The best way to get reporters to cover your event is don’t ask. Don’t tell either, especially if the event in question happens to involve some golden anniversary celebration. Such was the case with UCSB’s All Gaucho Reunion two weeks ago, during which hundreds if not thousands of UCSB graduates searching for their lost youth streamed onto campus. Naturally, we heard not a peep. This, I suspected, was because ExxonMobil had initially signed on to cosponsor the event and then — after a fit got predictably pitched — was allowed to beat a face-saving retreat. Given Santa Barbara just “celebrated” the 50th anniversary of its late, great oil spill, Exxon’s largesse could have proved awkward.
I found out about this weekend jubilee in classic after-the-fact fashion. Facebook posted photos of groups of oldsters from the class of 1969 thronging under UCSB’s Storke Tower in Storke Plaza, celebrating its dedication 50 years ago. Even today, Storke Tower — at 175 feet — remains the tallest architectural erectile-projectile on the South Coast, a justified, if extravagant, flex for, of, and by T.M. Storke, Santa Barbara’s singularly most influential power broker, padrone, boss, godfather, and media mogul.
Storke was two years away from his death at age 94 when the tower was dedicated. By then, the world he once ran had passed him by. But in his prime, he’d moved mountains. In 1932, Storke — then owner of Santa Barbara’s daily newspaper — played a key behind-the-scenes role getting Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated president at the Democratic National Convention. At the time, the party was hopelessly deadlocked and California delegates were firmly committed to an also-ran. Storke helped engineer a last-minute insurrection among the state’s delegation to get in line behind FDR. The rest, as they say, is history.
Soon after that, Storke managed to get a small teachers’ college on Santa Barbara’s Riviera made part of the UC system; he got it moved to an old U.S. Marine base by the Goleta Slough. He used his contacts in D.C. — did I mention he’d briefly been a U.S. senator? — to get the feds to fund the construction of Lake Cachuma — still the most important source of water on the South Coast — even though Congress was decidedly not funding urban water-supply dams like Cachuma at the time.
When Storke spent $600,000 of his own money to build Storke Tower, he was clearly glorifying his own legacy. But he was also creating what was then a rare media center to house the campus newspaper — then the El Gaucho — the KCSB radio station, and the school yearbook. He wanted to create a petri dish from which new forms of journalism could emerge. In today’s context — where reporters are “the enemy of the people” and facts have become fungible things — such optimism seems touching, almost quaint. Back then, it was forward thinking, visionary.
At that ceremony, standing with T.M. was his lifelong friend Earl Warren, the former California governor, who had just retired as the single most transformative Chief Justice in Supreme Court history. The political bromance between Warren and Storke was effusive and touching in ways that guys have a hard time being with other guys today. T.M. wrote long letters to Warren addressed to “My dear Earl.” T.M. and Warren drank together, they shot ducks together, and in the early 1960s they would be hung in effigy together from the street poles of Santa Barbara by the frothingly rabid right-wingers with the John Birch Society, who denounced not just “socialism and communism,” but “Warrenism and Storkism.”
This bromance between Storke and Warren is not merely cute; it helped define what Santa Barbara would later become. It was then-Governor Warren, after all, who signed the legislation Storke had so skillfully rammed through the state legislature that created what’s now UCSB.
Storke’s grand dream for Storke Tower, however, would quickly turn into a personal nightmare. One year after the tower’s dedication, editors at the El Gaucho began dropping f-bombs into headlines and articles denouncing the war in Vietnam and the secret war waged by Nixon against Cambodia, too. Privately, Storke thought the war was a disaster; privately, he thought Nixon — then president — was a disaster too, and he wrote disparagingly to Warren of then-governor Ronald Reagan, “He seems to have an ingrown hatred of education in any form. In another, he added, “A taxicab driver could have answered more intelligently.”
But the f-bombs Storke simply could not abide. In letters to Warren, he exploded in rage and shame. “Every word of filth found in the dictionary and in the gutter dictionary, I have found in that paper,” he wrote. “Many times I regret the building bears my name.” Warren wrote back, “I do wish, Tom, I could be of more comfort to you.” Warren reminded Storke that 40,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam and another 300,000 wounded. Having visited the wounded, Warren suggested it would have been more humane had they been allowed to die than remain “in their helpless situation,” adding, “The whole burden of the war has fallen on them.” In the context of “obscenity” — a free speech the Warren court famously struggled with — Warren noted, “We killed five times as many as the enemy.” If El Gaucho editors were f-bombing their readers, Warren — then four years from his own death — urged understanding. “We must assume much of the blame ourselves for having permitted the world to have become as disjointed as it is.”
It was Storke who conjured the dream of UCSB. It was Storke who made that dream a reality. But, in 1971, he donated his letters to the Bancroft Library located on the UC Berkeley campus instead. That’s where I happened to stumble onto them. I doubt any of this came up at this year’s All Gaucho event. But I don’t know for sure. The organizers had the good sense to not extend invitations.