This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Fullerton Observer, which was founded in 1978 by a group of citizens led by Ralph Kennedy as editor. In honor of this milestone, we decided to take a look back at the history of our hometown paper—at some of its key contributors as well as issues the paper has covered over the years based on a series of interviews with some of its founding members.
Ralph Kennedy, founding editor of the Fullerton Observer Newspaper.
Ralph and Natalie Kennedy
In order to understand the Fullerton Observer, one must understand something about its two principal founders—the late Ralph and Natalie Kennedy.
Ralph was an aerospace engineer who, beginning in the late 1950s, became increasingly involved in civil rights and social justice movements along with his wife Natalie, who was a school teacher.
It all started with housing discrimination. Back in the 1950s in Fullerton, before fair housing laws, it was common for neighborhoods to have racially restrictive housing covenants which prevented non-white people from buying or selling houses.
“There were restrictions that said that no ‘negroes’ or people of color, or ‘orientals’ could buy homes or live in the neighborhood, with the exception of servants,” recalls Rusty Kennedy, Ralph and Natalie’s son, who is also a founder.
Sensing unfairness, Natalie went door to door, with the couple’s children in tow, collecting signatures to drop the deed restriction in their neighborhood. They were successful and the Chins become one of the first Chinese families in Fullerton. The Kennedys and others went on to found the Fullerton Fair Housing Council, which later became the Orange County Fair Housing Council.
As the 1960s rolled around, Ralph and Natalie became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights movement.
“As a kid, I remember sitting in meetings,” remembers Rusty, “They would have meetings to talk about fair housing, civil rights, United Farm Workers and supporting the grape boycott, about the Bracero Program, all kinds of topics.”
Fullerton in the 1960s was not exactly a hotbed of progressive social movements. Rather, this was a very conservative town with an active John Birch Society, and so the Kennedys and their more progressive friends tended to stick out.
The Founding of the Paper
As an outgrowth of their involvement in civil rights and social movements, Ralph and Natalie started to get involved in local politics.
“In the 70s, we were successful in getting some more diverse people on the city council,” recalls Rusty, “We elected people like Luis Velasquez, the first Latino on City Council, Frances Wood the first woman Councilmember, and Bob Ward, an early advocate for open space in Coyote Hills.”
Eventually, Ralph ran for city council in 1978. Things were looking good; however, a week before the election the Fullerton Daily News Tribune (the town’s only newspaper at the time), ran a scandalous and untrue article saying that the OCDA was investigating Ralph for voter fraud.
Though the Tribune printed a retraction after the election, the damage had been done. So, after the unsuccessful city council campaign, Ralph and his progressive friends re-grouped and had the conversation of “What can we do?”
“The idea of starting an independent newspaper grew out of the sense that an important part of a strong democratic system is to have a free and independent press,” says Rusty, “So, the Fullerton Observer grew out of that.”
Prior to the founding of the Fullerton Observer, the Fullerton News Tribune was the only paper in town.
A Team Effort
Each member of the new all-volunteer newspaper had their own area of expertise and interest and reported on those areas. Some of these early contributors included Barbara Johnson, Jim and Nadene Ivens, Roy and Irene Kobayashi, Marti Schrank, Rusty Kennedy, Bill Gann, and later the Harloes, the Standrings, the Cooneys, Mary Graves, Diane Nielen and more. For the crew the paper was a labor of love.
The Fullerton Observer crew.
Bill Gann, a junior high school journalism teacher, donated his expertise and labor. In those early pre-digital days, the paper had to be typed and laid out by hand. Headlines were “rubbed on” letter by letter.
Rusty made the light table that was used to lay out the paper out of a shower door, wood from the garage, and a fluorescent light. Layout for the Observer happened in the Kennedys’ garage.
Laying out the paper by hand.
“The garage was such a small space, so we’d all sit in there drinking coffee. I think we talked more than we worked,” recalls Irene Kobayashi, “It was a get-together.”
Barbara Johnson, who would go on to co-found Fullerton Interfaith Emergency Services (now Pathways of Hope) used to type all of the stories in columns, which were then waxed into the layout.
“In 1978, we were still on the typewriter, no computers around,” recalls Barbara, “My volunteer job was to type. I was good at typing…It was very tedious; you had to be very patient.”
Barbara hand-typed every issue for the first ten years of the Observer’s existence. For a time, she used the typesetting machine at The Azteca newspaper in Santa Ana. She recalls once accidentally being locked in the room while the Azteca staff went to lunch.
“Fortunately, they came back. You can see why we were so overjoyed to get a real computer—when Ralph got an Apple Macintosh,” remembers Barbara.
Barbara Johnson typed the text of every issue for ten years.
Founding members Roy and Irene Kobayashi are the longest-running contributors to the paper. Roy was, for many years, the main distributor. In the early days of the Observer, the paper was delivered house to house by volunteers.
“We did it like that for a while, until one day Ralph and I got together and thought maybe we should try to expand the circulation by asking stores, restaurants, the barbershop, and the library, to put racks in their establishments. Surprisingly they said, ‘Go ahead.’ And so we started delivering that way, and the circulation went way up,” Roy remembers.
The paper started with a small circulation once a month. Now, it goes out to 10,000 households twice a month, plus has a vibrant online presence.
Founding member Roy Kobayshi has helped distribute the Fullerton Observer for the past 40 years.
