Sunday, March 1, 2015



Marilyn Stewart walks between the cages in the far corner of her Alpha Canine Sanctuary, north of Bakersfield. She calls out greetings, naming each dog as she passes by. They wag their tails and stick their noses through the fence, hoping to get a pet and a snack.

"There's something spiritual about them," Stewart says, calling the animals "old people."

Among the 100 dogs at Stewart's "no-kill" kennel for strays and unwanted animals are about 30 "very old people." They are living out their lives in clean, orderly cages. They are too old to be candidates for Stewart's adoption program. But they are all beneficiaries of Stewart's obvious love.

It is fairly quiet in this quadrant of the sanctuary. While a dog may occasionally bark, absent is the loud yapping in the areas where younger animals are housed. The "old people" seem to sense they are on their last legs and they aren't about to squander their time or energy on senseless noise.

Stewart believes the dogs are at peace. And she aims to keep them as happy and comfortable as she can until they pass away naturally.

"As long as they are comfortable and have a good quality of life, they will be here," she said. But when a dog goes down, when he is too sick to stand to eat, he will be euthanized.

Knowing when a dog's quality of life has diminished terminally and when the animal should be euthanized is a dilemma, said Stewart, who has to make that call with her sanctuary dogs and has been called upon to counsel other pet owners when it is "time to let go."

Advances in veterinary science and Americans' willingness to pay the escalating cost of caring for their pets have made the end-of-life decision even more difficult.

The American Pet Products Association estimates Americans will spend $45.4 billion this year on their pets: $17.4 billion on food; $10.2 billion on supplies and over-the-counter medicines; $12.2 billion on veterinarian care; $2.2 billion on live animal purchases; and $3.4 billion on grooming and boarding.

Just as they have with humans, advances in treatment procedures and medicines, as well as research into lifestyles and diets, have prolonged the lives of our pets. It is not uncommon for a dog diagnosed with cancer, for example, to undergo expensive diagnostic and treatment procedures, including MRIs, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The price tag for such procedures climbs to several thousands of dollars.

Dr. Kathryn Marcchino has what she believes is a better alternative. Marcchino is a sociology professor at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. She teaches a "death and dying" course to cadet merchant mariners.

When her old cat Nikki experienced kidney failure a few years ago, she encountered veterinarians who either prescribed costly advanced procedures or who pressed for immediate euthanasia. Instead, Marcchino wanted Nikki simply to be kept out of pain and allowed to enjoy a quality end of life at home with her family.

"They looked at us as if we were from Mars," Marcchino recalled.

The experience prompted Marcchino to establish the Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets ( and to help organize the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care ( This fall, the association held its second annual international symposium on animal hospice care at UC Davis.

"I can't tell you how many people call us," she said, recalling stories pet owners have related about veterinarians insisting animals be immediately put down and threatening owners with animal abuse accusations if they do not comply. At the other extreme, Marcchino recalled cases in which costly and painful procedures were prescribed, despite little likelihood they would benefit the animal.

"It's an education process for vets and for people," Marcchino said. "But hospice for pets is not for everyone. It can be emotionally draining."

Marcchino said she is seeing more veterinarians willing to recommend and support palliative care for terminally ill animals, rather than insist on quick euthanasia or advanced procedures.

Stewart said many Bakersfield veterinarians are receptive to administering palliative care, which basically involves the use of pain-relief and comfort medications.

As an example of when "hospice" might be appropriate, Bakersfield veterinarian Jennifer McDougle pointed to kidney failure, a common ailment in cats. McDougle noted the gold standard for treating kidney failure is a kidney transplant. But few owners can or will pay for such an advanced procedure. A successful alternative is treatment at home with medicine and monitoring by a veterinarian, which will extend the cat's life and preserve quality of life.

Often pets with terminal diseases such as cancer can have their pain controlled at home while they live out their lives. McDougle said owners may opt to have their dogs and cats at home, "wagging their tails and eating for the remainder of their lives," rather than undergoing expensive, painful procedures.

The best course to take depends on the age and condition of the animal and the likelihood of a successful outcome, she said.

Stewart closely monitors the animals, particularly the "old people," at her sanctuary. "I won't let them suffer. We have a gift and we should use it. (Euthanizing) an animal to spare it pain is the one unselfish thing we can do for a dog that we love," she said.

This story written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 22, 2009.



It was like the squealing of an orchestra tuning up. The random noise that filled Eagle Mountain Casino, northeast of Bakersfield, Calif., seemed to have no meaning, no pattern. It was mostly just the ringing and clanking from rows of slot machines.

Most people would dismiss the noise as just the clatter of a gambling hall. For Chuck Wall, it sent clear messages. It spoke to him as it spoke to no one else.

Wall, 68, is blind.

As he pushes buttons and the slot machine spins, Wall keeps two counts in his head -- one of how many plays he has left, the other of how much money he has spent.

As he counts his machine's sounds, he listens to the machines around him. He recognizes sounds, particularly those coming from machines that have paid off in the past. He moves around the room, listening for "lucky" machines to play.

"It's fun. I have a system. I don't have to rely on someone else. I can do it by myself. It gives me a bit of independence. It is always important for someone with a disability to have independence," he said.

Wall lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder in which an excessive amount of a substance called phytanic acid accumulates and causes extensive damage to the retina and eventually blindness. Wall was diagnosed with the disease at 19 years old, the year he graduated from East Bakersfield High School. His eyesight began deteriorating years earlier.

Wall, who retired in 2004 from his position as a management and communication professor at Bakersfield College, has not let his loss of sight stand in the way of his ambitions. He earned advanced degrees, including a doctorate in education from UCLA.

He formed a foundation to promote his national "Random Act of Kindness" movement and is in demand as an inspirational speaker.

At his home in northeast Bakersfield, he does woodworking on power saws. Recently he took up pottery, throwing clay onto wheels and shaping it into pots.

Anyone who knows Wall likely wouldn't be surprised that he refuses to let a little thing like being blind stand in the way of enjoying a day out with his wife, Diane (or Di, as as everyone calls her) at the Indian casino in the hills above Porterville.

On a recent Monday morning at 7:50, Wall and Di boarded an Eagle Mountain Casino bus near the East Bakersfield Senior Center on Ridge Road. The bus already had picked up a few passengers at the Wal-Mart on White Lane and would make another stop in front of the Smart & Final store on Golden State Avenue, before heading out of town. The route is one of four originating daily from Bakersfield. The last bus leaves Bakersfield at 6 p.m.

Wall's bus arrived at Eagle Mountain at 9:30 a.m. The charge was $10 per person, roundtrip. Each passenger received $15 in "bonus cash" and other incentives, easily breaking even on the transportation.

From the friendly greetings, it seemed the bus was filled with regulars. Like Wall, many were retirees enjoying a cheap day out.

When the Walls arrived, Di guided her husband to a familiar row of slot machines. Wall ran his fingers over the front of the machine, found the opening to insert the card he was given by the casino to retrieve his incentives and found another opening to insert a $10 bill.

Then Di disappeared. Matter-of-factly, Wall explained that his wife is the lucky one. She doesn't stick around with losers.

He was right. At the end of the day, Di was ahead by more than $500. Wall was ahead by only $200.

"It's a rare day that I don't come home at least breaking even," he said, smiling at the memory of his largest jackpot: $2,500.

"He's amazing," said casino worker Patti Gemmell, as she hovered around Wall, watching him play. He is the casino's only blind gambler.

Wall and his wife set strict limits on how much they will spend, pulling money from separate envelopes that contain their winnings from earlier visits. They gamble until 11 a.m., when the buffet opens. After eating a leisurely meal, they play some more slots. They cash out at 1 p.m., moving to the casino's entrance, where they "dink around" on some more slots until the bus leaves for home at 2 p.m.

"For me, it's an adult Disneyland," Wall joked, noting they have been visiting Eagle Mountain for more than a decade.

"Some people may moralize that I shouldn't be here; that it is wrong to gamble. But I do not consider it to be harmful to my character," Wall said.

As the Walls boarded the bus to return home, there was a friendly stream of "how'd ya do?" and some good-natured grumbling. Folks settled into their seats. The bus pulled away and headed down a windy road. Within minutes, the bus fell quiet as the gamblers snoozed.

As Wall also snoozed, he smiled, content with his day of independence.

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 15, 2009.



On a hot summer day, you can hear the leaves crackling on the trees in Boron. It’s not just because the triple-digit heat shrivels up nearly everything it touches. It’s because little else is moving on the often deserted streets of this eastern Kern County community.

