On Aug. 29, 1949, an almost forgotten newspaper tradition known as “turning the rules” was observed in that day’s edition of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. The result — heavy black lines between the columns of type on the front page instead of the customary narrow lines — puzzled most readers, but veteran newspapermen knew its meaning. They recalled that in the early days of the newspaper business, upon the deaths of presidents or greatly loved men, editors customarily turned the column rules upside down so the heavy base of the metal rule printed instead of the sharper top face.
They were turned in that Aug. 29 edition of the Register-Pajaronian at the passing of James G. Piratsky, last of Central California’s old time newspaper editors, and it was a fitting salute to the man who had spent 68 years making for himself a niche in California journalism that will never be filled again. Blessed with a sharp sense of humor, an unfailing confidence in the integrity of his fellow man, a gift for phraseology and a terrific capacity for work, Piratsky brought wide fame to the little weekly Pajaronian that he and George G. Radcliff bought in 1902.
The Pajaronian, little more than a battered old hand press, the proverbial “shirttailful of type” and a dinky job press, was converted by Piratsky into a daily, and its goal stated when he said in an early editorial that “with this issue of the Evening Pajaronian, we turn the 700 mark in the subscription line, and we trust we may be pardoned if we proudly assert that the showing is extremely complimentary for a daily newspaper not yet eleven weeks old ... the paper is as yet, far from our ideal. We intend to make improvements in it until it is conceded to be one of the best evening papers on the Coast. He made good on his intention and 53 years later, succeeding staff members of the later merged Register-Pajaronian proved they had maintained his concepts of sound journalism when in 1956 the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service.
Piratsky’s early life was rugged and rough, in keeping with the turbulent last half of the 19th century. His father was originally a Polish sailor, and his mother was a Murphy from Ireland. They married in San Francisco just prior to the 1849 gold rush and sailed for Australia, where Piratsky was born. Word of the gold rush reached Australia, and the Piratskys turned around and headed for San Francisco when their son was 2 years old. They settled in Virginia City, then at the height of its gold boom, but misfortune hit the family when the father was killed in a mining accident.
Young Jim left school at age 12 and went to San Francisco, where he became a “printer’s devil” for the Steritt job shop, washing presses, getting up steam in the boilers and working from 5:50 a.m. to 7 p.m. He made $2 a week, which he contributed toward the support of his widowed mother and two sisters. On Sundays he would set pins in the bowling alleys in Hayes Valley or “hold horses for the high toned gents who tipped him more in a few hours than he made at his job all week.” He learned the printing trade at Steritt’s and went from one printing job to another until he found a compositor job on the “Bogardus Figaro,” a dramatic paper that competed with Mike Young’s Dramatic Chronicle, forerunner of the present San Francisco Chronicle. He worked there eight years and then joined the Alta California, once the city’s leading daily newspaper.
After several years he left the Alta California and went to Colusa, wherehe worked on The Sun, having as a tutor that old fire-eating editor Will S. Green. Hollister then claimed Piratsky for two or three years, and he made the jump to Eureka where he stayed until the early 1880s. He returned to San Francisco again and became foreman for the A.L. Bancroft Company, a printing concern staunchly opposed to the newly born union movement. Piratsky’s independence and determination to fight for what he thought was right underwent a severe test when he joined the International Typographical Union and a year later became president -- an honor that caused the company to fire him immediately.
Following his short career with Bancroft, Piratsky went to Hollister, where he purchased an interest in the Free Lance and settled down to wield a pen against the fighting Shaw brothers on The Advance: “It was war to the hilt, but the fearless editor thrived on it and through his dauntless spirit was chosen to fill the office of clerk, recorder and auditor, three jobs in one in San Benito County.”
Finally in 1902, Piratsky arrived in Watsonville and began his 28-year editorial career on The Evening Pajaronian, securing the newspaper without one cent down or a scrap of paper to show its ownership, just because W.R. Radcliff, banker, “liked the cut of his jib.” During the second year after Piratsky’s arrival in Watsonville, George Radcliff purchased a half interest, and the two men became close friends.
The Pajaronian, (then, as now, acclaimed as one of the most unusual newspaper names in the U.S.) had started life in 1868 on a clanking hand press in the crossroads hamlet of Pajaro with J.A. Cottle as the first owner, editor, publisher, reporter and advertising salesman. Cottle forthrightly declared himself “in favor of The Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation and endorsed the view that Watsonville should be incorporated.” After about a year he sold the little weekly to R. A. Ankeny, who moved it to Watsonville. Charles Cumminge took over in the early 1870s, followed by J. R. Radcliff, the last owner prior to editor Piratsky’s arrival in 1902.
Watsonville at that time was just beginning to emerge from “the wild and wooly stage.” Reminiscing in 1928, Piratsky wrote that “the streets were in deplorable condition, for instance Main Street in winter was some- thing of a bog, notwithstanding the fact that the citizens were making strenuous efforts to improve the roadbed.”
