Stephen H. Provost’s Fresno Growing Up
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Looking back on the good old days of Fresno might seem a strange exercise to some, but if you lived there between 1945-1985, you just might empathize with Stephen H. Provost when he says he misses the Fresno that used to be.
Provost recently published Fresno Growing Up (Linden), a nostalgic look at the city’s coming of age.
A native son of Fresno who now lives on the Central Coast, Provost got the idea to write the book because he found himself “missing the Fresno I’d grown up with,” he said. “I keep boomeranging back to my hometown – Fresno – which led to my big idea.”
“No one has ever focused on this period of Fresno’s history. Most writers have looked at the pioneer days, founding fathers and politicians,” Provost continued. “I wanted to explore the growing years of Fresno I have such fond remembrance of.
“So I decided to write a nostalgic book that reflected my interests in the Fresno of the past.”
Provost chose to focus less on politics, agriculture and crime – the typical subjects a journalist would be inclined to write about. (Provost is a veteran journalist and currently serves as editor of a weekly newspaper based in Cambria.) The three-part book looks instead at the growth of the city (“Fresnocentric”), pop culture (“Fresnostalgic”) and sports and recreation (“Fresnolympics”).
Provost was surprised to learn how many former Fresnans he wanted to interview now live on the Central Coast. Even more striking to him was the wealth of information he uncovered about Fresno – discoveries that he said left him “utterly fascinated” and provided numerous “I never knew that” moments.
Among the factoids he discovered:
• Cher attended Fresno High until she was 16.
• Kirk Kerkorian left Fresno to become a billionaire investor in Las Vegas.
• The idea of universal credit cards was first tested in Fresno.
• The identify of the arsonist who set a dozen fires in the city during a four-hour period on June 10, 1953 remains one of Fresno’s great unsolved mysteries.
• The best-known local band of the 1960s, the Road Runners, released several hit songs on 45 records.
Born at the old St. Agnes Hospital, Provost lived in Fresno until he was 9 years old. He returned to Fresno when he was 15. He attended Bullard High School and Fresno State, where he served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and earned a journalism degree in 1986.
Provost knew firsthand much of what made Fresno unique during the 1960s-1980s.
He patronized well-known local establishments such as Me-n-Ed’s, Di Cicco’s, Lauck’s Bakery, Harpain’s Dairy, Coney Island, Perry Boys Smorgy and The Upstart Crow, a coffee house in Manchester Center.
“The Fresno I grew up with was smaller, before all the freeways and commercial chains,” Provost recalled. “There were more locally-owned businesses and places with [an] identity, like the Tower District.”
Fresno Growing Up shines a spotlight on several influential figures in local radio and television, including entertainment personality Al Radka and journalists Roger Rocka and Gus Zernial. The book also looks at radio programmer Bill Drake, who perfected the Boss radio format with Gene Chenault at Fresno station KYNO. The format, with its emphasis on fewer records that would be played more frequently by “boss jocks” who spoke sparingly, was wildly successful. Hip radio stations throughout the state soon followed suit.
Quarterback Daryl Lamonica, Indy 500 racecar driver Billy Vukovich, and professional baseball pitchers Tom Seaver, Jim Maloney and Dick Selma are among the local athletes Provost showcases. He also recalls the growing success of the Fresno State Bulldogs at the national level – the NCAA title won by the women’s softball team, the NIT championship won by the men’s basketball squad, and the many bowl victories garnered by the football team. Such successes contributed to the expansion of Fresno State athletics overall and the creation of new, larger stadiums for Bulldog softball, baseball and football.
The vision behind the Fulton Mall is explored in the book and attention is paid to the sculptures and architectural features of the thoroughfare. Provost believes the initial popularity of the outdoor mall was undermined by the need to beat the heat of Fresno. In contrast, Fashion Fair, built several years later in the city’s growing north end, offered patrons a completely enclosed mall with air conditioning. It quickly overtook Fulton Mall as the place to shop.
Provost celebrates Fresno’s rich ethnic diversity and traces the arrival of various immigrant groups to the city, including the Armenians, the Mexicans and the Hmong. He also describes the hardships many of these communities faced. He notes how Fresno was the site of two camps, one at the fairgrounds and another in Pinedale, used in the Japanese American internment program during World War II.
One of the book’s most interesting stories concerns the arrival of migrants from the Midwestern Dust Bowl states. Turns out the former Bible Belters are often credited with influencing the cessation of “unsavory” establishments for gambling and prostitution in the city.
Provost is already at work on a new project. The Golden Road: Memories of Highway 99 in California, will look at the significance of the state’s first major highway to the Central Valley.
Provost lives in Arroyo Grande with his wife, Samaire, who is also a published writer.
“She has always been an encouragement and inspiration to me,” Provost said.
He has written several other books under the pseudonym Stifyn Emrys, including dystopian novels, a collection of historical stories and an old-style romantic children’s book he wrote for his wife.
Fresno Growing Up is available at All Things Fresno, A Book Barn and Petunia’s Place, where Provost will have a book signing on November 28. The book can be purchased online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Written by Jeffery Williams, a high school English teacher of 27 years. He is also a freelance writer and the award-winning author of the novel “Pirate Spirit.”
Photos courtesy of Stephen Provost.