■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
I’ve been asked numerous times about Bill Jennings. I knew him, but not well, so I went to the source — his partner and widow, Anne Jennings.
“He wouldn’t have called himself a historian, but he did do a lot of historical writing. Interested in history, he even wrote poems and magazine articles of an historic nature,” recalled Anne. “History was just one of his overriding interests. He loved railroads, the outback and Native American lore. He was employed as a writer with The Press Enterprise so there is a large amount of his work in their archives.”
I wanted to know more about her numerous volunteer efforts.
“The library and library board were overriding interests of mine for years,” she said, but admits to having lost some interest after the grant debacle. With an insatiable interest in doing new things and helping to see things grow, she took a liking to the idea of a museum and, as always, she jumped in with both feet and took off with indefatigable strength and determination to make it happen.
“Bill opened a little storefront museum in 1987 next to a shoe store in the same block where I’d once been in the book business,” she said “It was a solid location and thousands of motorists drove by every day, so there was no problem with visibility.”
Having finished with the library, her new volunteer efforts were in getting a museum up and running and in a better location than a storefront on the main drag.
“Laura Swift was the curator and Phoebe Sherrod was her assistant,” said Anne. “She put the first collection together. I became museum president at the time the storefront closed and we were moving into the restored depot. We stayed in those jobs until Bill became too ill to continue.”
“Also, in 1987, Bill and Kent Kozad started ‘Save Our Station’ (SOS) which was sort of a spin-off from the Museum Association and, after an original meeting at Maggie McPherson’s theater, SOS held meetings at the museum’s storefront. The Museum Association did give almost all of its treasury to SOS to get its fundraising effort going, but SOS ran the fundraising drive, which went on for years,” said Jennings.
“The whole family pitched in, including his daughter Gaila Jennings (first president of SOS), who also served some time as mayor of Hemet,” says Jennings. “His daughter, Sheila, wrote a grant proposal for county funds which, thanks to Supervisor Kay Ceniceros, was successful and enabled SOS to buy the Santa Fe property. Kay’s successor on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors was very helpful in our efforts both as a city council member and supervisor.”
“We had a long hard struggle to obtain the current Museum building in the old Hemet Railroad Depot at the corner of State Street and Florida Avenue. The Museum Association created a campaign to purchase the property and gave ‘Save Our Station’ practically every cent they had. They even pitched in every once in awhile when we were short on funds,” explained Jennings. In return, they were promised, by contract, space in the freight house after the renovation was completed in May 1998. The Hemet Museum formally opened in June of that year.”
Linda Krupa, Hemet’s current mayor, was heavily involved in making the museum happen.
“Linda was part and parcel of the ‘Save Our Station’ operation in the last years of making it happen,” said Jennings. “She oversaw the grant procedures and the paperwork. I don’t think it could have been accomplished without her. We had other pros volunteering; guys who understand business. Ed Forcier and his son Chris (the artisan on the job), Monty Dill (owned a lumber company) and Gary Johnson, the architect. All of the labor was volunteered by the most wonderful men I ever met. Nevertheless, it was Linda Krupa who kept the project together.”
When Linda was elected to the Hemet City Council four years ago, she resigned from the project.
“She didn’t want to create a conflict of interest; I think she did the right thing [in resigning],” she said. “Linda is a very conscientious woman.”
I’ll say amen to that.
There is no liaison between the City of Hemet and the museum, which is strange because the original reason for the Museum Association was to help Hemet establish a city museum. However, the city lost interest and “seemed not to care” whether there was a museum or not, said Jennings.
As our conversation neared the end, Anne became very excited about an event coming up on Feb. 25, involving one of her favorite writers.
“We’re having an open house to honor and highlight a local author, M.F.K. Fisher, who lived here and wrote some of her most famous books while a resident of this community. She moved away but her fame continues,” said Jennings. “She was a contemporary of Julia Child and Charles Beard in the culinary business and is considered one of the most prolific writers in that genre. We carried all her books at the bookstore and I’m aware the Hemet Public Library also has an ample supply of them.”
Although Fisher moved up north to wine country and lived there until her death in the ‘90s, her home in Hemet, known as “Bareacres,” is pretty much a historical site today. Its current occupants are donating some artifacts for the coming celebration. Fisher’s daughter, Kennedy, heard about the event, called Anne and asked how she could help.
“I got in touch and told her what I’d like,” she said.
Just when I thought we were through, I had the audacity to ask her if she played piano, since I noticed a baby grand and an upright, both polished to a shine.
“You don’t think I’d have two pianos if I didn’t play, do you?” She proved her merit with a lovely symphonic melody. “I’m currently working with the Hemet Community Concert Association, which brings wonderful classical and jazz to the Valley.”
Sometimes things get lost in transmission. Anne advises me that contrary to what we published in Part I, she was not one of the founders of The Hungry Eye bookstore. Steve Fairfield opened it in 1968 and she joined him in the early ‘70s. Also, she became active in the Museum Association in the mid-1980s.
If I skewed a quote or got a name wrong, Anne, I sincerely apologize. My grandmother always told me, “If you want something done, find somebody too busy to do it.” Anne is living proof of that adage. My grandma would have loved Anne Jennings – just like most of Hemet does.