By Mark Gutglueck
(February 16) Raymond Pryke, the feisty land baron turned newspaper publisher whose longevity transformed him into the Old Lion of the High Desert, has died. He was 91.
There were multiple stages to Pryke’s life. Nearly any single one of those would rival the life experience of others. He held citizenship in three countries on two continents and briefly resided on a third, and learned to speak Spanish when he was in his late twenties.
The son of an Anglican minister, Ray was born in Elmstead Parish, County of Essex, England on May 3, 1923. His father was the rector of the Medieval Parish Church of St Anne & St. Laurence in Elmstead, and his family circumstance vantaged him with a close perspective on the British upper crust with which he was both at home and at odds his entire life. While he learned to take advantage of the opportunity of privilege, he remained until the last highly critical of “the big shots” and the political elite.
The abdication of Edward VIII when he was thirteen, a spectacle that emphasized the monarch’s utter disregard and distaste for convention, left a lasting impression on him.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Pryke defied the wishes of his parents by misrepresenting by some nine months his actual birth date to join the British Home Guard. The gallantry of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in 1940 captured his imagination and, at 18, he enlisted in the RAF. He was never given the opportunity to fly a Spitfire, however, and while yet a cadet was instead sent, via the Queen Mary, across the Atlantic to America. Disembarking in New York, he was put on a train to Texas. Arriving near Armadillo, he was given extensive flight training on the American-made F-4, which was to soon become a standby aircraft with the British Naval Air Force, flying from British aircraft carriers after the Lend-Lease agreement with the United States was forged. It was during that first trip to America, with his sudden immersion in American culture, that Ray became infatuated with the land in which he would live during the last sixty years of his life.
After flight training and being fully checked out on the F-4, he returned to England, and was soon flying from air bases along the British coast, patrolling over the English Channel, ranging as far as the coast of France and the Netherlands before having to return to his base owing to the relatively limited range of the aircraft he was flying.
On one of these missions, Pryke was later fond of recalling, he had flown straightway toward the Low Countries. He had just entered the air space over the Netherlands, and was cruising at a speed approaching 350 miles an hour when seemingly out of nowhere in front of him was a Messerschmitt coming directly at him at a like speed. As both planes were at the same altitude and coming head on toward one another, each pilot was obliged to veer right to avoid colliding. As the planes passed each other less than 50 feet away, Ray caught fleeting sight of the German pilot at the controls of the other craft. In that fraction of a second Pryke was able to make an instantaneous size up of his rival, who was equally as young as he, and every bit as keyed up and afraid, hovering upon the cusp of life and death. The Messerschmitt wound its way around to head back to its base, and Pryke, now low on fuel, did the same.
In 1943, Pryke transferred to the RNAS, the Royal Naval Air Service, where he flew missions from aircraft carriers, patrolling for German U-Boats. On leave once, he sojourned to Ireland, a neutral country during the war, seeking a temporary respite from the constant footing of battle readiness that had become a constant in his life. In a Dublin pub he encountered a German fighter pilot who had crashed his plane on Irish soil and, separated from his homeland, was nevertheless at liberty on the Emerald Isle as the Irish authorities would not permit the British to intern displaced Axis airmen and sailors. Ray sat down with him and bought him a Guinness, seeking to communicate with his German counterpart, despite the language difference. The German pilot showed Pryke four fingers and uttered, “Vier!” “Vier Was?” Ray retorted. “Vier Spitsfieren!” said the German, obviously very proud of his accomplishment. “Oh, I see,” said Pryke. “You shot down four Spitfires.” “Ja,” said the German, and they both drank to that. “Where are you from?” Ray asked. “Bitte?” rejoined the German. “Woher kommen sie?” said Pryke, mustering up his best German. “Koln,” said the German fighter pilot. “Ah, Cologne” said Ray. “I was over Cologne last week and the only thing left standing is the church.” He was not sure whether the German understood him, but they both drank to that.
On June 6, 1944, Ray was among the fighter pilots in the canopy of planes over the beaches at Normandy, providing the Allies with air superiority that prevented the Luftwaffe from strafing the soldiers wading ashore.
After the war, Pryke studied at the Royal Naval Academy, then transited the Atlantic to Canada, where he registered as a Canadian citizen and took his degree at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Instead of attending his graduation, he embarked on an extended trip to Mexico and then Central and South America. In El Salvador, he met and married a woman named Graciella. He had already undertaken to learn Spanish, and at this point he polished his fluency with the language.
The marriage did not last, however, and in 1951, he moved to the United States, settling in the Los Angeles area. Here he found employment selling real estate mostly on the west side of Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley. At that point he took up residence in Malibu, which was already an enclave of the rich and famous. He became acquainted with the likes of Jackie Coogan [“The Kid” in the silent Charlie Chaplin movie and later Uncle Fester in the Addams Family television program].
When developer Penn Phillips bought the entire Hesperia Township, some 23,000 acres, in 1954 for $1.25 million and set about developing it, Ray came up to the High Desert and began selling properties for Phillips, taking advantage of the low prices to purchase and bank properties on his own. The same year, he obtained U.S. Citizenship.
Soon Pryke was spending more time in the High Desert than in Los Angeles. At one point, Phillips told Ray that he would never make it in the land business because Pryke was “in love with the deal and in love with the property. That’s no way to do business. Make your profit and get out.” This triggered a response from Ray, “I disagree, Mr. Phillips, he said. “I think there is a real future for the Victor Valley.”
