A Fabulous Book Written in Tribute to Sutro Librarian Richard H. Dillon (1924–2016), by His Son Brian Dillon
By Gary F. Kurutz.
Gary Kurutz is the editor of the Bulletin, retired executive director of the California State Library Foundation, and retired curator of special collections for the California State Library.
The Bulletin rarely features a new book published by another organization but, I thought our readers should be aware of Aloha, Amigos! The Richard H. Dillon Memorial Volume created and edited by his son Dr. Brian Dervin Dillon.(1) From 1950 to 1979, Dillon, hereafter “RHD,” managed the California State Library’s only branch, the Sutro Library in San Francisco. During his long tenure as Sutro Librarian, he did Herculean work in promoting and organizing this long-neglected library, relocating it from the basement of the San Francisco Public Library to a superb facility on the campus of the University of San Francisco (USF). When he started his Sutro Library job in the public library’s Civic Center facility, he quickly discovered that he was one of only two staff members! Here existed in a major public building a collection of tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages, rare books from the first century of printing, and a massive genealogy and U.S. local history collection. RHD gave countless spell-binding presentations on the legacy of Adolph Sutro and his namesake library as an important research center filled with thousands of treasures ranging from a First Folio Shakespeare (1623) to the papers of Sir Joseph Banks that included, among other gems, Lieutenant William Bligh’s hand-drawn diagram of the H.M.S. Bounty (ca. 1787). As a gifted wordsmith, RHD wrote noteworthy descriptions of the Sutro Library’s holdings including the information-packed Anatomy of a Library (1957). In addition to managing this public research library, this bookman taught classes at UCLA, University of Hawaii, UC Berkeley Extension, Fromm Institute, USF, and the library science program at UC Berkeley.
As fully documented in this impressive memorial tome, RHD was a human dynamo with an uncanny feel for California and Western history. In my forty-year career in rare books and special collections, I had never met an individual who accomplished so much as a librarian, historian, professor, and public speaker. A fourth generation Californian, RHD was born in Sausalito in sylvan Marin County in 1924. He lived his entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area with the exception of serving as a combat veteran in World War II. When he returned home from the war, RHD married, completed his library degree from UC Berkeley, and lived the rest of his years in bucolic Mill Valley, another Marin County paradise. However, he did have to endure a daily commute across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Sutro Library and frequent treks to State Library management meetings in Sacramento. One can only stand in awe of his scholarly production. His son, Brian a fifth-generation Californian, is a scholar of great academic status in his own right, and his 588-page volume stands as a true memorial to this unsurpassed man of letters.
The first part of this handsome volume is a very personal and lively biography of his father, but the concluding eighty-seven pages is a bibliography of Dilloniana laboriously compiled by Brian. All told, RHD wrote dozens of prize-winning books, hundreds of articles for scholarly and professional journals, and over 1,000 book reviews including 275 for the San Francisco Chronicle. You would never know it in talking to him that he ever experienced fatigue as he always exhibited boundless energy, eloquence, and roaring good humor. In reading his son’s book, one concludes that his father never rested. His typewriter must have smoked; its keys worn to a nub, and he must have filled barrels with worn-out typewriter ribbons. In addition, RHD always carried notepaper, discarded catalog cards, and other scraps to make notes and record ideas on the fly. One of his trademarks was the postcard. Every week RHD banged out scores of cards asking a research question, or praising another for their book or article, or simply staying in touch. Personally, I loved receiving Dillon postcards with their Mill Valley date stamps. These were to be treasured and preserved. As explained by Brian Dillon: “Because Richard H. Dillon ended so many of his most heartfelt writings to so many of his closest friends with Aloha, Amigos! No better, nor more natural, title could be attached to a volume in his honor.” One can only imagine how RHD would have fared in this digital age with a laptop computer or a tablet at his beck and call and with Internet access to so much primary source and reference material. RHD would have flooded the networks with his emails and more than likely posted a variety of riveting essays on social media sites.(2)
A word like awesome or breathtaking seems so inadequate in describing his literary output. The endpapers of this thick biography are illustrated with rows of photographs of the books he wrote. His first book, Billy Waterman & the Voyage of the Clipper Challenger, New York to San Francisco, 1851, was published in 1956. To name just a few of his other works: Embarcadero, True Sea Adventures from the Port of San Francisco; Fool’s Gold: A Biography of John Sutter; The Legend of Grizzly Adams; High Steel: Building the Bridges across San Francisco Bay; Humbugs and Heroes: A Gallery of California Pioneers; Meriwether Lewis: A Biography; Burnt-Out-Fires: California’s Modoc Indian War; The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown; The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush; North Beach: The Italian Heart of San Francisco, and Napa Valley Heyday. Many of these books rightly received awards from a variety of historical and scholarly organizations. For example, his Embarcadero received a James D. Phelan Award in Literature and his Meriwether Lewis,the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Showing how praiseworthy and popular these titles were, his publishers created reprints, new editions, and even paperbacks. Many remained in print long after the first edition rolled off the presses. Now some are available as e-books. Not surprisingly, since RHD had gained so much respect, authors and publishers flocked to him to write forewords, prefaces, and introductions to their books and scores more included a Dillon-created blurb that appeared on the dust jacket of hard bound editions and back covers of paperbacks.
