The public eye – The Union’s John Hart has chronicled Nevada County’s life for 40 years
For the last 40 years, John Hart has preferred to let his work speak for itself.
Whether it was flinging newspapers as a prepubescent but eager boy along School Street from the seat of his sister’s blue bicycle, working amid the deafening roar of Linotype machines at The Union’s old plant on Mill Street as a teen, or chronicling Nevada County’s incendiary fires through a lens, John Hart has always preferred to let his actions provide the snapshot for his life.
So forgive Hart, who celebrates a double milestone today with his 58th birthday and 40th anniversary as a full-time employee at The Union, if recalling his own history comes harder than pulling hen’s teeth.
“I just try to do what I do and not get in people’s way,” he growled recently behind an ever-present glass mug of coffee, stained from years of early-morning assignments and late-night rounds manning the nearby police scanner. “I’m just there to do my job.”
Those who have watched John Hart magically appear at house fires at 3 a.m., often before the firefighters do, know the scowling veneer Hart carries is just one of his many quirky moods.
“He’s a very passionate person in a very quiet way,” said Charlie Jakobs, a 30-year veteran of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who has known John since both were children.
“Nobody’s got that same passion as John,” Jakobs said. “I think (journalists) have all yearned to have that, but he’s unique.”
Hart’s colleagues praise him for his straight-ahead news sense, his guidance in fostering young reporters and photographers, and for his desire to educate the community through his work at the newspaper.
“I look at John as the foundation of the newspaper,” said Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union, who first met Hart when Ackerman worked at the newspaper as a reporter 22 years ago.
“If you need someone with great historical knowledge, John’s it. He’s our human archive,” said Ackerman, who praised Hart for his dedication to Grass Valley, where Hart was born in a hospital that is now houses a city parking lot on South Auburn Street.
“If this is a museum,” said Ackerman, noting that The Union celebrates its 140th anniversary this year, “then John is the curator. Because he doesn’t seem to age, I can see John here for another 40 years.”
There are but a few flecks of gray in Hart’s retro-style hair, and the paunch he carried in the 1980s while decked out in paisley prints is gone, thanks to a thrice-weekly workout regimen.
Mailroom supervisor Rich Scofield, who was present at John Hart’s embryonic start in the newspaper business, recalled how Hart would cut across Scofield’s lawn on Lloyd Street on that funky bicycle to deliver papers along School and Pleasant streets. Prior to having his own route, Hart substituted for Scofield’s brother Ed, rolling down Mill, Main, High and Neal streets, picking up as much as $20 a month. It was good money for a kid in elementary and middle school, Hart recalled.
“I never had any plans to do anything else,” he said. “I never thought about it.”
In those early days, Hart spent the money on stamps or Popular Mechanics magazines, and a radio he purchased to blast tunes by Elvis Presley and The Coasters, occasionally pulling in stations as far away as Salt Lake City.
Hart worked for the newspaper through his stint in the first full graduating class at the new Nevada Union High School in 1964.
He went to Sierra College in Rocklin for a semester, studying forestry, but faltered in science courses. When he returned home from Rocklin each day, Hart worked in the circulation department, making labels for papers mailed to subscribers in outlying areas.
Never once did he get sucked in by the smell of ink or the roar of the presses. It was simply a job, a way to make money, because he was still living at home and paying rent.
Even today, Hart doesn’t have a firm reason why he stayed at The Union so long. But as he worked, he gradually gravitated toward the news side, taking photos with increasing regularity.
“I always said John wasted more film than he needed to,” joked former publisher Jack Moorhead, who worked with Hart for 19 years, ending in 1994.
Hart began taking photos full-time nearly 30 years ago. Wearing a netted vest armed with multiple cameras and rolls of film eventually made John Hart the embodiment of “news” at the newspaper.
Eileen Joyce, who spent 3 1/2 years at The Union as a photographer, remembers: “At least once a week, if not once a day, someone would say to me, ‘They told me The Union was coming to take my picture, but you’re not John Hart.”
Joyce, now a night photo editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, would explain that the newspaper had more than one photographer, which didn’t always appease her subjects.
