In February 1939, The Desert Sun recorded that BF Shearer arrived from Seattle and headed straight for the links. It was reported that he could be seen daily at the O’Donnell Golf Course with Tom O’Donnell himself.
Benjamin Franklin Shearer deserved a diversion; he was an impressive businessman and was very dedicated to civic causes like his namesake. Shearer’s adoption of the desert as a second home was fortunate, as his presence benefited the entire community.
Shearer’s early career as a traveling salesman taught him the individuality of West Coast towns. He developed his own highly specialized business outfitting movie palaces with their fabulous venues and customizing designs to suit the venues. (Many of the theaters he designed are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) He outfitted theaters across the country with rows of cushioned seats, projection equipment, huge movie screens, curtains tasselled, fancy wallpaper, decorative statues, ornate columns with carved capitals, plush carpeting and everything you need.
The best biography of Shearer to be found is contained in Steve Vaught’s excellent history of the Committee of 25. Abbreviated “Co25”, it was, and still is, a private club located north of the golf course O’ Donnell in Palm Springs. Some thought the club was purely social, others wanted to emphasize civic duty.
Vaught writes, “Events at the Committee of Twenty-Five Club followed the same pattern of family dinners every Thursday, private parties hosted by members, and stag lunches with distinguished guests.” But Shearer’s inauguration as chairman would mark a most exciting chapter for the club and for the desert as a whole. Shearer was hugely well-liked and incredibly energetic and would serve longer than any other Co25 chairman, a full decade from 1957 to 1967. Under his leadership the club would embrace both social and civic goals.
A winter resident of the desert since the late 1930s, Shearer was one of many Co25 members hailing from the Pacific Northwest. Shearer went from selling fixtures and equipment to owning a chain of movie theaters throughout the region. Beginning in the 1950s, Shearer combined his passion for golf with business, becoming a West Coast distributor of the pioneering Autoette electric Golfmobile.
Adding golf carts to his business portfolio made special sense in the desert, as he not only pursued the game with boundless enthusiasm, but was a tireless promoter of its development in Palm Springs. When the O’Donnell Golf Course was turned over to its members, Shearer was appointed as the first trustee. According to Vaught, he was also actively involved in the establishment of the Tamarisk and Thunderbird Country Clubs. An inveterate carpenter, Shearer was a member of seven separate clubs in the Coachella Valley and several others in the Seattle area.
In the 1930s, Shearer found a kindred spirit in French “Papa” and for about three decades the couple were at the forefront of desert golf and civic improvement. In addition to founding the Desert Invitational Golf Tournament with Tom O’Donnell, Shearer and French also established the Palms Springs Senior Golf Association. There was virtually no aspect of the golf business untouched by these dynamic boosters who were invariably the center of tournaments, social gatherings, award ceremonies and celebrations.
One of the most enjoyable annual events at Co25 for many years was the annual “75th Anniversary” party held in honor of the French. The story goes that when he reached his 75th birthday, he decided not to go any further, and from then on he would celebrate his 75th birthday “anniversary” every year. From the initial milestone in 1951 and over the next decade and a half, there would be a gala evening attended by French’s countless closest friends. “A look at the faces of the distinguished guests,” wrote the “Villager” in his report on French’s ninth 75th birthday celebration in 1960, “it was evident that ‘beloved’ was precisely the sentiment that these men were siring for the guest of honor.”
Vaught writes: “Every year, French was showered with praise and gifts from his friends. On one occasion, Charles Lindeman, venerable editor of the ‘Seattle Post Intelligencer’ even wrote a poem in honor of dad. On another ‘birthday’, Ben Shearer surprised his great friend by telling him to look out the window of the clubhouse where a new, custom-built electric Golfmobile Autoette was waiting for him.” Even Bob Hope looked at him with envy”, observed the “Villager”.
French, who was revered in his hometown of San Francisco and was one of the largest dealers of Dodge automobiles on the West Coast, died peacefully in 1965 a few months after celebrating his 14th “75th birthday”.
When French died, Shearer assumed the presidency of the O’Donnell Golf Club and as such thought he should retire from the Co25, but the club convinced him to continue. For another two years, he juggled the two positions, just as his best friend had done ten years before him. Under Shearer’s energetic leadership, the Co25 continued to grow, increasing its membership limit from 60 to 70 prominent citizens, and the golf club also flourished.
Throughout the 1960s, Family Night dinner parties became so popular that they began to seriously tax the club’s resources, prompting serious discussion about holding them twice a week to accommodate the crowds. Shearer was proud of the success, telling members: “We have an unrivaled reputation for fine, friendly and courteous service and the best in food. We have been told many times that our food and service is the best of all United States”.
Under the skillful and gracious leadership of Santos de Jesus, Co25 operations ran like clockwork. Only on rare occasions has there been some kind of glitch. “I noticed with great regret and some displeasure”, Shearer was to inform Santos in 1967, “that some staff smoked during duty hours…” There is no doubt that Shearer never had need to make that comment again.
Although the internal Co25 debate of social affairs versus civic betterment continued under Shearer, an event in the 1960s proved that the two goals were not always incompatible, with the creation of Pathfinder Ranch through the good offices of several members.
Shearer founded and served as president of the Home Owner’s League. For decades, the league has harassed the city council to properly provide for residents. They raised funds for palm trees, lighting, the municipal golf course and park beautification projects. Additionally, they became a serious political force, lobbying against unnecessary taxes, reviewing proposed assessment districts, and foiling a planned cement plant north of the city.
On March 31, 1967, at the club’s annual meeting, an emotional Shearer bade farewell to his decade-long chairmanship of the Committee of Twenty-Five. “I am truly dedicated to serving our small club. I have always sought to conduct the affairs of our club, under the guidance of the board, and to maintain the friendly atmosphere that has prevailed,” he said. declared to the members. “It has been an honor and a privilege to have served as your president.” Shearer received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Memories Thanks column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected].