When our alien overlords eventually take over the planet and finally get around to a debriefing on the swath of middle California we locals call the “Central Coast,” the first person they’ll call will be Sandy Lydon.
The longtime Cabrillo College teacher, writer, historian and local celeb has devoted his life to investigating the culture, ecology, economy and history of the region that entails Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties. But whether he’s talking about Big Sur, Davenport, Morgan Hill or San Juan Bautista, Lydon will inevitably mention that in the end he’s just a “Hollister boy” at heart.
These days, Lydon is looking at Hollister in a way that he’s never quite done before, thanks mostly to his 2019 induction into the San Benito High School Hall of Fame. Of course, the first thing he’ll tell you is that he, like many of his classmates across generations, prefer to call the school Hollister High (if for no other reason than for the harmonious alliteration with the school’s nickname the Haybalers) and, as a three-year letterman in baseball, that letter H means a lot to him.
“Back when I was in school, we burned the initial H into the lawn at Gilroy High School,” said Lydon, 78, who was a high schooler in the 1950s. “Just imagine trying to burn a letter in the lawn with ‘San Benito,’ all those curves with the S and the B. With the H, it’s three straight lines and you’re out of there.”
He gets even more animated by a notorious (to Hollister locals, anyway) 2015 article in the New Yorker magazine by famed writer Dave Eggers titled “The Actual Hollister.” It was Eggers’ attempt to distinguish the town from the ubiquitous clothing brand that has made the name “Hollister” famous around the world. From the opening paragraph, when the story mistakenly said that Hollister was in the Central Valley, the story annoyed Lydon to the point where he considered doing an extension course at Cabrillo, in answer to Eggers, that he would call the Real Actual Hollister. A half-forgotten health issue derailed the extension class, but even today, Lydon lights up when talking about the Eggers piece.
“You have to be careful when you’re out of your turf,” he said.
Though he left Hollister more than 60 years ago, Lydon still considers the town very much his turf. For years, he has led group tours of spots all around the Central Coast, but is only now getting around to bringing tours to Hollister.
“I’ve been putting Hollister off,” he said. “It’s hard to do the place you grew up. Too many memories, a ex-girlfriend on every corner. It has proven to be a challenge.”
Lydon first came to Hollister in 1950 at the age of 10 when his family moved there from San Mateo. At the time, the town was only three years past a notorious incident involving a motorcycle rally turned rowdy, which the press at the time sensationalized as the “Hollister riot.” Lydon was 13 when The Wild One, a movie based on the event starring Marlon Brando, was released.
Lydon remembers little about the release of the movie, but he remembers well the motorcycle races that took place just outside of town. He was not old enough to see the races in person, but he lived close to the old Hazel Hawkins Hospital, “and we’d go over there and wait for the ambulances to arrive. Guys were getting beat up something fierce, bleeding and such, so we saw the results of those races.”
Later, as a high schooler, Lydon participated in the beloved ritual of the era, “dragging Main.” That meant, essentially, driving up and down San Benito Street just to see and be seen.
“You’d start down at Haydon, which was two blocks past our house, because you could do a U-turn there,” he remembered. “Then you go up San Benito to Fourth, go to the Fosters Freeze parking lot on Fourth, then go back and do it again and again. Hey, gas was 27 cents a gallon.”
The story evokes a vision torn from American Graffiti, which depicted the teenage years of Star Wars director George Lucas in Modesto in the early 1960s. That film got it almost right, said Lydon.
“Yeah, that American Graffiti thing,” he said. “There was too much gender mixing in that movie. Girls getting in the cars with guys? C’mon. (In Hollister) that never happened.”
Young Sandy would have struck an intriguing figure in his 1930 Ford Model A, a car already old when he was driving it.
“I painted the rims pink to stand out,” he said. “I made the biggest mistake of my life when I went off to college (at UC Davis). The Model A didn’t have quite enough style, so I sold it for $125. I bought it for only $110, so I thought I did pretty good.”
At Hollister High, Lydon was all about baseball. He lettered three straight years, and as a senior, he was part of the school’s 23-1 team in ’57. After graduation, he headed off to UC Davis, after which he became a teacher and baseball coach, first at Elk Grove High south of Sacramento and finally at Cabrillo College in nearby Aptos.
“To this day, I kiss the ground at Cabrillo,” he said. “I was so lucky in that they had this old-school mentality of, ‘We’ll hire you and then leave you alone.’”
Then, it was on to a fruitful career as a teacher, a TV personality (including a stint as the local weatherman), a newspaper columnist and group tour leader. Only now has the meandering path led him back to Hollister.
“The whole thing in the ’50s,” he said, “was that you never went back home. Unless your dad owned a business or something, there was nothing there for you. I always had it in my head that I would have to pay my dues somewhere else.”