Piece of Mind: ‘The Sun’ sets and my heart breaks
For about the past dozen years or so I’ve been bracing for the brutal news that company officials would be pulling the plug on this gem of a community newspaper. So I can’t say that last Thursday’s conference call advising me and the rest of the staff affiliated with three Times Community News publications, the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and the Valley Sun that our final editions were nigh was a huge surprise. But it was a gut punch that I’m still reeling from days later.
I’ll be circumspect here and not specify the many ill-advised steps I saw being made under the company that previously owned the Los Angeles Times, moves that set its community papers on a downward spiral they would never recover from.
The relatively new LAT ownership has challenges ahead, especially during these frightening times when few businesses have money to spend on advertising. And let’s be honest here: There are also some in our nation who would be relieved to see legit news agencies silenced altogether.
Anyway, eliminating the costs associated with producing our three titles makes sense for the company. But it didn’t have to be this way. We were set up for failure years ago by people who did not understand the value of community journalism.
I have an enormous affection for our valley and its denizens. One of my earliest memories of life here involved sitting on a swing set in the kindergarten playground at Paradise Canyon Elementary School on my first day in Mrs. Templin’s class. As I’ve written before, I distinctly recall feeling embraced by the hillsides surrounding the school as I pumped my sturdy little legs to make the swing go ever higher. It was a special place to live, I knew then. I still believe it today.
As a true blue La Cañadan, the Valley Sun has been a part of my life since childhood. It used to arrive in our mailbox every Thursday, and it was a competition in our household to see who could get their hands on it first. Why? Because it named names. Local crimes were noted in fascinating detail. Devastating fires, earthquakes, windstorms, anything Mother Nature could throw at us, were documented in text and photos.
The society pages were full of engagement and wedding announcements. We knew the type of wedding dress the bride had selected and the flowers she had carried; who had come in from out of town to witness the big event. The obituaries sang the praises of the recently departed.
This newspaper chronicled every turn of the screw as La Cañada was changing from a largely agricultural community to a desirable suburb that would be known for its leafy lanes and excellent schools.
A couple of my La Cañada High School classmates called this newspaper the “Valley Sin.” Later, teens thought it was hysterical to call it the “Valley Scum.” Some of those same people still smugly refer to it that way in Facebook posts. I presume they still think it’s funny. Excuse me if I don’t laugh. I know the sweat that’s gone into the end product. To me it is a paper that has endeavored for all of its 74 years of existence, under distinctly different hands, to bring its readers useful information and to hold a mirror up to their activities.
When we marked the Valley Sun’s 70th anniversary during a celebration at Lanterman House — where you’ll find all our archived papers — I put together some remarks that included the publication’s history. Laura Verlaque, the museum’s executive director, helped me out Monday by scrambling around her office until she found the hard copy of my 2016 presentation.
A thumbnail sketch of the Valley Sun’s work over the years was on it, and I’m reproducing much of it it here. Are you up for a look back before we say goodbye?
The Valley Sun’s history starts shortly after a gentle man named Dixi Gail Hall, who had launched a commercial art career in the Midwest as an illustrator for a catalog business, moved to California to expand his horizons. He, his wife Marion and their two sons settled into a modest white clapboard house at the corner of Craig and Commonwealth avenues.
The post-World War II boom saw tremendous population growth here, and Hall realized not all the school and civic-related news was getting into the hands of local residents. So, he launched the newspaper on April 3, 1946.
In that first issue, he included a mission statement that read:
“This newspaper is being published in the belief that La Cañada needs a medium for civic expression.
“It stands for the fullest possible development of our community and for the preservation of all that is distinctive and useful in the Valley.
“We will not attempt to publish national news and in local affairs we intend to act as a forum for all opinions.
“We are not sponsored by any individual or organization.
“We hope to make the La Cañada Valley Sun helpful, useful and readable, with something in every issue for every member of the family.
“Your suggestions and opinions are always welcome.”
