George D. Pollock
By Joe Livernois
Among Monterey County’s lost and forgotten social-justice warriors, a pipe-smoking character named George D. Pollock often found himself on the right side of history — except when it came to garbage service and sex.
Most notably, Pollock was the one and only member of the Salinas Chamber of Commerce who, in 1943, supported the notion that Japanese-American citizens who had been forcibly removed from the county during World War II should be permitted to return to the Pacific coast.
“He was heroic,” said Carol McKibben, a historian and Stanford lecturer who has written several books based on her research of Monterey County.
Pollock had been active in progressive causes in the county since at least 1936, when he formed the Citizens Welfare League to condemn police violence and to support the right of farm workers to unionize and strike. The organization was formed following an especially egregious attack on strikers by deputies and citizens deputized by the sheriff, according to McKibben. Strikers were gassed, shot and beaten “as they gathered to partake of their evening meal in the soup kitchen” at the Central Labor Council temple in Salinas, she wrote.
Over the years, and despite the fact that he often ran against the tide, Pollock maintained a thriving legal practice, maintained businesses on the Monterey Peninsula and was deeply involved in local Democratic politics. He lost election to the state Assembly before eventually getting elected — and then recalled — from the Seaside City Council.
As a hard-charging general-purpose lawyer, Pollock often represented defendants in murder cases, people dealing with routine property issues, and husbands or wives seeking a divorce. He was a distinguished leader in both Salinas and on the Monterey Peninsula, a Kansas attorney known for smoking a long-stemmed pipe. But it was his romantic involvement with a young divorcée that eventually led to his downfall; the headline-grabbing scandal titillated Monterey County newspaper readers in the late 1950s.
At a time when Asian-Americans are under assault in the United States following the COVID-19 pandemic, Pollock’s activism serves as a bright example of honor during a dark period of history. Today his name might pop up as a passing reference about local reaction to the Japanese during World War II. But a wider view of his decades of political activism in Monterey County shows that Pollock was one of the more intriguing characters in the region’s history.
There has been much pride expressed among local oldtimers in Monterey about the petition circulated around the Monterey Peninsula with 440 names to welcome Japanese Americans home in 1945. The petition, published in the Monterey County Herald on May 11, 1945, included the signatures of novelist John Steinbeck, photographer Edward Weston and poet Robinson Jeffers.
But two years earlier, in the thick of the early war effort, citizens of Salinas exposed an uglier reality. In early 1943, the Salinas Chamber of Commerce circulated a questionnaire that, among other things, asked if the Japanese removed from their homes and farms should, at war’s end, be allowed to return to the Pacific coast, and whether chamber members believed the internees would “jeopardize their personal safety” if they were allowed to return to Salinas.
On Feb.19,1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced the relocation of Japanese American citizens along the West Coast to internment camps, including thousands from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.
“It was as though they evaporated in plain sight,” said McKibben, in a chapter of a book she is publishing early next year called “SALINAS: Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City.”
In early 1943, Salinas officials were eager to address the “Japanese question,” mainly what to do with them once the war ended. More than 750 Salinas residents answered the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire. Respondents included housewives, surgeons, county officials, bankers and laborers. The Catholic Daughters of America weighed in on the matter. So did the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, farm associations, the Teamsters Union and the Alisal Business Association.
Many of the lawyers in town also responded, including George Pollock. But Pollock’s name stands out in the report of the survey findings, because Pollock was the only respondent — the one and only — to answer “yes” to the question of whether the Japanese internees should be allowed to return to the Pacific coast. Seventy hundred fifty-plus people, and Pollock’s was the lone voice in defense of the Japanese Americans.
The “comments” section of the questionnaire elicited much ugliness.
“We hope that we never see another Jap on the Pacific Coast,” wrote one respondent. “Please let me add that the only loyal Jap perhaps is a dead one,” added another. And another: “I was looking at the High School graduation class pictures in a studio window the other evening, and it certainly was a pleasure to see no Japanese faces amongst our children., and in years to come I sincerely hope the Japanese faces will never appear again.”
