Community Service

I was involved with the Key Club as a student in 1978-1979 and as a faculty advisor from 2013 to 2018. Photo Copyright (c) 2016 Torin Finney.

Community service is an integral part of a well-rounded education. Many schools include it as a graduation requirement, particularly for honors students with a weighted GPA. Getting involved in your community increases your awareness of social issues and helps in advancing personal development. Most religious and civic service organizations offer programs that give young people the opportunity to learn and serve. Balancing your academic load with extra-curricular activities can be challenging, but the rewards of service are worth the effort.

Start with your own school and neighborhood. Learn about campus clubs and discover which ones involve serving the community. Ask your relatives, neighbors, and local clergy and elected officials what needs to be done. When I was a student in Virginia in the 1970s, I helped with a summer educational program for mentally disabled adults at my church and participated in neighborhood clean up efforts with my scout troop. As a senior in high school, I joined the Key Club and rode in bike-a-thons to raise money for heart disease research. All these activities made me feel as if I were making a difference in improving the quality of life in my community.

On campus activities such as cancer awareness days and blood drives provide opportunities for you to do your part. Cultural clubs can call attention to civil rights issues as well as artistic expression. Canvassing for local candidates can familiarize you with current political debates and help you form your own opinions on important public issues. Visiting your local courthouse and attending the grand openings of new businesses are other ways to make your presence known as an active member of your community.

Religious organizations in particular offer a myriad of charitable activities in which young people can participate. Local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other congregations sponsor soup kitchens and food banks for the needy, shelters for the homeless, counseling and health care programs, recreational and educational events, and opportunities to visit the elderly, the homebound, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. Those of you who are religious can ask your clergy or other members of your community how you can get involved. If you are not religious, these groups will still welcome your participation. There is always a need for more dedicated volunteers.

I was heavily involved in church work from 1982 to 1992. I taught adult classes on issues of war and peace and sang in both folk and traditional choirs. I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley, California in the mid-1980s and assisted a local pastor in visiting the sick and the infirm. In Honolulu, I spent an intern year preaching and teaching and helping with a local food program for the homeless. I served as a student hospital chaplain for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as for those participating in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. In 1984 and 1989 I worked in outdoor summer camps with at-risk children as a recreational and educational leader. I served for over a year as the co-pastor of a two-point parish in central Kansas.

Part of an art project I began in 2014 called my “Rock Resume.” These stones commemorate my years of service in religious organizations between 1982 and 1992. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Local service organizations such as the Lions and Kiwanis sponsor regular activities to help the community. All welcome the participation of young people, particularly high school and college students. Whether the activity is trash cleanup, fundraisers for health care research, listening to those in need, literacy classes for newcomers and the poor, writing to members of Congress or uniformed personnel overseas, or collecting canned goods for the local food bank, there are always possibilities available for someone seeking active community service.

Not all service roles are strictly volunteer. If you have time for a part-time job while you are in school, consider one that would allow you to help others in some way. Working as a paid staffer in a food bank or nursing home will offer you non-monetary rewards beyond your paycheck. Make use of your skill set. If you are bilingual, think about working for a business or non-profit organization that serves the immigrant community. If you have construction or home improvement skills, go to work for a contractor who participates in low-income housing projects. If you are facile with words, write for a public advocacy periodical or start your own blog.

Whatever you decide to do, make the most of the service opportunities in your area. Everyone has something to offer. Identify your skill set and contribute to the common good. Doing so will round out your educational experience and strengthen your college applications. But most importantly, you will know that you are helping to improve the quality of life in your community. As the old saying goes, making a difference is just as important as making a dividend. There are always opportunities to make a difference. Open your mind and your heart to finding your place in that effort.

From December 1992 to October 1996 I worked as a bilingual operator for the California Relay Service in Sacramento, a telephone service for the hearing impaired. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Staying Informed

I have been an avid NPR listener since 1983.

Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. This pillar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also linked to freedom of speech, expression, and association. We are free to say and think what we want, to listen to and wear what we want, to join or unjoin the associations of our choice, and to choose our own personal and business relationships. But with this freedom comes responsibility. The other side of freedom of expression is critical thinking. As students of history, politics, and economics, it is important that we stay informed of what is going on in our nation and our world. Ignorance is not bliss in the social sciences. Information is power.

America is a country obsessed with the news. Early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and others noticed the proliferation of periodicals as well as societies, clubs, and associations. By 1800 there were 200 newspapers in the United States. By 1860 there were 3,000. Giant steam presses and the telegraph revolutionized the journalism industry. 500 artists and correspondents were sent out to cover the Civil War (1861-1865). They sent innumerable dispatches home for printing and sketches for engraving. By the end of the war, photography had joined the ranks of the burgeoning media frenzy.

Radio emerged from the First World War, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties everybody had one. Television followed in the 1950s. The original three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC were joined by PBS in 1967 with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act by President Lyndon Johnson. This legislation also created the framework for National Public Radio, which began broadcasting in 1971. Local affiliates gradually grew over the following decades, many of them on college campuses. Today there are more than a thousand NPR stations serving over 30 million listeners.

I became one of them in the fall of 1983 as a graduate student at UMass/Boston. I began listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM from my apartment in Wollaston near Quincy. The mixture of folk music, entertaining shows, and comprehensive news grabbed my attention immediately. I especially enjoyed listening to All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, and Noah Adams. The news was commercial free and focused on in-depth analysis of complex political, social, and economic issues in a way I had never heard before.

I was an avid television news follower during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the year my uncle was flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War. But radio news had not come under my radar. Radio was for music and television was for news. But then I went off to college in 1979 and no longer had a TV. The campus radio station at UC Santa Cruz, KZSC 88.1 FM, broadcast mostly reggae and other world music at the time, but I don’t remember listening to NPR during my time there. KZSC carried the Pacifica Evening News, as did KPFA 94.1 when I lived in Berkeley a few years later. Pacifica programming had a left-leaning slant that counterbalanced the more conservative orientations of popular AM talk radio.