And so, the paper was off and running, first as a twice-monthly publication that came out on Wednesdays.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Sun, Hall was asked to recall those early days. He said that residents “seemed to like the paper. There were not many complaints except when I got into [the topic of] politics. I was more Democratic leaning than many liked.”
Frank Lanterman, a member of the pioneer La Cañada family, took an interest in the new paper, although he thought its name was misguided. He thought “La Cañada Valley Sun” was redundant and sounded silly, because, he noted, the rough translation of “La Cañada” is “mountain valley.”
Hall liked the name, though, and stuck with it. The two men must have settled their agreement amicably, because Lanterman was invited to write a history of the community for the first issue, and it was placed in what’s considered by all newspaper editors to be prime territory: above the fold.
There was one incident Hall recalled when Lanterman, who later became a member of the state Assembly, overstepped his bounds. It took place in the late 1940s when there was a major crime story involving local residents. Lanterman told Hall he did not believe the Valley Sun should publish such lurid news. Lanterman felt so strongly about it that, without Hall’s knowledge, he went to the printers and removed the story from the paper just before the edition was to be printed. Hall didn’t learn of the meddling until it was too late.
“He wasn’t a man you could argue with,” Hall said of Lanterman 50 years later.
Hall said he also experienced another incident at the hands of that first printer he used, Don Carpenter, who owned the competing Ledger newspaper in Montrose. It seems Carpenter’s brother, who lived in La Cañada at the time, had taken out a display advertisement in the Valley Sun.
When Don Carpenter saw what his brother had done, he removed the ad before printing that week’s edition of the Valley Sun because he did not want a relative of his purchasing advertising space in a competing newspaper.
According to Hall, that incident led him to switch printers. He took his business to another local printer, Arno Peet, also in Montrose.
In 1948, the Halls decided they wanted to live at the beach and so moved their family to the Laguna/Dana Point area, where they eventually established an art supply store, and Dixi Gail Hall, then retired from the newspaper business, could spend time painting.
Arno Peet produced the Valley Sun for about a year, just to keep it alive, then sold it to Joe Du Plain, who took over in 1949 and ran it until 1989.
Under Du Plain’s long tenure and leadership the paper reported the community’s exponential population growth and resulting developments to serve its new citizens.
The late Shirley DeGrey (a longtime resident, educator and eventually a Valley Sun staffer) remembered the early years of the Valley Sun during Du Plain’s ownership when it was on glossy paper and looked more like a magazine than a newspaper. It carried that same look from 1949 to 1974, when it shifted to traditional newsprint. DeGrey wrote in the 50th anniversary issue:
“Smiling young mothers put their children on the school bus on weekday mornings and met their friends at the Shopping Bag (supermarket) for a chocolate eclair, jelly doughnut or Napoleon and a cup of coffee. They returned home for a stint of housework with fancy new automatic labor-saving equipment, or to read the latest news in the La Cañada Valley Sun ($2 a year, five cents a copy and read from cover to cover) as soon as the mailman delivered it.”
Here are just some of the developments Du Plain and his staff, including his longtime reporter and associate editor, Don Mazen, witnessed and reported on:
The development of Descanso Gardens (and the early arguments from neighbors worried about where its visitors would park).
The establishment and expansions of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not to mention its many successful missions.
The building of several local public schools: Oak Grove, Paradise Canyon and Palm Crest elementary schools (LC Elementary had been built before the Valley Sun started publication); the La Cañada Junior High on Cornishon Avenue when we were still under Pasadena Unified’s jurisdiction) and the 1963 transformation of that campus to Foothill Intermediate School following the 1960 vote to unify the local district for grades K-12 was successful; the construction of La Cañada High School.
The establishment of several local churches were documented by the Valley Sun: La Cañada Presbyterian, Lutheran Church in the Foothills, St. George’s Episcopal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, St. Bede the Venerable Catholic Church and La Cañada United Methodist Church. The paper also covered the various remodeling work that took place at the town’s oldest house of worship, La Cañada Congregational Church, which for several decades went by the name Church of the Lighted Window.
