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WHERE WE LIVE: Rejected, they started their own club, and its neighborhood still thrives

When you come out of the interview, John Kovacevich's friends told him, walk back over here to the bar and we'll buy you a drink to toast the occasion.

With that encouraging presumption of success in his hip pocket, Kovacevich entered the boardroom to formally apply for membership at Stockdale Country Club. A short time later he emerged, his face ashen.

What happened?, his buddies asked.

"They turned me down," Kovacevich said.

"Nobody could believe it," said Mike Kovacevich, recounting a story Tejon Theater owner Roy Lemucchi, a close friend of his father's, told him 30 years ago. The son went on:

After an appropriately awkward pause, a friend spoke up: "What are you going to do?"

Kovacevich's shock and hurt feelings had already given way to resolve.

"Start my own (expletive) country club," he replied.

Not long after that day in 1948, Kovacevich and two friends, Dominic Corsaro and M.R. "Babe" Lazane, convened a meeting of interested parties at the Noriega Hotel — about 75 men, some said to have also been rejected by Bakersfield's one and only private golf club.

Some had names that ended in vowels, some had skin a shade darker than most, and some, like Kovacevich (a Croatian name pronounced Ka-VACK-oh-vitch), simply baffled Anglo tongues. Some were Catholic, some were Jewish, some were Okies and some just enjoyed the company of the aforementioned others.

Most were successful, few more so than Kovacevich, a power-boat racing champion as a teen who, after his father's untimely death in 1940, ascended to the top of their prominent grape-growing family empire. Among his most noteworthy achievements: Development and popularization of the Red Flame seedless grape, whose botanist-inventor, thrilled with Kovacevich's success, allowed him to name his creation.

In any case, undoubtedly over cigars and Picon Punch, they drew up the founding document for a new golf-focused club — an undated promise of monetary participation scrawled on Noriega Hotel stationery.

The group acquired about 1 square mile of gently rolling terrain east of the city and in 1949 opened Bakersfield Country Club. Perhaps more noteworthy from our perspective now, they assigned lots south of the Billy Bell-designed course to those founding members — multiple lots, in many cases, according to each member's initial investment.

Today, the Bakersfield Country Club neighborhood, a county pocket that, like Stockdale Country Club 12 miles to the west, has since been overtaken by development, is home to 2,475 residents — and an array of homes that range from middle-class, early-1970s-era ranch-style houses on the neighborhood's western periphery to sprawling, custom estates nearer the club, which was razed and magnificently rebuilt in the early 1990s.

(Stockdale Country Club, it should be noted, has long since changed its way of thinking about membership application guidelines.)

Several lots at Bakersfield Country Club are still in the families of original founding members. One belongs to John Moore II of Moore Farms and White Wolf Potato Co., whose grandfather's signature is on that historic document, which, if one doesn't inspect too closely, has the look of a Declaration of Independence. His father and mother built on a family-owned lot in the neighborhood in 1964, when John was in third grade; he grew up, moved away and then, in 1988, bought the old house from his parents and returned with wife Kristin and their kids, who are now grown.

Last week, he and son John Moore III pointed to II's grandfather's name (Moore II's father was David Moore) on a reproduction of the list of signatories hanging in the famous boardinghouse dining room of the Noriega Hotel.

"He might just have been hanging around in the bar and said, 'Sure, I'll sign it,'" Moore II said.

Most lots have changed hands, however. Babe Lazane, assistant club pro at the Los Angeles Country Club, had become friends with a golf-playing contingent from Bakersfield. When they set out to build their own club in Bakersfield, they offered him the job of club pro and dangled three lots as part of the enticement. Lazane accepted and served as club pro for decades.

In 1976, pharmacist Jon Van Boening bought one of Lazane's lots, two-thirds of an acre, and built the house he and wife Phyllis still occupy.

