■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Maybe you never heard of Ann Jennings, or her late husband, Bill Jennings, who spent 40 years of his life via The Press Enterprise and other literary outlets informing you about the history and many wonders of our Valley and the mountains that surround us.
If not, there is something missing in your library of information. Ann is a modern day rough rider of the new west. Like Annie Oakley, she is a straight shooter — not with a gun, mind you, but with her true grit and get-up-and-go. There have been very few important projects in the San Jacinto Valley that do not have her fingerprints somewhere in the mix. If you see her coming, prepare to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Native Californian? Nope. Country girl? Nope.
Ann comes from the heartland of America. Born in Evansville, Indiana some several moons ago, she moved east before reversing course to the warm climes of sunny Southern California. Quite young when her father died, rather than uproot her children from their friends and schools, Ann’s mother waited until her teenaged daughter completed high school and Ann’s older brother finished college before moving back to her native California.
Not one to grow moss under her shoe, Ann soon moved on to Portland, Oregon, where she enrolled in Reed College.
“I only saw Southern California intermittently during my years in Portland,” she said.
After four years in the northwest where there seems to be two seasons, August and winter, she did not join her family in Riverside County, but continued her studies thousands of miles away, enrolling in Holyoke College in Massachusetts, after which she took a job with local newspaper Holyoke Transcript Telegram.
Like a gypsy, she traveled. After three years in Massachusetts, she went to Europe for a year and then the Canary Islands, among other temporary sites of interest before returning to California, where San Francisco caught her fancy for the next three years.
Finally, in 1963, she pitched her tent in Riverside and went to work for The Press Enterprise. Before long she found herself liking a fellow from Hemet named Bill Jennings, already a well-known writer and historian employed by the Riverside Press Enterprise. Hello led to first one thing, then another and in 1965 the two became Mr. and Mrs. in Tonapah, Nevada. Four years later they decided that they would settle into Hemet. Ann still lives in that first house purchased in 1969.
“I got into a book business with Steve Fairfield, a well-known name around town. We opened The Hungry Eye bookstore downtown on Florida Avenue next Strawberry Bicycle Shop. The 10 years I spent in that shop were rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to better know so many local people.” The store finally closed in 1984.
After that experience she backtracked a bit. “I went back to the Press Enterprise for a while. I found that commuting 20 years later was not as easy as it had been, so I left the paper and stopped commuting. I didn’t quit working, only stopped working at a paying job.”
Ann declares that she never was what one might call a housewife.
“I live in a house and do what I have to do to make it bearable, but it is not the focus of my attention,” she said. “During the ‘90s I began moving in the direction of a museum in Hemet. I guess the bug hit me back during those years at the Hemet Public Library.”
It was in the ‘90s that she became a full-time volunteer.
“Mary Whitney, a local writer and historian, and I became close friends. So close that I became the editor for most of her books,” Jennings recalled. “We worked together at the museum and were on the Library Board of Trustees together when the City of Hemet made that fatal mistake of turning down the $7 million grant to build a new library. That was one of the most stupid things our City Council has ever done and they’d done some stupid things. Lori Jo Van Arsdale was new on the City Council. The vote upset her so much she told me she went home and threw up.”
Councilman Harold Almanrode led the majority in voting down the grant. His big argument was similar to many people’s concerns about the recent Measures E and U — playing on the fears of seniors. I recall that council member Marge Tandy later said it was the vote she regretted most.
“The night before the vote came up, Ms. Tandy told Mary Whitney, who was then president of the Library Board, that she would vote for the grant. Later I heard her tell somebody else on the council that she ‘wasn’t going to listen to what anybody else says,’ and voted no when it came up at council. Robin Reeser Lowe told me that’s why she decided to run for a seat on the council.”
Ann resigned from the Library Board.
“What was the use? We had done everything we could against all odds to get that money and the City Council shut us down on a 3 to 2 ‘no’ vote.
“Of course, having all those police officers and their wives against it didn’t help us either.”
A lady in a hurry to get a lot done.
Stay tuned for Part II next week.