Naturally, too, such a well-respected librarian-scholar-author attracted much attention from historical, library, and bibliophilic organizations like the Western History Association, California Historical Society, American Library Association, California Library Association, Los Angeles and San Francisco Corrals of the Westerners, Book Club of California, and Roxburghe Club of San Francisco. Dillon, with his dynamism and razor-sharp sense of direction frequently served as president or as a board member or as a chair of a committee focused on publications and special events. Fittingly, RHD won dozens of awards from these organizations. In 1970, the City of San Francisco, for example, named him “Man of the Year” and handed him the “Keys to the City” and the Book Club of California bestowed its prestigious Oscar Lewis Award on RHD. As that other legendary figure of California history, Kevin Starr, wrote in his foreword to Brian Dillon’s volume: “Heroic and dedicated, Dick had the uncanny ability to reach across the generations, and with his writing, connect present-day readers with the strugglers and strivers of the past.”
Brian Dillon, showing his father’s limitless energy, further enhanced this memorial volume by inviting friends and associates to contribute essays on subjects that were of keen interest to RHD. Others contributed their own recollections of working or interacting with the great man. Altogether, fourteen authors wrote paeans telling of how RHD solved a research problem for them or, how he plowed new ground in reinterpreting the lives of such well-known figures as Meriwether Lewis and Captain Sutter. The following are a few examples of these tributes: Abraham Hoffman contributed an essay titled “Richard H. Dillon: Book Reviewer”; David Dary, “Postcards from Dick Dillon”; Will Bagley, “Historian’s Historian”; and Valerie Mathes, “The Women’s National Indian Association in Northern California.”
Aloha, Amigos! I can say is the finest tribute I have ever read of a California historian-librarian. Having it conceived, organized, and written in large part by a scholar’s scholarly son only adds to its value. Yes, Brian wrote with much love and feeling but as a professional archaeologist and historian, he did a massive amount of research and fact verification. I first met RHD when I worked in the Rare Book Department at the Huntington Library back in the early 1970s. I knew of his books and felt that I had just been introduced to a celebrity scholar. Over the decades I learned more about this amazing librarian-historian, shared many meals with him, and attended numerous meetings and conferences with him. However, when I read the manuscript of Brian’s book, and in particular, Brian’s eloquent biography, I was staggered. I kept saying to myself, “I had no idea he did so much.” Yes, he had an impressive career, but now I realize that RHD deserves to be on the Mount Olympus of scholarly bookmen. Brian deserves the highest possible praise for his tireless research in bringing to light the life of a true California hero. In addition, this thick hardbound volume is well-illustrated with photographs illustrating his storied life. RHD will not be forgotten!
As such a strong force in the study of Western history, it seemed appropriate that the Los Angeles Corral of the Westerners publish this remarkable memorial. RHD was active in several corrals, and in 2003 Westerners International named him Living Legend № 46. Brian is a past sheriff of the Los Angeles Corral, and Brian’s son John Dillon, in keeping with his family heritage, is the publications editor of this dynamic corral. The Westerners is an international organization committed “to fun and scholarship in and about the American West.” It boasts over 4,000 members with sixty corrals (chapters) in the U.S. and twenty corrals abroad. Naturally, the organization takes delight in using Western vernacular names such as sheriff instead of president and keeper of the chips instead of treasurer. The LA Corral has published several significant books, and Aloha, Amigos! is Brand Book 24. The organization also publishes an outstanding quarterly with the catchy title of Buckskin Bulletin, and the Los Angeles Corral also publishes its own Quarterly, the Branding Iron, edited by Dick Dillon’s grandson John. Its next issue will be its 300th.
Copies of Aloha, Amigos! may be purchased from the Los Angeles Corral. The front dust jacket is a stunningly beautiful image created by noted Marin County artist Tom Killion. It is titled “Mt. Tamalpais from Bulkley Avenue, Sausalito.”
The following is the order information.
Price for Westerners International members is $25.00, plus $5.00 for shipping within the U.S. Price for all others is $35.00, plus a $5.00 shipping charge for U.S. orders. Please make check out to Westerners, Los Angeles Corral, and send your order, with return address, to P.O. Box 1891, San Gabriel, CA, 91778. Need Additional information? Contact BB 24 Editor Brian D. Dillon. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This article came from Foundation Bulletin #129, pp. 22 to 26. See the foundation website (cslfdn.org) for more info.
1. The following biography of Brian Dillon is taken from the Aloha Amigos! The Richard H. Dillon Memorial Volume; Brand Book 24. Westerners International, Los Angeles Corral, 2020, pp. 581–582.
Brian Dervin Dillon is a fifth-generation Californian with Gold Rush ancestors. A Phi Beta Kappa and Fulbright Fellow, at age 25 Brian was the youngest-ever UC Berkeley Ph.D. in Archaeology. Dillon has done archaeology in California since 1972, in Guatemala and three other Central American countries since 1974. Widely published in Maya and California archaeology and in California history, Brian has taught and lectured at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCLA Extension, CSU Long Beach, The Southwest Museum and for the California State Department of Forestry. He is the recipient of more than two dozen grants, fellowships and awards, and was just honored with his ninth consecutive Coke Wood Award for historical writing by Westerners International.
2. The papers of RHD are preserved and made accessible in the Department of Special Collections, University Library, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).