Nick Henrikson:

A Tale of Travel from the Dark to the Light

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Nick Henrikson spies me from across the street and grins, waving grandly. He has only met me once before. 

I watch him make his way across the street, and he stops briefly to chat with random people he knows. Even as he makes his way to my table here at Zinc, two women see him from the sidewalk and stop to say “hello” to Nick. He introduces me with something close to a reverential bow, and tells the women that he’s being interviewed. They are delighted, and assure me there’s no one better. 

In my 30 years of interviewing rock stars, celebrities and global entrepreneurs, I’ve not met anyone so immediately endearing. My best friend, Lisa, told me months ago that I should interview the iconic Nick Henrikson of Ralph’s grocery store fame and, while I never question her judgment, I wondered a little bit about the recommendation until now, this moment. Now, it’s all clear. 

Nick Henrikson, a 22-year-old Laguna Beach resident, is sunny. He is simply sunny and bright. I feel bathed in a glow as I sit across from him, and it is his person, his persona, that creates this immediate warmth. 

He has traveled a long way to reach this warmth himself. With help from his parents and a set of talented and committed educators in Laguna Beach, Nick found his way from the dark to the light. And now, everything is sunny. 

Nick’s First Three Years: Not a Sound

It’s hard to believe that Nick never smiled as a baby, or even uttered a sound until the age of three. While he never presented overt symptoms of autism such as “stemming” (repetitive patterns such as rocking or spinning), head-banging or dissociative behavioral issues, his mom, Maggi, felt something was amiss and enrolled him in special education and speech evaluation as a preschooler.

As he learned sign language and communicative gestures, it wasn’t until his baby brother, Erik, came along that Nick connected the communication dots. He would lie next to and even on top of Erik to try to get sounds out of his baby brother; he was fascinated and completely focused on the research project. When Erik was about 18 months old, and Nick was 4 years of age, they spoke – for the very first time – together. Nick’s vocabulary went from one word to more than 30 in just a few days’ time. It’s as if his brother showed him the way … and, then, Nick was off and gabbling. 

From that point forward, Nick never stopped talking. An enormous dam had simply crumbled and, just as he intuitively emulated his brother’s first attempts at communication, Nick began to emulate the peers around him. He leapfrogged forward in educative and social skills, wrapped in the protective and encouraging arms of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

For Nick, It’s All in the Details … Every Detail

“I have high-functioning autism,” Nick tells me. “It makes it hard to learn, and it was hard to listen to teachers, but I remember facts really well, so that probably has helped get me through.”

That’s a serious understatement. When Nick was at Thurston Middle School, he worked one period every day in the front office and knew where every single kid was at that time. Harried parents would come in with a forgotten lunch, and Nick would say, “He’s in Room 212!” 

Still to this day, he can easily recite every friend and neighbor’s license plate. He began playing tennis at the age of 7, and did very well in the high school’s tennis team because he “watched Rafael Nadal a lot” because Rafa was his favorite. He also ran up records in cross-country, participating on the team the entire four years he was in high school.

Nick has worked at Laguna’s Ralphs on Cleo Street since the age of 16. He came on board as a bagger, and then began to help with inventory. Now, seven years later, Nick knows where every item is shelved in the store, and knows the price code for any item the store stocks. 

A few years ago, he was promoted to the check stand because he’s so incredibly fast with check out. He knows the product code before it’s even scanned against the laser-infused glass, often pausing briefly to correct the system if a code number is askew. 

“I like it when people ask me where things are, because I can tell them what shelf it’s on,” says Nick. “But most of the time, they just ask me where the bathrooms are.” 

“I’ve worked with Nick about five years, and he’s just got a gift at putting a smile on people’s faces,” says Kevin Tate. “You may walk in feeling a little bristly but, before you know it, you’re feeling warm and cozy because Nick’s done something or said something to make your day right.”

A Big Step Toward Independence: The Glennwood House

Over the seven years at Ralphs, Nick has gotten to know a vast amount of Laguna Beach residents, and remembers each by name. 

Through his childhood, Nick struggled with shying away from people and making eye contact, both traits found in people with autism. Today, as long as he knows you and likes you, he’s happy to give you a hug. He also works consciously to maintain eye contact with people he meets – again, this is an easier task for him when it’s someone in his known circle, and it’s always easier when they’re the first to reach out and engage with Nick. In that nanosecond, he brightens noticeably and a happy smile flits across his features. 

“I love to travel, but right now, I really like Laguna and the people here, so I’m going to stay in Laguna,” he says matter-of-factly. 

Last year in August, Nick took yet another huge step for himself by moving to his own place in the Glennwood House at 2130 S. Coast Highway. “Glennwood is for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to have more independence,” says Nick, again in a scholarly tone. “I thought I’d be different than most of the kids there, but I have a few friends now, and I love that I can come and go, just as long as I let them know where I’m going.” 

He says the step was a big one, “Even though my parents live right up the hill,” he admits. “It’s way different living on your own. At first, I thought about having a roommate, but sometimes I’m working late, and I didn’t want to bother someone or, you know, worry about bothering someone. So, I have my own cool pad to myself.”

Fortunately the meals are “fantastic,” thanks to resident cook Shelia, and Nick does his best to hit all three offerings in the day. “I wish dinner was a little later, but I know that if I ask to bend it for me, they have to bend it for everyone.”

Life is a Highway …

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It’s incongruous, really, this child born into the closed world of autism who is now so genuinely magnanimous in his outlook and approach. 

His mother, Maggi, assures me that it’s taken a village to help and support this child-now-young-man, and she can’t say enough gratitudes to the people who have stepped up and stepped into Nick’s life. 

