ALUMNI HALL OF FAME PROFILE:

From McFarland to India to a life of love and politics: Gene Tackett’s “cool” story

Gene Tackett

Gene Tackett, a son of McFarland who joined the Peace Corps, got into politics and raised a family with fellow Bakersfield icon Wendy Wayne, has also been a prolific world traveler. Here he is with a lemur at the Tsimbazaza Zoo in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, in 2015.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

The invitation from Gene Tackett and Wendy Wayne was to their annual Rite of Spring party. The only ones who knew what they were really up to were his father, her sister and the judge.

Tackett, wearing a kurta, and Wayne a sari, stood in front of the 200 guests at her parents’ house in Los Angeles and said, “We have an announcement.”

The judge pulled a robe out of a box and put it on. “Do you?” he asked Tackett and Wayne.

And with their yeses, the two were married.

“It was cool,” Tackett said, using his favorite catchphrase. “It was very cool.”

Gene Tackett and Wendy Wayne

Gene Tackett and Wendy Wayne threw a surprise wedding at her parents’ house March 12, 1977, inviting guests to come as their favorite place.

The surprise wedding story is just one of many colorful stories that make up the life of Tackett, the son of Okies who went on to grow wheat and potatoes in India, travel the world with Wayne, win a long-shot bid for the Kern County Board of Supervisors, turn that into a wide-ranging consulting career, and continue Wayne’s legacy after her death from cancer.

There’s so much to share that he’s writing a book about his life for his grandchildren. At first he thought of calling it “Serendipity” because he’s had so much good fortune. But he’s since pivoted to something more straight-forward: “I Met My Jewish Wife at a Christmas Party.”

THE CENTER OF THEIR WORLD

Tackett, 75, is the only child of Eldon and Loretta Tackett, Oklahomans who met in school during the Great Depression and after marrying moved to Porterville where they had relatives. They worked harvesting crops up and down California; Eldon later worked delivering federal water to farmers for the Southern San Joaquin Municipal Utility District.

Gene was born in Santa Paula.

“I can remember being in a car with a Kerr jar full of oats, my breakfast, while my mom and dad were picking grapes,” he remembered. “In the old days they’d pick the grapes and put them on pieces of paper between the rows and I would just stay in the car or play in the dirt or whatever.”

Tackett Baby

As the son of Oklahomans who came to the Central Valley seeking a better life, Tackett thinks of himself as an immigrant.

His mom was a good cook, his dad a great gardener. They always kept a nice house and welcomed everyone young Gene brought home. Tackett was the center of their world, and he wanted for nothing.

When Gene was in the sixth grade, the Tacketts moved from Porterville to McFarland. He always made the honor roll (though struggled with spelling), got elected student body president at McFarland High School and worked in a grocery store.

He got his start in politics walking door-to-door for JFK in 1960.

Eugene Tackett

Tackett was elected student body president at McFarland High School. This is a yearbook photo.

Tackett wanted out of McFarland after high school and opted for UC Santa Barbara after a walk around the campus and trip down to the beach. “I said, ‘This is a no-brainer.’”

It was the beginning of Tackett’s first failures. He didn’t study, joined a fraternity and enjoyed beer too much. He was on academic probation most of the time.

One day Peace Corps recruiters came around looking for people to work on agriculture programs in northern India. Tackett got out his globe.

“I said, ‘God, it’s on the other side of the world. That’s pretty good. …I need a new start.’”

Tackett Crops

Tackett served in the Peace Corps from 1966 to 1968. Here he is inspecting wheat with a villager, Ram Sakal.

Tackett and his roommate, Harvard Law School graduate David Copus, spent 22 months in the village of Susundi introducing new varieties of – and ways of planting – wheat, potatoes, rice and sugar cane that ended up doubling production.

It was “the adventure of a lifetime,” said Copus, describing how they smuggled dwarf rice from  Vietnam into India during the war and transported 2,000 pounds of disease-free potatoes hundreds of miles by train – switching cars when the width of the train tracks changed on them.

Then they had to convince the villagers to change how they grew things.

“Through the Peace Corps, Tackett found religion,” said Copus, who went on to become a celebrated trial attorney. “He figured out how valuable education was and how hard you had to work.”

By 1968 Tackett knew he needed a college degree and thanks to a letter from Copus, got back into UCSB. He took religion and history of India classes and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in south Asian studies in December 1969.

‘SHE WAS SO COOL’

A month later, Tackett began a five-year career as a Peace Corps recruiter, mostly in Los Angeles. “Go see the world,” he would tell recruits.

