Remembering Bee columnist Eli Setencich: A last look at 'Through a Glass Lightly'

The Fresno BeeJuly 14, 2014 

Editor's note

Upon word that former Fresno Bee columnist and reporter Eli Setencich died Saturday, readers began requesting that we reprint some of his work. Eli's first columns for The Bee were weekly in "Through a Glass Lightly," in which Eli wrote about common, everyday themes -- ostracizing smokers, getting more exercise, Fresno's hot summers -- and also themes that spoke to the Valley's heart and soul. "Through a Glass Lightly" published weekly starting in 1966.

Eli switched to full-time columnist in 1980, writing three times a week until his retirement June 28, 2002. Here are some samples of those columns.

SANTA NELLA — At the obelisk atop a windswept hill overlooking the 4,364 graves, the only sound is the snap of a solitary flag.

Below, a young man, head down, stands silently at a graveside, then bends and touches the stone with a hand, and stands again for a long while, alone with his thoughts of a father, brother, a comrade.

This is no Arlington. No white crosses mark the graves of fallen warriors. Only the rows upon rows of engraved stones, flat with the ground, one no different from the next except for name, rank, service and war, Purple Heart here and Oak Leaf Cluster there.

The graves of colonels are beside those of privates, commanders next to seamen, men next to women, gentile next to Jew, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam.

This is the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery off I-5 west of Merced, a final place of beauty in its stark simplicity where Saturday more sons and brothers, sisters and mothers will visit with loved ones on Veterans Day, and ground will be broken for a monument to those who died in Korea, and once more the bugler will blow taps. ...

— Nov. 10, 1995

In case you haven't heard, local radio has discovered water.

Hardly a spot on the dial doesn't have some smooth voice telling you how important water suddenly has become.

Cool, clear water, you'd think it was more precious than oil, more essential than roads and cars, than a new shopping center or a high-rise along the freeway.

If the drought goes on and we don't conserve, warns the silky voice, it's big trouble in little Fresno and you can forget all about the cars and shopping centers and high-rises. Save it, or lose it, the message goes.

This is all true, but it shouldn't be new. Water has always been precious, even before the flood.

Water and I go way back, back to Djedo's day when next to the farmhouse was a pump, a hand pump that you primed and pumped and prayed over until finally a trickle came out of the faucet and then more water that kept flowing as long as you kept pumping.

On a hot dusty summer day, you could work up a good thirst just pumping for water. ...

— Sept. 14, 1990

Just in case Proposition 187 is an idea you thought would never come, here's a bit of history on the subject proving once more the ancient saw that the more things change the more they stay the same:

In 1858, the state enacted a law to prohibit Chinese, or as they were called in those politically wretched days, "Mongolians," from entering California except in instances when they were washed ashore by weather or by accident. Wiser heads later ruled it unconstitutional.

That same year, wisehead State Superintendent of Public Instruction Andrew J. Moulder, obviously a leading light in an age of darkness, proposed that "Africans and Chinese" be banned from public schools.

A few years later, the powers that be had a change of heart — but not too drastic a change — decreeing that Chinese children, who had previously been denied the right to a public education, be permitted to enter schools but only so long as the parents of white children did not object. Otherwise, they were out of there.

In 1879, California adopted the state's second constitution wherein municipal and county governments as well as corporations were prohibited from employing Chinese. Working on the railroads apparently was all right.

What else is new?

The 20th century ushered in a fresh but hardly more enlightened era. It was barely in its fifth year when the state ordered that all Japanese children in California attend segregated schools. ...

But as even the most desultory student of history knows that wasn't the end of it, not by many long shots. Thanks to an Executive Order issued shortly after Pearl Harbor and U.S. entrance into World War II, 110,000 Japanese, most of them industrious, tax-paying American citizens, were rounded up and dispatched to spend the duration in wartime internment camps, their property and possessions confiscated, of course.

East was east and west was west and for politicians it was raw meat. For some, it still is. ...

— Nov. 17, 1994

Friends ... that's all, he wrote

Eli Setencich's last column for The Fresno Bee published June 28, 2002. Here it is:

No, it's not because of any terribly terminal disease, unless you consider a sudden hankering for peace and quiet a deadly combination.

After 41 years here at The Bee, it's adios, goodbye.

The old man and the white bull have met for the last time, bravely and without fear. White bull, that's what Hemingway called the blank paper staring truly and hard from the still and pure typewriter, and the bull wins.

Now, from copy paper and hot lead to computers and pagination, from the smoky city room and clang of teletypes to the funereal silence of electronics, it is finished.

The president was John F. Kennedy and Bubba was not long out of short pants when a couple of ink-stained wretches here, Jim Wrightson and Tom Kirwan, told me of an opening but that I would have to change my name back to the original.

No sooner did the late, great Diz Shelton make me an unrefusable offer than I did, back from Stevens, the moniker assumed at KFRE during eight years of mispronouncing pronouns on the morning news.

Bright move. Writing obituaries would be easier and more rewarding. So would other assignments, political and otherwise, and something titled "Through a Glass Lightly" that filled a column of Sunday space nearly 40 years ago.

Years later, the sainted Roger Tatarian had the strange notion that it might be time for a regular column, and George Gruner, the editor, seeing I was up to little if nothing between elections, picked me.

And I proceeded to pick on the first peach of summer, the click of the pruning shear, the change of a season, along with the Dogfather, Lonesome Doc, Mayor Daniel K. Wisenheimer, Sunny Jim, Djedo and the rest. The dysfunctional column for a dysfunctional place. On the days of the blank bull, there were tips and ideas from rascals like Lloyd Carter and Tim Baker, to name two.

Memories, there were a few, too:

JFK's visit to Yosemite, the president on an upper balcony of the Ahwahnee Hotel, puffing on a stogie.

The night of the California primary only hours after campaigning in Fresno when his brother was slain.

The last days of the Old Courthouse.

The party conventions and the parties in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Bus rides with Jerry Brown and jet plane rides with Ken Maddy who kept landing on Brown.

The puddle-jumper ride with Ronald Reagan who kept telling one-liners until Yosemite where he advised a gathering of soulmates that perhaps the student unrest at UC Berkeley could use a blood bath.

Three-dot lunches at Sam's and Jack's in San Francisco with Herb Caen.

And many more. But as the doctor advised the old bloke who complained about memory loss: Forget it, you've remembered enough.

When word got out, wonderfully talented colleagues gathered around, eyeing me like the stiff in an open casket. Why? they asked.

Let me count the whys.

So it's 30 and good luck to all of you eight loyal readers, including wife Yvonne, kindly critic. As we old-timers used to say, see you in the funny papers.


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