By the late 1980s, there were enough writers and would-be writers in the East Bay that the idea of locating a branch of the California Writers Club in Contra Costa County made sense.
Some people were already at work creating what would become the nucleus of a new CWC branch. Berkeley Branch members Bobbie Davis, Shyrle Hacker, and Ted Fuller decided the new branch should be centered in Pleasant Hill. At the same time, Helen McGrath, one of the charter members of the Mount Diablo Branch, remembers starting three different informal writers groups. One met in her home in the evening, one met during the day in various members’ homes, and one met on a Saturday in a restaurant. Meetings often included a speaker as well as a critique of members’ work.
By 1987, the members of these informal groups decided to do the hard work of organizing an official branch. The first organizational meeting was held on January 7, 1987 with seven people in attendance. The Branch Charter was authorized on June 6, 1987, with 14 people named on the document. These included: Beverly Lauderdale, Maureen Biro, Virginia Jones, Helen McGrath, Sheryl Hacker, and Betty Tenney (if anyone knows the names of the other 8 signators, please email us with this information).
Although the charter wasn’t authorized until June, the Contra Costa Times reported that the group was actively seeking members in an article dated March 31, 1987. The article featured president Mary Anne Dolan, as well as the authors who would be speaking at the general meeting—Irma Ruth Walker (Air Force Wives) and Edward F. Dolan, Jr. (no relation to Mary). Sidebar articles described the history of the state-wide California Writers Club and advertised the fifth-grade writing contest for students in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Although the contest was sponsored by the Berkeley Branch, the newly formed Mt. Diablo Branch supported the contest.
From the very beginning, a spirit of generosity and service has been a hallmark of the Mt. Diablo Branch. Members have run workshops for the branch, including Penny Warner and Camille Minichino with their Mystery Writers workshops. Penny also lead an intensive mystery writers workshop at one of the CWC seminars at Asilomar.
Some of the founders of the group are still active members. Two common threads in their stories are being brought to the group by a mentor, and being put to work immediately. Maureen Biro was brought in by Mary Anne Dolan, another charter member. She was also asked to run for office, became Vice President of the club, and served on the board for eight years.
Aside from the personal outreach of mentors, the club has been heavily involved in public outreach. From 1992 to 2006, the Mount Diablo Branch sponsored an annual event called California Authors Night. Ted Fuller started the event, and for years it was held at the Old Schoolhouse Theater in Pleasant Hill. He hired actors as well as volunteer branch members. Ted and Beverly Lauderdale performed in many productions, but Ted claims that Pat Edwards holds the record with eight performances. It was a great venue—sort of an old time theater for classic authors. The list of authors featured includes Mary Austin, Herb Caen, M.F.K. Fisher, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, Kathleen Norris, Eugene O’Neill, William Saroyan and Jessamyn West.
Proceeds from California Authors Night supported another branch outreach effort, the Young Writers Contest. Joan Brennan began the contest in 1995. Children’s author Liz Koehler-Pentacoff assumed responsibility for the program in 2006. She manages the contest and an affiliated low-cost writing workshop for area middle-school students. The contest is open to students in both public and private schools. Young writers can enter stories, essays, and poems. The winners are presented with framed certificates and cash prizes at the club’s May banquet meeting.
The club has also sponsored writing contests for adult writers. These contests are open to non-members, as well as members.
In earlier years, the statewide CWC held a biennial conference at Asilomar. One year the Mount Diablo Branch did the critiquing for the conference and put a note in each manuscript that it would offer critiquing services the following year for a charge. This was done as a fund raiser, since the branch was essentially out of funds. During the following year, branch members critiqued manuscripts in their own genre specialty, and the branch regained solvency.
Mount Diablo Branch members worked hard and decided to reward themselves. Aside from providing critique groups, workshops, and outstanding monthly speakers, the club decided to hold lunch meetings from the very beginning. Virgie Jones, another charter member, remembers exploring a string of restaurants throughout the years. Sometimes the club outgrew the facilities; sometimes competition with other large events crowded out the meetings. This was especially true of meetings held in places that were popular for wedding receptions. Sometimes, however, the club was reminded of the laws of economics. Virgie remembers, “We met in several places that we closed.”
Into the Future
The Mount Diablo Branch began its history with a small group of dedicated writers, but has since grown to over 150 members. True to its own origins, the club has been instrumental in spinning off a thriving writing group further east in the Livermore-Amador Valley. Jack Russ and Susan Tasker spearheaded the effort to found the Tri Valley Writers club. Tri-Valley Writers began in 2005, and was chartered as the California Writers’ Club, Tri Valley Branch, on July 23, 2006.