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10 Decades of Life and Law

Former judge and Riverside CA community leader John G. Gabbert turns 100

<p>I'm getting so many cakes, I don't know if I'm going to be able to tell when it really is my birthday!</p>

With his 100th birthday approaching, John G. Gabbert was seated in the study of his Riverside home, discussing when various schools were built in Riverside -- during the '80s and '90s.

It gave pause to the listener. He was talking about the 1800s.

Gabbert, who was 3 years old when he came with his family from Oxnard to Riverside in 1912, turns 100 on June 20, 2009.

He has been a lawyer, a judge, and appellate justice and community leader in the region for all his adult life. Several celebrations and observances have been held this month to mark Gabbert's century.

He was honored with proclamations by the Riverside City Council and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. His Calvary Presbyterian Church congregation hosted a gathering for him on Wednesday.

He spoke to a graduating class at his Riverside Community College alma mater. Gabbert was 1929 student body class president.

He was also honored by the Citizen's University Committee, of which he was a founding member. The group was formed to bring a University of California campus to Riverside. After it succeeded, it became a support group for the university.

He was honored by the Riverside County Bar Association — He is a past president of the organization.

"I'm getting so many cakes I don't know if I'm going to be able to tell when it really is my birthday," he said.

His biggest celebration comes Saturday, June 20, when the John G. Gabbert Judicial Plaza in downtown Riverside's justice center will be dedicated in his honor.

Attendees will include members of the legal community and Gabbert's three children, along with grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. His wife, Katherine, died in 1999.

There is longevity in Gabbert's family. His mother died at age 90 and his grandmother lived to be 104. Gabbert made it through the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. He was a special agent for the Army's Criminal Investigation Division in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, looking into GI black market activities in the Philippines. On two occasions, someone shot at the investigators. "Luckily, we survived."

Riverside Roots

His family arrived in town in a 1910 Buick. He recalls horses and buggies on Riverside's Main Street, trolleys along Brockton Avenue and Pacific Electric trains on Magnolia Avenue that ran to Corona.

He gave up his driver's license on his 99th birthday. He likes Saab cars and also ripped around on motorcycles. His other avocation was amateur radio;, he has talked to people all over the world.

Arguments in his court became the inspiration for passages in Perry Mason books authored by Temecula resident Erle Stanley Gardner. Gabbert has donated his collection of the books, signed by the author, to the library at UC Riverside.

His father, J.R. Gabbert, purchased the Riverside Enterprise newspaper and became its editor and publisher.

As a boy he worked in his father's print shop, and learned to read the metal type set in blocks upside down and backwards.

Late in his 99th year, he reads The New York Times on a Kindle book reader.

Northcott murders

The Gabbert Plaza is between the Hall of Justice criminal courts building and the 1903 Historic Courthouse.

It was there that Gabbert, while an RCC student, went with two friends to watch proceedings in the infamous Northcott "chicken coop murders" trial.

"It was the Manson case of its day; It was a terrible, terrible case," Gabbert recalled. "Serial killings and sexual attacks on small boys who had been kidnapped and then murdered by Gordon Stewart Northcott" on an isolated farm in what is now Mira Loma. Northcott was convicted and executed for the crimes.

Watching the trial "kind of got me all hyped up about law school," he said.

Gabbert got his bachelor's degree at Occidental College in 1931 where he was a debate team award winner, then went to Duke University School of Law 1931-32 and transferred to UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall.

"Got out in '34, passed the bar that year, came back here and starved to death," Gabbert said. He believes 1934 was the worst year of The Great Depression. "Absolutely the bottom of the hole."

Gabbert hung a shingle for a year with another young attorney, Don Adams, but in 1936 he was hired as a Riverside County deputy district attorney. It was a staff of four deputies, and they handled civil as well as criminal matters, he said. The pay was $125 a month.

"I kind of rode the outlying district: Blythe to Temecula and Murrieta and all of the Coachella Valley. It was a great experience," he said.

He said there were 14 to 18 justice courts scattered throughout the county. Most were run by nonattorney lay judges, "and a big percentage of them held court in the parlor of their home.

"I recall two jury trials I had in Bergman Township, up in the Santa Rosa Mountains, just about as remote a place as you could find in California in those days, with a single-lane dirt road," he said.

"I think about half of the jurors actually rode to court on horseback. And a lot of them were carrying six-shooters. Judge [James] Wellman, who was an old-time cattle rancher up there. ... He took the guns away from everybody and put them on the bed in his bedroom ."

Bergman Township disappeared in 1939, when it consolidated with Hemet Township.

Gabbert quit the prosecutor's office in 1938, married Katherine Fuller, and joined the Riverside law firm of Best and Best, which would become Best, Best, Gabbert and Krieger, and then Best Best & Krieger after Gabbert left .

While with the law firm, Gabbert was appointed a Riverside police judge which he served as from 1941 to 1943, when he enlisted in the Army.

After WWII

He returned to the law firm after the war. Already active in civic matters, he was appointed to the Riverside Unified School District board in late 1946 to fill a vacancy left when a member was appointed to a judgeship. In 1949, he was named president of the board.

That same year, Gov. Earl Warren appointed Gabbert to a judgeship. It was a new judicial position and Gabbert became the fourth Superior Court judge for the county. He served as presiding judge during his tenure.

He was a founding member of the Citizens University Committee in 1950. He served as president of many organizations, including the YMCA, Riverside Lions Club, Riverside Junior Chamber of Commerce, Riverside County Bar Association and Riverside Unified School Board.

Helping Youth

Gabbert didn't confine his judgeship to the bench — in the 1950s and '60s, he saw trends about juvenile delinquency that alarmed him, and he took those concerns to the community in speeches to civic groups.

In 1961, he urged more outdoor activity, combined with conservation education, as a way to keep young people out of trouble. His observations were based on his experience as a juvenile court judge.

"What we need to do is step out of our artificial life into the real one, to learn to be moved by nature, to experience the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from being a part of nature. That is something that is more than mere passing pleasure," he told a Town Hall audience in Idyllwild.

In 1970, Gov. Ronald Reagan nominated him for associate justice of the 4th District Court of Appeal, based then in San Bernardino. He received wide support and was elevated to the court.

He retired from the bench in 1974, and remained active in the community. In 1978 he joined a volunteer group mediating complaints of senior citizens.

While he has seen technology such as electronics and air travel evolve from curiosities to indispensable parts of life, there was also social change.

"When I was a kid, if you were black, you couldn't swim in the pool except on Friday at Fairmount Park. It was a public pool -- owned by the city. They put fresh water in the pool Friday at midnight....that caused quite a bit of confusion and resentment, and it was wrong, of course," Gabbert recalled.

The first solution was no better -- a separate facility for African-Americans at Lincoln Park, Gabbert said. But eventually segregation "broke down, and things became as they should have been."

© 2009 Press-Enterprise Company