Chemo Therapy by Bret Bradigan
Note: This editorial was published in the Ojai Valley News in May of 2008. The OVN won 3rd place from the National Newspaper Association for the editorial.
In the past 18 months, we have had three incidents in Ojai involving firearms – a shooting on Drown Street in February 2007, a shooting on Fox Street in September 2007, and reports of gang members brandishing a pistol in Meiners Oaks on March 20 of this year. These are ill portents for our quiet community. Lines of race and class are drawn sharply now that were never before so distinct. A climate of fear and hostility has crept into our lives. We gradually grow apart from each other, with fewer and fewer of those casual interactions that once blurred these boundaries of race and class and created, in myriad multiplying ways, our community.
Gang influences flourish in this void, where neighbors, instead of becoming friends, become some abstract “other.” People start looking out for themselves as defined by their narrow self-interests, and lose sight of the larger benefits of opportunity and safety that accrue to the altruistic purposes of looking out for each other.
It was not always like this. Back in the day, Ojai had a one-man gang task force named Anselmo “Chemo” Quijada. Pronounced “Chummo,” he was everywhere and knew everyone, from 1955 until his retirement from the Ojai Police Department in 1980.
Virtually all Ojai old timers have Chemo stories – about how he would instantly size up a suspect to determine whether they were a bad kid doing bad things or a good kid doing bad things. And he would treat them accordingly – there was no one-size-fits-all policing in those days.
“He kept a lot of guys out of trouble by handling things personally,” said Vince France, Ojai’s police chief back in the 1970s. France would know. He was one of those trouble-makers. “I probably wouldn’t have been a police officer except for the fact that Chemo took a personal interest in me. He treated me almost like a son … I could easily have gone the other way.”
France spoke fondly of his teen-age days as a local rowdy, when he’d be caught in the act of underage drinking and the cops “would pick me up in a squad car and ride me around until I sobered up, then take me home.”
Another of these wayward-trending youths was Keith Nightingale, who was one of France’s partners in adolescent mischief-making and went on to a successful career as a military officer and now globe-trotting government contractor. “I grew up with him and he did a great deal for the boys of Ojai and kept a lot of us out of jail – figuratively and literally … He always had an understanding mind as to when a boy was being a boy or was really going bad and would adjust as needed.”
Boyd Ford said that his son, Dennis, had broken into the nearby Presbyterian Church, camped out for the night, and was discovered by the police. Quijada “came right into our living room with Dennis, (mother) Maxine and I and talked to all of us. You don’t get that anymore.”
Another Chemo story involved kids smoking marijuana in the Matilija Junior High School parking lot in the late 1970s. Quijada made them discard the illegal substance and ordered the kids to tell their parents they’d been smoking pot, and said he would call the parents later to make sure his orders had been followed. He did and they had. Names have been withheld to protect the guilty.
One project that Quijada provided for Ojai boys was a productive outlet for their aggression. “He was acutely aware that Ojai had nothing much for boys, so he started a boys’ athletic club where Ojai Coffee Roasting is now. It got a pretty big clientele and he staged fights Friday night and Saturday afternoon between boys so they would stay positively engaged.”
Ojai had few Latinos in those days, and Quijada took a personal interest in all of them. We have a growing Latino population now – in fact, as a percentage of our school-age population, Latino enrollment has nearly tripled since the days of Chemo Quijada nearly a half century ago.
France believes that the gang members of today are mostly hardened criminals with “no conscience. I don’t know that the approach Chemo had would do any good,” he said. But he did allow that early intervention from caring adults could make a positive difference. One policing problem now, France said, is that the system doesn’t allow the same kind of flexibility and discretion that Chemo routinely employed. “Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”
Nightingale said, “I’m afraid Ojai is so large and economically segregated that a ‘Chummo’-type person could not work the magic now that he did then … the best we can hope for is that we find several Chummos working their constituency, recognizing that if one person can be made better, we are all better.”
A quiet beat cop who rarely drew attention to himself, nearly 1,000 people turned out for a benefit for Quijada when he was suffering from the cancer that claimed his life in 1985. “It was the damnedest thing you ever saw,” said France. “All these politicians and movers and shakers right next to the crooks that Chemo had arrested. I think we raised more than $20,000.”
Ojai’s best days may yet be ahead of us, if all of us who call this place home shoulder the responsibility to make that happen. And we can best do this in quiet ways – one-on-one, with watchful eyes and open hearts. We are all role models, whether we like it or not. It is good for us in Ojai to remember we have such a rich legacy of role models on which to pattern ourselves. For Ojai to live up to its promise, we have to carry a little of Chemo Quijada’s spirit within each of us.
Note: The Ojai Police Boy’s Club was founded by Chief J. D. Alcorn; Anselmo “Chemo” Quijada was the acting director. The City of Ojai donated $500 to start the project. Boxing, wrestling, judo, and fencing were taught under personal and competent supervision. The ring used was purchased from “Pop” Soper, a well-known character of the boxing world. Many famous boxers trained at his camp in Matilija Canyon. Those who probably trained in the ring purchased by the Police Boys Club were Jack Dempsey, Jack Roper, Jackie Fields, Barney Ross, Mickey Walker, and many others. Boys from fourteen to eighteen years of age were eligible. Boxers of note would drop by the club and give instruction to the boys on the finer points of boxing. Each month a scholarship was given to a member by a prominent member of the community.