I appreciated NPR’s more measured approach to political discourse and the detail into which it delved to uncover the causes, course, and consequences of current events. Prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as independent and third party candidates were interviewed during election season and in debates on contentious issues. Small business and large corporations were covered. World news was given as much attention as local and national. Thematic series were developed. Special music and other cultural programs appeared and grew. Profiles of artists, writers, and independent filmmakers attracted a growing audience.

The cable television revolution of the 1980s and beyond offered a myriad of new choices for the discerning viewer. Fox News began to offer a more conservative perspective, as did MSNBC for more liberal viewers. CNN and other Turner programs grew exponentially, covering stories that the mainstream networks had ignored for decades. Television coverage became increasingly complex in both technology and analysis. The growth of the internet in the 1990s and smartphone technology in the new millennium led to further transformations in the media. Online journals, blogs, and podcasts competed with traditional newsprint.

I took advantage of all these new outlets as they each made their appearance. My personal favorite remained NPR, however, and I found my local station wherever I lived. In the Bay Area I listened to KPFA in Berkeley and KQED Public Media. In Honolulu in 1989-1990 I listened to Hawai’i Public Radio. During my year in Kansas I followed Radio Kansas out of Hutchinson Community College. I listened to Capital Public Radio when I lived in Sacramento and Valley Public Radio when I was in Bakersfield. In Orange County I had KPCC and KCRW on the radio during my commute. When I moved to San Diego last year, I immediately found KPBS.

I paid extra attention during Presidential election years, beginning in Boston with the Reagan-Mondale contest in the fall of 1984. During my decade in church work and my twenty years as a classroom teacher, I remained informed and encouraged my students to do the same. News programs helped me produce better essays and papers as a student, better seminars and lectures as a teacher, a comprehensive genealogy scrapbook project, and a more informed choice at the ballot.

NPR entertained me on long drives and allowed me to consider important issues in greater depth and detail. Morning Edition and All Things Considered occupied my daily commute for years. Weekend Edition helped me wind down after a hectic week at work. Jazz, classical, folk, and world music programs formed the backdrop of my day to day ops and social gatherings. Special educational and cultural programs like The Thistle and Shamrock and The Thomas Jefferson Hour entertained and inspired on a regular basis.

Now you can listen to news podcasts on your iPhone or Android device. Opinion pieces, blogs, and online forums number in the millions. Search engines allow for comprehensive browsing. Sound bytes are an effective marketing tool for potential new listeners. YouTube channels give anyone the opportunity to contribute to public discourse and the dissemination of information. Attracting new online followers can lead to better programming. Many entrepreneurial startups add new media options to the menu every day.

The exponential growth in news coverage over the last fifty years has offered the contemporary reader and listener an endless smorgasbord of choice. This is a good thing in light of the First Amendment. It can also be daunting and perplexing. The best approach as a media consumer is the same as that of a serious student of history and other social sciences. Consider as many perspectives as possible while forming your own opinion. The more you listen, the more you will learn. Thomas Jefferson identified an “enlightened citizenry” as the foundation of a strong democratic society. Staying informed is an important part of achieving and maintaining an enlightened mind.

I portrayed a 19th century newsman during my participation in living history programs across the United States from 1999 to 2008. To read more, visit my James Allen Davis website here. Copyright (c) 2014 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Cotillions and Grand Balls

Jill and I pose in our Victorian era finery before participating in the Grand March at a vintage ball in San Diego’s Balboa Park, February 2, 2019.

Some of my favorite scenes in historical epic films like Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are the ball scenes. I always enjoyed watching the men in their tailcoats and dress uniforms swirl the ladies in their hoop skirts and gowns around a glittering dance floor. I imagined myself being one of those graceful gentlemen, filling my dance card with waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles and dancing the night away to the stirring strains of Strauss, Berlioz, Lanner, and Waldteufel. I wanted to be the romantic lead in my own movie.

Although I was fond of costuming and dressing up as a kid, I did not have much background in ballroom dancing. I remember learning the Virginia Reel and some square dances in junior high in the Shenandoah Valley, but I never had formal dance training. Then I moved to southern California to finish high school during the height of the national disco craze. I learned some moves and took some dates to Disneyland, where at that time a spectacular disco dance show was held during the summer on the stage beneath the Space Mountain ride. By the time I went off to college, disco was fading in popularity. My dancing days were over, or so it seemed.

Seventeen years later, I joined a Civil War reenacting unit and began participating in living history events in northern California. Our group held a winter ball at the historic Hotel Del Monte on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After several months of marching through mud and heat in a dusty uniform and field kit, sleeping on the ground under a dog tent, and firing my musket, it was time to clean up and make myself presentable on a dance floor. While only officers attended balls in the Victorian era, all our members to invited to participate in the event, including enlisted men such as myself.

Posing with my unit, Company A of the 69th New York State Volunteers (Irish Brigade), at our winter ball held in the historic Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California in December of 1997. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

While I had managed to clean off the mud and dust and polish my shoes and buttons, my performance on the dance floor was somewhat lackluster. I navigated successfully through the group dances such as the opening Grand March, the quadrilles, and the closing Virginia Reel (which I remembered from school in Virginia), but I fared less successfully in the waltz, polka, and schottische. There had been a rudimentary dance lesson at the beginning of the evening, but watching an expert perform something with apparent effortlessness and trying it yourself are two entirely different things.

My dream of reenacting those famous Hollywood ball scenes had been dissipated by the reality of trying to avoid stepping on my partner’s feet or colliding with other couples moving across the floor. I enjoyed those first few balls as a soldier, particularly the costuming and venues. I attended two at the Hotel Del Monte and one in a rustic lodge in the California Gold Rush town of Murphys, all in the late 1990s. I was part of a company and had a ready made set of friends, acquaintances, and potential dance partners. But my skills on the dance floor remained undeveloped.

By the end of 1999 I began developing an artist correspondent impression as part of my budding teaching career and gradually withdrew from my military unit. I no longer camped at the venue with my company, and when I did stay overnight I usually booked my own hotel room nearby. I did not have a regular dance partner and stopped attending winter balls. I went to a few of the Saturday evening outdoor dances at some events, but more often than not I left the field after the final battle and went home to finish my sketches and dispatches.

