One of the finest ladies in Kern County, a woman whose life spanned almost a century, left us recently with the passing of Alice Rankin Beard, 97, on Feb. 1 at her home on the historic Lightner Ranch in Walker Basin. Alice was a gifted artist, cattlewoman, former high school teacher and a mother of four whose charm, intelligence and love for life were undimmed after more than nine decades.
Alice remained active until the very end of her days, continuing to play bridge in Bakersfield twice a month with a group who included Mary Etta Smith, a woman with whom Alice had been friends since they were classmates in 1927. An inspired watercolor artist, Alice was still painting two days before her passing. Alice belonged to many civic groups and her regular attendance was welcomed, for she was always one of the most delightful people in the room.
Alice was born on April 9, 1915, in the little Kern County hamlet of Isabella in the Kern River Valley. The small community provided the name for Isabella Lake but the townsite itself was obliterated by lake waters when the dam was completed in 1952. Alice and her sister Raechel were raised by their parents, Walker and Mary Rankin, on what the family called the Lower Ranch, near where Paradise Cove is today.
Alice and Raechel's father was one of six sons born to Walker and Lavinia Rankin, who established the venerable Rankin Ranch in Walker Basin. Lavinia was a Lightner whose family had actually arrived in the Basin a few years before Walker Rankin, and Lavinia and Walker were married in 1868 in front of a lilac bush at the Lightner Ranch.
Alice and Raechel attended the little two-room South Fork Elementary School near Weldon, and they'd catch the bus each day near the Bloomfield Ranch. About half the students at South Fork Elementary were Tubatulabal Indian children and throughout her life Alice maintained her friendships with Tubatulabal and Kawaiisu descendents. She was the godmother of Kawaiisu tribal members Luther, Betty and Lucille Girado and she provided them with clothes and Christmas gifts as they were growing up.
When Alice was in fourth grade and Raechel was in second grade, her father's brother Ned passed away at a young age, so the family moved back to Walker Basin to live where Ned had been, on the original Lightner Ranch owned by Alice's grandparents. The tiny school in Walker Basin had just one teacher whose only students were her own children. "My Dad thought we'd get a better education down the hill, so he bought a house in Bakersfield not far from Bakersfield High (which was known as Kern Union High School at the time)," Alice explains. "We'd stay at the Bakersfield house during the week and come home each Friday. Every Sunday about 4 o'clock, my stomach would begin to churn because I knew I had to leave the ranch and go back to Bakersfield." Alice loved the family ranch and her life in the Basin, and it was always an adjustment having to return to the city.
Alice and Raechel were great friends with their cousins Billy and Leroy, who were the sons of Lee and Julia Rankin. Once the four of them decided to try smoking. The girls collected some discarded cigarette butts in front of the Onyx Store from which they could salvage some tobacco and the boys came up with matches and rolling papers. They slipped away and were sitting in a row on Tank House Hill at the Rankin Ranch, and had just gotten four fine cigarettes rolled when Alice's Aunt Julia suddenly appeared. Aunt Julia went down the row, slapping each of the four cousins across the face and knocking their cigarettes away, thus ending Alice's smoking career before it started.
Alice graduated from Kern Union High School (now Bakersfield High) in 1935, then went to Bakersfield College and after graduating from there went to UCLA. Herman Spence, the Kern County High School principal at the time, told Alice that if she got a degree, he'd give her a job. Spence was gone when Alice graduated from UCLA in 1939 with a degree in Physical Education, but he had told his successor, Dr. Nelson, about the offer and it was honored, so Alice became one of 12 P.E. teachers and coaches at the high school. She taught the kids hockey, volleyball, baseball, dancing, swimming, tennis and more. "My degree was in Physical Education so I had to take subjects like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology," Alice says, "It would have been more useful to learn more practical knowledge, like bookkeeping or how to back up a horse trailer."
Among Alice's students was my mother, Winifred Hand Hurst, and she always told me how fond all the students were of Alice -- she was my mother's favorite teacher. Throughout her long and blessed life, Alice was a favorite, whether it was as a friend, cousin, aunt, teacher, neighbor, etc, Alice was always a favorite. She had the kind of bright, compassionate, upbeat nature that made people feel better about life and humanity -- Alice was the antidote to a bad day or a little depression or self-pity.
One of the groups to which Alice belonged was the Golden Girls of Kern Valley, which is composed of women who lived in the Kern Valley area but had to attend high school in Bakersfield because there wasn't a high school in KV. These ladies get together for lunch once a month, and until my mother moved from Kern County a few years ago because of declining health, friends would be amazed that in her 80s my Ma continued to have lunch once a month with her high school P.E. teacher.
When she was teaching, Alice met a young Army Air Force flight instructor named Bob Beard, who quickly became hooked on the pretty schoolteacher. "He used to fly up by the ranch with another pilot flying alongside on either wing, and they'd strafe the Basin," Alice says. "Horses would bolt, cattle would run, chickens would fly. . . My Dad wasn't too impressed." The young couple decided to get married and were planning to go to Portland, Oregon, where Bob's Dad was a minister. "My father was the world's quietest man, he never said anything, and he asked my mother 'Why doesn't she get married here?" so we decided we'd better get married at the ranch," Alice told me. "So we got out the brooms and started sweeping down the cobwebs to have a wedding at the ranch. If you were an Army Air Force pilot you needed a Ford convertible, and Bob had one, so he and I, my mother and father, two kids who were visiting from Los Angeles and two dogs all jumped in that convertible and started driving around the Basin to invite neighbors to the wedding. Each place we went to, the dogs would jump out and start fighting with the dogs at the other ranches and the kids would be hollering. . . it's a wonder Bob went through with it."
Alice and Bob were married in August, 1941 in front of the same lilac bush (now a tree, really) where her grandparents were married in 1868. It must be good luck -- the lilac bush has now been the scene of 11 family weddings, only one of which ended in divorce. The young couple began running cattle in Walker Basin with Alice's father, and Bob worked as a flight instructor at War Eagle Field in Lancaster, so they lived there until 1946 when Bob got out of the service and the family moved back to the Basin. They had four children: Robbie, John, Walker (known as "Wick") and Mary Lou. "When I used to go wake up the baby, I'd say 'Missy Kissy Kissy Coo!' and so we started calling her 'Coosie,' which we still do," Alice explained.
The Beards stayed at the Lightner Ranch until 1971, when they entered into a cattle-raising partnership with Joe Mendiburu and moved to a ranch, the Double U, near El Paso, Texas for the next 25 years. Alice helped run the cattle operation, especially when Bob's health declined after his two packs of Camels a day habit gave him emphysema. Alice also took up watercolors, and became a very talented painter. The Beards returned to Walker Basin in 1995 and Bob passed away at their home on the Lightner Ranch in 1996.
I used to frequently encounter Alice and her lovely sister Raechel at Kern County gatherings, and these two graceful women were always a pleasure. Alice was a regular reader of this column and she even used a few of my photos for reference in her watercolors. My life has been made better for having known and loved Alice Rankin Beard, and I know that there are hundreds of people who feel the same way that I do, for Alice was like the Queen Mother of Kern County. None who knew her will forget her.
Have a good week.
JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to: email@example.com.