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In the News - Friday, JANUARY 25, 2008

—See this week's FRONT PAGE (PDF)



From Rattlesnake Ranch to

San Francisco limelight,

Old West to West Coast

Key elements combined to

create ultimate biography

   Jay O’Connell’s latest book starts at the end. With an obituary, just two paragraphs in length.
   When a life ends after 93 years and only a few dozen words can be summoned, one might assume that there must not be much to tell. But, maybe, just maybe, the life was so eventful that it could have filled the entire newspaper for a year and still not revealed all.
   To try to condense such a life into the mere confines of an obituary was, perhaps, just too challenging for loved ones to attempt.
   That’s what author Jay O’Connell discovered as he began his research more than a decade ago on Evans and Sontag, the notorious Tulare County train robbers from the 1890s. What began in 1998 as a series in The Kaweah Commonwealth about Chris Evans, his family, and sidekick John Sontag, eventually took to the stage at the historic Fox Theatre in Visalia — Evans and Sontag: The Visalia Bandits — and evolved into a permanent exhibit in the Tulare County Museum at Mooney Grove.
   Jay, who was raised in Three Rivers and currently works in the television industry, has written and published two previous books on local history, Co-Operative Dreams: A History of the Kaweah Colony (1999) and A Strength Born of Giants: The Life and Times of Dr. Forest Grunigen (2002). He currently resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Susie, and their two sons, JP, 10, and Colin, 4.
   Being raised in Tulare County and having a keen interest in local history, Jay was familiar with the story of Evans and Sontag and, as train robbers with a grudge against the Southern Pacific railroad, much has been written about the duo in the past.
   But new life was breathed into the story as the stars aligned to provide Jay with enough information to write about the outlaws, their exploits, the shootouts and their ultimate capture, and so much more from the perspective of Eva Evans, Chris Evans’s oldest child of seven.
   The memoir-- When she was in her 50s, Eva Evans wrote her autobiography. That’s where the first inkling of a love story is revealed, and it’s not the traditional romantic tale; instead, it’s about the undying devotion of a daughter for her father.
   As Jay came to know Eva through a half-dozen years of tireless research, he believes that her memoir is true… mostly. It seems Eva’s recall of events was accurate, but she was not always truthful when it came to discussing her father’s escapades and would change the facts to maintain his innocence.
   Eva not only misconstrued some details to protect her father, but dodged bullets and lawmen in her quest to aid and abet him.
Ironically, she donated her life’s story to the Huntington Library in San Marino, which was founded by the railroad magnate family that her father so despised.

  The stage production-- The contemporary performance of the Evans and Sontag melodrama, produced by Jay in conjunction with the College of the Sequoias theater department in 2002, was the first step toward publishing this never-before-told story. When the play originally debuted in San Francisco in September 1893, Eva Evans and her mother, Molly, played themselves in the lead roles, despite having no formal theatre training.
   After more than 100 years, the play, created by Richard Cullen “R.C.” White, resurfaced, and it ended up in Jay’s possession. Bob Lilley, an Atascadero attorney and White’s great-great-grandson, discovered the original, handwritten script — the only known copy — in a trunk of family memorabilia.
   Eventually, Lilley made his way to Visalia — the setting of much of the play but from where it was banned from being performed in the 19th century — to donate the historical treasure to the Tulare County Museum.
   Lilley has since passed away, but the play and epic story have been preserved.

  Long-forgotten archives-- Also a result of his relentless research over the past years, Jay located Eva’s stepdaughter, Lillian Kinkela Keil, who was by then in her 80s. After several phone conversations, Jay established a working relationship with this woman who, herself, led an incredible life that was depicted in a 1953 movie and, according to Jay, is a biography waiting to happen.
   Lillian was in possession of Eva’s memoir as well as materials never before known to exist — manuscripts, letters, scrapbooks, photos, and more.
   Jay never had the opportunity to thank Lillian in person for her contribution to the story of her stepmother’s life. She died before he was able to meet her.

