Jeff Jardine

Turlock mayor can look back to see how a predecessor dealt with critics

Like many politicians before him, and he certainly won’t be the last, Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth managed to tick off some of the folks in his city.

In this case, it was because of the way he backed buddy Peter Cipponeri’s bid to take over the downtown farmer’s market. Cipponeri’s family donated $14,000 to Soiseth’s mayoral campaign. If the city had a “tin cup” ordinance aimed at limiting the influence of money in government, this would have been problematic for the mayor. It does not, which is why Soiseth could refuse to recuse himself from the farmer’s market issue vote.

Adept politicians learn how to calm their detractors, and Soiseth needs only to look back at his own city’s history to find a mayor who, in 1959, dug his way out of a potential image-wrecker. Start with a visit to Turlock’s Central Park, at Main Street and Golden State Boulevard, to see the World War II howitzer cannon that became the source of then-Mayor Ray Carter’s foot-in-mouth disease.

For years, Turlock historians including Scott Atherton believed the cannon had been acquired and dedicated in 1951. The Turlock Historical Society has photos from the early 1960s showing it at the old War Memorial site now owned by the Turlock Irrigation District. But there were no records involving the cannon until recently, when former Turlock resident and now-retired journalist Martin Griffith sent both to me and to Atherton a letter and documentation detailing how the city acquired the 155 mm beast. His father, attorney Lin H. Griffith, secured the cannon from an Army surplus installation near Stockton in 1959 – not 1951.

“My father was a commander of the American Legion post in Turlock and chairman of the town’s Veterans Day celebration when the cannon was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1959, at the War Memorial,” Martin Griffith wrote. “Veterans offered the cannon to the city of Turlock as a ‘reminder of the horrors of war and to the hope of peace on earth.’ 

Members of the Legion didn’t ask the city for permission. They just mounted the cannon outside of the War Memorial.

“City leaders weren’t ‘very enthusiastic’ about the cannon, and Turlock Mayor Ray Carter even publicly said he didn’t want that ‘piece of junk displayed anywhere,’ ” Martin Griffith wrote.

That is the moment Soiseth needs to fixate upon. Specifically, he should pay attention to how Carter handled his gaffe. You just don’t call a war relic “a piece of junk” to patriotic military veterans who want to display it proudly in their city.

Lin Griffith refused to let an insensitive politician ruin the grand plans he had for the Veterans Day celebration he chaired. He wrote down the details in a letter to his brother, David, and gave a copy to his son before his death in 2014.

“Ray was a good friend of mine at the Methodist Church, and I heard a lot of complaints about him from my Legion comrades both in regular meetings and elsewhere,” Lin Griffith wrote.

Griffith assembled an elaborate parade that drew several thousand people at a time when the city had a population of only 10,000 or so. The parade ended at the cannon, where bands played, a Catholic priest gave an invocation, Miss Turlock welcomed them and the Veterans of Foreign Wars commander presented the cannon to the city “as a sober reminder of war.”

“My pièce de résistance was to have Mayor Ray Carter come to the platform and accept the cannon on behalf of the city and to dedicate it as a reminder of the horrors of war and to the hope of peace on earth,” Lin Griffith wrote. “Ray hadn’t wanted to come – he was uneasy about what the veterans would think of him – but I urged him to come and suggested to him what he could say. He did come and spoke very eloquently, and the veterans forgave him as I knew they would.”

Damage control, you might call it, though concerns with his business prevented him from running for a second term as mayor.

The cannon remained there until it was rededicated at Central Park on Veterans Day 2015. Turlock historian Atherton didn’t learn its true origin until he received the letter from Martin Griffith a week or so ago. Why no historical accuracy until now?

“I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t find it and why I didn’t come across it,” he said. “But the (Turlock Journal) is missing (microfilm) from November and December of 1959.”

No matter. Like any good historian, he’s thrilled to know the real story behind the cannon.

And Soiseth, just 31 years old, can rest assured that a Turlock mayor can indeed overcome actions that leave some constituents peeved and put out.

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