"I like the neighborhood," said Van Boening, who grew up in the nearby Hillcrest neighborhood, attended Compton Junior High and East Bakersfield High and went on to become president of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and, as of 2018, president of Dignity Health Central California. "It's quiet, it's mature and I like the topography, the hills. Hardly any two lots are alike. ... I like the privacy. When I'm in my backyard, I'm not looking at anybody else and nobody is looking at me."

Many lots were purchased only in the last couple of decades. Bakersfield attorney H.A. "Beto" Sala and his wife Sylvia bought one with a steep incline and built an imposing, Romanesque structure right into the hillside. Their neighbor at the bottom of the hill, 200 yards east, asked Sala one evening at a party, during the house's early construction phase, what they had in mind for the unusual activity in front of the house. Sala answered in a deadpan. "A gun turret," he said. Anything might have seemed possible at that juncture but, no, it was merely the Salas' white-columned portico.

That was 21 years ago, before daughters Jacqueline, 17 this month, and Jocelyn, 14, arrived.

"He wanted to move to Rio Bravo," Sylvia Sala said of her husband, "and I wanted to move to Seven Oaks, so we made a deal and moved here, in between."

They initially worried that the neighborhood seemed to have a dearth of kids and that the children they hoped to raise would be lonely.

"A lot of older families were here when we got here, and we wondered, when we had kids, if they would have kids to make friends with," Sylvia said. "But it evolved and before you know it, a lot of younger families started moving in."

Said Beto Sala, "This is perfect for us. We're comfortable, our girls are thriving and the neighborhood is wonderful."

His only real complaint: Lack of commercial retail development. Things have improved in recent years with a cluster of new stores around a relatively new Home Depot a short distance to the west, and a handful of nearby restaurants remain popular, but he wishes East Hills Mall could make a comeback in some manner. The derelict property about a mile west is weed-infested and abandoned.

"Getting that area alive again would be a huge improvement," he said.

Many developments built around golf courses are designed to sell houses around their perimeters, but Bakersfield County Club was always about golf first, said Sheryl Barbich, who has lived here with husband Lou, a prominent CPA, for almost 40 years. Consequently, not as many houses are on the golf course as in similar developments.

The Barbiches always enjoyed the neighborhood's relative distance from the city's center, but that distance has diminished.

"We used to be able to see the city lights from here, but the city has grown," said Barbich, who in 1980 moved with Lou to what the street signs identify as Claremont Street on one end and Claremont Avenue on the other. "It's an unincorporated area, with no street lights."

Which is at the heart of another major complaint among neighbors: Lack of city services.

"The sheriff's job is to be out in the (more rural) county, so we don't see them until there's a rash of burglaries," she said. "BPD drives down (adjacent) College Avenue all the time and they don't know I'm being burglarized. I've been robbed twice."

Barbich has pushed for annexation into the city, with no success. She still thinks it's a good idea.

Grower Joe Campbell likes things just the way they are, thank you. He and wife Jana love the area so much, in fact, they seem to be encouraging their family to buy up the entire neighborhood. The Campbells' grown children and their spouses live within walking distance, five total all within 150 yards: two on Country Club Drive and three on Wingfoot Drive (including one previously owned by the late Arnold and Joy Kirschenmann, among the club's originals). And Joe is considering a sixth house.

"I like that there's no traffic to speak of," he said. "I like that the weather is a little clearer on foggy days. I like that we have privacy, too. To get over my fence, somebody would need a treble hook, like the Navy SEALs. My house looks like a return-to-custody facility." A beautifully appointed return-to-custody facility, that is.

It's impossible to say whether John Kovacevich envisioned such an arrangement when he got things rolling 70 years ago. But his outrage helped create a neighborhood that, a couple of drawbacks aside, has long stood as one of Bakersfield's most unique and desirable communities.

Current home-seekers note: The neighborhood still has a few scattered empty lots. Inquire at the Noriega Hotel.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. “Where We Live,” a look at a unique Bakersfield-area neighborhood, enclave or community, appears monthly.

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