Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Frank F. Orr, 1914-1985
It’s hard to believe that the end of January marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Frank F. Orr, the man who led a small-town newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize and became an icon in his community.
Frank was born in San Diego in 1914, descended, on his mother’s side, from the Bockius family of Watsonville. As a boy, he paid long visits to the town during summer vacations and fell in love with it. Eventually, he was able to call Watsonville home for most of his adult life.
He got into journalism early. As a student at Stanford in the 1930s, he ran for editor of the Stanford Daily, but lost to another student, who wasn’t as good a journalist but who was a better politician. That other student’s name was Alan Cranston, and he went on to serve four terms as U.S. Senator from California.
He Didn’t Like Ike
When World War II broke out, Frank was married and working as managing editor of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. He enlisted in officer training school and ended up working directly under General Dwight D. Eisenhower as chief of photo operations in the European Theater. As a result of that experience, he twice endorsed Adlai Stevenson for president.
He returned to Watsonville after the war and in January of 1949, at the age of 34, was appointed editor of the newspaper. Within a year he had turned a docile small-town paper that protected the town’s bigshots into a first-rate operation that covered the news without fear or favor.
The best-known example was the coverage of a young district attorney, Charles L. Moore, Jr. Moore was elected in 1954 on a platform of cleaning up vice in Watsonville. There had been plenty of it during the war years, but little remained by the time Moore took office. His largest campaign contributor, however, seemed intent on bringing back large-scale gambling and using his connections with the local prosecutor to do so without penalty.
Throughout 1955, the Register-Pajaronian covered the story thoroughly and asked pointed questions editorially. Late in the year, photographer Sam Vestal was held at gunpoint after taking pictures of the DA’s car parked in front of the gambler’s house in the wee hours of the morning. In the confusion that followed, Vestal slipped the film to Orr, and when the pictures appeared on the front page of the paper the next day, they led to an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office and indictments of the DA and the gambler and a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service for the Register-Pajaronian.
A Personal Connection
It was 17 years later, in the fall of 1972 that I came to work for the paper, and I considered myself to be the luckiest cub reporter alive to be learning the business from Frank, Sam, Ward Bushee, and Howard Sheerin, all of whom had been around for the Pulitzer story.
Frank was a tall man with an erect military bearing and a deep, gravelly voice, toasted to perfection by years of smoking Pall Mall unfiltereds. He was cowed by no one, but could be warm and supportive when he approved of something. To the reporters who worked for him, there was no higher compliment than one of his personal notes of praise, banged out on his typewriter (on a half-sheet of copy paper) and placed in the recipient’s.
In his 70th year, Frank was still the editor, but increasingly looking not so good. In September, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and spent his last few months mostly at home before dying January 31, 1985. He was the editor of the paper to his final breath, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.