Esther R. Cramer (1927-2012)

One of Orange County's greatest local historians, Esther Rigway Cramer, passed away early Sunday, after a long fight with cancer. Her passing leaves a gaping hole in our local historical community and certainly also in the community of La Habra.

Esther's parents were La Habra pioneers, and she was born, raised, and lived her whole life in that town.  She graduated from Fullerton Union High School in 1944, and later was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board at Pomona College. Esther was charming and unerringly polite, but was also a very strong woman in the best possible sense.

Beginning in the 1960s, her lifelong love of her community led her to study and write about its history.  She became the leading North County historian.

In addition to her popular local newspaper column and magazine articles, she also wrote numerous books, including La Habra: The Pass Through the Hills (1969). This first book won awards from the Southern California Historical Society, UCI, and the American Association of State & Local History.

[The photo above shows Esther speaking in Courtroom One of the Old Orange County Courthouse at a Centennial Scholarship ceremony. The photo below shows Jim Sleeper, myself, and Esther on a visit to the library.]
Esther's second book, The Alpha Beta Story (1973) focused on the history of a major grocery store chain. Soon, Alpha Beta asked her to create a Consumer Affairs office for them. Her success led to her election as Chair of the Food Market Institute's national Consumer Affairs Council.  She retired as Alpha Beta's Vice President of Community Relations in 1986.

But being the public face of Alpha Beta was, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.  Her faith, her community, and certainly her family were central in her life. As her friend Phil Brigandi wrote, "...She has always been equally devoted to her three daughters and her late husband, Stan. Longtime devotion is one of the hallmarks of Esther’s life."

If I had to guess, I'd say that sense of devotion is partly what helped Esther keep an active and productive life nearly 15 years after doctors predicted she would be gone. She had work to do and duties to fulfill. Not the least of these duties was seeing that her ailing husband, Stan -- who passed away several months ago -- was cared for properly.  

Over the years, Esther also showed her devotion to the cause of recording, preserving and sharing local history.

She served on the Orange County Historical Commission since its inception, nearly forty years ago. There, she exhibited her skill for cutting through the haze of distractions, differing opinions and bureaucratic double-talk, and regularly set the Commission back on track. (Every board and committee should have an Esther. ) As a Commissioner, she championed the Centennial Scholarship program and projects that focused on serious history. She also served as co-editor and contributor for two editions of the Commission's book, A Hundred Years of Yesterdays: A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and their Communities.

She was also a member for decades of the La Habra Old Settlers Society, where her crowning achievement came with the opening of the La Habra Historical Museum in 2010. The idea for the museum and much of the museum's research collection came directly from Esther.

[The photo below shows Esther and Stan Cramer (both in blue) speaking with Paul Simons of the O.C. Historical Commission in 2010.]
Esther was also a stalwart member of the Orange County Pioneer Council, took an active and important role in their ongoing oral history project.  Brigandi writes, "She was one of the first local historians here to turn to oral history in a serious way, recording interviews with old timers whose memories stretched back into the last third of the 19th century."

She was also a longtime member of the Orange County Historical Society, where she once served as president, and still served on the editorial board for the Society's journal, Orange Countiana  -- a publication she helped launch decades ago.

When the City of Brea approached its 75th birthday, it rightly approached Esther to turn their history into a book. Brea: The City of Oil, Oranges, and Opportunity, was published in 1992. She followed it up with A Bell In the Barranca (1996), a book for children about La Habra's history.

But as serious a historian as Esther was, she was a great deal of fun to be around. Like most intelligent people, she had a great sense of humor. Not that she was above a corny joke or pun, either. It was no surprise when she wrote a well-researched article about Basque sheep ranches specifically so she could use the title, "Baa Baa Basque Sheep."

As local historian Cynthia Ward wrote today, "Orange County has lost a legend. Esther Cramer knew everything there was to know about North County, and thankfully enjoyed sharing that knowledge with others. Esther was one of a kind, and will be missed."

Indeed she will.