  The newspapers-- Coinciding with the flurry of train robberies in the Central Valley in the 1890s was an emerging style of journalism, promoted by William Randolph Hearst and his San Francisco Examiner. His sensationalistic style ensured that readers maintained a frenzied interest in the Evans and Sontag saga as entire front pages were devoted to the story.
   What created an even greater interest is that the coverage was sympathetically slanted toward the outlaws and the plight of the Evans family. To compete with the Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle attempted to keep pace with the coverage, as did the Los Angeles Times and the Tulare County and Fresno newspapers of the day.
   As the posses closed in and the outlaws’ life of crime came to an abrupt end, Hearst turned his attention toward the melodrama that would make its stage debut in San Francisco. This play also commiserated with Chris Evans and John Sontag and portrayed local lawmen as bumbling and deceitful.
   Eva Evans and her mother, Molly, portrayed themselves in the play to earn money for Chris’s legal expenses. Performances were staged for sold-out crowds, due in part to Eva wearing pants and riding a horse onto the stage.
   The newspaper archives fill in gaps and provide an accurate timeline of events, from holdups to shootouts. Jay spent countless research hours buried in print.

  The tour-- Just as an actor immerses himself into a role, a writer must know his subjects. That was the focus of Jay’s “outlaw tour” on which he embarked several years ago with other Western history buffs and Tulare County Historical Society members.
As a result, he was able to determine the site in north Visalia where the Evans home once stood. He ventured into the Sierra mountains to find the family’s beloved Redwood Ranch and Chris’s giant sequoia.
   He walked the hallowed ground of Stone Corral where a deadly shootout occurred. He headed for the hills and even brought home a case of poison oak for his efforts in his quest to track down what so many lawmen could not — Camp Manzanita and Fort Defiance, the hideouts.

  The book-- Train Robber’s Daughter is a compelling tale of nonfiction that takes readers through nearly a century of Eva Evans’s life. It’s a scholarly work with an in-depth index, references, bibliography, and 16 pages of photos, but it reads like a novel as the protagonist’s life is extraordinary.
   Husbands come and go, she has appearances on stage and in courtrooms and careers as an actress and photographer, dealt with drug addiction and attempted suicide, is known by several different first names, orchestrated jailbreaks, and cultivated friendships with a flamboyant San Francisco Examiner columnist, a famed poet, outlaws, and an outspoken anarchist and feminist.
   And since the book begins with an obituary, it seems fitting that it would end with a startling admission...
   Train Robber’s Daughter is available now at The Kaweah Commonwealth for $18.95 plus tax or on the author's website at On Friday, Feb. 1, it goes on sale at major booksellers and will be in the “Outlaw Section” at The Book Garden in Exeter.

Exchange student

needs host family

   Evidently, the word is out about Woodlake High School, Three Rivers, and its hospitable school district community. There are currently two foreign exchange students staying in Three Rivers, and Cheryl Williams of Inter Ed, a Clovis-based foreign student exchange program that specializes in the placing German students, is hoping that there’s room for one more.
   Williams contacted the Commonwealth earlier this week to help solve an urgent problem when once in awhile the best laid plans don’t work out. That’s what happened last week, she reported, when arrangements had been finalized to place one of Inter Ed’s students in Exeter High School for the remaining six months of the current school year.
   According to a communication received from the Exeter Union School District, they already have one foreign exchange student and to add another would violate district rules.

