Living Legend No. 46 – Richard H. Dillon

Richard H. Dillon

Westerners International Living Legend No. 46 Richard H. Dillon


Richard H. “Dick” Dillon (1924-2016) was a world-renowned California historian, librarian, teacher, and public speaker. He published dozens of full-length books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of reviews over an 80-year period, all without the benefit of the Internet, Email, or even an electric typewriter. A complete bibliography of his published works appears alongside his biography in Aloha, Amigos! the Los Angeles Corral’s Brand Book 24, published in 2020.

Born in Sausalito, California, Richard H. Dillon was the youngest of four Army brat brothers. His childhood curiosity about long-ago times and faraway places developed through stamp collecting. By age five friends, relatives, and total strangers were saving stamps for him, and his family still has thousands of the ones he collected in the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s. Dick Dillon was first published at age 10 in a San Francisco newspaper: it was a dog story, in the Jack London mold. He later wrote a campus gossip column called “Rumah Hassit” all through high school, where his nick-name, owing to his Black Irish good looks and Spanish fluency, was “Duke Lopez.” He graduated from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley in 1941 and began studying history, geography, and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley while still only 17.

Dick Dillon left the university in 1943 at age 19 to serve in the American Army in the ETO. He was a WWII combat soldier in the famous 79th Division in France (where he was WIA in 1944), Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Czechoslovakia. His nick-name in the Army, bestowed by his quasi-literate hillbilly peers, was “the Perfesser.” Dillon returned to U.C. Berkeley in 1946 only days after demobilization. He earned an M.A. in History, and also published his first scholarly work, in 1949. He took yet another degree at Berkeley in Library Science in 1950.

By the early 1950’s, Dick Dillon had become the primary non-fiction book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He honked out hundreds of reviews for that paper until 1959, even as he was doing research for what would become a Tsunami of full-length books on Western History and Historical Biography published during the next two decades. His writing and publishing took place simultaneously with his position, for nearly 30 years, as the head librarian of the Sutro Library, first at San Francisco City Hall, then on the University of San Francisco Campus. An historical “triple threat,” Dillon taught history and Librarianship at the University of San Francisco for forty years and also, occasionally, at U.C. Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Hawaii. The Richard H. Dillon Literary Archive was established at the Powell Library, Special Collections, UCLA, in the late 1950s, and presently incorporates more than 80 shelf-feet of research material donated for more than 65 years.

For nearly seven decades Richard H. Dillon cranked out one full-length book after another: biographies, and California and Western American history. During his most productive period, in the mid-1960s, he even published two full-length books within a single year, three times over. More than a dozen of his non-fiction books have been re-issued as paperbacks, and many remain in print today, some of them more than sixty years after their initial appearance. Towards the end of his long and productive life, Dillon’s writing came full circle, most of his output now book reviews, hundreds of them, written for the Buckskin Bulletin of Westerner’s International, Signals from Telegraph Hill, the newsletter of the San Francisco Corral of Westerners International, True West Magazine, and the California Territorial Quarterly.

Dick Dillon was a Phi Beta Kappa, a member of many historical societies, and the past President of the Book Club of California. He was the recipient of many literary awards for non-fiction writing, including: 1960– The Phelan Award for Embarcadero; 1966– Award of Merit, American Association for State and Local History, for J. Ross Browne, Confidential Agent in Old California; 1966-Award of Merit, California Historical Society; 1966- Gold Medal, Commonwealth Club of California for Meriwether Lewis; 1967-Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, for Fool’s Gold; 1970-Laura Bride Powers Memorial Award, City and County of San Francisco; 1973- Golden Quill Award, Los Vendedores, for Burnt Out Fires; 1973-Golden Spur Award, Western Writers of America, for Burnt Out Fires; 1975- made a Fellow of the Gleeson Library, University of San Francisco; 1977-Award of Merit, Rounce & Coffin Club of Los Angeles, for Images of Chinatown; 1983-made a Fellow of the California Historical Society; 1986-Philip A. Danielson Award, Westerners International, for The Later Days of the California Missions; 1997-Award of Merit, San Francisco Historical Society; 1997-Oscar Lewis Award, Book Club of California; 1997– Award of Merit, Napa County Historical Society; 1999-Award of Merit, Rounce & Coffin Club, Los Angeles, for Artful Deeds in the Life of the Felon, Grovenor Layton.

Dick Dillon joined the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners in the early 1950s, and was a regular contributor to its quarterly Branding Iron. He also published chapters in its Brand Books 7 (1957) and 8 (1959). When another corral was formed in San Francisco in 1965, much closer to home, Dillon joined that one too, and became active in both organizations despite their 400 mile separation. No single Westerner gave illustrated slide presentations on historical topics to a greater number of corrals than he, not just repeatedly at the San Francisco and Los Angeles Corrals, but in every other corral within the state of California, including many that have subsequently ceased to exist, and at sister corrals in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, New York, and even in London, England. In recognition of his unparalleled contribution to historical writing, teaching, and lecturing, Richard H. Dillon was named Westerners International Living Legend No. 46 in 2003. An even more unique honor came two years later, in 2005, when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by ten different organizations that banded together to celebrate his contribution to Western History: the Bancroft Library, Book Club of California, California State Library Foundation, Gleeson Library, Huntington Library, Roxburghe Club of San Francisco, Society of California Pioneers, Sutro Library, UCLA Library, and the San Francisco Corral of Westerners.

In the early 1980s Richard H. Dillon had the unusual pleasure of collaborating on archaeological and historical research projects with his oldest son, Brian. The “double-Dillons” began publishing as co-authors on history and prehistory almost exactly 40 years ago. More recently, beginning in 2012, the Dillon literary duo became a trio, with the addition of RHD’s grandson, John. All three literary Dillons went to U.C. Berkeley, and all three became members of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners International. This “triple-Dillon” research and writing team won the Coke Wood Award for historical writing from Westerner’s International three years in a row, each time for articles published in the California Territorial Quarterly.

Dick Dillon dropped dead at age 92 in the middle of an historical discussion he was having with an admirer, with all of his mental faculties intact. Still writing up to his final day, an unfinished book review was in his typewriter when he went west. Upon learning of Dillon’s passing, his long-time friend and admirer, the late historian Dr. Robert Chandler (Westerners International Living Legend No. 64) eulogized him by saying: “A Giant Has Fallen.” Dick Dillon’s fellow historian Monsignor Francis J. Weber, of Mission San Fernando, California (Westerners International Living Legend No. 60) said, upon learning of the passing of his old friend of more than 50 years: “You don’t know whether to pray For Dick Dillon, or pray To Him.” Richard H. Dillon’s literary contributions are even continuing post-mortem, as his unpublished research notes are selectively updated and expanded by his son Brian. These are periodically published in the Los Angeles Corral’s quarterly Branding Iron, which journal has been edited since 2017 by Dick Dillon’s grandson, John.


By Brian Dervin Dillon, Ph.D., 2016, revised 2022.