Several months later, a delegation of California senators convened a hearing in Salinas to gauge local attitudes about the return of the Japanese. The Salinas Californian reported that the city attorney testified that he believed “Japs” were a “menace and detriment” to California. The Chamber of Commerce survey was cited as “conclusive evidence that … residents of the Salinas Valley do not want Japs here,” according to the Californian.
Despite what must have been an unpopular opinion at the time, Pollock was a pillar of the local legal community for decades. A year after taking his bold stand in defense of the Japanese, Pollock defended two African American men during a sensational murder trial in Salinas. The two men, McElwee Harper and Emory “Blue” Bolden, were eventually convicted of the murder and robbery of a man on a ranch in Prunedale; they were put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1945.
In addition to Pollock’s very active law practice and his political aspirations, he also also co-owned a water and garbage company that served Seaside and the east end of Monterey. The company had originally belonged to his wife, Loretta, and her ex-husband, who had died and left her the company.
On Oct. 4, 1954, Pollock was elected to Seaside’s first City Council on the day residents also voted to incorporate the town into a city. He won the position even as he opposed the incorporation of the city. Apparently unable to get along with his colleagues, the mayor removed from his position as chairman of the council’s public health and safety committee within months after the election. Ever the trailblazer, Pollock earned the distinction of being the first councilman to be recalled from the Seaside City Council in late 1955.
Unfortunately for him, the enemies he had made on the City Council naturally turned against him when he tried to win the city’s garbage collection franchise not long after he was booted from office. His bid was rejected.
He filed a lawsuit against the winning refuse company and the entire city council, and the legal decisions against him ended up establishing case law still cited in California today. In Martelli v. Pollock, an appellate court eventually ruled against Pollock, declaring that members of a city council were immune from liability “towards persons affected by decisions made within the scope of their powers.”
But Pollock’s most embarrassing legal entanglement came less than three years later, when he sued a woman to recoup $900 in “legal fees” and interest after representing her in a divorce case. During that trial, Pollock denied that the woman, Mary Henneken, had been his mistress for many years.
Henneken produced love letters he had sent her. Pollock was 60 years old at the time; Henneken was 33.
The district attorney promptly filed a perjury charge against Pollock, and the resulting trial produced front-page banner headlines in the local daily newspapers. The reporters breathlessly described Henneken as a statuesque blonde who testified from the witness stand wearing a “black lace evening dress.” Prosecutors had flown her in from Guam, where she had been living with her new husband, a sailor. Meanwhile, Loretta Pollock filed for divorce.
Pollock admitted that he had lied about their affair, but he said he did it to protect Henneken and her children against what would certainly become a scandal if the truth became public. The trial went on for three days, and the newspapers described an audio recording that had been secretly made of Pollock and Henneken and of the letters between them. The Salinas Californian ran a photo of Henneken, looking demure as she waited outside the courtroom to testify. It later carried a photo of the elderly Pollock, smoking his pipe and looking much older than 60.
Also testifying for the prosecution was Pollock’s estranged wife, described by one newspaper reporter as a “solemn, matronly housewife.” She testified that she had not been aware of what had been her husband’s apparent years-long affair until discovering a letter “from George to Mary.”
The jury spent less than three hours in deliberations before acquitting Pollock, mainly due to the defense argument that Pollock did not intend to commit perjury, but only lied on the witness stand to maintain Henneker’s honor.
Newspaper accounts say Pollock was too emotional to comment after the trial. “My client was as innocent as the driven snow,” his attorney declared. “Regardless of what my client said, at no time did he intend to commit perjury.”
Pollock apparently scaled back his practice significantly after that. His name only came up as water customers complained about their service. Indeed, the public record about Pollock pretty much disappears after 1965.
For all the local headlines he grabbed over the decades, his death on Feb. 15, 1971, at the age of 72, was reported in a terse seven-paragraph obituary in the Monterey Peninsula Herald that made no mention of his early activism. The death notice reported that he lived out his final years in Carmel, with his wife Loretta.
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