Hart’s presence at high school sporting events, San Francisco 49ers home football games and wildland fires, along with stories about crime and mayhem, became his trademark.
Sometimes, his work gave him more than he bargained for.
Gary Jacobson, now a KNCO-AM radio reporter and retired sheriff’s deputy and supervisor, remembered one time when Hart entered the old jail at the Nevada County Courthouse to do a story. An inmate saw Hart with his camera, and Hart gave it to the inmate to look at. Instantly, the inmate bolted down the hall with his booty before Jacobson, in a booming voice, called the inmate back. The inmate shed his orange jumpsuit to reveal his deputy uniform.
“I snitched him off, big time,” said Jacobson of Hart. “He’s never forgotten that.”
Last winter, during the San Francisco 49ers’ last regular-season game at home against the Seattle Seahawks, Hart was shooting pictures on the 49er sideline when a San Francisco cornerback ran back an interception. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, in the chase, plowed into Hart, bloodying his nose, giving him a black eye and breaking his glasses. The hit was captured on national television.
Nevertheless, Hart finished the assignment and drove home. His pictures appeared in the paper the next day.
“I’m sure he’s put himself in harm’s way many more times,” Acker man said.
Childhood friend Charlie Jakobs remembers fire scenes where Hart helped clear the way for inquisitive reporters or got firefighters to help him find vantage points for spectacular photos. At a 1987 fire along Dog Bar Road, Hart returned to his car to find the winds had shifted, and fire had melted the door handles and plastic parts.
“That’s where Charlie told me to park it,” Hart recalled. “We probably laughed about it.”
Hart worked through the historic 1988 49er Fire, which torched hundreds of structures and sent thousands fleeing from their homes in Rough and Ready, Lake Wildwood and Bitney Springs.
Hart was photographing Nevada City’s Constitution Day parade, and saw the plume of smoke rising from the top of Broad Street.
“It looked like an atom bomb had gone off,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe a fire could start that fast.”
Fortunately, Hart – always prepared for action – had a fire-resistant Nomex suit with him.
“John’s the one that wrote the book on that kind of coverage,” said former publisher Moorhead.
He sleeps with a police and fire scanner next to the bed, which draws chuckles from colleagues but adoration from Hart’s wife, Pat, who has gone to sleep with that scanner every night for 25 years of marriage.
“It’s just a part of who John is. It comes with the territory,” said Pat, who met John at a square-dancing class the year before they married. “He doesn’t do as much jumping out of bed like he used to, but it doesn’t really bother me. He likes his work, and I want him to do whatever he wants to do.”
Former editor John Seelmeyer remembered Hart taking photos of the Rotary Club plastic duck race several years ago while ankle-deep in Deer Creek. Hart’s shoes were ruined, and he got in hot water with Seelmeyer when he decided to go easy on The Union by buying $13 shoes as replacements after the editor told him to get a nice pair.
The event he missed
Of course, Hart will probably never forget the event that got away from him. On March 20, 2002, the corner of Pine and Commercial streets in Nevada City became engulfed in flames when a restaurant and adjacent buildings caught fire. It’s arguably the most visible event Hart didn’t cover. He was on vacation in Reno when his wife pulled him from the shower to show him footage of the fire on television.
“I said, ‘oh, crap,’ but I told myself, there was nothing I could do about it, so why ruin my day thinking about it,” he said. “You know, there’s times I don’t have my scanner on. You do get tired of listening to it.”
When he’s not listening to the scanner, Hart is actively involved in weekly meetings with his ham radio club and participating in events with the Gold Country Lions, where he is a charter member. During the Nevada County Fair, he’s often cooking up caramel corn at their booth.
Through the years, Hart has never seriously considered leaving the town where he was born. Two of his three siblings live in Grass Valley, as does his mother, Marian, a former assistant city clerk for Grass Valley.
It is perhaps Hart’s most important asset, Ackerman said, in a world where journalists – like baseball players – have such nomadic careers.
“Some people say, ‘What’s important to me is where I live.’ That’s John. He lives and works in a place that he loves.”
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