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ROBERT PRICE: Gerry Haslam’s valley was a place of renewal and comfort

Gerald Haslam lived in Northern California for most of his life but he always kept one foot in his hometown. He would drive the 320 miles from Penngrove to Bakersfield several times a year, sometimes for an event but often just to see his old buddies.

Occasionally, though, he would set out, alone, to commune with the place he loved best: Oildale.

He would walk down the main drag of the unincorporated blue-collar burg just north of the Kern River bridge, savoring subtle wafts of distant horse stables and oilfield pump jacks, listening for echoes of the clamor and bustle that once poured from empty storefronts. It grounded him, said his friend Tom Alexander. It restored him.

I like to think Haslam took some of those echoes with him Tuesday night when, at age 84, he died in a Sonoma County hospital from the prostate cancer he had fought and held at bay for more than 20 years.

He will be remembered as one of the Central Valley’s finest writers and certainly one of its most prolific: He wrote 21 books — novels, short story collections, profiles and histories — in a direct, embraceable, unpretentious style.

“He was real people,” said Mike Russo, owner of Russo’s Books of Bakersfield, which had a relationship with Haslam that transcended that of author and bookseller. “His writing was real. He was complex but he was also simple, if that makes sense. He had so many layers, and his writing reflected that.”

If there was one unifying characteristic in Haslam’s work, it was the setting: California, and most often the southern San Joaquin Valley.

“He put a magnifying glass on the valley but also a mirror,” Russo said. “He really spotlighted this part of the valley for the rest of the state and the rest of the nation to see and understand, but he also made us look at ourselves in ways maybe we never had done before.”

Haslam, a graduate of Garces High School, where he played football, ran track and served as class president as a junior and again as a senior, was born in Bakersfield and raised in Oildale. Among his classmates at Standard School was singer-songwriter Merle Haggard.

Gerald William Haslam graduated from Bakersfield College, served a two-year stint in the Army and then attended San Francisco State University, where one of his English professors was a controversial and colorful future U.S. senator, whom Haslam profiled in his 2011 book, "In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa."

In 1967, after earning his M.A. at S.F. State and pursuing further schooling at Washington State University, he began what would be a 30-year career as a professor of English at Sonoma State University. He and wife Jan, whom he married in 1961, settled in nearby Penngrove.

“Gerry was a professor and he stayed a professor all his life,” said friend Ken Byrum, a Bakersfield attorney. “He had great curiosity about things and he gave great lectures, even if it was just right there on the couch. I loved listening to him and I never got tired of it.”

When you’re the good friend of a writer who wrote as often and as autobiographically as Haslam did, it’s inevitable you’ll see yourself in his work at some point, and that was the case with Byrum and Alexander, whose camping trip to Tuolumne Meadows with Haslam and three of their sons 45 years ago was captured in a short story that made it into one of Haslam’s collections, "The Great Tejon Club Jubilee." “The bears got into our food and it went downhill from there,” Byrum said.

Haslam’s books included "Coming of Age in California," "The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland," "The Other California," "That Constant Coyote," "Straight White Male," "Grace Period," "Okies" and "Haslam’s Valley." Critic David Robertson labeled him “the quintessential California writer.”

My introduction to Haslam was his acclaimed 1997 history of migration and music, "Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California," the best and most complete book on the subject that I know.

Haslam received more than two dozen literary honors, including a Commonwealth Club Medal, a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, a Ralph J. Gleason Award, an Eric Hoffer Award, two Josephine Miles Awards and one that gave him special pleasure, “Honorary Okie,” from the State of Oklahoma.

“He was a great fiction writer, a great nonfiction writer as well,” said Jack Hernandez, founding director of the Levan Institute at Bakersfield College. “But he was a genuine person. There was never this ‘Oh, I’m this and that.’ He was something approaching humble. He had this great talent, this great success, but he was always accessible.”

The buddies he leaves behind remember not Gerald Haslam, Ph.D., but their friend Gerry.

“He was the guy — If I had one call to make from jail, I would call him,” Alexander said. “He had my back. He was somebody I could turn to in time of need. Whether it was my job, my marriage, anything — he was there, in good times and not so good times.”

A shared bottle of wine and good-natured exchange of lies “about how great we were in high school” was medicine for the soul, Alexander said.

Haslam was married for almost 60 years to his wife, the former Janice Eillen Pettichord, and together they had five children — three sons and two daughters — and 14 grandchildren.

“He admittedly said, and I have observed, Jan brought discipline and order to his life,” said Patricia Puskarich, a lifelong friend who said Haslam was, at one point in his life, ”a scoundrel.” Haslam’s wife brought him back to earth and introduced him to what he came to regard as the important things in life. “He loved the hubbub and chaos of family,” Puskarich said.

A book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was referring to Haslam’s award-winning 2006 novel “Grace Period,” but he might have been addressing Haslam’s challenging final years when he wrote, “Haslam shows us that grace can indeed conquer the indignities and impoverishments of dying.”

Haslam died at a hospital in his adopted Sonoma County, his son Garth at his side.

Remembrances may be made to the Prostate Cancer Foundation or the Fred “Speck” and Lorraine Haslam Memorial Scholarship fund at Bakersfield College. That scholarship benefits Oildale students attending BC — a fact that further underscores Haslam’s love for his hometown.

“What impressed me about him, apart from the fact that he was a marvelous writer,” Hernandez said, “was that he never left his hometown. This place — Bakersfield, Kern County — meant a lot to him.”

So much so he was known to have occasionally walked the streets alone, summoning the sights, smells and sounds of the place that made him who he was.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.