Another big development chronicled in our pages in the early 1960s was the creation of the La Cañada Country Club on what had been scrub-covered hillside acreage. Du Plain took a keen interest in that project and couldn’t wait to get out on that golf course once it was opened. He was an early member there.
The paper also reported on the construction of the Crescenta-Cañada Family YMCA and the development of shopping centers/strip malls that began springing up in La Cañada in the latter part of the 1950s after the county rezoned Foothill Boulevard from residential/agricultural use between Oakwood Avenue and Hampton Road. As was the case with nearly every development, this expansion of the commercial district did not sit well with many residents who loudly objected.
The Valley Sun was there throughout the fight to keep the 210 Freeway from being built through the heart of town. And it reported on the “Freeway Frolic,” when the Assistance League of Flintidge made lemonade of the situation by holding a dancing and dining fundraiser in the freeway’s lanes shortly before they were opened to traffic for the first time.
Du Plain and his staff reported on and took editorial stances in favor of cityhood, a drive that culminated in 1976 with La Cañada and Flintridge becoming one city. But before that historic vote took place, Pasadena and Glendale tried to annex the town for their respective benefits. Glendale was successful in annexing one portion of our area to build Verdugo Hills Hospital. This was a largely welcome land grab as it netted the community the much-needed medical facility.
In 1989, Du Plain (who passed away in 1997) sold his newspaper to Jerry Bean, who in turn sold it in 2005 to the Tribune Co./Los Angeles Times to be published under the Times Community News division.
By the time Bean owned the Valley Sun, the community was largely settled and built out, but the paper continued to report the local news as it unfolded, including the society happenings, the push for sewers in several neighborhoods, the undergrounding of power lines along Foothill Boulevard, the establishment of more recreational areas and the extensive improvements and maintenance work on our incredible trail system.
It also covered closely the decades of failed attempts and final success at creating the Town Center, originally anchored by Sport Chalet and now home to a Target store.
Very recently, reporter Sara Cardine won accolades for the depth of her coverage of the controversial Devil’s Gate Dam sediment removal project, nicknamed locally the “Big Dig,” which will resume and continue for as long as it takes (years!) until the area behind the dam is cleaned out.
Our reporters continued to this very week to report on City Council and LCUSD Governing Board meetings, serving as the eyes and ears of our readership.
The job has sometimes been a very tough one, as we’ve also been called upon to report tragedies such as the April 1, 2009 deadly crash of a big-rig truck at the intersection of the Angeles Crest Highway and Foothill Boulevard.
We also were the first to report a blaze in the hillsides that following August that soon came to be known as the notorious Station fire. We were initially tipped off to it when a fire engine from Station 82 lumbered past our Foothill Boulevard office, siren blaring and horn honking.
We’ve been here for every iteration of the fight by residents living in the westernmost section of town to wrest their properties from the hands of the Glendale Unified School District and place them where they believe their children should be educated, in LCUSD schools. That’s a story that it has often felt would never end, but maybe it will one day soon. Sadly, the Sun will no longer be around to report the outcome of the most recent battle.
We were given a great charge: to cover La Cañada as thoroughly as we possibly could, to be fair, to write without fear or prejudice so our readers could trust that what they were seeing in our pages was an accurate reflection of what was taking place here.
We’ve had some wonderful journalists in place over the years who have cared deeply about getting you your La Cañada news. I cannot possibly name them all here and I hope those who are left off the list will understand. But there are four in particular who, as of this write, are still working on the Valley Sun and deserve special recognition for the deep pride they’ve always shown in their work and for their dedication to this newspaper: the aforementioned reporter (and my sister in spirit) Sara Cardine, photographer Raul Roa, longtime society maven Jane Napier Neely and our copy chief/page designer, Erik Haugli, who has remained behind the scenes quietly saving our bacon week in and week out.
These four have all gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the The Sun shining, and it shatters my heart to think we will not be putting out another issue together.
On behalf of our team, I wish you smooth sailing through these difficult times. And, if I might just ask a favor: please show legitimate news outlets, whether they’re small like ours or large like The Times, some support before it’s too late. Sunshine has never been more important than it is today.