Times Past

Rye whiskey and a love of the past: How I came to write a history column for The Tribune

Dan Krieger
Dan Krieger jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A voice called out from the far end of the dark and smoke-filled old McCarthy’s Bar on Court Street.

“Stranger, I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I can tell that you are a gentleman because you drink rye whiskey!”

I couldn’t quite make out the speaker except that he was balding and wearing shaded glasses. I replied, “Thanks for your tribute to a great American spirit.”

That’s how I got to know Judge Paul Jackson and came to love San Luis Obispo history.

It was 1972. I’d just received the good news that my PhD thesis had been approved, enabling me to stay on at Cal Poly and hopefully receive tenure and promotion. My friend, Pete Simmons, said, “Let’s go to McCarthy’s.”

We sat and listened as my greeter opined on a variety of subjects in a loud, clear voice.

Pete said he had to be Paul Jackson, the famed “blind judge.” Jackson had presided over the police court since the late 1940s. He let students reduce their unpaid parking ticket fines by successfully answering his history questions in $5 and $10 increments.

Paul was a motivational speaker for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was quoted nationally, saying “Blindness is not an impediment, only a limitation.”

He knew a great deal about history. His firsthand knowledge of SLO history was mind blowing. He told me about Walter Murray, the founder of this paper, who in 1858 organized the Committee of Vigilance that sent six men to their death on makeshift gallows near the mission. Jackson had the committee’s minutes read to him as a boy and had perfect recall.

Walter Murray, leader of the 1858 Committee of Vigilance and founder of The Tribune, may have left England because he killed a man in a duel, rumor has it. Walter Murray pictured here as a young man. The Tribune

Paul said that Murray, like so many middle-class immigrants from Europe, left his home for serious reasons. He may have killed a man in a duel. In 2014, the late Lew Warden, Walter Murray’s great grandson, confirmed that family folklore tends to support this belief.

Paul’s father, Dr. Paul Jackson, may have been the first physician to use a motorcar to make home visits. He had auto dealer Charlie Maino drive along with him at first. Paul had colorful stories of the husband of a patient coming to the gate of his farm driveway to flag the car down with a lantern.

As they drove together up the rough path, Dr. Jackson hit a pothole and swerved to avoid another. The man with the lantern fell out of the car and had to be retrieved. Charlie Maino later confirmed a version of this story to me and the late Dr. Fred Mugler, Jr.

Sometimes Paul would invite me to follow him from McCarthy’s to Harvey Norton’s Eagle Pharmacy. Harvey had a package license for selling alcoholic beverages, and the two men would split a pint of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey as they’d talk about times past.

The drinking aside — I’ve had nearly 36 years of sobriety — this experience was an affirmation that stories connect the past with the present. In late 1983, my friend, the late George DeBord, asked me to write this column. George made me promise only one thing, never to hurt living people without due cause. I still have lots of stories I can’t put in print because of the families of participants.

I’ve tried to write about things I feel passionate about. Like the Chinese, blamed for taking jobs from whites, jobs so arduous that no one wanted to do them. And the more than 800 Japanese Americans who vanished from our county in 1942.

Print journalism is under siege from competing media on the Internet. “Hits” on internet sites quantify readership. I’d like to continue writing Times Past as long as I am able. I know many readers use the print edition. Can you please let the publishers know you read this column by logging into the online section, as well, at sanluisobispo.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/times-past/.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo--He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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