John Robb Heston, a versatile journalist and politically active presence in the Owens Valley since the 1960s, has died. He was 78. He may be best remembered as a pioneer of the region’s radio and television news coverage. Heston died April 30 at Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine as a result of lung and heart conditions, relatives said.
A hacienda-style compound on the northern edge of the community of Independence off of Highway 395 that Heston designed and built was the hub of his life for over three decades. In his hands, it grew from a weedy corner lot to a shady retreat of fountains, orchards and reflecting pools where Heston led philosophical salons, hosted elaborate meals for neighbors and community leaders, and regaled friends with colorful memories of his life as a sign painter, artist, casino pit boss, Guatemalan freedom fighter and newsman.
As an Owens Valley journalist, he established himself as a relentless critic of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the regions largest landlord and controller of most of its land and water. “John Heston added breadth and depth to every important community issue, whether it was widening roads or merging school districts,” recalled Bill Michael, Mono County Librarian and former director of the Eastern California Museum. “He also brought the DWP to task for decades through his continual call for accountability.” Jim Bilyeu, Chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, agreed.
“Prior to John Heston’s arrival, local news was rubber stamped by local officials,” Bilyeu said. “But instead of accepting the words of those in power, John would go out and investigate.”
A few days before his death, the bedridden Heston laughed and summed up his life for Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun this way: “You could say I dedicated my life to gaining wisdom through hard work and adventure – and calculated risk.”
Heston was born on Nov. 8, 1928, in Dallas, Texas, the only child of a World War I veteran who was wounded in action and a mother who worked as a traveling clothing saleswoman. At 16, he landed a job at the Dallas Times Herald newspaper as a copy boy. Within a few years, he was working as a reporter for various newspapers in Texas and Tennessee. His news career spanned the southwest.
He was a radio news reporter in Galveston, Texas, when he met his first wife, Nano La Torre, daughter of a P-51 squadron commander in the Chilean air force. A few years after they divorced, Heston married his second wife, Linda Locke. They soon embarked on an adventure his children dubbed The Trinity Escapade. The couple traversed a remote 400-mile stretch of the Trinity River between Dallas and Galveston in a small motor-boat. Their daring trip aimed to prove the navigability of the river route. The Hestons later moved to Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, Mexico, where Heston spent three years studying mural painting.
“He was always fascinated with the bright colors of Mexican art and the vibrancy of the culture,” recalled his daughter, Ellie Heston, 48, a former Owens Valley resident who now manages an aircraft museum in Olympia, Washington. Although his home was in Mexico, she added, Heston “was also a freedom fighter in Guatemala helping ranchers and farmers who were seeking more control of their land.”
In the early 1960s, Heston and his family returned to the United States where he developed an intense interest in comparative religion and the writings of philosopher Manly Palmer Hall, founder of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. Heeding a spiritual calling, the peripatetic jack-of-all-trades divorced for a second time, explored India, then moved to the Owens Valley where he bought the century-old Black Eagle gold mine, about 30 miles southeast of Independence. Relatives recall Heston – clad in overalls and hard hat and armed with a pick axe – descending on a wooden ladder into the bat-filled darkness of the deep hard rock mine.
In 1973, Kenney Scruggs became his constant companion and faithful supporter of all his public and private endeavors that touched the lives of people in the Eastern Sierra and elsewhere.
In 1975, Heston returned to news reporting. In 1976, he created Eastern Sierra News Service which he operated with Benett Kessler out of his home in Independence. Under the motto, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, much of his attention was focused on the DWP’s heavy groundwater pumping during that year’s drought conditions. One night in the spring of 1976, someone tossed a pipe bomb at Heston’s home/newsroom. No one was injured in the blast. “We assumed it was a message about our DWP reporting which aired on Lone Pine radio station KINC,” Kessler said. “That didn’t stop us.” Soon after, one of the radio station owners said that the DWP threatened to cancel their station’s tower lease if Heston and Kessler were not let go. The news show was cancelled on March 17, 1977.
Heston and Kessler responded with sharply-worded flyers they tacked to bulletin boards from Mammoth to Olancha. Their squabble with Los Angeles was chronicled by many media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. They were only getting started. The same year, they began publishing the Inyo County Newsletter out of Hestons home. “John did the writing, layout and photography; I gathered news and ran the printing press and darkroom,” Kessler recalled. “The newsletter was immediately popular.”
Five years later, with the backing of local investors, Heston formed Sierra East Television, Inc. and leased cable channel 12 in Bishop to launch the Owens Valley’s first local television station. This television effort ended when the cable company refused to renew the channel lease in 1990 and after lengthy litigation in federal court conducted by the law firm of OMelveny and Myers on behalf of SETV.
In 1996, again with the backing of local investors, Heston and Kessler obtained a federal license to establish KDAY radio. Four years later, they founded a television station. Both the radio and the television stations are now known as KSRW The Sierra Wave.
Heston is survived by his long-time, loving companion, Bishop attorney Kenney Scruggs; his long-time confidant and inspiration, Benett Kessler; a host of close friends whose lives he impacted; and his children: sons Felipe, Ashley, John and Larry; daughters Suzy and Ellie; and seven grandchildren.
Instead of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to the Independence Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box B, Independence, CA 93526.
Copyright 2007 Sierra Broadcasters