By William S. Thomas
During the past 50 years, I have been a newspaper editor, university professor of journalism, business owner/CEO, real estate investor and literary agent. I have a BA in journalism from Arizona State University, where I was editor of the student daily newspaper, and an MA in journalism from UCLA, where I was awarded the Dumont Fellowship. After a career as news editor and Sunday editor for The San Bernardo Sun (Gannett Newspapers), I was named executive editor of The Santa Maria Times (Hagadone Newspapers). Then, in 1976, I was offered a position as professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge. During my seven years at CSUN, I specialized in teaching editing, reporting and publication design. I advised the student daily newspaper and magazine, and was awarded the Gannett Teaching Fellowship at Indiana University. After my teaching career, I co-founded a business in the veterinary medical field and was CEO of that company for more than 20 years. Currently, I am the literary agent for John Howard Weeks (“The Healthiest People on Earth” – BenBella Books).
During my first week as a young university professor, a freshman student named Don Ray wandered into my office and informed me that I was his advisor. Don was a Vietnam veteran who was returning to college and had an interest in history. Don was one of the brightest and funniest students I have ever taught. We became best friends. Don took one of my reporting classes and asked for advice about how to research a project that was of interest to him – the collapse of the St. Francis Dam nearly 50 years before. During our conversations, we came up with the idea of holding a “memorial dinner” and inviting all of the survivors of that disaster to gather together to reminisce about the dramatic event that certainly had a significant impact on their lives so long ago – a shared experience even though most of the survivors had never met each other. Don and I planned a publicity campaign to get the word out across the nation about the memorial dinner for survivors of the disaster.
The project was a great success. The Los Angeles Times ran a special section about the 50th anniversary of the disaster and the planned memorial dinner. Newspapers and radio stations across the country carried stories and many of the survivors responded. The memorial dinner drew more than 200 survivors — most in their eighties and nineties. Don and I collected many emotional stories from the survivors, as well names and contact information for follow-up interviews. Then, after the memorial dinner, Don and I drove to the site of the collapsed St. Francis Dam and were there in the dark, silent canyon amid the rubble exactly 50 years to the minute after the disaster occurred.
In the months that followed, Don and I did many interviews of survivors of the disaster, traveling all over California to meet with them and record their dramatic stories. We were able to get a copy of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s inquest into the disaster. We actually tracked down and interviewed William Mulholland’s faithful chauffeur who had driven him to the dam just hours before it broke. We talked to one of the heroes of the tragedy, Thornton Edwards, the motorcycle policeman who became known as the “Paul Revere” of the disaster who rode through the night warning residents of Santa Paula about the wall of water that was headed in their direction. We interviewed a girl whose house exploded when the water hit in the middle of the night, and she was swept away clinging to her mattress. We heard the dramatic description of the powerhouse operator above the dam who saw his control board suddenly go dark and then received the chilling call from a patrolman — “Your lake’s gone!”
After I left the university, I turned over all St. Francis Dam research materials to Don Ray and have encouraged him to continue his historical presentations and writing about the disaster. Since then, I have joined him several times during lectures to groups of history aficionados about our research.