Charcoal sketch I drew of a period ball in Anaheim, California in January of 2004. In the character of an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, I spent more time observing the dancing events than I did participating. Copyright (c) Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Then I met Jill. She was dressed as a Union vivandiere, following the troops into battle and helping to dress the wounded. We became friends and I learned that, among her many other talents, she was a professional ballroom dance instructor who had been operating her own wedding dance business for many years. She designed first dance choreography and had a background in both ballet and competitive ballroom dancing. She was also a professional web designer and had worked for many years creating an online presence for a variety of performers and entrepreneurs. She created a beautiful website for my correspondent impression and began teaching me dance steps.

I had found the dance partner of my dreams. In addition to teaching me basic salsa, tango, swing, foxtrot, and rumba steps, Jill helped me navigate the “period dance” floor at reenacting events. We became members of a local living history organization together and attended their winter ball at the R.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach, California in January of 2005. The famous ship was now a hotel and her grand ballrooms, cabins and decks formed the ideal venue for an historic celebration. Jill wore a lovely new ball gown and I had a new tailored black woolen suit.

Never mind that we were dressed in Victorian garb on a ship first christened in 1934 and associated more with World War II than with the War Between the States. If we wanted to be “period correct,” we would have been dancing on the 1863 full-rigged ship Euterpe (rechristened Star of India in 1906 and now part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum). Notwithstanding this historical disconnect, we had a great time at the event. My waltz, polka, and schottische steps began to steadily improve under Jill’s tutelage. She taught me how to navigate the dance floor, how the center was reserved for couples dancing at a slower pace and the outer ring for speed.

When we returned to the Queen Mary for another winter ball in January 2006, I was holding my own, no longer stepping on feet and deftly avoiding mid-floor collisions. I began to acquire other ballroom skills as well, such as how to put together my ensemble, proper table and social etiquette, and the art of conversation. I had considered none of this when I portrayed a soldier. All I needed to know then was how to demonstrate the manual of arms, how to march and wheel into line of battle, how to salute and obey orders, and how to load, fire, and clean my musket. Now that I was moving in a different circle, I had to learn to move properly.

Jill and I attending a winter ball event at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California in January 2007. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

By this time I owned a proper tuxedo with tailcoat and several period cravats and vests. Jill had an impressive collection of ball gowns and other accoutrements. We had a circle of new friends who attended the cotillions and balls with us and formed our regular partners in the quadrilles and other group dances. We attended two outstanding events at the Mission Inn in Riverside (see image above) in the winters of 2007 and 2008. We also drove north to Pasadena’s Masonic Temple to participate in regular events there. Other balls were held at Riley’s Farm in the foothills of Oak Glen and at church halls and country clubs across southern California.

Declining attendance and rising operational costs in the wake of the Great Recession put a damper on the expensive reenacting hobby in general and the ball season in particular, and by 2009 there were not as many grand dance events to attend. We did go to a spring cotillion in Orange County for many years (see image below), but by the end of summer 2011 we decided to retire from the hobby altogether. We packed away our ball costumes and focused on other things.

Attending a spring cotillion in Orange County, California in 2010. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Seven years later, we decided to leave Orange County and move to San Diego and the scenes of some of our former adventures. I retired from full-time teaching and Jill relocated her wedding dance business. After several years of helping her demonstrate steps for her couples on a part-time basis, I began doing so regularly. We dusted off our Victorian costumes and attended a local Viennese ball at Balboa Park (see top image). I continued to work on my dance skills, focusing particularly on aspects of technique such as shifting weight and proper positioning of head, hands, and feet. Jill had been cast in several television programs and films during her time in Orange County and we began discussing the idea of using our reenacting gear for new purposes.

Historic dances are both fun and instructive, and local groups across the country and the world still participate regularly in them. They are windows into a forgotten time and opportunities for exercise and interaction among people who share a common interest in the past. The internet can direct you to the activities in your area and people to contact if you want to become involved. For those who wish to be transported into a world of elegance and grace, the period dance floor is always waiting.

Taking our place on the dance floor for the opening waltz of a period cotillion in Orange County, California in 2008. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

The Heart of the English-Speaking World

A trooper of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment standing guard in London in December 2003. I arrived there on Christmas Day and returned to California on New Year’s Day 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

The 18th century British essayist and literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I only came to fully appreciate these words after spending a week in the city myself. My experience there was so transformative that I cannot remember the pre-conceived notions about the place I harbored before I went. London is truly a world city, and in it I was introduced to the world in unexpected and enlightening ways.

My maternal grandfather was born in London in 1911. His mother was from Three Bridges, Sussex south of the capital and his father came from Rye, New York. They met while she was on holiday with American relatives on the Jersey Shore in 1910. My grandfather was raised in Staten Island, but his mother eventually retired to England, and as he grew older he traveled regularly to London (see photo below). Later in life he moved to the American Southwest, but he took his British cultural roots with him.

My maternal grandfather (left) in London on business with an engineering colleague around 1961, the same year I was born in New Jersey. Westminster Abbey stands in the background.

He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1991, the same year I moved from the Bay Area to Newton, Kansas and began devoting a lot of time to genealogical research (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”). I focused largely on my Irish and German roots at first and gave little thought to my English ancestry until my mother showed me a photograph of my great-grandmother and a series of fine engravings done by her father, a Victorian era London artist named Owen Hanks. This piqued my interest, and I began looking for an opportunity to learn more.

It arrived in the fall of 2003. I was in my sixth year of teaching in Bakersfield, California and my third teaching 7th grade world history. The state curriculum covered the medieval and renaissance periods as well as the age of exploration and rise of European empires. This had not been the focus of my studies in college and graduate school (my major was American Studies), so I was doing a lot of reading and watching documentary films (my favorite was Simon Schama’s outstanding series A History of Britain) to stay ahead of what I was assigning my students in their textbook. So when the opportunity to spend a week in London over my winter break presented itself, I welcomed the chance to see first hand some of the places I was studying.

