I was at one of my favorite Southern California “happy places” yesterday when I received some very sad news. My family and I were driving through the beautiful Tehachapi Valley, which due to the recent rains had never looked more Celtic, when I got a call from our friend Julie Tripke informing us of the passing of her father Ernie early that morning.
Ernie was a young CHP officer in 1955 when he and his partner Ron Nelson were called to investigate a head-on car crash near the town of Cholame, California. There was one fatality, twenty-four-year old actor James Dean, who neither of the two men had ever heard of.
By the time they returned to their office news of Dean’s death had hit the airwaves and Ernie and Ron found themselves answering banks of ringing phones. The calls would return whenever a James Dean-related anniversary rolled around for the next five decades. As if closing a spigot, the calls stopped after the 50th anniversary of the crash. Four years later I ended the drought when I tracked Ernie down to ask about a supposed stop Dean made in Newhall on the day he died for an article I was writing. Ernie had no knowledge of Dean’s actions before the crash, but the chat we had was so pleasant that I suggested we meet up for dinner near Ernie’s home in San Luis Obispo sometime in the future.
It just so happened that Kimi and I found ourselves there a few days later and met Ernie and his daughter Julie at the Apple Farm for dinner. We liked them immediately, noticing the special easygoing bond that existed between the two. They were a father and daughter who not only loved each other, but really liked each other as well. Ernie wore an ever-present smile that evening that never disappeared during the two years we were honored to have known him.
The James Dean/Newhall question later developed into a documentary, which I hosted. In it, I was able to interview both Ernie and Ron near the site of the crash. (I was also able to interview retired CHP officer Otie Hunter, who issued Dean a speeding ticket a couple of hours before the crash.) In February, 2008 I helped arrange for Ernie and Ron to be part of a James Dean panel discussion in Newhall hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
Kimi and I visited the Tripkes a few weeks ago in the convalescent hospital where Ernie had recently taken up residence. Before that, he had lived with Julie for several years. The decision to move Ernie to the home was one they made together after he suffered injuries from several falls. He was pleased to get the opportunity to be with his wife at the same facility, where she suffers from Alzheimer’s. Julie visited them there every day, and on most days twice. (We have never seen such devotion from a daughter to her parents.) We had no idea we were saying goodbye to Ernie that day, because he seemed to be in great spirits.
Ernie was a significant part of popular cultural history, and that was the initial reason that I reached out to meet him. But our friendship with the wonderful Tripke family was the real lasting gift we took away from our meeting. I thank James Dean for bringing us together.
(As a tribute to our friend and Julie’s “hero,” I will reprint portions of interviews I conducted with Ernie and Ron over the next two days.)