Signal 100 | Columnists and cartoonists, Part 2

No. 42 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats.”

— H.L. Mencken

Dwight Jurgens has an interesting resume. Con man. Rapist. Human trafficker. Convict. The star atop his Christmas tree of lifetime accomplishments?

Daily Signal columnist.

Dwight Jurgens was chased by 50 miles of burning highway behind wherever he roamed.

Dwight Jurgens was The Signal’s daily columnist from 1992 to 1995. He’s currently six years into a 21-year sentence for rape and human trafficking. The Signal would like to note we stand firmly against both.
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Hack, rapist and community icon

One Mighty Signal Monday in 1992, a scruffy hillbilly-looking individual showed up in The Mighty Signal’s editorial offices and announced, “I’m your new columnist.” Bald and unreasonably cocky, Jurgens had bumped into then-Signal Publisher Darell Phillips in an airport. They struck up a conversation. Jurgens talked himself into a job that lasted until he flamed out three years later.

Phillips hired him and didn’t bother informing anyone at World Corporate Headquarters in Santa Clarita.

His first day, Jurgens got arrested and thrown into the pokey for drunk driving. His first column on page A2 was an apology to the citizens of the SCV for such an unsavory introduction, and he promised to do better, which Dwight didn’t. He skipped mandatory counseling and classes, got rearrested and didn’t tell anyone. Early each morning, for several months, Jurgens would shimmy into an orange prison jumpsuit and pick up trash along Interstate 5. At 5, when the hound dogs went to the kennel and the Wayside boss men sauntered off to supper, Dwight would spring to the paper, take a half-hour or so and pound out a column, often on the topics of morality and high community standards.

Dwight borrowed money.

Lots of money.

He borrowed from co-workers, community leaders, politicians, anyone dumb enough (myself included) to slip him cash. After the second time of being hit up, he came to me with a sob story about how SoCalEdison was going to shut off electricity to his rented home high somewhere in the mountains. I remember wincing. Dwight had only been in town for six weeks. That’s an ouch-tardy with SCE, but not grounds for cutting off your heart machine.

I remember then-Signal Managing Editor Tim Whyte designing a paper bumper sticker, which read: “HONK IF DWIGHT OWES YOU MONEY.” We taped it to the back of then-Signal General Manager Will Fleet’s sissy convertible Barbie Mustang.

Of course, Whyte will probably remember that it was my idea.

There was always something tilted about Dwight Jurgens. I’ll never forget Signal cops-and-crimes reporter Carol Chambers bouncing in one morning, all smiles.

“You’ll never GUESS who’s on the sheriff’s blotter!” she said, sing-song.

Seems Dwight had sweet-talked his way into borrowing a local mucky-muck’s credit card so he could rent a car.

If I remember the story, Dwight claimed identity thieves had somehow managed to capture his.

Atop that, Dwight was writing bad checks.

Cornered, Jurgens posed, postured, yelled and threatened Fleet, noting that he had the high holy protection of the absentee then-Signal Publisher Darell Phillips. He didn’t. Fleet stretched his quads, took a couple of practice strokes and punted the writer.

Staff cheered.

I’m not sure if human trafficking and rape is above or below columnist on the Dream Career List. But Jurgens ended up in Hutchinson, Kansas — as a columnist. He then became a bail bondsman. Jurgens was found guilty of four counts of taking former women inmates and forcing them to perform sexual acts on him in exchange for their freedom. Almost exactly five years ago to this day, Jurgens, then 66, was sentenced to 21 years in prison for his crimes.

I’m confident there are wags out in our pristine valley who will drolly point out that, in 2035, the 87-year-old newly released felon will be back.

Signal Editor Ruth Newhall had a wicked sense of humor and camped it up by posing for this shot. She was one of the most influential columnists to write for this paper.
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My godmother, my hero, my mentor

I’m confident former Signal Editor Ruth Newhall would offer a death scowl at me for putting her name and career so close to Jurgens without a softer transition. While Dwight was easily this paper’s most nefarious opinion writer, Ruth was its most powerful.