I flew out of Los Angeles and arrived at Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day 2003. The movie Love Actually was in theatres and posters advertising its release were emblazoned on many of the bright red double-decker buses. Garlands, tinsel, bells, and red ribbon were everywhere. The weather was cool but clear, peppered by the proverbial London Christmas rain shower. I took an entertaining ride in a classic black London cab and arrived at my hotel in Bloomsbury near Tottenham Court Road. That evening I treated myself to a pint and some chips at a local pub and celebrated my arrival in the historic British capital.

My hotel was within walking distance of the British Museum, and I spent several days exploring its stimulating exhibits. I was particularly taken with the Celtic ironwork and jewelry, the collection of African and Asian artifacts, and the overall floor design that resembled the spokes of a gigantic wheel. The Museum was celebrating 250 years and its halls were filled with evidence of the expansion of British power and influence across the world over the course of that period. I took a circuitous route back to my hotel through a light rain, visiting a local bookstore and making note of several historic homes marked by the iconic Blue Plaques. As I took in the sights and sounds of centuries, I had no doubt that I was standing at the heart of the English-speaking world.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 and became a depository for cultural and artistic treasures from across Britain’s world empire. The Museum was celebrating 250 years in the heart of London when I visited there in 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I wasted no time in taking in as many sights as I could. I made liberal use of the London Underground, known locally as “The Tube,” and visited Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and the theatre district of the West End. I took photos of the statues of Lincoln, Cromwell, and Churchill in Parliament Square and conversed with a crowd of protestors decrying the war in Iraq. I toured the stage and gift shop of the restored Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, where Shakespeare had produced so many of his classic works.

Walking past the site of the original Globe, which was under renovation at the time, I visited Southwark Cathedral and the outdoor vendors of the Borough Market. The Anchor Bankside and Brewery and other historic pubs and restaurants were fascinating historic stops. I also went to the Golden Hinde, the 1577 restored sailing ship that carried Sir Francis Drake around the world at the end of 16th century. I wanted to take in every attraction and read every monument.

The highlight of the week was my tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I reached by crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge with its sweeping views of river traffic and historic dockside buildings. The exterior of St. Paul’s was being renovated at the time and its western face was covered with a large canvas painted in the outlines of the building. I took a series of pictures of the courtyard statues, including that of Queen Anne (1665-1714), who was the reigning monarch of Britain when the new St. Paul’s was completed in 1710. Looking up to the massive 365-foot cathedral dome, I immediately saw the inspiration for the United States Capitol and so many other neo-classical structures in the States.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. The previous 13th century building, built on the ruins of an 11th century church, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 during the reign of King Charles II. Sir Christopher Wren’s neo-classical reconstruction was completed in 1675 and remained the tallest building in London until 1967. Damaged by German bombardment during World War II, a massive renovation project was begun in 1996 and completed in 2011. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

The interior of St. Paul’s was indeed breathtaking. The beautiful dome, stained glass, monuments, and chapels were overwhelming in their grandeur and intricate detail. St. Paul’s remains an active church serving the entire city, and I joined the rest of the many visitors in maintaining silence in this hallowed space. As a history teacher, there was so much to see and photograph. The tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, tattered 18th and 19th century regimental flags, monuments to the cavalry regiments of the Crimean War and the British generals killed at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, and a myriad of other memorials occupied my interest for more than an hour.

Then I went downstairs to the Crypt. Here was (along with Westminster Abbey, which I was only able to photograph from the outside due to the immense crowds waiting to get in from a driving rain) Britain’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery. Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Kitchener, and so many other historic figures were entombed or memorialized in the dark chambers and corridors. I felt as if chapters of a history textbook were opening before me and taking on three-dimensional form.

I was particularly excited to come upon the memorials to Britain’s Victorian era “Bohemian Brigade” – famed correspondent William Howard Russell (who covered the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, the Franco-Prussian War, and many other campaigns), combat artist Melton Prior (see image below), and a bronze plaque remembering the British journalists killed in the Anglo-Sudan War between 1883 and 1898. I stood there for several moments in silent reverence and reflection.

Memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt to artist correspondent Melton Prior (1845-1910), who covered many campaigns of the Victorian era for the Illustrated London News. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

London is a walking city, and there was much to see by strolling through its historic neighborhoods. I enjoyed the peaceful lawns and paths of Hyde Park and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I visited the Victoria and Albert Memorials and the statue of Charles I and the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. I toured the grounds of Kensington Palace, including the statue of the young Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and watched a holiday juggling performance in Covent Garden. The historic shops, pubs, restaurants, and homes were all interesting to see and photograph.

London is also an international city, and the people, businesses, and restaurants I saw and visited all bore witness to the worldwide reach of the once-mighty British Empire. The people of London reflected the same diversity as the cultural and historical exhibits I toured at the British Museum. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Singapore, Malaysia (formerly Malaya and Sarawak), Burma (now Myanmar), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East, and the islands of the Caribbean and the South Pacific had all left their mark on the character of this vibrant metropolis.

There was so much to see. Sadly, I ran out of time before I could tour the National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens or the Imperial War Museum, but I did visit several of the London War Memorials, including the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Royal Artillery Memorial, with its evocative wall of names reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. I took pictures of monuments dedicated to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). I took in a show and a New Year’s Eve party in the West End and had a long conversation on Victorian drawings with one of the curators at the British Museum. All in all, it was a wonderful week.

I returned with much new material to share with my middle school students, and later with my high school sophomores when I taught modern world history for ten years in Orange County. But my week in London yielded much more than curriculum resources. I connected with my English roots and gained a new appreciation of British influence on the development of today’s world and my own identity as an American. Dr. Johnson had been right in 1777. For anyone interested in history, literature, art, science, fashion, music, world cultures and cuisine, and international commerce, there is no tiring of this cosmopolitan and historic city along the Thames.

The bust of Zeus and part of the vast collection donated to the nation by King George III (1738-1820) in the King’s Library at the British Museum. The library had been fully restored to its original Georgian glory just before my visit in December of 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Climbing the Family Tree

Finney (Feeney) family tree I completed in 1995 after several years of genealogical research. My great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Chicago from Canada in the 1840s with his brothers and their families. Their descendants settled across the United States from Massachusetts to California. Artwork Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Compiling a family history may seem like a relatively easy task at first. As long as the relatives have oral histories or some written records and artifacts to share, a basic narrative can be constructed to pass down to the next generations. Many families do this and do it well. Others show little knowledge of or interest in the family tree. Anyone from this kind of background is on their own, and starting from scratch can be daunting. Constructing a pedigree chart or any other genealogical tool can require patience and diligence if information is not readily available.