But the town comes alive at 27075 Twenty Mule Team Road, the site of Domingo’s, a popular Mexican restaurant and watering hole for today’s “Right Stuff” aviation pioneers and space explorers.

Inside you find Domingo Gutierrez greeting, teasing and doting over guests who may have driven for hundreds of miles to savor Domingo’s tacos, fajitas and enchiladas. But they aren’t coming just for the food. They are coming to enjoy Domingo — the restaurant and the man.

Opening for lunch and closing long after dinner time, the booths and tables at Domingo’s regularly are filled by pilots and astronauts, military brass and enlisted personnel, and lots of Edwards Air Force Base families. The restaurant’s walls are lined with evidence of Edwards’ affection for Domingo’s and the restaurateur’s love of the military.

Gutierrez has been likened to the legendary Pancho Barnes, whose “Happy Bottom Riding Club” was a hangout for early aviation pioneers who flew over the area. It now is a tradition for shuttle astronauts to dine at Domingo’s just hours after landing at Edwards. Gutierrez, who holds the title of honorary commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center, greets the space travelers with “Boron water” — shots from his $150-a-bottle tequila.

But Domingo’s is not exclusively a military haunt. Customers also work at the nearby borax mine and at the solar energy plant, six miles to the east. Some call Boron their home. Others live in Lancaster, Palmdale, California City, Barstow and, yes, as far away as Bakersfield. The restaurant is listed on so many tourist and industry guides that it is common to find among the guests people from foreign countries.

From Domingo’s 1,600-square-foot, stucco-smeared building, the restaurant does a nearly $1 million a year business. The story of Domingo’s success is a mixture of hard work, love and the grace of God. Oh yeah, and throw in some prayers to end a curse.

At 47 years of age, Domingo Gutierrez stands a straight six feet one inch tall. His daily attire is a pressed shirt, dress trousers and a fashionable tie. Some might think Gutierrez is a bit overdressed for the hard-scramble, desert mining town. But he explains his customers deserve his respect, good food and clean service. It’s a formula that has worked at Domingo’s for two decades.

Gutierrez’s customers are loyal and so is the team he assembled to serve them. Many of the waiters, cooks and dish washers have worked at Domingo’s for years. “You surround yourself with good people, treat them well and you will succeed,” he explains. It is a philosophy that has evolved as he has traveled his own difficult road to Boron.

Fourteen years old and carrying his cousin’s “green card,” Gutierrez crossed into the United States with his brother. After living in Los Angeles for a short time, the pair moved to Lancaster, where his brother was hired to be a busboy in a Mexican restaurant. When Gutierrez was old enough to get a work permit in 1977, he hired on to wash dishes. Soon he became a busboy, then a waiter. A few years later, he was the manager of a Lancaster restaurant, supervising 38 employees. He opened a restaurant with a brother in Palmdale, but the arrangement soured and his brother bought him out.

With the money from the sale, Gutierrez slid behind the wheel of his car and headed to Bakersfield. That was in 1988. “I prayed to God very hard,” Gutierrez recalls.

As he passed through Boron, he picked up a copy of the Boron Enterprise. He read that a building on Twenty Mule Team Road was for sale. It was the fallout of yet another failed restaurant at that location.

By now Gutierrez had become a U.S. citizen. He had 11 years of experience in the restaurant business. “I knew I would do well,” he recalls. Plunking down his buyout money for the building, he set about fixing it up and advertising for business. He spread the word to Edwards Air Force Base, the borax mine, around town and around other towns.

And people came. On his first day, he did $1,100 in business. “There’s never been a dull moment since,” says Gutierrez, claiming running his restaurant is as much a hobby as it is a livelihood. In that first month, he sold $40,000 in meals.

“God has blessed me,” he says, smiling as he looks around Domingo’s dining room, waving at familiar faces.

Indeed God has. And Gutierrez made sure of that.

Before he opened for business, he invited a Catholic priest from his hometown in central Mexico to bless the building. “People said it had a curse.” Gutierrez and the priest prayed away the curse.

For a short time, Gutierrez parlayed his success to other cities. He opened a second restaurant in Tehachapi in 1990 and a third restaurant in Hesperia in 1991. But soon he realized he was spreading himself too thin. He sold those businesses to focus on Boron.

“If you are going to do a job, do it right, or don’t do it,” he says. Most days you will find Gutierrez arriving at his restaurant in the morning and staying until evening. His trip home for a midday break is no big deal. He lives with his wife, Stacy, and their three children, Domingo, 14, Victoria, 11, and Emilio, 9, in a large house across from the restaurant on Twenty Mule Team Road.

Railroad tracks run in back of his yard. Rather than finding the clatter of cars and honking of horns an annoyance, it seems to be just another Boron peculiarity that Gutierrez has embraced in both his restaurant and his heart.

Along a ledge that hugs the ceiling of Domingo’s dining room runs a G-gauge model railroad track. The engine pulls miniature cars, including one hauling borax and another hauling a space shuttle. The cars are gifts from friends and customers, switched out regularly for variety and to clean away the grease from the fajitas that sizzle on the tables below.

Gutierrez clearly loves it all — the variety of his customers; the eclectic blend of military, mining and desert memorabilia that litters the restaurant’s walls; and his life in Boron.

“It’s a good life here,” he says, pointing out that a person can easily drive to Las Vegas, Southern California, or the coast from Boron. Gutierrez has a bright yellow Hummer to make those trips. “It’s a good place to raise kids. It doesn’t have a lot of traffic.”

Gutierrez is Boron’s honorary mayor. It’s a title bestowed in recognition of his fundraising for the community’s chamber of commerce. In addition to the restaurant, he also owns several rental homes and the car wash in Boron. “Anywhere you go, you can be positive or negative,” says Gutierrez, explaining his fondness for Boron. “It’s what you create.”

He worries that children today will not have the same appreciation. “They don’t know what it’s like to have an empty stomach, to watch their parents farming from sun up to sun down. I knew there were opportunities in the United States, but I knew you had to work hard and earn them.

“Nothing is perfect. But where there is a will, there is a way.”

Domingo Gutierrez sits in the commanders seat of a shuttle craft in the spring of 2009 after it landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Domingo's restaurant has become a favorite with shuttle astronauts.

This article written by Dianne Hardisty first appeared on Oct. 4, 2009 in Mas Magazine, which is published by The Bakersfield Californian.



It's 7 a.m. George Larson slides behind the wheel of his white Toyota Camry. His wife, Sandra, makes herself comfortable in the passenger seat. She knows she soon will be dozing off, leaving her husband to drive them safely to their destination, more than two hours away.

It’s a ritual the Shafter, Calif., couple has followed nearly every week for the past five years. It’s their trek to the Central California coast, where they volunteer as docents, or guides, at Piedras Blancas, a rookery for elephant seals, north of San Simeon on Highway 1.

“We probably travel the farthest of all the docents,” said Larson, whose fascination with elephant seals dates back to the early 1990s, when the huge, oddly shaped, magnificent animals took over a once popular fishing and hiking beach.

At first, George and Sandra Larson simply joined others who pulled off the highway to gawk at the elephant seals’ invasion. “We were able to get so close to so many wild animals.”

But that closeness became a problem. As the number of seals increased, contact with humans, particularly with people who also wanted to use the beach, created conflicts. While elephant seals may appear docile and harmless, they are wild and powerful animals.

To protect both humans and elephant seals, Friends of the Elephant Seal, a non-profit organization, was established. The organization trains docents, who help separate humans and elephant seals, while promoting better understanding of the animals and their habitat.

George Larson, a retired Shafter High School teacher, and his wife, Sandra, who retired as an administrator with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, trained in 2004 to become docents, beginning their regular trips to Piedras Blancas. Often they are accompanied by friends Jim Siler and his wife, Margo, retired Richland School District teachers. Jim Siler became a docent a year ago.

George Larson is now on the board of the Friends of the Elephant Seal. He recruits volunteers to become docents through service club presentations and word-of-mouth. Three weekend docent training sessions will be held in October. To sign up or learn more about volunteering, go to or e-mail Larson at

“I have always liked animals of all kinds. But these wild animals are fascinating,” said Larson, who is no stranger to animals. His father, who worked in the race horse business, moved his family to Shafter when Larson was 15. Harness racing was popular in those days, with ranches and training tracks scattered throughout California. Larson’s father was the superintendent of a Shafter ranch, handling breeding and training operations.

But the athletic son wanted to play football and baseball, instead of going into horse racing. He enrolled as a history major at the University of Redlands, in Southern California, where he met Sandra. Later he went into the Marine Corps for eight years, enrolling at California State University at Humboldt when he left the military. Initially he hoped to pursue a career in the parks service. But agencies were not hiring and he returned home to Kern County to begin a teaching career.