One Saturday night in 1955, Pryke and a friend were at the Apple Valley Inn. They saw two women at a nearby table and they asked the waiter what the women were drinking. They then had the waiter provide the women with a round. This elicited a heated response from one of the women who walked over to Ray’s table to inform the two men that that they could pay for their own drinks and did not need any charity. The woman was Jane Schlee, the daughter of the famous aviator, Edward Schlee, who with his business partner, William Brock, replicated Charles Lindbergh’s May 1927 flight across the Pacific in their plane, “The Pride of Detroit,” arriving in Europe in September 1927 and then continuing around the globe in record setting time before going on to numerous other aviation firsts in the early 1930s. Despite her rejection of Ray’s offer of a drink in the Apple Valley Inn that night, they grew better acquainted and were soon married.
Pryke continued his steady accumulation of land, and he created a real estate company, a development company and a foreclosure company in Apple Valley, which was later transferred to Hesperia. With Jane, he purchased a house on Beach Road in San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. In 1962, they reestablished the house entirely, rebuilding it from the ground up to specifications Jane drew up herself, which included pylons for the foundation, the first such adaptation along Beach Road, but one that would soon be imitated by all subsequent homes built along the exclusive drive abutting the ocean. For the next forty years, the Prykes divided their time between the beach home in San Juan Capistrano and a more modest house in Lucerne Valley. For most of that time, they commuted by plane, as Ray maintained his pilot’s license and full instrumentation rating. They would fly to Orange County on Friday, and return to touch down in Apple Valley on Monday.
In 1964, using his general contractor’s license, Pryke built the A-frame office at 16925 Main Street in Hesperia that would become the base of his High Desert operations. By 1970, he was one of the largest land owners in the High Desert. He followed a formula of purchasing large tracts, subdividing them, and then selling several of the smaller properties at a price that would pay for the larger purchase.
In 1970, at the invitation of Judge Joseph Katz, he served as the foreman of the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury. Not content to merely rubberstamp the findings of then-district attorney’ Lowell Lathrop and his grand jury advisor, Ray took up the issue of the abuse of prisoners in the county jails, carrying out unannounced late night inspections of the detention facilities. This earned the enmity of then-sheriff Frank Bland, who attacked Pryke as naïve for calling for better treatment of those incarcerated. This lit in Ray a desire to propound a variant viewpoint to the popular notion that those in power were on top of the problems besetting society and the community and could be trusted to responsibly manage the machinery of government for the collective betterment.
Thus, when he acquired the Apple Valley News in a foreclosure, he overcame his first instinct to just sell it off, and seeing the possibilities of owning and running a newspaper, embarked on a journalistic career. He took much of his approach from the Fleet Street newspapers in England, which often used sensational headlines to drive home their points.
He used the expertise he had in the land dealing and development business to gain an uncommon view of certain high-ranking officials’ behind-the-scenes manipulation of government’s control over land use authority to enrich themselves and their cronies. One of the biggest stories of the early part of his career as a publisher was an exposé of how then-county administrative officer Robert Covington had used his influence to bootleg, in his mother’s name, a subdivision in a dry lake in Apple Valley.
Over time, Pryke founded, owned, published or acquired ten newspapers, including the Apple Valley News, the Hesperia Resorter, The Adelanto Bulletin, The Lucerne Valley Post, The Barstow Post, The Desert Mountain Express, The County Legal Reporter and The Victorville Post Express, all in San Bernadino County; and the Dana Point Pilot in Orange County; and the Antelope Valley Journal in Los Angeles County. Collectively, the publications were known as ValleyWide Newspapers. Under his control, the newspapers broke numerous stories relating to corruption in government, the courts and law enforcement.
Pryke involved himself in a Trans-Atlantic effort to ensure the statue of Thomas Paine, the American pamphleteer during the American Revolution was maintained. Paine had been born in Thetford, England and a statue had been erected there to honor him. It had fallen into disrepair, perhaps understandably, since in his hometown, Paine was considered a traitor and had been disowned and despised. In this case, however, Ray was outmaneuvered when the Thetford townspeople insisted that if the statue, which was made of gilded bronze, was to be refurbished it would need to be upgraded by regilding to gold leaf, the expense of which was out of the question.
In 2010, he lost his wife, Jane. Two years later he provided a $1.5 million endowment to establish the Raymond Pryke Chair in First Amendment Law at the University of California at Irvine. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky was named the first chair holder.
Proud of his immigrant status, Ray nevertheless retained his British citizenship throughout his life since England does not require that those taking on foreign citizenship renounce their allegiance to the crown. Pryke proclaimed he was a Tory in England and a Democrat in America. He was a Democrat, he said, because he was forever grateful to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for saving his native country in World War II. In 1971, before the Watergate scandal, he had briefly switched to the Republican Party so he could support the presidential candidacy of Pete McCloskey, who was set on challenging incumbent Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1972. He was equally involved in local politics, using his newspapers to support candidates of whom he approved and hectoring ones with whom he was disenchanted. On numerous occasions he supported a political newcomer, only to reverse course four years later when he perceived that politician had grown into an entrenched incumbent.
Though he was areligious, he and his wife once had a personal audience with the Pope. Harkening back to his days of training on the F-4 as a cadet in 1941, he applied for and was given by then-Texas Governor Ann Richards certification as an “honorary Texan.”
He said he believed that as an immigrant, he was more sensitive to and appreciative of the opportunity available in America than most native born citizens.
After his wife’s death, he complained that he had lost his zest, had slowed down too much, and had grown invisible. Nevertheless, he remained active in directing his empire, which included over 40 properties in the High Desert and five newspapers.
He died quietly in his sleep on February 7.
He is survived by his a brother, Derek Pryke; a nephew, Julian Coleiro; and a niece, Linda Dooley.