Fortunately, I had grandmothers who appreciated and encouraged my interest. My father’s mother had stories, photographs, and some family tree charts, especially for the Finney side, which was of Irish and German extraction. My mother’s mother did not have too many stories for me, but she did pass down a collection of Civil War medals that had belonged to her grandfather (see image below). My mother did provide me with some information, but she did not have many historical details at her immediate disposal. She said her side was mostly German with some Polish, French, Scots-Irish, and Cherokee mixed in.

Civil War medals belonging to Michael Schneider (1842-1900), passed down to me by my maternal grandmother in 1974. I had them mounted and framed in 1995. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

My maternal grandmother died in Virginia in 1974 when she was 63 and I was 13. A few years later I moved to California and went off to college. Busy with school and work, I did not return to my genealogical interest for many years. Then in the spring of 1992, after moving to a small town north of Wichita, I began listening to an NPR show on Radio Kansas called “The Thistle and Shamrock”. Scottish radio host Fiona Ritchie had developed a thematic program highlighting the connections between Appalachian folk music and traditional Celtic songs and ballads from northwestern Europe. I was able to listen to the entire hour each Sunday afternoon as I drove through the long expanses of wheat and sunflowers along U.S. 50.

As someone of Irish and Scottish heritage who spent much of my boyhood in Appalachia, I quickly became an avid fan of her show. On the Irish side, I knew from childhood that my surname was originally spelled O’Feeney and was changed to Finney around the time of the Civil War. But there were few other stories of my Irish heritage passed down to me as a boy. I was hungry for more information. I visited the local public library and checked out everything they had on Ireland.

Digging deeper, I discovered that the name Feeney was Fiadhne in Gaelic and was derived from ancient legends of Irish warriors. The Feeney clan were Irish speakers from Connaught in western Ireland. Many left the potato famine for North America in the 1840s and brought their emigration songs with them. When I first heard the poignant lament “Green Fields of Canada” by the Irish band Deanta on Ritchie’s weekly broadcast, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed with emotion. Something had struck a deep chord.

When I returned to California that fall, I continued to listen to “The Thistle and Shamrock,” this time on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. I continued my genealogical research, contacting relatives on both sides and compiling primary and secondary sources. One of my father’s cousins sent me an extensive notebook with many helpful names and dates. Another lived in an historic 1850s farmhouse in the Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek, only a few hours drive from where I was living, and I spent a day with her as she shared family photos and stories. From these family records, I began constructing the family tree chart pictured above.

On my mother’s side, I found three Union Civil War soldiers, Ohioan Michael Schneider and father and son Thomas and Samuel Laughery from Iowa. Family charts listed the regiments in which they had served, and with just this information I was able to order their military service records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was a thrilling moment to receive and open these documents and read through them for the first time. Here before my eyes were the signatures of my Civil War ancestors and the stories of their wartime service. The medals wrapped in tissue paper from my late grandmother suddenly took on human form.

As I continued my research, I was particularly drawn to my maternal grandmother’s Scottish roots. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah Margaret Laughery (1862-1947), was born in Iowa shortly after her father and brother enlisted in the Union Army. Her mother was descended from a Scots-Irish Pennsylvania veteran of the American Revolution who was awarded land in Morgan County, Ohio for his wartime service. His ancestors were a sept of Clan Davidson in the Scottish Highland region of Inverness. The name Laughery was originally Lochrie in the Scottish Lowlands and connected to Clan Douglas, then changed when the family moved to northern Ireland.

In 1882, Sarah married James Allen Davis, a native of Perry County, Missouri and the son of Scots-Irish, French, and Cherokee pioneers. The young couple moved to Los Angeles, California in 1886 in pursuit of land and job opportunities, where James died tragically in an accidental fire eight years later at the age of 38. Sarah returned to Iowa with her small children (including my great-grandmother Clara Belle) and remarried, this time to a one-legged Civil War veteran named Jacob Kimm, who moved his new blended family to eastern Washington to start a frontier church mission. Clara Belle married Sherman Schneider in 1910 and gave birth to my maternal grandmother in Spokane the following year.

I began filling out a pedigree chart for both sides of my family and drawing individual charts for each branch (see handmade diagrams below). I filled in as much information as I could from the family history records at my disposal, including birth, marriage, and death dates, full names, birthplaces and places of death, and baptismal and other church records. When I ran into a dead end, I had to look elsewhere. In the 1990s when I was heavily involved in this activity, that meant calling courthouses and making road trips across the country. The internet was first making its public debut and online genealogical resources were in their infancy. I had to use “old school” methods.

One of the charts I compiled on my paternal ancestors from Hannover, Germany. My great-great-grandfather Heinrich Meiring fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 before emigrating to Canada and then Oregon, where his daughter married George Finney and gave birth to my grandfather in 1900. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Most of the vital records offices I contacted by telephone were very helpful. I managed to obtain a few death certificates on my father’s Irish side and some photographs from the German side. More family heirlooms arrived from distant relatives. One sent me my great-grandmother’s Roman Catholic Confirmation prayer book from 1885. Another sent me my grandfather’s 1919 high school yearbook from Sheridan, Oregon. I contacted the historical societies of several of the counties in Oregon and Ohio where my ancestors had lived and was able to glean some bits on land and marriage records.

By the end of 1994 I had compiled quite an extensive scrapbook with several pedigree charts and family narratives. I visited the local LDS family history library, which kept an impressive genealogical collection that was available to non-members such as myself, and was able to gather a few more details on dates and locations. Then I came up cold. There were no more details to be found, at least in the sources available to me. I had to fill in the blanks myself.

