who might have lived in the city but didn't have his name etched into the veteran's monument at City Hall.

"History is fluid. You never know enough," he said. "It's never set in stone."

Nowadays, Person shares Arnold's Farmer's Insurance office in a strip mall at Beach Boulevard and Ellis Avenue. Person helps Arnold from time to time, trafficking phone calls of insurance clients.

He said he'll sometimes go back to the city archives to refresh his memory on specific topics. But more often than naught, he'll be able to tell you specifics of a historical event in a matter of seconds.

He will tell you that back in his day, when he first moved to the city in the 1970s, Huntington Beach was nothing but vacant lots, gasoline was under a dollar a gallon and only three bars could be found in downtown Huntington Beach.

Person can also talk in depth about Bartlett Park, the Newland family, the oil fields and the Wintersburg site.

"[Historical information is] all I've got at my age," he said. "As we grow older, that's all we got: memories."

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