At a Peace Corps office party in December 1973, Tackett met Wendy Wayne, an outgoing former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya who came from a prominent Jewish family in Los Angeles.

“She was cool,” Tackett remembered. “I didn’t think I’d ever get married, have kids. I was just having a good time.”

The following month, Tackett and Wayne started dating off and on. In 1975 they quit their jobs and traveled the world for eight months, including to Alaska, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Korea, Bali, India, Singapore, Russia and England.

“We just ended up going to different places and it was marvelous,” he said. “We got to see so many things and meet so many people.”

They returned home in December 1975 with no idea what to do. Wayne thought about settling in L.A.

Within a month, Tackett was a candidate for Kern County supervisor.

WHAT’S A SUPERVISOR?

An ex-Peace Corps friend suggested Tackett run for county supervisor. Tackett had no idea what a supervisor did, so he looked it up at the library.

“I got the grand jury reports and found out the salary was livable, like 30 grand or something,” Tackett said.

 Tackett for Supervisor

Tackett was at the time the youngest person ever elected to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

He went door-to-door around the sprawling 1st District, which included northwestern Kern County, Lake Isabella and Ridgecrest, promising to make it a better place. He loaned his campaign $5,000 of the $7,000 he had left in savings and Copus raised some money through attorney friends. Wayne served as treasurer. Tackett sought and got the endorsement of The Bakersfield Californian.

Tackett’s challenge to incumbent LeRoy Jackson was aided by a proposal to build a controversial nuclear power plant near Wasco. He took the side of westside farmers worried about the environmental impacts; it generated campaign cash from ag interests and showed voters he could take a strong stance on an important issue.

“You’re sort of a fantasy when you’re running for office,” Tackett said. “I was a pretty likable candidate, shaking hands and looking at people. But when you have a hard issue, when you’re willing to take a stand, it gives you credibility.”

Tackett defeated Jackson 13,223 to 10,019.

During and after the campaign, Tackett told Wayne he was ready to get married. She wasn’t.

Then one night Tackett came home from a two-hour drive from Ridgecrest and found a red rose in a vase and a piece of paper with a yellow ribbon around it.

“I opened up the thing and it was an application for a marriage license,” Tackett said, choking up. “It was romantic. It was pretty cool.”

Tackett and Wayne in Paris

Tackett and Wayne in Paris, a surprise 20th anniversary gift from Tackett.

The two had come from totally different worlds but their love and shared values made them a great match, said Wayne’s younger sister Cindy Chernow.

“They really cared about making the world a better place,” Chernow said. “That’s not just what put them together, it’s what kept them together.”

POLITICAL WINS AND LOSSES

Tackett served on the Board of Supervisors from 1977 to 1985. He says he tried to be a constituent-responsive representative.

Tackett and Nickel

Tackett (right) standing at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon with developer George Nickel during his years as a county supervisor. (Photo courtesy of The Bakersfield Californian.)

One of his more memorable projects was working with county staff to spend $30,000 setting up emergency phones along Highway 178 above the Kern River Canyon to connect travelers with CHP dispatchers.

“Seniors or anybody who had an accident could walk a mile or two either way and get on an emergency phone and let the CHP know,” he said. “It was really a cool thing, and without much money.”

Tackett said he “played the system” and got himself on health and transportation planning boards to secure federal funds for his district. He also annoyed his colleagues by successfully pushing to eliminate extra pay supervisors received for attending certain meetings.

“He was a terrific supervisor,” said longtime Tackett friend Susan Reep, a retired school teacher. “He cared about his district and constituents. He rode in every parade, had field reps with a Peace Corps mentality – problems will be solved – and worked from the ground up.”

In 1982, in the middle of his second board term, Tackett challenged Fresno Republican Chip Pashayan Jr. for Congress. He got 46 percent of the vote, which he considered decent but wasn’t enough to win.

Two years later, then-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown convinced Tackett to run against Republican Don Rogers for the state Assembly instead of seeking a third supervisorial term. He got wiped out, which Tackett attributes to Brown pulling funding and the district growing increasingly conservative.

“That was the end of my political career,” Tackett said.

A NEW CAREER

When Hall Ambulance owner Harvey Hall needed someone to help him get an operating license from the county, he called Tackett and became Gene Tackett Consulting’s first client.

Tackett was well-positioned to do the work because of all the relationships he’d forged in county government. His clients included energy companies, garbage haulers, a waste-disposal facility and, most controversially, the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

He steered himself toward projects he was interested in and would bring jobs to Kern County. There were some he did drop for being a bit too distasteful, like Enron.