The editor changed the weekly Pajaronian to a daily, priced subscriptions at 2.5 cents per month and set out to build the newspaper into a potent force in the community. He was soon involved in political battles concerning local option and the saloon question. At this time there were more than 40 saloons along Main Street, and the issue was a lively one. An editorial in the June 15, 1903, issue of the newspaper reveals Piratsky’s wry sense of humor in this regard when he commented: “When will the prohibition people get wise? Instead of waiting until fall when the dry dusty weather had passed away, they recently started an agitation to make Santa Monica a ‘dry’ summer resort, with the result that the question was defeated by a vote of 544 to 287 at the election held in that town last Monday. We understand that the saloon men at that place unloaded vast quantities of lager beer, and, as the weather was excessively hot, and the beverage extremely cooling, the result was never in doubt from the start.”
Piratsky filled the little daily with local news, articles on fruit culture and farming, fiction, local personality sketches, personal paragraphs and miscellany, and it caught on in the community and prospered. It wasn’t all labor, however. A notice in the July 3, 1903, issue states: “All hands in the Pajaronian office are going to celebrate tomorrow, consequently nopaper will be issued.”
The editor’s ingenuity was displayed during the 1906 earthquake when the electric power lines were disrupted. The rival Register quickly removed the electric motors from its equipment and tried a gasoline engine. It wouldn’t work. Piratsky hadn’t been able to find an engine, so instead he hitched up the foot treadle from the press to turn the flywheel of the linotype, “hired a big Swede off the street and made him the power plant.” Type was set successfully and the electricity came back in time for the day’s paper to appear on schedule. The Register did not appear for four days.
About 10 years later, Piratsky became involved in the efforts of the community to buy the water plant servicing Watsonville. The bond issue for this purpose had failed three times, but it was finally carried on the fourth, due in great measure to the “gallant editorials and clear explanations of Jim Piratsky,” as recalled by Watsonville mayor C. H. Baker at a gathering honoring the editor in 1944.
Piratsky’s concern for his fellow men and trust in their integrity was illustrated by the manner in which he hired George A. Smith. The latter, who became job printing plant manager and business manager of the newspaper in later years, arrived in Watsonville a penniless, jobless printer, and Piratsky promptly gave him a key to the office and the two became fast friends. “From that day he was my boss, and I lived in his sunshine,” Smith said. “His charity was unlimited; he used to tell me to take a box of groceries to so and so but not to let anyone know where it came from. A man’s religion or race meant nothing to him; he treated them all alike. He was the greatest soul I ever knew.”
Besides running the newspaper, Piratsky appeared in local dramatic productions and added spice to the silent movies shown at the old Watsonville Opera House by the commentary he delivered from the side of the stage. He would fill in the dialogue, toss in sound effects and keep up a running narration on the action. He had a regular following of traveling salesmen who made it a point to be in Watsonville on movie night, and The Register-Pajaronian commented in its 1952 Centennial Edition that “there are hundreds of valley residents who will swear the ‘talkies’ were never so good as the silent flickers with ‘Jim Piratsky’ editing the script.”
Piratsky’s years in the editor’s chair went by quickly, but his fearless and vigorous editorial campaigns made The Pajaronian an important factor in the development of Watsonville and the surrounding area and brought statewide recognition to the small daily.
Speaking of Piratsky as a newspaperman with whom he was closely associated for nearly 40 years, state Sen. H.R. Judah, former editor of the Santa Cruz News, at a ceremony honoring Piratsky in 1944 described him as a “good, honest informed editor who printed a fearless paper — the best foundation for a good town.” He said he regretted Piratsky and all of his type in this country were passing out of the picture and that “the individualist and the fighter, come what may, is going and going fast.” He also read a letter from Samuel Leask, Santa Cruz pioneer businessman who cited Piratsky as “a notable survivor of the newspaper editors to whom California owes a great debt of appreciation.”
Piratsky’s 68-year journalism career, 28 of it spent on The Pajaronian, ended in 1930 when the 80-year-old editor, along with his partner George D. Radcliff, sold his interest in the newspaper to F.W. Atkinson, owner of the morning daily Watsonville Register.
He remained alert and vigorous during his retirement years, and his trim figure, black hat and cane, with a flower in his lapel, was a familiar sight on the streets of Watsonville. His wife, Mary A. Cook, a native San Franciscan, had died in 1932, six years after they had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, and Piratsky died on Aug. 29, 1949, two months short of his 99th birthday.
He had spent not only a record number of years in a journalism career but held other records as well. He was a member of the International Typographical Union for 28 years, being one of a very few editors who started in the back shop yet maintained his membership in the union, and for 47 years he attended mass each Sunday at St. Patrick’s Church in Watsonville.
The issues for which he fought may not have been of much importance beyond the Watsonville area, but to thousands of his readers The Pajaronian was a vital force for good in their community, and that’s not a bad record, either.