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Oliver Vickery, 91, Harbor Area's Colorful 'Official Historian,' Dies

September 10, 1987|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Oliver Vickery, San Pedro's official historian, who was long known as one of the harbor community's most colorful characters, has died at the age of 91.

Vickery was in declining health for several years and had lived at a nursing home in Gardena until being moved to a Long Beach hospital, where he died Friday. He was buried Tuesday in Green Hills Cemetery in Rancho Palos Verdes.

A Kentuckian who maintained the courtly style and manner of the old South, Vickery arrived in San Pedro in 1917 in search of a long-lost uncle. He did not find the relative, he told friends later, but he found a community that engaged his passionate interest for the rest of his life.

In a 1981 Times interview, Vickery recalled that Gaffey Street, now a thoroughfare that runs into the Harbor Freeway, did not exist then. "There were lots of sheep grazing there and on up the hill, and a lot of coyotes, but no Gaffey," he said, adding that "I've seen a lot of changes."

Over the decades, Vickery acquired a vast store of information about people and events in the harbor area. He shared it enthusiastically in countless talks with individuals and community groups, in a history column in the San Pedro News-Pilot and in a 1978 book, "Harbor Heritage."

He was the first curator of the Banning Residence Museum in Wilmington and devoted considerable efforts to promoting the memory of Gen. Phineas Banning, a California pioneer who worked in the 1850s to establish San Pedro as an ocean port. Until his health began to fail, Vickery appeared at community events, such as the annual Wisteria Festival, in a dashing blue Civil War uniform and recited stories of the harbor area as they might have been told by Banning.

In 1981, the Los Angeles City Council recognized Vickery as the city's official historian for the harbor area. The Harbor Commission designated the winding drive in front of the Cabrillo Marine Museum as Oliver Vickery Circle Way.

"They usually don't name streets for you until you're dead," Vickery was quoted as saying. "I do so little and get so much."

While in his early 20s, Vickery received a degree in economics and history from UC Berkeley and then went on to work in banking and various mercantile businesses until his late 50s, when he decided to devote his full time to writing and lecturing on his beloved San Pedro.

He attracted national and international attention in 1952, when he attended an economic conference in Moscow and used the occasion to lecture the Russians on the virtues of the free enterprise system. According to an 11-page picture spread and story in Life magazine, "A Capitalist on the Loose in Moscow," Vickery received a standing ovation from the conferees. After that, much to the surprise of the CIA, Vickery was able to travel throughout the Soviet Union and bring back hundreds of feet of film. For years, he was much in demand on the lecture circuit in the United States.

Vickery's wife, Grace, died in 1979. They had no children.

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