I began by researching the time periods and locations in which my ancestors lived. I studied the history of the Irish potato famine, including the ordeal endured by passengers on the notorious “coffin ships” across the Atlantic in the 1840s. I read British historian Cecil Woodham-Smith’s classic The Great Hunger (1962) and exchanged a series of letters with my father’s cousin in Portland, Oregon who had done extensive research on that period. I ordered the regimental histories of my Civil War ancestors’ units from the Ohio and Iowa state archives and included them in my scrapbook. Armed with more contextual information, I began asking more specific questions of relatives and was able to fill in some more blanks.

Finney family portrait from 1885 in front of their home in Gervais, Oregon. My Irish great-great-grandparents, James and Mary Ann Finney, stand at left; their daughter Ella in the center, and my great-grandfather George and his brother Ed at right. Photo courtesy of my late cousin Agnes Grady.

Then in the summer of 1995 I decided to take a road trip north from Sacramento to Marion County, Oregon. I learned that my great-great-grandparents from Ireland were buried in the St. Louis Catholic Cemetery outside the small farming town of Gervais. It was a long drive in the heat and humidity along Interstate 5. When I finally arrived at my destination, I was overwhelmed to stand in front of my ancestors’ graves. Buried with James and Mary Ann Finney was their son Francis (Frank), who was the fourth of their seven children to die before the age of 30.

Scores of other Irish and French immigrants were buried around them. The peaceful surrounding fields, silent tombstones, and white wooden church where my great-grandparents were married a century earlier seemed to have changed little in appearance since that earlier time. Afterwards, I visited the graves of my German immigrant great-great-grandparents and Irish-American great-grandparents in nearby Salem. All in all, it was a life changing experience. I felt a deep connection to my roots and this land that I had not sensed before. I felt the presence and blessing of my ancestors.

Standing at the graves of James and Mary Ann Finney, my Irish-born great-great-grandparents, in the St. Louis Cemetery in Gervais, Oregon in the summer of 1995. He died on New Year’s Day in 1905 and she followed him six weeks later on Valentine’s Day. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Over the next two decades, I added more information to my genealogy scrapbook as online resources became more available. I returned from a visit to my mother in Oklahoma in the summer of 2001 with a large collection of family photographs and memorabilia, which I photocopied and returned to her.  That year I also found a Feeney cousin living in County Offaly, Ireland, who wrote to me with stories and information.  A genealogical society in County Roscommon I contacted by email was very helpful. I compiled an online family tree which I shared with distant relatives who found me on the internet. and are among the many excellent tools with which to conduct research. Vital records from counties and states across the country as well as federal military records can also be obtained by digital means. But in the end, an old-fashioned phone call, conversation, or road trip is still the best way to learn some things. Find out who has the photos, the stories, and the artifacts in your family. That is always a good place to start. Genealogy can become a rewarding, lifelong hobby. Understanding your roots can help you live a more grounded and fruitful life.

Hand drawn pedigree chart for my paternal Irish side. In the end, I discovered I have Irish, Scottish, French, English, Polish, German, and Cherokee ancestry. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Ghosts of Manzanar

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten internment camps built to confine Japanese Americans during World War II. Of the 110,000 people interned nationwide, more than 10,000 were imprisoned here at this desolate place in eastern California’s Owens Valley from 1942 to 1945. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not learn about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in school. I don’t remember much diversity in the curriculum when attending history classes in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. There was no Black History Month, no International Women’s Day, no LGBT Pride Month, no Hispanic Heritage, and certainly no Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Confederate generals were still exonerated in my state history classes. Despite my fair complexion and blond hair, some of my classmates still referred to me as “damn Yankee” since I had a Northeastern accent and my father taught at the local black college. I can’t imagine what they would have called me if I had a last name like Gonzalez or Yamashita.

Much changed when I moved from Virginia to southern California to finish high school in 1977. Now I had classmates of every conceivable cultural and religious background. Among my closest friends in class were several Japanese Americans. As I got to know them, I realized that they were as American as everyone else, as were their parents. One was a fellow 4.0 scholar who joined the Key Club with me. Another was a popular cheerleader and ASB officer who went on a date with me once to Disneyland and sat near me in AP U.S. History class. But even that class taught me nothing about what happened to the Japanese Americans in World War II.

I scored a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam and could have opted out of freshman history at UC Santa Cruz, but as a potential history major, I decided to enroll in the year-long survey course anyway. The first quarter covered the colonial period and the Constitution, the second the Civil War and westward expansion, and the third the 20th century from the Progressive Era to Vietnam. It was here that I first heard the word Manzanar. Yet even in this university level core course, the internment camps did not get more than a few minutes coverage in the professor’s lecture on America in World War II.

But then our instructor recommended that we all attend a presentation on campus by local writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of the memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973) and spouse of James Houston, an award-winning novelist who taught writing part-time in the UCSC English Department. Her book had been published for less than ten years at that time, but was already an international bestseller and a staple textbook in high school and college classes across the country. She was an engaging speaker who moved us with her tale of courageous resiliency in the midst of terrible struggle and privation.

I was appalled to learn for the first time about the devastating effects of Executive Order 9066 on her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans. Many lost their businesses, homes, and jobs, and were forced to resettle elsewhere after the war. I found the callousness of local government officials at the time incredulous. That the United States government could sanction what amounted to concentration camps for its own citizens while decrying fascist dictators for doing the same thing to their minorities seemed beyond belief.

When I learned that much of the reasoning behind the camps was rooted in deep racial prejudice and economic rivalry in the communities of the western United States, I was outraged. The historic treatment of Asian immigrants in California seemed little better than the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the northeast, the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, discrimination against Mexican Americans in the southwest, or the hateful Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. The fact that as little as one sixteenth (only one great-great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry could land someone in the camps was particularly absurd.

The real turning point for me, however, was when I learned about the bravery and sacrifice of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of nisei (second-generation, i.e., American citizens born of Japanese immigrant parents) soldiers under the command of white officers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hesitated to allow young men of Japanese descent to volunteer for military service, but finally relented in 1943. This special army unit, recruited both from the nisei of Hawai’i (who were not interned, due to their disproportionate numbers in the island population) and the young “relocation center” internees, was sent to train in Wisconsin and then segregated Mississippi before being shipped to fight the Nazis in Italy and France.

