Leigh Weimers, who was not only an inspiration to me, but a valuable source, has died. Leigh wrote a column for the Mercury News for 40 years, watching the valley change from orchards to Silicon chips to Web-based businesses. Here is his last Mercury News column, which appeared Nov. 13, 2005.
Text: Leigh Weimers has been the Mercury News’ ambassador to Santa Clara Valley for
decades, a champion of the arts in the South Bay, and a bitter foe of litterers everywhere. After 40 years as a columnist, Leigh is calling it a career. Today, a final column from “Mr. San Jose.”
When paleontologists discovered those fossil bones of a Columbian mammoth near the Guadalupe River last summer, they also stumbled across a heretofore unidentified artifact: a clay tablet.
I, of course, recognized it immediately. It was one of my first notebooks when I started working at the San Jose Mercury, covering the annual mammoth migration. Big news of the day. Really big.
Just kidding. We didn’t actually write on clay tablets with sharp sticks back in 1958, but compared with the computers now in use, manual typewriters seem positively prehistoric. Different times, different tools. All of which I’m thinking about as I write this final column in 40 years of writing columns for the Merc. Please indulge me for a little reminiscing.
THE PLACE There were only 148,200 people living in San Jose in 1958 when I started work here as a general-assignment reporter, but in some ways the place seemed bigger. It had a lively downtown, department stores like Hart’s and Hale’s, plenty of other retail shops, movie theaters, cafes. Shopping malls, those vacuum cleaners of commerce that leave so many downtowns with a giant sucking sound, hadn’t been invented yet. Teenagers “cruised the main” and cops didn’t set up roadblocks or herd them out of town. San Jose was a gentler place, a comparative small town. But getting bigger.
A migration was on, but of people, not large, hairy beasts. (That came with the arrival of the NFL). The military personnel who had passed through the West Coast on their way to the Pacific in World War II had liked what they saw here and returned as soon as they got out to set up housekeeping. Tracts from one end of Santa Clara County to the other blossomed where only fruit trees previously had done that sort of thing. The sign of the times was: “RANCH HOMES. NO DOWN TO VETS.” It was an era of optimism, where we naive folks thought anything was possible.
When Hal David later wrote the lyrics to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, ” he told me he was one of those service guys smitten with California. He wound up in Los Angeles, not here, but he liked how “way” and “Jose” rhymed, and that was enough.
This was a great place to be young — in only my third newspaper job — and to be covering Boomtown, U.S.A. The cast of characters made for fascinating people-watching.
THE CHANGES City Manager A.P. “Dutch” Hamann was the ringmaster back then, an administrator dedicated to transforming San Jose from a big small town to a small big town and beyond. He wanted a big big town someday, and by annexing as much acreage as fast as he could into San Jose’s city limits, he got it. By the time he retired in 1969, the population was more than 400,000 and San Jose was on its way.
In a way, so was I. I’d started writing columns here four years earlier, in 1965, and got to get in a word or two about what the city was becoming. So did Norm Mineta and Janet Gray Hayes, who as mayors began to put the brakes on uncontrolled growth. Sprawl was an ugly word, and San Jose was becoming its dictionary definition. Surrounding areas such as Campbell, Saratoga and Monte Sereno had incorporated into cities, just to keep from being swallowed by San Jose. Voters in Napa Valley, the place of my birth, passed strict agricultural-protection ordinances because they feared becoming “another San Jose.”
Napa didn’t. Its vineyard-centric outlook paid off. But in its own way, San Jose’s growth paid off, too. Defense industries discovered the Santa Clara Valley and all its new, better-educated (thanks to the GI Bill) residents. Lockheed Missiles & Space became the area’s biggest employer; workers began thinking of technology that was literally far out. Seeds of change were planted in our fertile fields. Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett started a little company in a Palo Alto garage. The morphing of the Valley of Heart’s Delight into Silicon Valley was on. William Shockley and Shockley Labs. Bob Noyce and the semiconductor. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs playing with the personal computer. And on and on and on.
Former orchards sprouted tilt-up research & development buildings. I loved it. Sure, it was nostalgic to miss the springtime blossoms carpeting the valley, but I’d picked prunes as a boy. Terrible job. Orchards were great, if you owned the orchards, but the people who worked in them were the lowest workers around, literally on their knees. How much better it is to have people working at better-wage jobs in those R&D buildings than schlepping lug boxes of fruit in the orchards for figurative peanuts.
THE TECHNOLOGY Better, too, to have better tools than the figurative clay tablet I joked about earlier. The Underwood and Royal and Smith-Corona manual typewriters we still were using when I began work here are great for nostalgia buffs and fans of the newspaper drama “The Front Page.” They did help give newsrooms a romantic sound — the clatter of keys from the typewriters and Teletype machines, the bells ringing for bulletins. And the typewriters even worked during power failures. What a concept.
But they were slooooooooow. Writers pulling out sheets of paper to make corrections, clipping and pasting with scissors and paste pots when the order of paragraphs needed changing. Editors yelling for copy boys (girls were a rarity) when they needed stories rushed to the composing room to be set into type. And Linotype operators were melting lead to set those lines of type — indoors. You think the smog was getting bad outdoors? Think of lead fumes inside. Not a happy memory. For those who somehow managed to keep their memories.