“There was a lot of volunteerism that came into it,” said Rusty, “My mom would cook a nice meal for an annual party.” As the newspaper’s editor, Ralph Kennedy did a lot of writing—attending city meetings and interviewing folks to get a good sense of the important issues the community was facing. Ralph would also recruit people to join the all volunteer staff of the Observer.
In addition to covering local political and social issues, the Fullerton Observer has always tried to shine a light on local culture and community events that might otherwise be overlooked.
Aimee Aul began volunteering for the paper in 1979 as a high school senior.
“Ralph put me on the Arts and Culture beat. I would get free tickets to Fullerton Civic Light Opera, stuff like that,” recalls Aul, who created the Observer’s Community Calendar section—which let the community know about local cultural events in an era before the internet.
“You need to have a local newspaper to make people feel like they’re a part of more than just a city, but a real community,” said Aul.
Passing the Torch
In 1997, Ralph called his daughter Sharon, the free-spirited artist of the family, who had been living in Monterey, and gave her the news: he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had months to live. He asked her to come home to Fullerton and help with the newspaper.
“My kids were grown and out of the house, so I came to Fullerton, opened an art studio on W. Santa Fe, and began working on the paper,” recalls Sharon.
During the year Ralph battled cancer, he taught Sharon how to run the paper. Before Ralph died in 1998, he made Sharon editor, though she refused to take the title until after he was gone.
“At the end he spoke to each family member. His message to me was to take care of my mother and continue the paper,” said Sharon.
The transition from Ralph to Sharon was hard at times. Some folks dropped out, others started writing for the News Tribune, which was owned by the OC Register’s parent company. But most of the key contributors stayed on.
“The paper needed a person to pull together all the loose edges and it turned out I was able to fill that role thanks to help from my mother Natalie, sister-in-law Anita, brother Rusty, Diane, the Ivens, the Kobayashis, and many others. My daughter Saskia also moved to town and developed the advertising and bookkeeping departments,” says Sharon.
A Passion for Justice and Fairness
From its very inception, the Fullerton Observer has been a progressive newspaper with a passion for social justice in a historically conservative area. Here are some of the key issues the Observer has been instrumental in covering over the years:
McColl Toxic Dump Site: Neighbors living around an old oil dump site complained for years of strange smells and ill- nesses. They were ignored by city officials, but through the coverage by the Observer and help from then State Senator Tom Hayden, the EPA got involved and found huge levels of contaminants. This led to a Superfund cleanup, which the oil compa- nies were made to pay for.
Save Coyote Hills: Ralph and friends started CHOOSE and got Bob Ward, later a city councilmember, interested in saving open space in Fullerton’s northwest hills, an issue which continues to be carried on for the past 20 years by Angela Lindstrom and the Friends of Coyote Hills, who are still going through the courts to force the city to pay attention to the public’s Measure W vote.
Affordable Housing: The Observer has always covered issues of affordable housing. For example, it took a lawsuit against the city to force council to use funds to create affordable housing which resulted in the City Lights project being built downtown for very low income people.
Conagra Flour Mill: The Observer covered efforts by neighbors to oppose the construction of a massive flour mill at Malvern and Gilbert (across from Amerige Heights). The neighbors fought city hall and gathered proof that the three silos each as high as the Matterhorn, would pollute the air, and would bring only 5 jobs to Fullerton. As a result, the council majority changed their votes.
The Fullerton Museum Plaza & Park: A group of Observers, led by Fred Mason, opposed Fullerton’s plan to build high rise office buildings on the areas adjacent to the Fullerton Museum Center. They came up with alternative of a plaza and park and convinced the council majority of the time that this was a better idea.
Union Pacific Park Cleanup: SoCal Gas was ordered to clean up its former gas plant location in Fullerton and the adja- cent park site on Truslow. Neighbors asked the Cal EPA to test the site, they found a huge amount of pollutants, and ordered the park closed and fenced. The clean up involved removing many cubic tons of contaminated soil. SoCal Gas lost its lawsuit against the city trying to get out of paying for the clean up.
Saving The Fox Theater: Judith Kaluzny wrote an article reporting that then Mayor Dick Jones had suggested that the Fox be burned down. Chuck Estes wrote a letter to the paper taking down the mayor and suggesting it be restored instead. His letter attracted mover and shaker Jane Reifer who created a volunteer organization (and later founded The Historic Theater Foundation) to save the theater against city and chamber of commerce objections at that time. She and the volunteers were able to match the $1 million the city required to go forward with the restoration idea.
The Fullerton Observer became a way to keep concerned residents informed on what’s happening with important issues that they could, and can, get involved in to create a better community. The paper has strived to be a check on the powerful that Ralph envisioned back in 1978. Roy Kobayashi remembers, “When Ralph proposed the idea of starting the paper, I thought, ‘That’s a good idea, but I don’t think it’s going to last for more than a year.’ I thought it would just fade away. But now, after 40 years, we’re still going strong.”
Observer Co-founders Irene and Roy Kobayashi, still work on the paper, and attended
a party celebrating the paper’s 40th anniversary this year.
This abbreviated history leaves a lot out, including many key contributors over the years to the present, but gives you an idea how the Fullerton Observer was started and continues as a collaboration of local citizen volunteers and the importance of a local independent newspaper.