What they did there was remarkable. For their numbers, they sustained the highest proportion of casualties and received the greatest number of awards of any single military unit in United States history. Their dramatic and costly rescue of the surrounded Texan “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France in October of 1944 is in itself worthy of a major feature film. President Harry Truman awarded the 442 several Presidential unit citations, and many historians agree that their valor and sacrifice helped to inspire him to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which desegregated the armed forces and the federal government and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

I was so inspired by the ironic and compelling details of this story that I decided to make it the focus of my senior project in American Studies. I contacted a nisei veteran named Chet Tanaka who had just published a history of the 442 entitled Go For Broke. He referred me to several of his old comrades in arms, who were at that time in their 60s and living across the country, and secured me an invitation to a 40th reunion of the unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Several months of exhaustive research led to a first draft which I wrote in the style of a multidimensional historical novel along the lines of John Dos Passos’s classic 1930s U.S.A. trilogy.

My final revised version was more a narrative history and garnered me thesis honors on my diploma. It also attracted the interest of Dr. Irving Bartlett, head of the American Civilization graduate program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, himself a veteran of World War II and a noted author. UMass/Boston was one of five graduate programs in American Studies to which I applied in the fall of 1982, and Dr. Bartlett told me that my work on the nisei soldiers was one of the reasons he decided to offer me a full tuition waiver and paid research assistantship.

Before I left for Boston, I decided to visit Manzanar during my spring break in 1983. I was returning to California from a backpacking trip with three college friends to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. One of those friends was from the small Owens Valley town of Bishop and wanted to see his parents on his way back to school. He and the others agreed to stop at the Manzanar site, since it was on the way. We drove through Las Vegas and spent some time in Death Valley before heading over to U.S. 395 by way of highway 190 through the stark Panamint Mountains.

Nestled on the western side of the highway between Lone Pine and Independence, Manzanar was easy to miss. In fact, we reached Independence before I realized we had driven past it and needed to turn back. When we finally arrived at the site, my eyes beheld an arid, desolate, windswept landscape of sagebrush and a scattering of April wildflowers. The massive granite wall of the Sierra Nevada, immortalized in the haunting Ansel Adams photographs from 1943, formed a forbidding backdrop. All that remained of the internment camp was a small monument and a few stone buildings and foundations. An historical marker held a plaque with a brief history of what happened there. It was a sad, lonely place. I walked the grounds for a few minutes, took some photographs, and left.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 memoir recounts her experiences as a young internee in Manzanar during World War II. In the years since I visited the site, a visitor center and museum has hosted tens of thousands of students and tourists and commemorative events have attracted camp survivors and their descendants. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not return for twenty years. By that time I was a history teacher in Bakersfield, California, within easy access of the Owens Valley via highway 178 from the south. Manzanar in 2003 looked much the way it had appeared in 1983 (see above photos), but plans were by then underway to renovate the site after President George H. W. Bush awarded National Historic Site designation in 1992. In the years since these photographs were taken, building efforts have created an informative visitor center, a reconstructed barracks, a period guard tower, and much more. Annual reunions and educational events are regularly held there. More than a million people have visited the site, which has become a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in learning about the Japanese American internment camps of World War II.

In early 2007 I helped to design an interdisciplinary project on the camps for a special Digital Arts and Humanities program. While my colleague in the English department had the students read Farewell to Manzanar, I covered the story of the internment in my World War II unit, and my technology department colleague helped the kids create an animated story of a fictitious young internee using software and digital imagery. One student created a digital “Peacemaker Mural” on a campus wall (see image below). For seven years, we finished the unit with a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum.

Photoshop mural created by one of my Digital Arts and Humanities students on Japanese American scholar and activist Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066 in court and spent a year in federal prison rather than submit to wartime internment.

The museum itself is an outstanding collection of exhibits located in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. We took the train as a group from our location in Orange County to historic Union Station and walked the several blocks to the museum, where we were guided through the exhibitions by a surviving internee who shared personal stories of the war. The reconstructed barracks and adjacent pile of vintage suitcases were particularly memorable, as were the fine collection of medals and uniforms from veterans of the 442 and the large diorama model of the Manzanar camp. Afterwards, we walked outside to the “Go For Broke” memorial to the 100/442 and all-nisei Military Intelligence Service (who interrogated Japanese prisoners and translated captured enemy documents in the Pacific), and met living veterans of those famous units (see photo below).

During my twenty years in the classroom as a history teacher, I did my best to correct the error of my own teachers in earlier decades. I tried to create a U.S. history curriculum that included the story of all the cultural, religious, and ethnic groups that helped build this great nation. The story of the Japanese Americans and their experiences in World War II formed an extensive section of my unit on America in the Second World War. Most of the nisei veterans and many of the internees are gone now, but their legacy lives on in the efforts of their descendants, as well as committed educators and scholars, to preserve their stories for future generations.

Survivors of the internment like Star Trek actor and activist George Takei, who recently published the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, are helping to make the story of the Japanese Americans in World War II more accessible to contemporary audiences. As students of history, our duty is to add our own voices to this effort, whether or not we have Japanese ancestry. The targeting of Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds since 9-11 and the mistreatment of immigrants from Latin America are grim reminders that racial prejudice is an ever present danger, particularly in times of international tension. We can never take our democracy for granted. “Liberty and justice for all” is only possible through the determined efforts of dedicated citizens who are committed to defending those ideals.

Standing with a Nisei veteran of World War II at the Go For Broke Monument near the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles during our Digital Arts and Humanities class field trip in 2007. The monument was dedicated in 1999 and bears the names of more than 16,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Testimonials Page

“Everybody is talking about Mr. Finney’s Testimonials Page!”

Happy Summer Solstice! With the longest day of the year upon us, you will have more time to check out my new Testimonials Page. Click here to read letters of recommendation from some of my former administrators. Testimonials from former students will be uploaded soon. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

Whether you are still teaching or enrolled in summer school, traveling, catching up on summer reading, or just resting before the next school year, I hope you have a summer filled with relaxation and inspiration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the 1860s to honor the Union dead of the American Civil War. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

For many of you, Memorial Day represents the end of the school year and final exams. Many people observe this three-day weekend with picnics and parades, much like Labor Day or Independence Day. In the midst of the jubilation and relaxation, it is easy to forget the somber origins of this important national holiday.

