The wreckage of James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed "Little Bastard" on Highway 446 (now 46) near Cholame.©The Tribune
As we approach the end of the month and the anniversary of the most famous automobile accident in county history I will be reposting the series of stories that former Tribune copy editor Jay Thompson wrote. It is the most complete multi-part newspaper examination I have seen of James Dean's fatal wreck near Cholame. It was published on and after the 50th anniversary of September 30, 1955. Thompson combed through historical files and interviewed surviving witnesses and found stories that had not been explored.
Published: Sunday, October 2, 2005
TWO DEADLY CRASHES: ONE CELEBRATED, THE OTHER A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY ?SEPT. 30, 1955: THE DEATH OF JAMES DEAN; RECALLING THE FUN-LOVING CAMP ROBERTS PRIVATE WHO DREAMED BIG AND IS NOW REMEMBERED AS THE MAN WHO DIED THE DAY AFTER JAMES DEAN
By Jay Thompson
Fifty years ago, two young men died in separate North County traffic accidents within 30 miles and 30 hours of each other.
Yet despite the proximity, few link the two crashes that claimed the lives of Bobby Joe Plant, a former all-state high school football player from Carlisle, Ark., and 24-year-old actor James Dean.
Oct. 1, 1955, remains a sad day for friends and family of the Arkansas native, a 19-year-old Army private stationed at Camp Roberts.
The death of Dean on Sept. 30, 1955, by contrast, is a celebrated day — in the actor's hometown of Fairmount, Ind., and in Cholame, the one-cafe town a mile west of his crash site, which both stage celebrations that attract thousands.
There is a certain romantic quality to Dean's death in a sports car while traveling through the rolling, golden hills of California en route to a race, which has inspired movies and a play and remains a favorite subject of documentary filmmakers. And every year, curiosity about his death attracts people from throughout the world to visit the area.
In life, the two victims shared similarities of height, athletic ability, an interest in high school acting and bravado. In death they share even more:
* Dean was San Luis Obispo County's 27th traffic fatality in 1955, and Plant was No. 28.
* Their death certificates are on facing pages in Book 36 of the Record of Deaths of San Luis Obispo County (Plant is on Page 137, Dean is on Page 138 — the county clerk's most-requested death notice).
* For possibly a day, their bodies were kept side by side in the preparation room of Martin Kuehl's Spring Street mortuary, where both were embalmed.
Betty Lou McMillan, 69, of Little Rock, Ark., dated Plant his senior year and met her first husband indirectly through him. She has trouble explaining why Dean's death is celebrated, while her friend's is a footnote to history.
"Bobby meant as much to his mother and daddy as James Dean, didn't he?" she said. "Why is one death more important than another one? I guess name recognition."
Bobby Joe Plant "was like James Dean … in a lot of ways," said Bill Miller, 70, of Cabot, Ark., who still thinks of Plant as a brother. The pair played football and basketball and ran track together in Arkansas.
"Every guy in the class would agree with me, Bobby was a lot like James Dean except Bobby laughed a lot," he said.
Plant, who was born March 1, 1936, returned to Arkansas from San Bernardino as a freshman in 1949, the same year Dean headed to California to study acting.
Plant's mother, Zelma (Rose) Plant, sent her son east to live with her parents, who retired to Carlisle, an agricultural community of 1,300 located a half-hour drive east of Little Rock. Bobby's aunt and uncle, Mary and Paul Massey, lived nearby across a gravel road and helped guide the teen, who initially kept to himself.
"Somehow he and I just took up," recalled Miller, who lived on a 900-acre farm. "We was just good buddies, and we stayed that way.
"I liked his attitude. His attitude was … it kind of reminds me of something I heard, 'Don't worry, be happy.' "
McMillan agreed he was "a barrel of fun."
"He just never had a care in the world, just happy-go-lucky," she said.
Miller convinced his fleet-footed, 6-foot, 178-pound friend to play football in their sophomore year, and the pair went on to earn all-state honors as seniors when the Bisons finished with a 10-2 record.
After graduation, Plant moved back to California to live with his mother, but returned to Carlisle for Christmas. December 1953 would be the last time McMillan would see him before the day he was killed.
In California, "at loose ends," the 18-year-old enlisted in the Army for three years, said Miller, who was drafted the following year and sent to Korea. By May of 1954, Plant was at Fort Hunter-Liggett and later that year was transferred south to Camp Roberts.
Bill Hamlin, an Army buddy, saw Plant's photo of McMillan and asked if he could write to the high school senior. The pair corresponded and met in early 1955. They married Aug. 6.
She moved to Paso Robles, then a town of about 6,000 located a dozen miles south of the Army base where her husband was stationed with Pvt. Bobby Plant.
"I didn't see him until the day he died," she recalled of the Oct. 1 morning. "Bobby came to the house … to borrow Bill's suit because he was going to be in a wedding."
About 10:30 that night, Plant was driving south on Highway 101 near Gate 2 at the base when he lost control of a borrowed car.
According to the California Highway Patrol, the convertible skidded off the west shoulder, then careened across the two-lane highway where it crashed into a phone pole on the east shoulder. Plant and his passenger, another 19-year-old soldier, were thrown from the car.
Plant was reported dead on arrival at the same Paso Robles hospital where Dean had been pronounced dead the evening before.
McMillan and her husband learned the next morning from another soldier that the friend who had been such a life force at their Arkansas high school had been killed.
Both James Dean and Bobby Joe Plant were embalmed at Kuehl's Mortuary at 17th and Spring streets in Paso Robles. COURTESY OF MARTIN KUEHL
When she went to the mortuary she was met by a crowd of up to 60 people who were hoping to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood celebrity.
"As distraught as I was … I just couldn't imagine all them people there all at once," she said. "I thought they were there to see Bobby. I didn't know James Dean had died."
Plant was dressed in his uniform, his dog tags still in the pocket of the borrowed suit coat.
He later would be buried in a black suit with red speckles and a red handkerchief that his mother bought him in San Bernardino.
"I remember her saying that he had been home three weeks before, and he wanted her to buy him a suit," she said. "He had tried it on and told her, 'Mom … I'll knock the girls dead in this.' "
Miller had just returned from Korea when he received a call from Bobby's sister, Sandra.
"She was crying," he recalled. "Bobby had just got killed in a car wreck. Boy it just floored me — I mean it just floored me. It took me a while just to believe it. Bobby was only 19 years old."
Miller and Plant had planned to attend the University of Southern California, where they would go out for the Trojans' football team after they finished their military service. It would take years for him to visit his best friend's grave at Montecito Cemetery in Loma Linda, however.
"I spent probably an hour out there talking to him," he said. "He had a heart big as a diesel truck. He was a fun-loving guy."
And 50 years later, while much of the country pauses to remember James Dean, friends and family will remember a lesser-known man who is gone, and like the actor, may never be forgotten.
"I can hear him laughing right now," Miller said. "He was just unbelievable. You don't meet many people like that. I wish he was still here."
Looking through newspapers from the 50s and back through 1941 it is amazing to a modern reader how often serious highway wrecks were attributed to military servicemen. Young men, living fast and out late were an almost weekly statistic when the bases were operating at full strength. Seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones and a host of other safety innovations were still in the future of standard automotive design.