I got to work with some wonderful mentors and colleagues. Legendary city editors like Ben Hitt and Art Stokes. A string of publishers from Joe Ridder in 1958 to George Riggs today. Characters like fire-engine-chasing photographer Rocky Santoro. Reporters who found success elsewhere like Lou Cannon of the Washington Post, Bob Lindsey of the New York Times and Dennis Britton of the Los Angeles Times.
Me, I also wanted to work for a major metropolitan newspaper. The Merc became one. I saved moving expenses and continued living where I’ve always wanted to live.
Today, technology has not only changed the way we journalists do our work but also journalism itself. Computers let us write far faster and get the news out far more easily than in the old, hot-type days. Computers also have made it easier for readers to get their news, with more of them doing so online than ever before, not to mention using podcasts and blogs and all the new avenues of communication coming down the pike. Even a caveman like me could never go back to using a manual typewriter again. I just hope that daily newspapers aren’t becoming the woolly mammoths of our day.
REGRETS Mine are few. I’m sorry that San Jose didn’t get the Giants back when voters could have done so without worry about so-called territorial rights. We’d be getting ready for next year at SBC Park (or AT&T Park or whatever they’ll call it) in S.J. right now.
I’m sorry I haven’t gotten more San Joseans to stop calling San Francisco “the city.” It’s “a city” — so is San Jose — but not “the city.” That’s so last century.
And I’m sorry I never was able to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to personally lead the charge against litter in California as a whole, and in the Bay Area in particular. We’ve become a state of slobs, and it will take a strong leader to get our attention. Maybe he’ll want to try that now, considering Tuesday’s election.
THE FUTURE As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that when historians come to write about what has happened here over the past four decades, they’ll compare Silicon Valley to Florence at the start of the Renaissance. After all, what took place in Italy back then was the development of new ways of looking at art, music, commerce, the world. And the technological developments here during the past 40 years have been no less global. Information now is available everywhere. Societies that experience this information explosion can never go back to the closed-off life they once led. The world has shrunk. And it’s because of the people around us here in Silicon Valley and the wonders they’ve wrought. Is this all good? Nothing is. But on balance, we’re tremendously empowered.
On a personal level, people ask what I’m going to do now that my 47-year Mercury career is ending. I tell them, two things for sure: In the morning I’m going to turn off the alarm. And when I do get up, I’ll start practicing the piano. All and any future projects still are under consideration, but I’ve always wanted to spiff up my piano skills, and now I’ll have time to do that. If I can become a halfway decent saloon pianist, I’ll be very happy.
And I’ll be very happy if you give my successor Sal Pizarro (spizarro@mercury
news.com) the same wonderful help and consideration you’ve given me all these years. You’re going to like him.
FINALLEIGH This is it. Thanks for reading.
Here are excerpts from some of Leigh Weimers’ columns, including from his first column, published Nov. 5, 1965:
Nov. 5, 1965
I hope you’re not in a state of panic over the announcement that the Santa Clara Valley may sink below sea level.
It could just be the making of our area.
Our very existence will be perilous, but we shall bravely persevere. And, most important, our valley will at last have “an image.”
No longer will tourists refer to the Bay Area as San Francisco, Oakland and what’s-its-name to the south. Oh, no. Instead, they will flock to the Santa Clara Valley to see its stalwart inhabitants battling to keep their heads above water.
All we have to do is keep the land going down, build a dozen or so windmills to add that scenic touch and find a few fat-fingered kids to keep plugging the dikes.
It’s a natural — “Santa Clara Valley, the Holland of California.”
After all, if we don’t get an image pretty soon, we’re sunk.
Oct. 20, 1989
Missed you Thursday, but it’s wonderful to be back.
Coming from my home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, within hollering distance of the epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake, to the relatively undamaged Santa Clara Valley, within hollering distance of 7-Elevens, is like coming from a Third World country to the United States.
“How wonderful it is here, ” I marvel. “Your electricity is on. Your plumbing and telephones work. We do not have these things in our country. But perhaps someday . . .”
It is like that throughout the region, this sudden dichotomy between the haves and have-nots, completely unrelated to economic status. When things you took for granted — water, electricity — no longer are there, your perspective changes. Your appreciation for what really matters is sharpened. For some of us, maybe it was about time.
Nov. 8, 1999
This is one column I hoped I’d never have to write.
Sure, I’ve written about cancer before. About activist Gay Crawford and KTVU’s Faith Fancher and Olympian Peggy Fleming and their brave and public battles with breast cancer. About the Rev. Mateo Sheedy and his inspiring struggle against the lung variety of the same disease.
But it’s different when you’re writing about yourself. A little harder to maintain that journalistic detachment, that necessary objectivity. But here goes anyway:
I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Fortunately, my tumor was discovered early, thanks to the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood tests performed at my annual checkups. As a result, my situation isn’t life-threatening. That’s why I’m being as public about this as I am: to encourage male readers to have those checkups and PSA tests, too. You need to take care of yourselves, and this way is painless. The alternative — doing nothing — is perilous.
Jan. 22, 2003
You can cross one of the area’s swankiest fundraising events — the Silicon Valley Charity Ball — off your spring social schedule. It’s been canceled.
The charity will go on, but the show will not.
The directors of the non-profit volunteer organization that has staged the fundraiser since 1987 voted to suspend it, prompted by the valley’s stubborn downturn.
Glamorous parties don’t mesh well with economic hardship.
“It’s hard for companies to buy tickets or underwrite the ball while laying people off, ” said David Heiman, president of the Silicon Valley Charity Ball Foundation.
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