When American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury died June 5 at the age of 91, his passing was mourned not only by fans and friends the world over, but also by a loyal cadre of Eastern Sierra residents and local graduates who are feeling the loss on a personal level.
Widely known and acclaimed as the author of 27 novels and more than 600 short stories, Bradbury was also a friend to the Owens Valley – sharing a mutual admiration and affection for its people as well as an appreciation for its wild places.
Bradbury in particular is credited with helping to inspire and enthrall an entire generation of young Owens Valley writers and science-fictions fans through his visits to Bishop schools and lectures at the local library over the course of about 30 years.
Those visits began in 1977, and, as retired educator and Bishop Union High School vice principal Mary Franke explained, came about almost serendipitously.
According to Franke, she hadn’t been vice principal long when Betty Denton, president of the school board, informed her in no uncertain terms that she would be expected to get “good speakers” to address the student body.
Franke said she was wondering where she would find the kind of speakers the school board was seeking when she noticed a copy of one of Bradbury’s most celebrated works, “Fahrenheit 451,” on her desk.
As she scanned the book’s first pages, she located a number she suspected to belong to the publisher, who could pitch the idea of a talk to the author. To her surprise, Franke said, the next words she heard were, “Ray Bradbury speaking …”
“I nearly fainted,” Franke said. “And I will never understand why Ray Bradbury’s number was in that book.”
Franke made her pitch, and Bradbury was receptive – despite the fact he didn’t know where Bishop was, the engagement was at least five hours away and he didn’t drive, and the details of his compensation had yet to be worked out.
But he agreed, Franke said, probably because the speaking engagement involved youth.
“He loved kids and he was so happy to see things done to benefit them,” she said.
Franke and her late husband Lou, who was the same age as Bradbury, headed to Los Angeles in their non-air-conditioned car to bring the author, who never obtained a driver’s license, to the Owens Valley.
Franke said Lou regaled Bradbury with a description of every mountain and point of interest along U.S. 395 as they made their way to the Eastern Sierra, stopping in Lone Pine where some friends made them lunch.
“By the time we got to Bishop, he was so enthralled with the beauty of the area and the kindness of the people,” Franke said.
Franke said Bradbury was even more impressed by the students who greeted him at the high school.
“Teachers had prepared their classes for his lecture on ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and other of his works, which impressed him,” Franke said,
Over the next three decades, he made the pilgrimage to Bishop several times to speak to local students and take in the scenic beauty, developing close friendships here with theFrankes and other residents. His lectures were expanded to include students from Home Street Middle School, and were held at the Bishop branch of the Inyo County Free Library.
Following one of his appearances in Bishop, Bradbury sent a letter to Franke, expressing gratitude towards the well-mannered local students, and appreciation of the residents he met here and the beauty of the area.
“I have many fantastic memories of all of you,” Bradbury wrote. “The kindness on various occasions by the Zach family and that visiting professor who had the head of a mummy in his possession and passed it around among us and my travels up your way on one occasion when, at sunset, the cloud formations over Bishop were twisted into strange convolutions by the wind. And I especially remember the young boy who came up to me following my lecture and handed me a cartoon at which time I said, ‘Did you draw this while I was lecturing?’ His response: ‘No, while I was listening.’ What a wonderful response. I shall remember that forever.”
In a different letter, Bradbury wrote to Franke about a student, Billie, who, in seventh grade in 1994, was able to point out a typo in a copy of “Fahrenheit 451.”
Franke said she remembers the student and Bradbury talking to each other after one his library lectures for at least 15 minutes. It’s something Franke said she’ll never forget.
Both Bradbury and his New York publisher sent thank you letters to the student for bringing the error to their attention.
“Ray Bradbury, the great science-fiction writer, was a truly kind, generous person that never forgot his humble beginnings,” Franke said. “He enjoyed the time spent with the students, who reciprocated and responded to his lectures with great enthusiasm.”
The students loved Bradbury’s visits so much, the teachers were able to organize a field trip to Southern California to see a play based on Bradbury’s famed story “The Martian Chronicles.”
And when Bradbury had to cancel his last scheduled visit in 1999 due to a stroke, he opened his home to Franke and several local students, giving them a rare glimpse of his basement office, where he composed his works.
“Ray Bradbury and I were friends and I shall miss him,” Franke said. “Indeed, Bishop has lost a friend, for Ray never forgot the time he spent here.”
Born Aug. 22, 1920, Bradbury died in Los Angeles after a “lengthy illness.” Coincidentally, the science- fiction, fantasy and horror writer died during a rare transit of Venus across the sun.
His most notable works include “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as well as a treasure-trove of short stories that are included in school curriculum across the nation.