The dominant narrative about Bakersfield is often inaccurate, and at the very least, incomplete. There’s a richer depth to the people that were born and nurtured here. Our history is full of fascinating and innovative individuals. Unfortunately, we don’t hear, repeat and internalize these stories enough.
Over Labor Day weekend, I found myself cleaning out the garage to make room for more bins of too-small baby clothes (how a 1-year-old accumulates so many things, I’ll never know). I came across an old memory book I made as a naive and curious 17-year-old before I left to move across the country to attend college. I wrote a piece of prose in a loose Chaucer-esque style (akin to the traveling poems in Canterbury Tales) about my hometown. Let’s just say that my critical portrait, titled “Tumbleweeds and Dirt”, is not exactly fit to print.
I am embarrassed to report that my perception of this place was narrowed at the time by immaturity, a particularly dismal narrative I heard all around me and an itching desire to experience other places. Restless teenage angst can be a powerful motivating factor. “Restlessness and discontent are the first motivators of progress,” Thomas Edison explained. I think his point applies to personal progress as well. Sometimes, it’s either agitation or stagnation. So I don’t regret moving away, but I do wish I’d better known and carried with me at that pivotal transition point a more well-rounded collection of stories about this place.
There is an impressive and diverse range of notable Bakersfield residents who have made a positive impact on this city, my hometown, and the wider world beyond. So I’ve started my own “new notables” list.
While pondering this topic, I was struck by the recent passing of local attorney Steve Clifford. He embodied the intellectual capital that our community should celebrate. Steve was a gifted legal presence. He worked hard and contributed immensely to the rich fabric of this place. Steve received many accolades for his contributions to the legal field and the community, but he remained humble about his impact and influence.
I worked for a short time down the hall from Steve at the Clifford & Brown law firm. He was the kind of attorney so many young law school graduates aspired to emulate. He truly was “intellectually curious and well-read with a quick wit and engaging, dry sense of humor,” as his obituary read. He was so easy to talk with but he also possessed a rare intelligence that I deeply admired.
And there are many more talented forces for good that our city has produced but are not often celebrated. I thought you might like a peek at a few more individuals I would consider to be important notables from Kern County. Volumes more could (and should) be written about each of them. And this list is by no means exhaustive. Think of it as a sampling.
There are many influencers and innovators, acclaimed artists, doctors, musicians, dancers and others with roots in Bakersfield, including:
Carver Mead is a world-renowned scientist and engineer who was born in Bakersfield in 1934.
A pioneer of modern microelectronics, he has made contributions to the development and design of semiconductors, digital chips and silicon compilers, technologies that form the foundations of modern, very-large-scale integrated chip design. In the 1980s, he focused on electronic modelling of human neurology and biology, creating "neuromorphic electronic systems." Most recently, he called for the reconceptualization of modern physics, revisiting the theoretical debates of Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and others in light of later experiments and developments in instrumentation. Mead holds more than 50 U.S. patents.
Hans Einstein, the leading authority on valley fever, was related to — you guessed it — Albert Einstein.
Einstein was born in Berlin a year after Hitler took power in 1934. His mother moved Einstein and his sister to the Netherlands; he later moved to the United States as an exchange student.
In 1951, Einstein became assistant medical director of the Kern County tuberculosis sanitarium in Keene. While there, he realized that some patients had Valley Fever rather than Tuberculosis. This spurred him to study the endemic disease, an undertaking that continued throughout his career.
Walter W. Stiern was a California state senator representing Kern County.
Stiern was elected to the state Senate in 1957 and is primarily known for his work expanding California's higher education system. In 1960, he co-sponsored a bill to reorganize the higher education system into the form it is in today: the "California State College" system (now known as the California State University system) was formally created, along with the University of California system.
For his home district, Stiern's work in the Senate produced California State College, Bakersfield, which became Cal State Bakersfield. The Walter W. Stiern Library on the campus is named after him.
Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Cesar Chavez, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became United Farm Workers.
Huerta has received many awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Angelo Mazzei is a local inventor and owner of Mazzei Injector Co.
Mazzei started 40 years ago in his garage and now has more than 20 patents and customers all over the world, the latest being the city of Tokyo and its water system. His area of expertise is in fluid processing and related equipment, with an emphasis on injection of gases and liquids into water streams and the removal of gases from water. Mazzei was recognized by The American Society of Agricultural Engineers in 2002 with the AE-50 Award as one of the 50 best agricultural-related inventions in the United States.
Frank Bidart is the son of a Bakersfield potato farmer, a graduate of Garces Memorial High School and the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Bidart is, arguably, the most famous living poet to have hailed from this city. But as Bidart mentioned once, he’s not the only famous poet with Bakersfield roots. Robert Duncan, a master who was born in Oakland, started writing poetry when he was a teenager in Bakersfield. Merle Haggard didn't publish “poetry,” but his lyrics are poems, and at times are so eloquent Bidart says he’s green with envy.
Lawrence Tibbett, was a famous opera singer, recording artist, film actor and radio personality from Bakersfield.
Tibbett was a baritone and sang leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera in New York more than 600 times between 1923 and 1950. He performed diverse musical theatre roles, including Captain Hook in Peter Pan in a touring show.
An interesting bit of history: Tibbett’s father was a part-time Kern County sheriff and was killed in a shootout with desperado Jim McKinney in 1903, in what was written in the New York Times to be the final shootout of the wild wild west.
Gregory Porter is a two-time Grammy award-winning jazz artist.
Porter was raised in Bakersfield, where his mother was a minister. A 1989 graduate of Highland High School, he received a full-ride athletic scholarship as a football lineman to San Diego State University, but a shoulder injury during his junior year cut short his football career. At the age of 21, Porter lost his mother to cancer, but only after she encouraged him from her deathbed to nurture his gift of singing.
Tiler Peck is a professional ballet dancer who serves as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. She is noted for dancing at the Kennedy Honors ceremony twice in front of President and First Lady Obama.
We need to celebrate the great diversity of our stories. Let’s work together to add this depth to our shared narrative, as one of building up impressive inventors, artists, scientists, social advocates, doctors, poets, writers and others who’ve done great things for our community and for larger society.
Who would you add? Send me a message at the address listed below or post a comment to the online version of this column.