“I just tried to make sure I could go to bed each night,” Tackett said.

A client particularly near and dear to him was the Tejon Indian Tribe, which he represented for years as it tried to get a controversial $400 million casino permitted in Kern County.

“I’m not a gambling person, I don’t go to Vegas… but it’s a good way to pay Native Americans back for how we totally took over their land and took over everything,” he said of the work.

Tackett retired last year.

A DEVASTATING DIAGNOSIS

In 2008 Wayne was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer. Treatment at the City of Hope followed.

Friends in Bakersfield drove her down for chemotherapy, Tackett sometimes, too.

“Everybody felt sorry for me, they also wanted to help Wendy,” he said. “So during that period of time the whole community came forward. Everybody loved her. She was just amazing.”

Wayne and her sons, Benji (left) and Larkin

Wayne and her sons, Benji (left) and Larkin, pose at her induction into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame in 2008. Wayne and Tackett are the first married couple to have been selected for induction.

Wayne eventually underwent stem cell treatment and for a year it looked like she was going to beat the cancer. She and Tackett traveled to the Caribbean, New Zealand and Fiji.

But then in 2012 the cancer returned. Wayne told her doctor she needed to go, she couldn’t take the pain anymore. She died at home June 12.

“It’s still hard,” Tackett said. “I think of her every day.”

Father Craig Harrison of St. Francis Parish, a friend of the couple, called their relationship and Tackett’s support of Wayne through her illness “beautiful” to watch.

“Wendy was an amazing woman and did amazing things, but one of the greatest things I saw in her journey with cancer was the way in which he walked with her,” he said. “Even as his heart was breaking, he never gave up and he’s continued her legacy, which I love.”

Tackett and Patrick

Tackett and fellow former Kern County Supervisor Barbara Patrick have been dating for five years.

One of the best things that has happened to Tackett since, he said, is his relationship with Barbara Patrick, a fellow former Kern County supervisor. They have his time, her time and their time, the latter often spent watching movies or traveling.

“It just turns out I’ve been lucky with women,” Tackett said.

GRANDPAJI

Tackett is also a devoted father of two and grandfather of six. He and Wayne have two sons, Larkin, 40, who owns an educational consulting practice in Austin and has four kids with his wife, and Benji, 38, who teaches statistics and computer science in Monterey and is married with two children.

Tackett is Grandpaji to his grandkids.

Tackett Grandkids

Tackett with his grandchildren.

Tackett passed on to his boys his passions: family, politics, travel and culture, Larkin and Benji said. They remember many dinner table conversations that required Tackett to pull out a big blue atlas.

There was a running joke in the family that wherever they traveled, they had to get to the end of the road to see what was there, Benji said. Tackett would find Weedpatch just as fascinating as Bali, said Larkin.

“It’s like following a 3-year-old who gets excited by a dandelion,” Benji joked. “That’s what he’s like.”

GIVING TO CSUB

Asked what people don’t know about their very well-known dad, Benji and Larkin said that he’s a CSUB graduate. Tackett earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology in 2004, thinking he might teach.

Tackett didn’t go into teaching, but he says he had great instructors and the experience made him a better reader and writer.

“It’s turned me into a life-long student and learner,” he said. “I learned how to consume knowledge. I read newspapers. I’m totally into education.”

Ever since, Tackett has been a generous financial supporter of CSUB. He’s steered his money to the Kegley Institute of Ethics, including funding the annual Wendy Wayne Ethics Awards prizes, as well as to the Wendy Wayne Nursing Scholarship Endowment and the campus’ 75th anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath.

Twenty nursing scholarships have been awarded to 19 students. Tackett takes a special interest in the recipients and wants to learn their story, said Debbie Wilson, a nursing assistant professor and chair of the Nursing scholarship committee when the scholarship was initiated.

"Many of the recipients of this scholarship are first-generation college students and come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds," she said. "This scholarship has been instrumental  to ensure the success of these students."

Tackett has great reverence for the university’s diversity of students, ethics institute, library archives and accessibility to people like him from Kern County.

“They’re doing things at the university that I think are important,” he said. “They’ve got my checkbook and they’ve got my heartstrings.”



CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame

Gene Tackett is one of four people who will be inducted into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame Feb. 15, 2019, at Seven Oaks Country Club in Bakersfield.

The other members of the 2019 Alumni Hall of Fame class are Charlotte Brandt, Jeff Huckaby and Tom Corson.

Learn more about the gala, including sponsorship opportunities.