Being a docent has combined his two career interests – teaching and parks service. Docents answer the questions of thousands of visitors from throughout the world who pull off Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas to watch the elephant seals.

The Piedras Blancas parking lot falls under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Transportation. In recent years, the Hearst Corp. donated the five miles of coastline to the California Parks Department to protect the elephant seals’ habitat.

As are most volunteers and paid staff associated with California parks, Larson and fellow docents are worried about budget cutbacks that threaten to close 100 state parks. But the state’s concerns about liability, lost revenue and obligations to private contractors have stalled the announcement of park closures.

“Docents save state parks a lot of money,” Larson noted, explaining that without the docents’ presence at Piedras Blancas, security and other staffing would have to be increased. Friends of the Elephant Seal also raises money for improvements to give visitors a better view of the animals.

Sheryl Watson, a state parks spokeswoman, agrees that the willingness of people to volunteer is critical in these financially stressed times. Watson’s department is seeking corporate sponsorships and collaborative arrangements with local government agencies to keep the gates open to some state parks.

And while volunteers alone cannot replace specially-trained laid-off employees or make up the difference in the shortfall of tax revenues to operate state parks, they can help with maintenance, visitor services and fund raising.

The Parks Department so values its Central Coast volunteers that they rewarded some with the most donated hours with a special dip in the outdoor pool at Hearst Castle last month. George and Sandra Larson were among those invited.

Watson noted that many opportunities exist for people to volunteer in state parks. Go to the website and click onto: “Become a Parks Volunteer.”

“Every day I spend over there [Piedras Blancas] as a docent is like the best day I had teaching,” said Larson, whose rich, three-decades-long Kern High School District career included teaching history and coaching a variety of sports.


To become a docent at the elephant seals’ Piedras Blancas viewing area, go to Three weekend training sessions will be held in October.

To become a volunteer in a California state park, go to, click onto “Become a Park Volunteer.”

In photo above, George Larson explains the elephant seals' habitat to visitors.

A version of this story written by Dianne Hardisty appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Sept. 22, 2009.



If it gets any worse, I can always look into the possibility of becoming a Wal-Mart greeter.

Retirement seemed like a good idea when I cut my goodbye cake earlier this year in The Bakersfield Californian's newsroom. But then came reports of 401(k) losses and gloomy warnings: Boomers, postpone your retirement. (Oops, too late. I retired in February as The Californian’s editorial page editor.) The greeter gig started looking good.

That is, until more gloomy stories surfaced about greeters in other cities being roughed up by cranky customers. One was trampled to death by Long Island shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.

I needed to give my greeter plan more thought.

Have you seen the "Maxine" cartoon floating around the Internet? The cranky old lady (she could be me) explains how she was bounced from her greeter job: "About two hours into my first day on the job, a very loud, unattractive, mean-acting woman walked into the store with her two kids, yelling obscenities at them all the way through the entrance. As I had been instructed, I said pleasantly, 'Good morning and welcome to Wal-Mart. Nice children you have there. Are they twins?'

"The ugly woman stopped yelling long enough to say, 'Heck no, they ain't twins. The oldest one's 9, the other one's 7. Why the heck would you think they're twins? Are you blind, or just stupid?'

"So I replied, 'I'm neither blind nor stupid, Ma'am, I just couldn't believe someone slept with you twice. Have a good day and thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart.'"

Maxine's lip got her bounced. I shudder to think what my lip would do.

To check out this greeter gig, I drove over to the Wal-Mart in northwest Bakersfield, where I found Jeanne Bowen and Pat Frye standing sentry.

After receiving a big Wal-Mart welcome, I introduced myself and explained I was writing about their jobs. Frye had worked for Wal-Mart for nine years, Bowen for four. Before that, Frye had been a cook, a waitress and a worker in a pre-sort center. Bowen had been a bottling plant manager's secretary. The plant shut down in 1999. Both needed to supplement their social security checks.

"I love this job," said Frye. "I'm a people person. I'm 71 years old and I like to stay active. And I can't live on Social Security."

Bowen said for her, the job "boils down to liking people."

Frye says one customer calls her "Sunshine," because she is always smiling. She sees some people so often that they become friends. One customer, a disabled elderly man she often helped with his electric cart, instructed his wife to return to the store after he died and tell Frye how much he appreciated her.

Even when alarms go off and she has to check a receipt before allowing a customer out the door, Frye said her exchanges are pleasant. "You learn to be polite."

I could be "polite" if I really tried. But then I asked an impolite question: "So, how much do you get paid?"

Frye said she wasn't allowed to tell anyone. I impolitely pestered. Finally she said her wages were "decent."

So, basically, all you have to do is greet people, retrieve a cart occasionally, give directions, check receipts, watch for shoplifters and be nice?

That nice thing might be a problem, too. After all, I retired as this newspaper's editorial page editor. Sometimes I ticked people off. Having strong opinions wouldn't be a plus, either. (Hey, lady, start buying diet drinks. Fella, pull up your sagging pants.) And how can I help people find stuff in a store when I can't even find my glasses at home?

Maxine lasted two hours. Maybe I could make to one. I need another backup plan.

This column written by Dianne Hardisty appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Aug. 9, 2009.



News stories about “selfish” baby boomers hogging scarce jobs, breaking the nation’s pension piggy bank, or throwing their weight around proliferate. Finally, along comes an industry that is downright happy to see boomers coming. However, most boomers would like to wait on its attention.

To the funeral industry, the deaths of baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – is a windfall worth lusting over. But first, the industry must survive the current “death trough,” the decline in death caused by advances in medical science, among other things.

According to federal agencies that track population and health statistics, the nation’s death rate has dipped slightly and is expected to be “stagnant” for several more years. But baby boomers won’t be able to cheat the inevitable forever. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the annual number of deaths in the United States will rise from 2.6 million in 2010 to 3 million in 2024 and 4 million in 2043. Whoopee for the undertaker.

But as they change just about every aspect of society as they trot along life’s path, boomers already are changing the way we do death.

“We are seeing people wanting much more customized, personalized services,” said Bonnie Duer, president of the Kern County, Calif., Funeral Directors Association. Families are burying loved ones in everyday clothing, rather than fancy suits and dresses. Video presentations are being prepared and played at funerals to highlight the departed’s life. When Duer’s mother died earlier this year, her “famous” oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe was featured on the back of the memorial card.

Duer said the personal touch even applies to caskets. To illustrate her point, Duer noted the new Dodger coffin on display in Greenlawn Mortuary and Cemetery’s showroom in Bakersfield, Calif. She predicts the Dodger blue insignias on the inside and in discreet locations along the outside edges will be a big hit in Bakersfield. Caskets can be purchased in other professional and collegiate sports motifs, as well. And if sports doesn’t rattle your bones, there’s the Star Trek coffin.

Clearly boomers’ funerals will differ from the Greatest Generation’s. Boomers and their families, who want it “their way,” are quick to question requirements and costs of traditional services. As a result, the rate of cremations is skyrocketing.

Ann Gallon of Bakersfield, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Kern County, reports California is outpacing the nation. She said an estimated 60 percent of the final arrangements in California are by cremation, with 30 percent nationwide. Gallon’s group is part of a national non-profit organization (go to that advises people on alternative funeral arrangements and how to cut costs.

Since boomers reportedly have been lousy savers for retirement, you can bet they have set aside even less money for their final hurrah. But it’s more than just wanting to save money that drives people to organizations, such as Gallon’s.

“People want to spend whatever money they have left on the living, rather than on the dead,” said Nancie Edwards, a volunteer with a Funeral Consumer Alliance chapter in Florida. Counting the rich and the poor among her members, Edwards noted the section reserved for cremation ashes in her community’s new veterans’ cemetery is as large as the space for traditional burials.

But alternative funerals, including cremations, still can be pricey.

“I’ve heard of people making jewelry, where cremated remains are placed and given out to each of the kids,” Edwards said. “There’s a company that makes artificial reefs that hold cremated remains, which are lowered into the ocean.”

In Duer’s Bakersfield showroom, urns come in a wide range of motifs, from sports teams to Precious Moments. The cowboys among us even can be encased in bronze boots.

But if boomers want to dictate their “exit strategy,” they need to write it down. Consumer groups and funeral directors may disagree over whether funeral arrangements should be paid for in advance, but they agree written plans reduce family squabbles and stress.

