Joe Mathews: To be a California saint, best not be too saintly

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Cesar Chavez’s widow, Helen F. Chavez, places a red rose at his gravesite in Keene in 2012.
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Cesar Chavez’s widow, Helen F. Chavez, places a red rose at his gravesite in Keene in 2012. Associated Press file

Let’s say your New Year’s resolution is to be not just a better Californian, but a great one. You seek to be a secular California saint, so revered that your name is attached to squares and schools. What should be your path?

As it happens, three of the best books I read last year were biographies of such people – best-selling adventurer-writer Jack London (1876-1916); legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (1910-2010); and farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), whose birthday is a state holiday.

Taken together, these very different biographies (“Jack London: An American Life” by Earle Labor; “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” by Seth Davis; and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” by Miriam Pawel) make a clear case for how you achieve serious acclaim in California.

In this state, sainthood is not for the saintly. “Nice guys throughout the ages have done very little for humanity,” Chavez said, according to Pawel.

London, the writer, drank himself to death at 40. Wooden didn’t let his high principles get in the way of winning, looking the other way as a developer gave his players perks that violated NCAA rules. Chavez repaid the loyalty of people in the farmworker movement with paranoid purges and forced participation in a bizarre encounter-group game Chavez learned from a cult.

It’s not that the flaws of such men didn’t matter. It’s that their flaws were closely connected to their successes. The relentlessness that allowed these men to succeed also made it easy for them to confuse fact and fiction.

London sold the world an image of himself as a picture of rigor and health, even though he was quite sickly. Among the myths Chavez created was that he had launched the United Farm Workers on his own birthday, which became an official union holiday. Many of Wooden’s stories of sportsmanship were apocryphal, writes Davis: “The myth overtook the man.”

Of course, myth isn’t enough for California statehood. You need to have won often. Wooden won a record 10 national championships in 12 years. The reach and acclaim of London’s books will be difficult for any one author to ever surpass. Chavez’s victories for workers are still important models for today’s organizers, and the landmark California agricultural labor law he championed remains on the books.

All three men benefited from early success that attracted disciples who could promote their successes. London was a prize-winning author by the age of 17. Wooden was an All-American player at Purdue. Chavez was identified at a young age, after successful work in San Jose and Oxnard, as a genius at empowering poor people.

These early victories seemed all the more impressive because they were achieved by men of humble origins. London spent his boyhood delivering papers, hauling ice, setting up bowling alley pins and working in a factory. Wooden’s father lost his farm to foreclosure, and his older sister died before her fourth birthday. Chavez grew up in a farmworker family and dropped out of school after eighth grade.

Did these backgrounds fuel all three men? Each worked so obsessively hard that it led to serious health problems.

But California sainthood isn’t just about work and achievement. Each man became iconic because he represented a powerful idea that challenged the prevailing winds.

London embodied, through his books, the idea of adventure – and a socialist protest against an industrial society. Chavez was the epitome of the David-vs.-Goliath struggle of workers for rights and respect. Wooden, whose greatest successes came in the 1960s and ’70s, was a conservative counter-example of squeaky-clean Midwestern teamwork.

This hard fact – that sainthood requires ideology – deserves more attention today, when the most powerful among us argue that true greatness comes from rising above ideology and instead embracing data-driven pragmatism. This mistaken realism may be one reason why California isn’t making new saints these days.

Did any one of these three men even believe in saints? Does it matter?

London, an atheist, wrote: “I believe that when I am dead, I am dead. I believe that with my death I am just as much obliterated as the last mosquito you and I squashed.” I suspect that wherever he is now, Saint Jack – and Saint John and Saint Cesar – know better.

Joe Mathews is Innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.