I drew the flag pictured above to commemorate the campaigns of my great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider, who served in Company G of the 27th Ohio Infantry throughout the American Civil War. He and the other volunteers of his regiment, many of them recent immigrants living in Cleveland, answered President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union and later to end slavery. By the end of the war in 1865, 214 of them had given their lives in what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” These are among the people we commemorate on Memorial Day.

More than one million Americans have died in the nation’s wars, with the fratricidal Civil War being the most destructive. Decoration Day began while the war was still raging to honor those who died to save the Union and was eventually renamed Memorial Day to include all those lost on distant battlefields throughout United States history. Flags and flowers are placed on the graves of the fallen today, just as they were over 150 years ago.

As the school year ends and summer break approaches, let us remember those who gave everything to preserve our rights, including our personal freedoms and the right to a safe community and quality public education. On this Memorial Day weekend, may we dedicate our own lives to the continued preservation of those rights for all Americans.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Harvey Milk Day

Sporting a rainbow bow tie and vintage campaign button for Harvey Milk Day. The rainbow flag was designed as a symbol of LGBT pride by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker (1951-2017) in 1978, the same year Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall. Photo copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.

Harvey Milk Day was declared a special commemorative day in California public schools by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and has since been recognized across the country and the world as a day to recognize America’s premier LGBT civil rights figure. Milk was born on May 22, 1930 and assassinated on November 27, 1978. He was America’s first openly gay public official and called for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to come out of the shadows and assert their rights as equal members of our society.

I remember well the day Harvey Milk was killed. I was a senior in high school in southern California and had several gay friends and classmates, many of whom had not yet made the decision to come out to their families. There was rampant homophobia throughout the country at that time and my U.S. history class did not include the contributions of LGBT Americans. When I became a history teacher 20 years later, I did what I could to correct that error in my classes. I included LGBT history in my curriculum and made sure my students learned about Harvey Milk on May 22.

June 28 this year will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which later led to the first Pride parades across the country. The San Diego Pride Parade takes place in the famous Hillcrest neighborhood near where I live and promises to be the largest in the city’s history. While homophobia and hate crimes continue to mar our national life, prominent legal victories and the election of many openly LGBT public officials have paved the way for a new generation of activists and leaders. Harvey Milk once said that “hope will never be silent.” May all of us raise our voices of hope in support of full civil rights for all people.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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San Diego at 250

Historical marker at Presidio Park in San Diego, California. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Two and a half centuries ago today, on May 17, 1769, a party of Spaniards led by Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of San Diego in the hills above the bay first sighted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Portola’s fortified camp was followed a few months later by the first of 21 Franciscan missions, called San Diego de Alcala by Father Junipero Serra.

The Spanish were eager to establish a foothold on the west coast of North America in the vast and rich land they would later call Alta California. Their conquest of the local indigenous people was efficient and ruthless. The Kumeyaay and other native tribes were driven off by the soldiers or baptized and put to work by the friars, and by the 1820s a small Spanish-speaking adobe settlement had been built at the foot of the hill where the mission stood. By the time California was admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850, this pueblo of 650 people had been incorporated as the city of San Diego.

This has led many to consider San Diego the “birthplace of California.” Annexation by the United States and the Gold Rush began a century of astronomical population growth, and by 1962 California had become the most populous of the 50 states. The Golden State today boasts the widest ethnic diversity of any state, including the largest Hispanic and Asian American communities, and California’s economy is now the fifth largest on earth. Summer 2019 will see many celebrations commemorating San Diego’s role in the origins of this great success story.

The original pueblo at the bottom of the mission hill is now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, maintained and administered by the State of California since 1968. For several of the past 50 years, it has been the most visited of the 280 sites in the California State Park System. Its Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead festivals are among the largest in the United States. Old Town’s 27 restored historic buildings highlight the settlement’s 19th century history and are surrounded by scores of popular restaurants and shops.

Naturally, an honest appraisal of California history must include its darker side. San Diego’s story in particular includes many shameful chapters. In addition to the decimation of local Native American peoples by disease, warfare, and subjugation, the Spanish-speaking Californio families who formed the original community were soon marginalized by the English-speaking newcomers. “Old Town” was eventually eclipsed by the “New Town” of downtown San Diego along the bay side waterfront, notorious for shady business deals, a vibrant red light district called “Stingaree,” and a succession of corrupt politicians.

Then came the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier. San Diegans and thousands of visitors were welcomed to the newly completed Balboa Park with its grand Spanish colonial architecture and lush gardens. Twenty years later, the California-Pacific International Exposition was held in Balboa Park to boost morale during the Great Depression. By then San Diego had become a vacation destination and tourism had grown into a major local industry. A thriving tuna business and active military bases led to further development and new communities.

The burgeoning shipping and aviation industries grew exponentially overnight with the coming of World War II. San Diego became the civilian and military port and base of operations for the war in the Pacific. Many who arrived during the war decided to stay afterwards and contribute to the city’s growth. By the end of the 20th century, San Diego had become California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the country. Today the city is host to many new and exciting industries, resurgent historic neighborhoods, and a metropolitan population of more than three million.

San Diego’s story set the pace for the growth of California, as California did for the nation as a whole. Despite a high cost of living, a struggling public school system, unresolved immigration issues, and continuing economic inequities, there is still much to celebrate this summer. California represents the land of promise for thousands of newcomers who arrive each day, and the state government in Sacramento has made valiant efforts to expand public health care and other social programs to reach more of the state’s 40 million people.

I have called California home since 1977. In those four decades I have lived in Long Beach, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Orange County, and many other places before moving to San Diego last summer. Over the years I moved to other states for a brief time, but the excitement, beauty, and opportunity of California always brought me back. The Golden State has led the way in the emergence of our diverse, entrepreneurial, digital, global society. I am pleased to be here in the place where it all began 250 years ago.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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