This story written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Sept. 6, 2009. See



Three years ago, Gary DeSutter made a promise to his grandson. It was a promise he hoped the Bakersfield, Calif., boy would forget. But Patrick McCord, who graduated in June from Stockdale High School, remembered and held DeSutter to his word.

DeSutter recalled, “When he was 15 years old, he asked me, ‘Papa, will you get a tattoo with me when I turn 18?'”

DeSutter, a retired truck driver, said he would. When McCord recently turned 18, he and his 66-year-old grandfather went down to the Sacred Gypsy Tattoo & Art shop on 19th Street in downtown Bakersfield, where artist Ronnie Corbitt etched a guitarist on McCord's arm and Roman numerals signifying the pair’s birthdates on DeSutter’s arm.

“That's it,” said DeSutter, who had been tattoo-free. “I won't be getting another one.”

DeSutter, who retired in 2006 and moved from Bakersfield to a senior mobile home park in Oceano, Calif., said his wife of 47 years, Beverly, was OK with him having a tattoo. But he admitted to squirming when his Bible study session recently discussed the book of Leviticus: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am the Lord!” He said his pastor, who knew about his tattoo, reassured him the New Testament is more forgiving.

DeSutter has plenty of senior and baby boomer company these days when it comes to getting tattoos. A 2008 Harris poll concluded 20 percent of Americans 40 years of age and older have at least one tattoo.

Researchers involved in the Harris poll, as well as earlier ones conducted by Scripps-Howard and Ohio University, and the Pew Research Center reported the biker-lawbreaker stigma of having a tattoo is giving way to acceptance.

Rocket, who insists that is her only name, is the receptionist at the Sacred Gypsy. She reported seeing more boomer-age people coming into the shop to get their first tattoo. Many of these customers are women.

“Girls are tougher,” Corbitt said. “They can handle it better.”

Shop owner Justin Foss recalls tattooing a 90-year-old woman who always wanted to have a tattoo. She came in with her daughter and granddaughter, who also got their first tattoos as a “sort of final thing they could do together.”

“Attitudes are changing. It is much more socially acceptable,” Foss said, crediting celebrity tattoos and media exposure for the acceptance.

Retired Bakersfield junior high school teacher Susan Reep treated herself to a tattoo for her 60th birthday. She had been thinking about getting a tattoo for more than a decade and decided to do the deed at a tattoo expo at the Bakersfield Convention Center. She had the image of a blue and green gecko etched on her shoulder, which she explained is the least likely spot on her body to sag. She plans to have a raven tattooed on her other shoulder.

While she was tight-lipped at school about her tattoo, some students found out and spilled the beans at her retirement party two years ago.

How did her family react? She said her husband approved, but “my father doesn't want to look at it. He thinks it's creepy. My (adult) kids accept that mom has always been a little different.”

Neither DeSutter nor Reep have had problems with their tattoos, although Reep conceded the procedure hurt like crazy. But whether they are getting a tattoo out of love for a grandson, or to fulfill a dream, boomers are warned there could be complications.

Shops must have a permit from the Kern County, Calif., Environmental Health Department and artists must be registered. Explaining this is to assure a level of care and training, Environmental Health

Director Matt Constantine said his department has received complaints about bacterial infections and about tattoo shops being operated illegally.

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Aug. 10, 2009.



The California state budget was awash in red ink and legislators were bitterly battling over program cuts this spring when two Bakersfield mothers walked into Danny Gilmore's Sacramento office.

One mother pushed a frail young boy in a wheelchair. The other was accompanied by her autistic daughter. They begged the first-term Republican assemblyman from Hanford not to cut critical medical services for their children and others like them.

When the mothers left, "I closed my office door and cried," Gilmore recently recalled, noting that during the height of the budget battles, "every 20 to 30 minutes I had people coming in pleading with me not to cut programs."

Gilmore is no stranger to state government. He served more than three decades as an officer with the California Highway Patrol. And he is no stranger to making tough decisions. Before retiring from the CHP, he was the assistant chief of the Fresno district.

But what he calls the "horrid" cuts he and other lawmakers have had to make to education, fire and public safety, plus his frustration with partisan bickering and Democrats' response to California's economic problems, have driven Gilmore to prayer.

"I pray every day. I have doubts about whether I am making a difference," he said. "I have sleepless nights. I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning. I thought those nights ended when I was assistant chief."

Gilmore spends those sleepless nights with his wife, Cindi, in a 40-foot motorhome the couple set up in an RV park in northeast Sacramento. "I don't know what I would do without her," he said, explaining his appreciation for his wife's willingness to accompany him to Sacramento when the Legislature is in session.


On Dec. 1, 2008, his 59th birthday, Gilmore was sworn in to represent the 30th Assembly District, which includes parts of Kern County and Bakersfield. After a tough campaign, Gilmore defeated Democratic candidate Fran Florez, a Shafter City Council member and the mother of state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, to succeed termed-out Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra.

Gilmore was the lone Republican in the November 2008 election to win a seat in the California Legislature previously held by a Democrat.

The Democratic leadership "doesn't get over that," observed veteran Sacramento reporter Vic Pollard, The Californian's former Sacramento bureau chief. Pollard and most other Capitol insiders were not surprised that revenge would be quickly doled out. "That's the way the system works."

Gilmore and his staff were relegated to the "doghouse" - a cramped 391-square-foot office, where staff members and the assemblyman were squeezed together and visitors had to wait in the hall. Although the office has long been used by legislative leaders to punish "offending" lawmakers, Gilmore's assignment was sloughed off as the luck of the draw.

Even Gilmore tried to take the assignment in stride. "It has heating and air conditioning. A lot of the people I represent don't have that." Gilmore moved into a bigger Capitol office recently when Assemblyman Michael Duvall of Orange County abruptly resigned in the wake of a sex scandal.

But what Gilmore doesn't take in stride is the Democrats' refusal to allow him to have a field office in Bakersfield. Gilmore established his primary field office in his hometown of Hanford. His Democratic predecessor had offices in both Hanford and Bakersfield. Most of Gilmore's legislative colleagues, even those with much smaller districts, have multiple field offices.

"I can't even get a post office box in Bakersfield," said Gilmore, who sets up tents in parks to meet with constituents. His field representatives work out of their cars, using laptop computers. Gilmore declines to use campaign contributions to fund a Bakersfield office because he believes his Kern County constituents are entitled to the same service people living in other legislative districts receive.

"I use it to show what is wrong with Sacramento," he said. "They are more interested in partisan political games than in coming together."

Shannon Murphy, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass' spokeswoman, denies the leadership's refusal to fund Gilmore's Bakersfield office is "political." It's just fiscal belt-tightening, she said.

She said spending taxpayers' dollars for Gilmore to have a second field office would be "excessive and inappropriate" in light of California's 12 percent unemployment rate, skyrocketing foreclosures and other economic problems.

"His treatment has been no different than anyone else's," she said. "The Assembly, just like the rest of the state, is doing more with less."

Political observers take another view. They note Bakersfield and rural Kern County communities have the bulk of Democratic registration in the district. By denying Gilmore a second field office in Bakersfield, 30th District constituents are alienated and Gilmore's reelection chances are weakened. Democrats are targeting Gilmore, with Fran Florez expected run again for the seat.

But former Assemblywoman Parra predicts the ploy will backfire. Parra angered leaders in her own party when she refused to vote for a Democratic budget plan last year and when she later endorsed Republican Gilmore to replace her. Speaker Bass didn't just relegate Parra to the "doghouse." She kicked her completely out of the Capitol building, assigning Parra to a small office in another building.

Parra believes Gilmore's tent meetings have received so much favorable news coverage that his image and popularly in Kern County have increased. She also gave Gilmore points for attentiveness.

"If there were two people in a meeting, he was there. This is what people care about."

Gilmore's harsh treatment has not been limited to the assignment of a small Capitol office and denial of a second field office. Some Democratic colleagues, at least initially, have been downright rude.

One Republican legislator recalled introducing Gilmore around when he first arrived in Sacramento. Some Democrats refused to shake his hand.

"He came up here very humble and hardworking," said 32nd District Assemblywoman Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. "It is exceedingly demanding to be in a targeted seat. I admire him. He is even-tempered and persistent. Democratic leaders have been unfair to him for political reasons."

State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, noted that denying Gilmore a field office in Bakersfield can hurt people in Kern County. "A big chunk of our job is taking care of constituent requests and problems. The voters voted. Why should people now receive less representation? It's not Danny Gilmore who is suffering. It is the people."


Gilmore said he also is frustrated by the apparent disconnect Democrats have with the struggles of small businesses and workers, and their push to impose costly regulations.

