Assembly honors Ohnimus, chief clerk and confidant to many famous politicians

Anyone familiar with California political history is probably familiar with names like Arthur Samish and Earl Warren, not to mention Pat Brown and Jesse Unruh. You may not have heard of Arthur Ohnimus – but they all knew him.

Ohnimus has the distinction of being the first full-time employee of the California Legislature. He's also among the longest-lasting of all time, having served 45 years by the time he retired in 1963. Thirty-seven of these years were as chief clerk of the Assembly, easily giving them the longest tenure in that job.

The Assembly honored Ohnimus on Tuesday with a floor ceremony. There are also photos and letters from Ohnimus' time under the dome on display through Friday in Room 105 in the Capitol. These items come from nine boxes donated by Ohnimus' widow, Bernice, who died in September at the age of 94.

Dana Wemple was only 12 in 1943 when he met his new uncle for the first time. Now a retired dentist in Burlingame, Wemple was used to being around important people: His grandfather was NV Wemple, a longtime Assemblyman from Lassen Country. But he said Ohnimus was a disconcerting figure the first time his aunt Bernice brought him over to meet the family. He was two decades her senior, Wemple noted, and stood 6'2" in an era when far fewer men reached that height.

"He was a big, imposing man, and he always wore a suit," Wemple said. "He wasn't unfriendly. I was just a little intimidated by how important he was."

Ohnimus first started out as an Assembly clerk in 1915, during the Hiram Johnson administration, along with Samish and Warren. Those two men went on to make a stamp on California politics in a more public way. Warren went on to become governor and later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Samish became probably the most powerful lobbyist in California history, and to many he still symbolizes a lobbying system that got out of control.

But as far as his influence on the day-to-day lives of people now working in and around the Capitol, Ohnimus might be the most important of the three. While Jesse Unruh, speaker for most of the 1960s, is generally credited with being the most important person in creating California's full-time Legislature, it was Ohnimus who laid the groundwork. He oversaw the first electronic voting system in 1935, the first public address system, and the first class of Assembly Fellows. He was involved with the addition of the Capitol Annex between 1948 and 1952. But perhaps most important, he oversaw the expansion and professionalization of the Capitol staff, which reached 500 people in the late 1950s, just before Unruh came onto the scene.

But the Assembly wasn't his only career. A Republican with progressive leanings, Ohnimus mixed political beliefs and many jobs in a way that would be impossible today. After earning a law degree in 1921, Ohnimus went back to his hometown of San Francisco to practice law, soon rising to become deputy district attorney. But he was soon drawn back to the Assembly, and he spent much of the rest of his life serving in roles for both that city and the Legislature.

Wemble also noted that even though he lived until 1965, Ohnimus never drove or owned a car. Instead, he loved taking trains. He was looking forward to traveling around the country with Bernice by train, Wemble said, but their travels were cut short when Ohnimus died at age 72, only two years after he retired.

Despite a businesslike exterior, Ohnimus had many other interests, including writing poetry. Many of the recent tributes include his poem, "The Violet," which ends, "They bud alone, in solitude they fade unseen."

"I wish I knew Arthur better," Wemple said.

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