  “When we found out that our student would not be attending school in the Exeter district, we also lost our host family,” Williams said. “That’s when I contacted Woodlake High School and they said yes.”
   But, of course, there’s a catch. In order for the student — Christoph “Chris” Roling, who arrived in Fresno on Tuesday, Jan. 23 — to finalize his agreement to attend Woodlake High, he needs to find a host family in the district, Williams said.
   Inter Ed, founded two decades ago by a Fresno State professor who benefited in his academic career by a similar program, has a very stringent application process and places more than a dozen students during each school year. Students who come to California choose from one-year or six-month academic programs, must maintain above-average grades, and participate in extra-curricular school activities at least four days a week.
   Williams thinks Chris would be a good fit in Three Rivers because his background at home in Süderbraup, Germany, is similar to the small-town, rural lifestyle. He has all A’s and B’s on his transcript; likes math, science, and history; plays sports; and is taking lessons on the keyboards.
   Like most teens, in his spare time, he’s into music and socializing with friends.

  “Chris, like all our students, comes from a good family in Germany, and he has completed a very extensive application and screening process,” Williams said. “This program is a proven win-win for the student and the host family.”
   Inter Ed works with German students primarily because of the opportunities to enhance their English language skills. The home-stay experience is a big part of the organization’s mission to provide significant lifetime learning and foster the acceptance of cultural differences.
   Chris Roling is currently staying in temporary quarters in Clovis while he gets acclimated to being in California. He’s anxious to start his classes at Woodlake High as soon as his placement becomes official.
   To learn more about Inter Ed, visit or call Cheryl Williams, 940-4713, and help Chris find a friendly host family experience.

Fire captain is

a drag boat champ

   It figures that if your dad was a drag boat racing champion and you grew up going to boat races, you might be a chip off the old block. That certainly applies to Cal Fire Captain Derek Staberg, who, at a special banquet on Saturday, Feb. 16, in Anaheim, will be presented with the National Jet Boat Association’s 2007 championship trophy in the eight-second bracket.
   Staberg, 39, of Lemon Cove, where he lives with his wife, Darcy, and their two children, was raised in Three Rivers and is a 1987 Woodlake High alum. Right out of high school, he embarked on his career as a CDF firefighter.
   For the past four years, he’s been racing drag boats under the tutelage of his father, Dean Staberg. Dean still owns and operates 3-D Boats in Lemon Cove, where he and wife Mary, Derek’s mom, now reside.
   Derek’s boat, “Fully Involved” is a 3-D custom-built boat powered by a 540 cubic-inch big block Chevy engine.
In 2007, he was the high points racer in the season’s event series at Lake Ming near Bakersfield where more than 100 boats competed.
   After Derek picks up his 2007 hardware, he plans to compete in the seven-event 2008 series that begins March 15 at Lake Ming near Bakersfield. The first three events in the series are scheduled for Kern County then the series continues in Chowchilla with other locations/dates to be announced.

It’s award season in Woodlake:

Apply, nominate now

People of the Year
   Nominations will be accepted through Wednesday, Jan. 30, for Woodlake’s annual awards of Man, Woman, Youth, and Business of the Year and Spirit of Woodlake. Winners will be announced in advance and then honored at a banquet to be held Saturday, Feb. 23, beginning at 6 p.m., at the Woodlake Memorial Building.
   The awards are presented to those who have made a significant impact on making Woodlake a better place to live. Anyone may complete a nomination, however, nominees must reside within the Woodlake Elementary School District boundaries with a couple of exceptions.
   The Youth of the Year nominees must live in the Woodlake High School District, which includes Three Rivers and Seville. The Spirit of Woodlake nominee must have a connection to Woodlake, but may live elsewhere.
   Applications are available at Woodlake City Hall or by emailing Sally Pace at

Woodlake Rodeo Queen
   The Woodlake Lions Rodeo is now accepting applications for the 2008 Rodeo Queen contest. Queen contestants are judged on horsemanship, poise, personality, appearance, and ticket sales.
   Contestants must be between the ages of 16 and 24, unmarried, and may live anywhere in the Central Valley. The winner will be crowned Saturday, May 3, and receive a tiara, belt buckle, and saddle.
   The 2008 Rodeo Queen will reign at the Woodlake Lions Rodeo during the weekend of May 10 and 11 and represent the Woodlake Lions Rodeo at rodeo events throughout the year.
   An application may be downloaded at Contestants must mail the application and a resume by Friday, Feb. 8, to Woodlake Lions Rodeo, P.O. Box 545, Woodlake, CA 93286.

