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He was born on May 28, 1911, in Lemoncove, Calif., but Willard and his younger sister, Lois, started school and grew up in Fullerton, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, where their father had gotten a job in the drilling fields of Shell Oil. From the time he was a boy, Willard's world was immutably fixed: sports, guns, hunting and tinkering with shortwave radios. Girls only loitered on the edges of this world. "I always had plenty of older girls coming over to the house asking for me, but it was Willard they really wanted to see," Lois recalled in September 1989, eight months before she died. "He never seemed interested in any one girl, particularly. Maybe because the girls were more interested in him than he was in them."
Instead, Hershberger developed into a playground rat who worked endlessly at sports and games, everything from baseball and basketball by day to kick-the-can at night. Baseball was his abiding love. "Willard always had a baseball in his hand and a mitt tied to his belt," said Lois. "He wanted to be a ballplayer all his life."
"A catcher," recalls his cousin, Blanche McKee Maloy, whose father was the brother of Hershberger's mother, Maude. "Cousin Lois was a strong, athletic gal, too. After school, she would throw to him in their backyard. When she got to high school, none of the girls wanted to catch her because she threw too hard."
By the time Willard reached his senior year at Fullerton Union High School, an athletic mecca in Southern California, he had become not only the school's surpassing athlete but a model student and leader as well. The year before, he had been elected president of his junior class and president of the Varsity Club, a group for athletes who had earned six letters. He was the only junior among them. He was a dominant figure in three sports: a runner and kicker in football ("The boy with the magic toe," according to the school's yearbook), a basketball letterman and a baseball player ("The best little catcher ever to wear a Fullerton High School suit").
To be sure, Hershberger was not the only kid at Fullerton in 1928 who was looking to the future and sharpening his spikes. In the tradition of old grad Walter (Big Train) Johnson, who won 416 major league games in 21 years of pitching (1907-27), Fullerton shortstop Arky Vaughan, just a year behind Hershberger and one of his closest friends, was but four years away from launching a major league career in Pittsburgh in which he would hit between .300 and .385 for 10 straight seasons on his way to Cooperstown. And then there was that young Fullerton underclassman, the boy with the full crop of brown hair and the print tie, as he was pictured in the '28 yearbook with this note: "Special mention should be made of the excellent work of Richard Nixon, the high school representative in the National Oratorical Contest on the Constitution."
Coming to his last year—in which he served as the senior class vice-president and as captain of the basketball and baseball teams—Hershberger was a popular, pleasant, affable young man with exceptional athletic ability. He had a quick white-piano-key smile and a cackly, catching laugh that he passed around among the knots of students he met in the halls of Fullerton. At 17, he had everything before him.
"A very lovable human being," recalls Florence Dysinger, 90, a phys-ed teacher at Fullerton then. "Very happy and well-adjusted until...that terrible thing happened with his father."
Blanche Maloy always saw Willard in contrast to his father, whom she remembers as a figure hovering in the background, looking grainier and more remote than anyone else. "Two of Claude's cousins had killed themselves," recalls Blanche. "One of them hung himself. Willard's father was a strange, moody man. Withdrawn. A little odd. He had these home remedies that he used on Willard and Lois. Willard always had real bad earaches. His father would light up his pipe and draw hot smoke and blow it in Willard's car. That was supposed to cure the earache. If the kids had a bad cold, he'd kill a skunk and render out the oil and rub them with skunk oil. I don't know where the man came from."
But she remembers how he left. At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1928, about two months after Willard had begun his senior year in high school, his father picked up a shotgun that Willard had inadvertently left leaning against a downstairs wall. What he did next was reported the same day by the Fullerton Daily News:
Claude E. Hershberger, 54, 222 N. Yale Ave., father of Willard Hershberger, prominent high school athlete, committed suicide in his home...today by shooting himself with a shotgun.