Starting in 1970, every Wednesday on the inside page A2, Ruth’s “The Gossip, by Mimi” column would run. It was an items column. She’d run a dozen independent paragraphs. One might be a politically incorrect graffiti from a CalArts bathroom wall: “Free Soviet Jews. Win Valuable Prizes.” One graf might be a Get-Your-Butt-In-Gear to the community to help a charity, down-on-their-luck individual or fundraiser. You did not want to be on the government payroll and see your name in a negative spotlight. In a few well-chosen, razor-sharp words, Ruth could cause a neglected pothole to be filled by sundown, shut down a government agency or cajole the firing or jailing of not-so-public servants.

I recall nearly a half-century ago something Ruth told me. “Satire is best written with a feather, not an anvil.” I’ve learned so much from that woman. She is a large piece of the puzzle of who I am.

Back in the 1970s, Ruth earned the nickname, “The Godmother” from a local gadfly Tom Neuner. The handle was perfect. Short (barely) of assassinating heads of major crime families, Ruth …

Got …

Things …

Done.

Starting in the late 1960s, Ruth shared writing a gossip column with then-Signal Editor Pete Stack and Larry Wade, the effervescent PR man for The Newhall Land & Farming Co. She created it in the form of old-time “three-dot” columnists, Walter Winchell and the San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary Herb Caen. The name of the column was Valencia Valiant then (after Prince Valiant). Starting in 1970, Ruth wrote the column herself under the pen name of J. Edgar, named after the notorious head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. It had a cartoon of piercing eyes above the title.

After Hoover died in 1972, Ruth didn’t think it appropriate to use the man’s identity and she started MIMI. It was taken from her mother’s name. For nearly two decades, she wrote that powerful and entertaining Wednesday gossip column until she, her husband, Scott, her son, Tony, and a good chunk of The Signal staff walked off the paper to start a rival publication, The Citizen, in 1988.

She was also the spiritual head of the entire Santa Clarita family, leading our community through triumphs, setbacks, tragedies and dreams. There will never be another like her.

Having said that, there’s our Tim Whyte, current Signal editor and columnist extraordinaire.

Tim Whyte galls me so at times. He is one of the few columnists — in all of the entire United States of America — who makes me frequently swear and grumble: “I wish I had written that.” I’ve often said, if I were to start a paper from the ground up, Tim would be the first guy I’d hire. As a writer, he is humble, funny, compassionate, tireless, has the work ethic of Moses, takes no guff or monkey business and possesses a rare commodity in a columnist — spiritual wisdom. He’s also just always the right measure of wicked, which makes all of us interesting. Tim Whyte has been our A.B. Thatcher, our Fred Truebloods I & II, our Ruth and Scott Newhall.

The long tradition

In past episodes of this series, we’ve discussed three columnists who were as part of the SCV as the oak tree. They were the first — and the last — to write a front-page column at The Mighty Signal — a streak that stretched more than 38 years, through the Great Depression, World War II, rock ’n’ roll and the 1960s. A.B. Thatcher started the tradition in 1925 with his Jin-Jer-Jar. It was filled with corn-cob pipe observations, on everything from ethnic jokes to asking why Einstein never got a haircut. 

Fred Trueblood took over in 1938 and created first The Signal Tower then, The Towerman. His son, Fred Jr., continued the tradition from 1960 to 1963. Both father and son ended their column with this run-together tagline: “That’sallthereisthereisn’tanymore.” For me, one of the most touching moments in Signal history was, after a quarter-century, to see the last time that appeared in The Mighty Signal. It was May 2, 1963.

Other saints, addendum scoundrels and blah-buh-blah artists

For the life of me, I can’t recall her name. But it was in the 1980s, when the Newhalls ran The Signal. We had a young mother who wrote a column about child care. Deadline night, she frantically calls to ask if someone can come out to her house to take a new column mug of her.