Draft of county

General Plan now available

   The January 2008 draft of the Tulare County General Plan is now available for review. The document also includes the Goals and Policies Report, the draft Environmental Impact Report, and the Tulare County General Plan Background Report.
   Copies are available at the Three Rivers Library and other county library branches and the County of Tulare Resource Management Agency, located at the Tulare County Government Plaza, 5961 S. Mooney Blvd, Visalia.
   The documents may also be found at the County’s website:
   The Board of Supervisors hopes to adopt the General Plan, which will guide growth in Tulare County until 2030, during Spring 2008. The process began in 2003.
   The value statements created that directed the direction of the General Plan are:

  —The beauty of the County and the health, safety, and welfare of its residents will be protected and enhanced.

  —The County will create and facilitate opportunities to improve the lives of all residents.

  —The County will protect its agricultural economy while diversifying employment opportunities.

  —Every community will have the opportunity to prosper from economic growth.

  —Growth will pay its own way by providing sustainable, high-quality infrastructure and services.

A California primary

that actually matters

   For the first time in as long as local voters can remember, the California primary really counts. That’s because it was moved last year from its traditional first Tuesday in June to a prominent position on the election-year calendar — the first Tuesday in February.
   In the past, presidential front runners have often come calling in June only for cash contributions to fuel a stretch run to their respective conventions. In 2008, a host of candidates from both the major parties will be scrambling for votes and delegates that could make California the preeminent prize of the so-called “Super Tuesday.”.
   On the Democratic side, California will send the largest state delegation to the party’s convention in Denver, Colo., that takes place August 25 to 28. A big win February 5 in California and in a few other Super Tuesday states could spell a momentum swing for any candidate that would be difficult to sidetrack.
   Lost in all the California hoopla are the 441 delegates that go almost exclusively to the statewide winner. Each of California’s 53 congressional districts contributes 241 of the 441 delegates; 81 at-large delegates go to the statewide winner. Among the remaining 119 are included super delegates (VIPS), more pledged delegates, and a handful that go to Denver uncommitted
   From California’s Republican Party, there are 159 district and 14 at-large delegates who include three members from the party’s leadership. All of the 159 are pledged to district winners; only 11 of the 14 delegates are pledged outright to the statewide winner.
   The Republicans nominate their candidate in Minneapolis-St. Paul on September 1 through 4. The conventions have been scheduled later than is customary because of the Summer Olympics that will be held beginning July 2008.
   Party affiliation is most critical in the primary election because it determines who gets which ballot. The Democratic Party will accept ballots from those registered “Democrat” or “Decline to State.”
   The Republican Party will accept ballots only from those registered “Republican.” Those registered as “Independent” or anyone wishing to change party affiliation were permitted to do so before the registration deadline of January 22.
   Of more immediacy are the seven statewide propositions and Measure C being proposed by the Woodlake Unified School District. Voters will say yea or nay, making a final determination in these ballot initiatives.
   Measure C is only local ballot initiative. The $4.1 million bond issue seeks to fund improvements to the Woodlake High School campus.
   Although the County of Tulare sample ballot states that the maximum duration of the Measure C bonds cannot exceed 40 years, Tim Hire, WUSD superintendent who wrote the tax measure statement in the same document, said the school district opted for a duration of 25 years, not 40 years as the code allows.

  “We realized that if we collect the fees for 40 years there would be a level assessment and even though assessed values increase, the dollars collected would stay the same,” Hire said. “In the 25-year term, if values increase as they are projected to do, we can repay the obligation sooner and the term of the tax levy actually decreases.”
   Whether your primary motivation is a party, a candidate, or ballot initiative, your vote really will count. on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
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