He cited one of his few legislative successes - when he teamed up with Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk - to roll back a costly reporting requirement affecting struggling timber mills. Rather than submitting 300-page annual timber plans, companies now only have to submit these plans every three years. In other states, the plans are much less detailed and are submitted every 10 years.

Despite Gilmore's attempt to reach across the aisle and make Democratic friends, he admits that most of his bills have been DOA - dead on arrival. "I can whine and snivel all I want about legislation. But I know why it doesn't go forward," he said.

But the legislator who most people describe as "an awful nice guy" is quick to identify Democrats he enjoys working with. One is Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula, who left the Democratic Party in June to become an independent. "I love that guy," Gilmore said, admiring Arambula's independent streak.

Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, is a Los Angeles County reserve deputy sheriff. Gilmore, who gave Hall a tour of the CHP academy, considers him a buddy. He also has worked with Joe Coto, D-San Jose. He reached out to Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi, who like Gilmore is in a "targeted seat." Republicans are attempting to derail Huber's reelection.

The Californian placed calls to Arambula, Hall, Mendoza, Coto and Huber for comment for this story. Three did not return calls. Two asked for questions to be sent in advance and then did not return calls.

If you think Gilmore has gotten the cold shoulder during his first year in office, it will only get worse as he seeks reelection, Parra predicted, explaining Democrats who have co-authored bills with him or who have otherwise been helpful, won't be so helpful. They will back away.

"This has been the most frustrating year of my life," Gilmore admits. "That place is far beyond anything I imagined. It is broken."

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Oct. 17, 2009.



Once there were more than 30. Now there are only two. And when they are gone, likely the Cessna-Sergeant Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War will cease to exist.

There is a faint hope that the Bakersfield organization of mostly World War II veterans will be "saved" by comrades stepping out of the shadow of obscurity and signing up for membership.

But the reality is that World War II veterans are dying off at a national rate of more than 1,000 a day, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. It is unlikely that a veteran of that war -- a veteran who also happens to be a former prisoner of war -- is living in our midst, just waiting to join the Cessna-Sergeant Chapter.

American former prisoners of war from any conflict can join. But the majority of the U.S. captives came out of World War II, when more than 130,000 were taken prisoner on European and Pacific battlefields. In the Korean War, about 7,100 were reported captured and interned. After the Vietnam War, when 725 were reported captured, the number of American POWs dwindled to single digits in subsequent wars. The numbers are higher if "missing in action" are included.

Former World War II Army Air Corps gunner Edwin Joe and former Army infantryman James Wilson are the only remaining former POWs in the Bakersfield chapter.

Veterans' widows, sons and daughters also can be members. The Cessna-Sergeant Chapter is headed by Richard Ornelas, the son of Korean War POW Isaac Ornelas, who died five years ago. But to be recognized by the national organization (see, the unit must have former POWs as members.

"We will keep going as long as they want to keep going," said Ornelas, explaining the chapter is like an extended family, helping and supporting veterans, their relatives and survivors.

Ornelas is convinced there are former POWs living in Kern County, but "they are taking care of their own situations on their own."

Seeking camaraderie, Joe joined the chapter in the mid-1970s, shortly after it was formed. Wilson joined in 2000, when his wife, Mary, spotted a meeting announcement in The Californian and thought the unit would be a good place for her husband to get help.

In the chapter, both men say they found the support and understanding that only can be given by comrades who have experienced the same horrors of war and imprisonment. Both say they miss their friends and brothers who have passed away.

Joe, 88, and Wilson, 87, know when they are gone, the book likely will be closed on the Cessna-Sergeant Chapter. It is a story that is being told nationwide. The Air Force Times recently reported that two to three chapters a month are closing. In addition to the loss of support, the closures mean the loss of a public reminder of the sacrifices POWs made for their country.

Born in China, Joe was brought to Bakersfield as a 2-year-old to be reunited with his father, who ran a combination pharmacy and gambling hall on 21st Street. The father and son lived in a basement under the business.

He graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1940, the same year Joe said police cracked down on gambling, prompting the pair to move to Mississippi, where his father re-established his gambling business. Joe soon moved to Houston, where he became a cook in a restaurant. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Joe joined the Army Air Corps.

Joe wanted to be a pilot. Instead he was sent to a week of training and became a tail gunner on an A-20 bomber.

As part of a three-man crew, he flew 55 missions in an airplane named Built for Action.

On Sept. 29, 1944, the crew volunteered for a mission over Bitburg, Germany. Returning to their base in England, their plane was hit by anti-aircraft guns. The pilot crashed and died in the plane. Joe and the turret gunner parachuted to safety.

Joe said the pair became separated, with the turret gunner being attacked and killed by German townspeople when he landed. Joe managed to hide for seven days until he was discovered by German troops. He and other captives were hauled in coal cars to Stalag IV, near the border of Poland, where he was held for 10 months.

As the end of the war neared, the German guards marched the POWs for 83 days before they set them free. Soon Joe and his comrades found the allied lines, and they were on their way home to the U.S.

Joe received shrapnel wounds in his leg in an earlier air battle. When he was captured, his feet were frostbitten and he had to be carried. In recognition of his injuries, he was awarded two Purple Hearts.

Although Joe reluctantly gives details about his captivity, his daughter, Kathy, notes that he was forced to sleep in a dirt trench under a metal grate and was given potato water to drink. He lost 25 pounds from his already slight frame.

"All I wanted to do is eat," Joe recalled of his release.

Joe was discharged from the service in Houston. He met his wife, Gloria, on a trip to New Orleans. After the couple married, Joe and his bride moved to Bakersfield, where he opened a grocery store. For a short time, he also operated a Hawaiian restaurant with a partner. A stroke forced his retirement and the closure of Eddie's Market on East Brundage Lane.

Gloria and her twin sister, Lorraine, also joined the service during the war. Five of their six brothers were already in overseas service.

Edwin J. Joe (also known as Jeong Shew Wing) and Gloria Toy Gim Jee are included in the book "Duty & Honor: A Tribute to Chinese American World War II Veterans of Southern California."

Gloria died last year. Edwin uses a wheelchair. The walls of his northeast Bakersfield home are filled with pictures of their three adult children, and their many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

No doubt his family's presence accounts for the nearly constant smile on his face.

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 8, 2009.



James Wilson can't bring himself to talk about it. He can talk about growing up in New York and enlisting as an 18-year-old in the Army infantry. He can even talk about being discharged from the Army in 1945, getting married, moving to California, raising two children and working as an auto mechanic after the war.

But the Bakersfield man just won't, or can't, talk about his experiences fighting in North Africa, being taken prisoner by the Germans, being held in Italy, escaping, being alone and hiding for seven months as he searched for allied forces. In fact, just thinking about those years makes him grimace.

Wilson's wife, Mary, says he has been having flashbacks and nightmares about his war experiences. After years of sealing his memories tightly away, the pain of his war experiences is seeping to the surface.

Like most others who returned from the war, Wilson heard his nation's applause for a job well done. But he heard few offers of help.

In a document filed in support of his application for veterans benefits, Wilson reported that combat left him with ringing in his left ear from an explosion. He has constant pain from the damage done to his back and knees from German guards striking him with the butt of their rifles.

"When I received my discharge, I told the doc about my ear, my back and about my knees," Wilson wrote. "All he said was not to worry about that. I would be A-OK. [It] never happened."

During a recent interview, Wilson said he just sucked it up and moved on with his life. But now 87 years old, Wilson's health has further deteriorated. He relies on a walker for mobility.

He will talk about the affects of his physical injuries. His wife talks about the emotional damage.

Mary and James Wilson married in 1991. His first wife had died. His two grown children were living miles away. He was soon to retire from his job in the auto shop at Sears. An advertisement he placed for a pen pal attracted Mary's attention.

She was divorced. Her two children were grown. She was living in San Bernardino County and working as a medical transcriber in a hospital. The couple exchanged letters. Then they met. Wilson said it was "love at first sight."

"The good Lord sent her to me," he said, claiming they have never had an argument in their 18 years of marriage.

After moving to Bakersfield, Mary spotted a notice in The Californian that a local organization of former POWs was meeting. She urged her husband to attend, hoping he would find the support he needed to deal with his physical and emotional problems.

His fellow veterans encouraged him to file for VA benefits relating to his injuries. She said he also received emotional support from a group of men who understood what he had experienced in the war.

But unlike some of the veterans, Wilson said he could not talk about his experiences.

"I would leave the room when they started. I couldn't understand how they could talk about it like that," Wilson said. And he still can't.

