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Louise Willey succumbs at 81

November 20, 2001|By JIM McVICAR, Special to this newspaper

She was a co-founder of Cattle Call Rodeo in Brawley. She served on the board of the Imperial County Mid-Winter fair.

She lobbied Congress to exempt Imperial Valley farmland from the 160-acre limitation of the Reclamation Act in the name of "fairness."

She helped raise money to build a new intensive-care unit at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley.

She ardently promoted the state's farmers and ranching industry as a member of the state Board of Agriculture.

She was a member of the California Beef Council, National Livestock and Meat Board, state and national Cattle Feeders and Cattlemen's Association, organizations that conducted research and promoted the consumption of beef. She was honored by the industry as "livestock woman of the year."

And those are only a few of the countless highlights, projects, affiliations and endeavors of Louise Willey, who died quietly at her home in Brawley this morning. She was 81. She had been ill and confined to bed for several months.

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In a recent conversation with a friend, she voiced her frustration with her illness and inability to function normally. She related that for the first time in 45 years, she was unable to supervise publicity and advertising for the Cattle Call Rodeo. The 45th annual rodeo was held just eight days before her death, on the weekend of Nov. 10 and 11.

While the success of the rodeo was certainly on her mind during the friend's visit, Mrs. Willey said one of the best times of her life was the "Fairness" campaign in the mid-1970s.

Fairness was the slogan chosen by the farmers and ranchers as they appealed to the public and politicians to exempt them from the provisions of the 1902 Reclamation Act limiting land ownership to 160 acres within the boundaries of reclamation projects.

The farmers' position was that much of the canal network that irrigates Valley farms was already in existence when the All-American Canal — a U.S. Reclamation project — was completed in the early 1930s.

Growers loaded their tractors on flatbed trucks and hauled them to San Diego and Century City for "tractor rallies" to call attention to their plight, and Mrs. Willey and Brawley farmer Larry Fleming traveled to Washington, D.C., frequently to meet with key legislators.

Ultimately, Congress passed legislation granting the exemption, with the help of the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. Mrs. Willey, a Republican, was most proud of gaining Cranston, a Democrat, as an ally.

The Fairness campaign clarified property ownership in the Valley, but various proposals relating to water — the Valley's lifeblood and most valuable asset — continue to crop up periodically.

In recent years, Mrs. Willey joined a group of like-minded farmers and ranchers who questioned proposals to take some agricultural land out of production and sell the water to urban users. She also doubted the feasibility of a plan to transfer water to San Diego County.

Mrs. Willey was a "virtual" Imperial Valley pioneer. She was born in Avoca, Texas — a small town north of Abilene — on Jan. 10, 1920.

Her father, Thomas Allen Kennedy, came west from Texas to the Imperial Valley in about 1907. He traveled by rail on what was called an "immigrant train." That meant he and his personal belongings, and possibly some farm implements and livestock, traveled on a boxcar. His wife, Bessie, and their two sons soon joined him.

According to Mrs. Willey, when her mother became pregnant with her, Tom Kennedy announced, "No child of mine is going to be born in California," so she returned briefly to Texas.

The Kennedys leased ground north of Brawley and became dairy farmers, raising crops to feed the cattle. Mrs. Willey's father died when she was 14 or 15 years old and her mother supported the family by running a boarding house for school teachers.

Bessie Kennedy wanted her only daughter to have a college education, so after graduation from Brawley High School, Louise Kennedy enrolled at Woodbury College in Los Angeles. She majored in journalism and also took courses in bookkeeping and accounting.

After graduation, she remained in Los Angeles and worked in an advertising agency — writing radio commercials and handling the books.

She returned to Brawley in 1940 and became co-publisher of the "Brawley Shopper," a weekly newspaper.

In 1941, her business acumen — specifically her bookkeeping skills — landed her a job in the office of Albert John Kalin — called "A.J." by his friends — cattleman and owner of the San Pasqual Land and Cattle Co.

The Kalin feedlot, built in 1930, was the second cattle-feeding facility built in the Valley and the first privately owned feedlot. Kalin also owned the Central Valley feedlot in Imperial, a 2,000-acre ranch in Victorville, and most of the stock in the Planters Hotel in Brawley.

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