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Tuesday, Jan 12 2010 07:56 PM

Everyman activist, blogger dies at 56

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    Handout photograph of Curt Dalton. Provided by the Dalton family for possible use in the CurtDalton Obit.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Curt Dalton was a prolific blogger and letter writer who, after a decade of effort, finally shook enough trees to compel officials to set up warning signs for swimmers in the Kern River Canyon.

When the self-styled community activist, avid photographer and family man was told in October he had inoperable lung cancer, he worried unnecessarily that he hadn't left his mark on the world.

Dalton died Saturday at his home in Bakersfield, less than three months after his diagnosis. He was 56."I was able to be with him the entire time, from when he was diagnosed Oct. 14 to Jan. 9," said Dalton's wife, Leslie. "He died in his sleep. It was very peaceful."

Dalton was known by hundreds of local bloggers on Bakersfield.com for his staunch conservative views, his belief in responsible gun ownership and especially his ability to express his opinion without declaring his opponents traitors or lower life forms.

"He had that rare ability to disagree without being disagreeable," wrote local blogger Audrey Baker. "He was a principled man who fought tirelessly for what he believed in."

Born Dec. 27, 1953, in Derry, N.H., Dalton moved with his family to Santa Maria when he was in his teens.

He had a natural talent for voices, and used that talent to land one of his first jobs as a radio DJ, his wife said. Later he would spend more than a dozen years as a paramedic -- and later doing emergency medical work at an aerospace firm in Lompoc.

A marriage in his early 20s produced two sons, but the union didn't last.

Dalton moved to Bakersfield in 1988 to work as a safety supervisor for an oilfield service company.

"He wanted to get away from paramedic work," Leslie said. "He witnessed some tough things."

The same month he moved to Bakersfield, Curt met Leslie. The two would remain together ever since -- finally making it legal on Dec. 28, 1994.

"We had four boys altogether," Leslie said. "His and mine made ours."

Longtime friend Dan Topping said he considered Dalton a genius of sorts.

"He knew so much about so many things," Topping said. "He built a computer six or seven years ago that's still not out of date."

Dalton knew how to have a good time, Topping said. He was a talented guitarist, but was not the type to play on stage -- not until guitarist Topping eventually "forced" him to play in front of a crowd.

"Curt was one of my best friends," he said. "I'm going to miss him terribly."

In 2005, Dalton landed a media pass to a big show at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace featuring several country music stars. When he captured a photo of Garth Brooks kneeling on stage proposing marriage to Trisha Yearwood, he came home bursting with the possibilities.

"He came in and said, 'I like this picture. I think this is it,'" Leslie recalled.

When he showed it to editors at People magazine, they grabbed it up and published it in the June 13, 2005, issue.

"Now, whenever anyone comes over, I have to show them his little tiny name" on the photo credit, Leslie said.

But one of his proudest moments came at the end of his long quest to have Caltrans allow changeable message signs in Kern Canyon to warn out-of-town visitors to stay out of the Kern River.

"It took 10 years and countless hours, and the only thing that kept this idea alive is the reaction I received from everyone I used as a sounding-board," Dalton wrote in a blog in 2007. "Every single person I spoke with thought this was a terrific way to warn visitors to Bakersfield who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the danger posed by the swift waters of the Kern River."

At first, his letters to Caltrans went unanswered. But Dalton wouldn't give up.

He pitched his idea to the Kern County Board of Supervisors, wrote what would later be chosen "Letter of the Year" in The Californian and eventually gained an ally in state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.

"I was grateful," Dalton later wrote, "but my latent distrust of all politicians left me with an 'I'll believe it when I see it' attitude."

Dalton took some hits from merchants in the Kern River Valley who said the signs were unnecessary and bad for business, but again, he persevered.

About 10 years and "a dozen preventable deaths" after he began, the signs were erected. One citizen with a lot of grit and determination had made a difference.

"Curt Dalton was a thoughtful contributor to The Californian's Opinion section," said former Editorial Page Editor Dianne Hardisty. "He believed passionately in local causes and always looked for solutions.

"Unlike some who just complain, Curt wanted to make his community and world better. Through his letters to the editor and later blogging, he was willing to go out on the limb to do so. His crusade to have Caltrans post warning signs in the Kern River Canyon illustrates his passion."

Finally in 2007, Caltrans agreed to post temporary electronic signs along the highway in the canyon during summer months.

It was a triumph for Dalton -- and for the everyman -- because it proved individuals can still make a difference.

But was it enough? As Dalton weakened in his final days, he wondered about his life.

"He was so worried he didn't leave his mark in the world," Leslie said. "I would say, 'Oh, yes you have.' Just ask everyone who knows you."

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