Growing quiet when he was asked about it,Wilson would only respond that when his ship landed in North Africa, "I met the enemy. I'm not going to touch on the war. It's too hard.You will have to figure that out for yourself. I was in five major campaigns."

Wilson is not alone in not wanting to talk about his war experiences, but being haunted by them. Veterans Affairs psychologists report an increasing number of elderly veterans are being identified during clinic visits with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD estimates that 1 in 20 of the nation's 2.5 million surviving World War II vets may suffer from the disorder. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and emotional numbness. Information about PTSD can be found on

Some believe World War II veterans suppressed their memories while they pursued their careers and raised their families. But as they age, they lose their spouses, their health deteriorates and they have an abundance of time to dwell on the past.

Their coping mechanisms are being stripped away. Dementia, which robs the elderly of their short-term memories, while sharpening their long-term memories, also is a factor.

By studying and helping World War II veterans experiencing PTSD, veterans' advocates hope they will be better prepared to intervene with the aging veterans from wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"So many vets thought that if they didn't think about it, didn't talk about it, in time they'd get over it," VA psychologist Edgardo Padin-Rivera told The Cleveland Plain Dealer this summer. "A lot of what we get from them is that they've been suffering in silence for 60 years."

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 8, 2009.



Still picking meat from the bones of the Thanksgiving turkey and nursing the wounds we received while shopping on Black Friday, many of us may have started thinking about writing our "traditional" Christmas letter -- those dense little tales filled with all sorts of family accomplishments and perfect vacation vignettes.

However, before we write, perhaps we should embrace the spirit of my disaster-prone friend whose letters are the highlight of my holiday season. Rather than the insufferable bragging that usually fills those missives, my friend fills hers with 12 months of hysterical (to others, but maybe not her hapless husband) calamities, as well as the customary bragging.

One year she wrote about her stolen cars, and her husband and son mistakenly arrested for stealing the cars. Another year she wrote about her version of a scene from "The Godfather," involving the mauling of a rodent and her blood-splattered terrier. And still another year, she wrote about how she exploded her car when she steered it into a flooded intersection.

I can't wait to receive this year's Christmas letter, since she already has given me a sneak preview. After receiving her e-mail, I have a feeling her calamities are increasing in intensity and hilarity as this fellow boomer gets older and maybe, like the rest of us, more distracted.

She reported that her husband, Tony, a lawyer, loving husband and father, had "suffered" a few health problems.

"First, he did something to his back and has been in incredible pain for about three weeks now," she wrote. "It has been so bad I've had to get him a special cane and drive him to the Bay Area so he could catch a flight back to Illinois for a week on a case. Then I picked him up from the airport ... and we spent three days in Carmel recouping.

"He pretty much just laid around and took pain pills, which didn't seem to help at all. Anyway by the third evening, he said he thought he could sit through a movie. I yelled 'yeah' and got him ready to drive to the movies.

"As he gently walked to the garage and gently began to back into the passenger seat of my big BMW, I noticed I'd left all the windows down in the car, and it was freezing out. So being the thoughtful wife, my first instinct was to get those windows rolled up so he would be comfortable. I cut the middle finger of his left hand almost completely off in the car window.

"We both thought we were in a horror movie as blood was running down the car window and he was screaming at me."

Panic-stricken, my friend raced her husband to a nearby hospital emergency room. By the time they arrived, he wasn't speaking to her, leaving her to wonder if he had gone into shock or if he was just really angry.

At the ER entrance, she found a cluster of wheelchairs and wrestled him into one. In her frenzy to get Tony help, she forgot to release the chair's brake. One big push catapulted the poor slob into the air.

Abandoning the wheelchair, she walked Tony and his blood-spurting hand into the ER. "They got him on morphine, me on Lorazepam and got a plastic surgeon in to sew the finger back on. ... Now he's on super duper pain pills and, guess what, the finger's so [expletive] painful, the back seems better."

That happened on a Sunday evening. Despite his middle finger wrapped in an apparent profane exclamation, the following Tuesday he managed to keep 10 court appearances with a lot of help.

As for my friend, "I've been cooking a lot of home-cooked meals and keeping the house really, really clean. We're still not quite able to laugh about it all, yet."

But the trauma my friend inflicted on her husband made his back worse. An MRI revealed a slipped disc resting on a nerve. Tony was scheduled for back surgery.

While this story was funny enough, I waited a couple of weeks after the surgery to check up on Tony. I could only imagine what my friend could do to a truly helpless husband.

"I'm really trying hard not to cut anything else off," she said, reporting that Tony was on the mend and back to work. "But he's now really afraid of windows."

I'll have to wait for her Christmas letter to find out the rest of Tony's story, as well as her other 2009 disasters. But I'm betting hers will again be the most memorable Christmas letter that arrives at my house this season.

This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared in the Nov. 29, 2009 Bakersfield Californian.


Are you ready to begin writing your family's annual Christmas letter but don't know how to start? There are a lot of websites with writing tips and templates for publication. Do a Google search for "writing Christmas letters."

Some of the sites you will find include, and

A compilation from these sites and comments from online contributors yields the following suggestions to consider before you begin writing:

Start with a festive greeting. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, whatever. It's a good place to start. If you have an odd sense of humor, you may wish not to show it in this beginning line. Keep it nice.

Be yourself. Write like you speak. Maybe include quotes from family members to make your letter sound conversational. Of course, if you speak roughly, or the quotes from your family should, uhhh, stay in the family, you may wish to clean that up. Again, keep it nice.

Make a list of the highlights of the family's year. Include vacations, home renovations, births, weddings and other happy news. You might want to keep the list short. Believe it or not, no one really cares to know about everything that happened to you or your family this year.

Ask each family member for a list of five things they would like to share about themselves in the Christmas letter. Yes, it's not all about you. Be inclusive. Who knows, maybe the husband, wife and kids might have a different perspective on what happened this year.

Don't brag. It's OK to write about something good happening. But keep it low-key; don't present your life, or your family's life, as perfect. One Web page contributor wrote that her family was so fed up with bragging Christmas letters that they held a reading at the end of the season and voted on the most obnoxious letter. She and her family then burned the "winner."

Be creative. Some folks use puzzles, or multiple-choice questions as formats for letters. Others write in the "voices" of their non-speaking babies, or dogs. Of course, being too "cute" can be a turn-off.

Be colorful. Include photos or other artwork to dress up your letter. Remember, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Have fun. Try to entertain, as well as inform. Include funny or bizarre stories if you have them.

If your year has been lousy, tone it down. It's appropriate to make reference to problems, but try to find some good things that have happened to you. One Web page contributor wrote that he spit his coffee across the room when he read his mother's Christmas letter. She wrote about his lousy love life and the fact that he had lost his job. Months later, when the mother and son resumed speaking, she agreed to show him future letters before they are sent out. Christmas letters should not be "tell all" memoirs.

It's not "all about you." Add some personal warm wishes for the recipients of your letter.

At the end, add a personal note and personal signature.

For what you really should not do, check out the book "Christmas Letters from Hell: All the News We Hate from the People We Love."



Carol and Bill Hatcher spent decades in Kern County schools, rising to the top of their careers in education. When Bill retired in 2004, he was superintendent of the Kern High School District, based in Bakersfield in California's southern San Joaquin Valley. When Carol retired a year earlier, she, too, had been a school district superintendent, before moving to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, where she coordinated the history and social studies curriculum.

After toiling away in local classrooms and dealing with the pressures of school administration, Carol and Bill were entitled to enjoy a “good life” retirement that included plenty of international travel to exotic destinations.

And that’s exactly what they have. But their idea of travel is not what most retirees have in mind. It’s certainly not what cruise lines and tour companies describe in their promotional brochures.

Their destinations include war-torn and third world nations. Their hotels aren’t “five star.” In fact, most might not even qualify for one star.

“My sister thinks we’re nuts,” said Bill, acknowledging the Hatchers’ retirement focus might seem odd to many people. “She doesn’t understand why we go to unsafe countries; why we don’t go to spas.”

Bill and Carol Hatcher are spending their retirement years spreading democracy and encouraging emerging nations to foster “civic involvement.”

“We retired, but we will never retire from civic education,” Bill said during a recent interview.

Bill is on the board of the Center for Civic Education, which is funded primarily by federal grants. Carol coordinates the center’s international programs that focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ghana. As part of the center’s international program, the couple has traveled to the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, the Philippine Islands, Mexico, Argentina, Morocco, Jordan, South Africa, Ghana, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Their travel – often requiring repeat visits to dangerous, emerging nations – is at the countries’ request. Their work in-country focuses on teaching teachers how to teach civic involvement.