She didn’t like the old one.

The paper was just going out to press. A few minutes later, she rushed into the back shop. Armed with one of those thick Sharpies, she starts “touching up” her tiny inch-wide head shot. It doesn’t go well. She starts by trying to highlight her hair. A few pen strokes later, it looks like she’s wearing a giant black football helmet.

Next morning, Scott Newhall is not pleased.

He fired her so hard, she bounced.

We’ve had many columnists. Some are patently unreadable. Some more bland than gruel, some trained in reporting the obvious, some comically inept.

Jerry Reynolds was a stalwart former SCV historian. In fact, when he died in 1996 at the early age of 58, I ended up taking over for him. 

In the 1970s, we employed the most-hated columnist in Signal history: Count Marco. There are such things as male chauvinists. The Count was light years beyond that measure.

In 1974, The Count called for state legislation outlawing women with derrieres “wider than 36 inches from wearing Spandex.” He felt women shouldn’t run for office. “You women should be at his side, not leading him,” he wrote. Title of another piece? “Women Who Look Like Cows.” Marco so inflamed readers, even the Zodiac killer once threatened his life.

There was also another San Francisco transplant, Lucius Beebe, who wrote for us in the 1960s. Scott Newhall remembered him fondly when he passed in 1966, noting it was sometimes difficult trying to reign in such a colorful force “… who owns a stable of Rolls Royce motor cars, a Bentley, a Thunderbird or two, a private railroad car, and a baronial Victorian mansion perched on top of the legendary silverworkings of the Comstock Lode at Virgina City, Nevada.”

From sports to society, we offered blank canvases to so many columnists. Eddie Meyer wrote a weekly piece on the African-American community for years from the 1960s. There was Carolina Kelly, Carol Rock and our first steady film critic, Phil Lanier.

Lanier hated movies.

In the list, there’s me. I’ve penned more columns than anyone. Sometimes, more than seven a week.

The gossip columnist and the president

My ab-ab-ab-absolute favorite story about a Signal columnist?

On Sept. 1, 1962, Mrs. Welcome May Taylor, the quiet elderly columnist who wrote under the byline of “Granny,” passed away. She was 81. While she wrote of children’s cute sayings and the happiness and sorrows of Happy Valley, few people knew of her close friendship with then-president of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike was Welcome May’s next-farm neighbor growing up in Kansas.

The week Granny passed, her daughter finished her mother’s last Happy Valley Happenings column with a tearful opening: “Mr. Editor, have you heard? Our Granny is gone. Sunday morning, Sept. 2, at 10:25, God called her …”

Welcome May Taylor was essentially a newspaper gossip columnist. Her daughter shared Granny’s secret hot news tip that the journalist never once wrote about. Over the years, even when he was president of the United States, Eisenhower and a couple of Secret Service agents would visit Welcome May — at her home in Newhall — for unpublicized “tea visits.” They’d chat for hours, then “Ike” would climb back in the unmarked car and go back to being president.

Being a columnist, I suppose, one should leave some emotional impact with their prose. We should paint pictures, show colors, make the readers feel. We ought to point out who needs to be “sandpapered, lightly salted, fed to cannibals and the remains ridden out of town on a rail.” We ought to be kind, helpful, never, ever, boring.

In the 1930s and 1940s, we used to run a column, “Mint Canyon Juleps.” It never carried a byline. I have no idea who wrote it. “Juleps” was written during the Great Depression, when times were so tough. It carried the following description of Spring and Courage in the Santa Clarita:

“If unhappy friend, and something is too hard to bear presses down upon you — get up. Go visit the everlasting hills. The buckhorn is in bloom. The whole valley and world is gladly singing its praise to God. A carpet of purple filaree and Indian paintbrush, and the snow white greasewood, and thousands of beautiful things will cause you to forget — and remember.”

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 43 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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