As an example of their work, consider the Hatchers’ trip to the Philippine Islands, where they found a culture strong in extended family ties, but weak in civic involvement. A team from the center, which included the Hatchers, was invited to teach teachers how to get students involved in solving problems for the country’s “greater good.”

The Philippine Islands has a strong educational system, Bill explained. But there is government corruption. Unless people look beyond their extended families, the nation’s problems and corruption will not be addressed.

After the fighting ended in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hatchers and a team of educators from the center were invited to the region.

“Teachers there never had to teach civics,” Carol recalled, noting that “where kids were once taught how to handle a rifle, teachers were now expected to teach kids how to live in a democracy, how to live with compromise.”

The center’s team of educators worked with the region’s teachers to develop a curriculum to instill an understanding of how a democracy works and how citizens can become involved in their government.

“Citizenship and civic education are more than just hanging a poster on a classroom wall,” said Bill, explaining the need to develop an educational program to build understanding and inspire young people to become involved in their governments to solve national problems.

Similarly Bill was invited by the King of Morocco as part of a multi-country team of educators to incorporate democratic principles in the North African nation’s monarchy and elevate the status of women. Cultural sensitivity was required to craft recommendations for this predominantly Muslim nation.

“We take for granted what we have here at home,” said Carol. “It is humbling to go to a country where the people want to learn about our democracy. They are working so hard to obtain what we have.”

The Hatchers have long been involved in bringing democratic principles to life.

Through their classroom experiences – Carol’s mostly involving local elementary school children and Bill’s involving Kern’s high school students – the Hatchers learned about the Los Angeles-based Center for Civic Education and its U.S. programs.

People may be more familiar with the center’s “We the People” program, which tests high school students’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and how it applies to solving practical problems and controversies.

Teams of students from Kern County high schools have repeatedly won this difficult annual competition. The success can be credited to dedicated students, educators and community volunteers who spend countless hours every year preparing teams for the competition.

“I was impressed by how the program changed kids’ lives,” Bill said, explaining that even as a school administrator he spent hours helping prepare student teams. As a retiree, he now is advising his granddaughter’s “We the People” team at Bakersfield's Centennial High School, where Bill once was the principal.

Whether a student is Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, he or she realizes through the “We the People” program how the Constitution will affect and protect their lives, said Bill.

Carol recalled her days in the 1960s as a high school student in Indiana, where social studies was confined to “book learning.” The subject was dry and seemed to have little application to students’ lives.

“This program applies social studies and the Constitution to students’ lives,” she said. “It is much more meaningful.”

Through her involvement in the center’s international programs, Carol has arranged a teleconference between Foothill High School students in Bakersfield and their counterparts in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On another occasion, she linked up Bakersfield third graders with elementary school students in Sarajevo. The students compared notes and were amazed by the differences in the everyday challenges they face.

“We have met some of the most interesting people in the world,” Bill said. “Our experiences have been heartwarming. We believe we are making a difference.”

Carol choked back emotion as she recalled an early visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s. The guns had just been silenced by a fragile peace accord. A government official thanked her for helping and told her: “Nationalism has filled our graves. Democracy has filled our souls.”

This story written by DIANNE HARDISTY first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Dec. 6, 2009.


You do not have to be an educator to volunteer with the Center for Civic Education, and help teach U.S. and international students about democracy and civic involvement.

Through the center’s programs, such as “We the People,” students in this country learn about the U.S. Constitution and its application to their everyday lives. The annual competition recruits teachers and people in the community to coach teams of high school students.

The Los Angeles-based Center for Civic Education, which is funded primarily by grants from the federal government, also trains educators in emerging democratic nations to prepare citizens to get involved in their governments. The center recruits volunteers for its international teams.

For more information about the Center for Civic Education, e-mail Carol and Bill Hatcher, retired Bakersfield educators who serve on the center’s governing board and are active in the international program. E-mail More information about the Center for Civic Education can be obtained from the Web site



Latinos are California’s fastest growing minority community and by 2042 are expected to be the racial/ethnic majority in the state.

Yet they are among the least likely to vote, allowing California’s political decisions to be made by white non-Latino voters and more organized, mobilized ethnic minority groups, researchers have concluded.

As the 2010 political campaigns already are beginning to come alive in California, the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association has scheduled a meeting in Bakersfield on Friday [Dec. 11] to map out a strategy for encouraging minority communities to participate in Kern County’s political process.

A non-profit organization, APAPA’s mission is to educate the public, ethnic minorities in particular, about the importance of voting, explained Nia Lavulo, at the association’s Sacramento headquarters.

“It’s a matter of empowering people to get involved with their government at the national, state and local levels,” explained Danny Lee, president of APAPA’s Central Valley Chapter.

The purpose of Friday’s meeting is to develop voter participation strategies and to begin planning for a May town hall meeting in Bakersfield that will focus on the June 2010 primary election, Lee said. Friday’s meeting will be held in the second floor Tehachapi Room of the University Square Building, 2000 K St., Bakersfield from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Using estimated U.S. Census data, Latinos in 2008 comprised 47.1 percent of Kern County’s population, with non-Latino whites comprising 41.1 percent. Blacks were 6.4 percent, with the remainder of Kern County’s population of 800,458 being comprised of various other minority ethnic groups.

Yet, white voters have the political clout in California. The Public Policy Institute of California reported this fall that while Latinos make up about 32 percent of the state’s adult population, they are only 17 percent of the registered voters most likely to turn out in elections. Asians make up 13 percent of the state’s population, but only 6 percent are likely to vote. Blacks comprise both 6 percent of California’s population and the voter turnout.

By contrast, according to institute surveys, whites constitute 47 percent of California’s adult population, but 68 percent of the state’s likely voters.

Many Latinos and other ethnic minorities are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote. U.S. Census estimates for 2008 indicate about 68 percent of Kern County’s 155,938 foreign-born residents – and that population figure includes children and immigrants who are legally in this country -- are not U.S. citizens.

But even removing the citizenship factor, Latinos and most ethnic minority groups in California and Kern County have a low voter turnout rate, according to researchers and political observers.

Lee explained that many new citizens come from countries that have monarchies or repressive governments. Voter participation is not understood or considered relevant.

“They are not involved. They stay within their families. They keep to themselves,” he said.

Two of Kern County’s high profile Latino politicians were asked to weigh in on the finding that minority groups are not participating in California’s political process.

“There are too many important issues affecting minority communities for people not to participate,” said Nicole Parra, who represented Kern County’s 30th Assembly District until she was termed out of office last year.

Now a Fresno-based government consultant, Parra noted that the Central Valley struggles with persistent poverty issues. These issues include the Central Valley’s average per capita income being 32.2 percent lower than the rest of the state; college attendance being 50 percent below state average; and the unemployment rate being among the highest.

To mobilize “voters, people need to feel like they make a difference, they are part of a team,” said Parra. “Most importantly, voters want to know that the elected official cares about their needs and their concerns.”

“People have to have a reason to vote, to come out and take the time to express their choices,” said Democrat state Sen. Dean Florez, who represents Kern County’s 16th District and who is running for California lieutenant governor.

“For the most part, people don’t vote because the ballot oftentimes is confusing. It’s cluttered with propositions,” he said. “I’ve spoken to people who simply feel that the ballot is too complicated and it feels like it’s somewhat of a test that you would get in school.

Recent gains by Latino politicians, who have been elected to local and state offices, should not be overestimated, warned Florez.

“Yes, you have Latinos who are taking on greater and more significant roles in government, but that was not always the case, even 10 years ago,” he said. “There is a nascent rise in political power among Latino … [but the Latino community] is growing astronomically in California.

“We are entering a period where California will become the most integrated, multi-cultural population ever in the history of the world and it’s all been accomplished relatively peacefully,” he said, crediting the nation’s Founding Fathers for creating a system that fosters integration and power sharing.

Minority participation in the political system is “a big deal because this integration is important to our survival as a society,” he said. If minority communities “give up, become isolated and don’t participate, such a situation could evolve into the type of conflicts that we have been able to avoid.”

This story written by DIANNE HARDISTY first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian and the newspaper's Web site on Dec. 8, 2009.


Bill Thomas isn’t out to get anyone. Rather Bakersfield’s tough, smart and powerful former Republican congressman is on a crusade to get the truth.

Thomas is vice-chairman of the 10-member Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, created by Congress and President Obama to explain how the nation’s financial institutions ended up in today’s mess.

The bipartisan commission is headed by Democrat Phil Angelides, California’s former treasurer. But leadership and administrative duties are shared by both men. As the commission shifts into “high gear” next month, with the first of eight public hearings scheduled and teams of investigators swarming over Wall Street financial records, Thomas and Angelides are presenting a firm, unified front.

Innovative and complex Wall Street financial schemes brought the nation’s and world’s banks to the verge of collapse, and plunged the economy into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. People are losing their homes, businesses and jobs. Billions upon billions of tax dollars have been spent to shore up banks that are “too big to fail.”

The commission’s job is to explain how that happened, and to create a repository of information that can be used by the president, Congress and others to help fix problems and keep them from happening again.

“The fact is that late in 1929, people were throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street. This year, they’re lining up for bonuses. There has been no serious self-examination on Wall Street of what has occurred and what should be in the future,” Angelides told economists and policy-makers at a conference in Washington, D.C., last month.

Some people on Wall Street now acknowledge that they were not comfortable about the activities they engaged in, Thomas said during a recent interview with The Californian.

“But they said, ‘The music was playing and if I had not played along, I would be out of a job because there were people who were making money on paper. We could not be highfalutin and sit it out,’” Thomas recalled being told. “So in other words, somebody had to hold them responsible. You would like to think to a certain extent there were certain morals and mores that bankers would follow. But obviously the Fed relied on self-regulation to a certain extent. People could not help themselves. ‘Stop me before I loan again.’”

The commission’s job is to examine why Wall Street firms did not stop themselves and why regulators didn’t stop them.

Both Angelides and Thomas agree that the commission’s job is to shed light, not heat on the Wall Street scandal that has left many Americans struggling just to make ends meet. But the commission’s fact-finding mission also has teeth. If corporate giants, or government regulators are uncooperative, commissioners have been given subpoena powers to compel cooperation. If evidence of wrongdoing merits it, cases can be referred to law enforcement.

“We are not out to embarrass people,” said Thomas. “We are out to find the facts. As the facts come out, a number of people will have to be embarrassed because they were in positions of responsibility and didn’t do what people in these positions should do.”

But when the commission reaches its Dec. 15, 2010 deadline, the goal is to leave Americans with a book to explain what happened and a yard stick to measure the efforts of this Congress and future Congresses to fix the problems.

Thomas is commuting to Washington from Bakersfield to get the commission up and running. He also serves as a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and a senior advisor to Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, a Washington, D.C., law firm.

He sat down with The Californian during a holiday break to discuss the commission’s work and the crisis that led to its creation.

Q – Some people are comparing the Fiscal Crisis Inquiry Commission to the 1930s Pecora Commission, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression. Is that a good comparison?

A – “[Ferdinand] Pecora was a Senate staffer. It was an on-again, off-again Senate inquiry. The guy was pulling stunts. He wanted to embarrass the Wall Street folks. He wanted to make a name for himself and others. There wasn’t a lot of legislation that came out of that commission.”

Thomas contended much of the legislation credited to Pecora’s probe, such as creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., was already in progress before the Senate hearings. The FCIC’s work will be a wide-ranging search for causes and will be the basis for legislation beyond the commission’s life.

“Part of our job is to explain to people what happened and why,” he said. “Some people still can’t figure it out. They just know that they are in real trouble with their housing. We are going to try to write a book that will be fairly easy reading. It won’t be like the 9/11 Commission book, because they were forced to maintain a degree of secrecy. There were things they could not write about. But it will be along those lines.”

Q – It doesn’t seem important to ask “why.” The president and Congress already are proposing financial reforms. They aren’t waiting for the commission to tell them “why.”

A – “They can’t wait. They have problems to face and the president is talking about changes. If the focus is on explaining what happened, they think they know what happened, as well. We are going to try to provide a comprehensive analysis of what happened. At the time we publish, we can take it as a yardstick and measure what Congress has done.”

Noting Congress moves slowly, Thomas predicted few reforms will be in place before the commission’s reporting deadline.

“You can be very cynical and say that the reporting date in the legislation is Dec. 15, 2010, right after the election, so Congress can say it’s waiting for the commission to give up the specifics if it can’t get anything done.”

Q – Some people -- inside and outside the government -- contend the big problems are behind us. Is that true?

A – “There are a number of folks [on Wall Street] going right back to practicing, to a large extent, what they were practicing prior to the collapse. And they have short memories because they now say they didn’t need to take the TARP money. Well they took it. They still got rescued. The life ring was thrown. They grabbed it. And we pulled them out.

“They want to pay the money back and play the old game. I think it is dumb of them, frankly, to want to go back to making money the old way. They still have those instruments. They modified them slightly, but not enough. They are creating an animosity toward them not unlike the way people have felt about other institutions in the past and that has to be reckoned with.

“And it is getting more complicated now that Congress is getting some of that money returning back. Now they want to spend it, instead of regarding it as the payback of the taxpayers’ money that was used to float the loans in the first place. They just think it is found money and they are going to be using it for all types of purposes.”

Q – What new or ongoing issues should concern us?

A – “What really happened was that all these large banks were carrying these strange instruments of consolidated mortgages. And all of a sudden they weren’t worth that much. Well, how much were they worth? We didn’t know for sure. Moody’s gave them a triple-A rating so they could sell them to other people. But if you look at the rating game, you pay for the rating. So you end up hiring one of the firms that gave you a triple-A.

“It’s a lot like what happened to the accounting firms that recommended how and where you invested your money, and then went over the books and, guess what, they concluded that was a great place to invest your money. Except it blew up. You can’t have people on both sides of a ledger when they are carrying out a function.

“People were buying triple-A ratings. Maybe they weren’t triple-A. Maybe they were junk. Banks had these on their books and they didn’t know if they were worth anything. It wasn’t that they didn’t have enough money. They just didn’t know what they had.”

Thomas equated the Wall Street schemers to “mad scientists,” who were not sure what they were creating. They just knew they were making lots of money.

“One of the ways to deal with rating agencies is to say OK, if this is a triple-A document, you have to put some of your own money in so that you will be at risk. One of the biggest problems is that people with these products had no risk. They could shop the risk. And those who were willing to cover the risk thought there were no risks, so they were willing to make ‘free money.’ Everybody was making free money until reality set in.

“It is partly the job of the Federal Reserve to take the punch bowl away from the party. Clearly there was an unwillingness [at the Fed] to stop this structure because it appeared to be OK and it was very lucrative.”

Q – Should some banks be “too big to fail?”

A – Two presidents, Congress and regulators “knew if these structures collapsed, it would be like dominos. Don’t hit the first one. The others might not stay up. The time frame was such that you had to just pump money in it. It’s what you do in triage with people coming in. First you have to keep them alive. Then you figure out what their problem is. And then you figure out what you have to do to solve the problem. The massive infusion of money was to keep the patient alive. Did some of it go where it shouldn’t have gone? Of course. But it was to keep them alive. They are now back and making money. But we are concerned because we don’t fully understand them and they don’t either.”

Q – How will the commission unsnarl this financial maze?

A – “We are looking at holding eight hearings. We would like to have 20, but we don’t have time for that. We have a very short time frame.”

Thomas said the first hearing will be held in mid-January over two days at the Capitol. The chief executive officers of some of Wall Street’s major financial institutions will be called to testify. Future public hearings will be announced, with the investigation continuing and information compiled for both the final report and the repository, which will be housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The law creating the commission specified 22 areas of study. Thomas acknowledged the commission’s scope will be wide-ranging and consider both domestic and international implications.

“People were surprised that this went so quickly around the world as a conflagration. Internationally, finances are completely intermingled. Nation states are an anachronism when it comes to today’s international financial structures. So that has to be addressed, as well.”

Q – How much will this inquiry cost?

A – “The 9/11 commission started out with $3 million and ended up spending $16 million. We started at $8 million. You can always do it with what they give you, but it might take a little bit more only because of the timeframe we are in. We have a lot to do in a shorter period of time.”

Thomas said staff from other departments also will be assigned to help with the work.

Q – Why did you agree to take on this huge inquiry?

A – “It is an impossible job in an impossible time frame. But friends of mine, who are leaders in the House, came to me and asked me to do this. They said they could not think of anyone else who could do this.”

Thomas admitted he was reluctant at first. But as the other members were appointed and as Democratic Chairman Angelides voluntarily agreed to share the commission’s powers with Thomas, a Republican, Thomas has gained confidence that the inquiry will be thorough, honest and fair.

“I felt the pursuit of what happened actually had a chance.”

This article written by Dianne Hardisty first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Dec. 27, 2009.