A couple years ago, friends and family members began asking Nick for rides to the Orange County or LAX airports. He owns a beautiful Nissan truck “With plenty of suitcase room,” and he adores the side job. He’s never had a car accident or even a speeding ticket, and several people will ask Nick to drive them to the airport in their own car, and bring it back home for safe keeping while they’re traveling. 

He has since expanded his driving role to dropping off and picking up people who go out on the town. “When I turned 21, my parents took me to Las Vegas,” he says. “I tried a scotch, and I tried a beer, and then I decided alcohol was just not going to be for me.” 

As a designated driver, he’s absolutely punctual, is happy to travel up and down the coast, and only asks for two or three days’ advance notice so as not to interfere with his Ralph’s schedule. “I love it,” says Nick enthusiastically. “I like helping people and I like driving, so it’s the perfect combination for me.”

With the expanding “Drive time,” the new living digs, travel adventures on the horizon, and the full-time job he loves at Ralph’s, Nick says he’s not sure he could be much happier. “I think as long as you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you. ‘Mean’ is not in my nature … so I know it’s all going to be OK for me.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Miguel Contreras guides teens down the right path

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Miguel Contreras is the much-loved and appreciated assistant teen director at the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach.

The Club offers special programs every day for some 30 to 35 rambunctious teens, and Contreras, or “Miggy”, as they like to call him, has got their backs. 

“Miguel is just an incredible role model and confidant,” said Executive Director, Pam Estes. “The kids trust him, and he’s very stable in their lives.”

Contreras is not one to shout out about himself. In fact, his favorite pronoun is “we”. “We have a great program here,” he says. “Everyone gets along well and does their best to keep the kids healthy and safe. It’s a team effort.” 

Miguel Contreras

But he is a person with a backstory of his own, one that has made him a perfect mentor for many of the at-risk teens he encounters. 

He grew up in a LA/San Fernando Valley area that he describes as “a questionable neighborhood.” The area was rife with gangs and drug deals. His father taught him very early on to lie on the floor when they’d hear gunshot. “You don’t want to get hit by a stray bullet,” his father told him.

“Gang life was the biggest danger for me,” Contreras said. “I was the oldest kid, and didn’t really have anybody to hang around with at home. So, I hung around with the gangs.” He saw and heard about the things they did, but he had the temerity to stand up against it. “I made my share of mistakes,” he humbly says. “But I just didn’t agree with hurting people.” 

One important event helped him put things in perspective; he became a father at the age of 17.

Once you know Miguel Contreras, it doesn’t surprise you that he is still married to the same wife, and that they have two other children as well. He’s got a big heart and enjoys spending time with their kids, especially the youngest (at 14) and only daughter. “While she still wants to be with me!” he laughs. He worries for her like most dads do for their daughters once boys enter the equation, though. “She’s giving me gray hairs!”

A kid at heart

What launched Contreras into his future with the Boys & Girls Club was his own children’s joy in Head Start when they were preschoolers. At the time, the program was at El Morro School. Contreras took them there and was so impressed with the program he started volunteering in his free time. That program burgeoned into the pre-school program at the Boys & Girls Club, now called “Even Start”.

Contreras is admittedly like a kid at heart, and the executive director saw how much his presence would add to the Boys & Girls Club. So, Contreras seized the opportunity when a part-time position became available, and began working with the Club’s “Kinder Buddies”. 

For the last six years he has been full-time, working with the slightly more challenging Teen group. 

“High School kids need us even more,” he said. “They can get into trouble with drugs and all that kind of stuff.” He gets it, and the kids know he gets it.

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Books are part of “College Bound”

The Director of Teen Services, Dalene Hamer, has been working with Contreras these past six years. “It’s such a pleasure to work alongside Miguel,” she says. “The passion and dedication he brings to the Club is inspiring and encouraging. The teens feed off of his energy, and his leadership and guidance motivate us all to be better and do great things.”

Every day at the Club, Contreras is involved with a planned activity, from “Triple Play” sports, to homework, cooking, arts, and leadership training. “We prepare teens for the future,” he says. “One of our biggest visions is to keep them healthy and active.”

The Triple Play sports are big fun too. Right now it’s girls basketball season, plus everyone joins in for lightning (basketball in teams of two), and bunker ball, which is like dodge ball and capture the flag combined. Two teams build bunkers out of gym mats on either side, and then try to attack the other team with balls as they go for the prize in the middle. Contreras enjoys it. “I’m a teenager trapped in a 40 year-old body!”

But it’s not all play. “I want to make sure these kids have the tools to get it right; that they don’t fall prey to gangs and drugs,” Contreras says with conviction. He knows from where he speaks.

He mentors and guides early training in college prep, with programs such as “College Bound”, which introduces kids to college mock admissions tests, SAT tests, and other practice drills early on, so they can prepare. 

“We even have middle schoolers, just giving them a little jump start. We get them started early so they don’t get so stressed out.”

Rock solid in many ways

Most importantly, Miguel Contreras is there like a solid rock to lean on, someone to get support from, and often confide in. 

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OC Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year Austin Willhoft chats with “Miggy”

Austin Willhoft is one of those kids. He is the first of Laguna Beach Boys & Girls Club members to be named Orange County Youth of the Year, by the national Club organization. The Youth of the Year recognition is awarded to a club member promoting service to Club, community and family, proving academic success, strong moral character, life goals, poise, and public speaking ability.

Willhoft has been very frank and open about the hardships and violence he faced in his own home growing up, and what a difference the Club has made for him. He has been accepted to the University of Oregon, and is now eligible to participate in state Club competitions to receive a scholarship. If he goes on to win state, then there are regionals, and finally nationals where the scholarship bounty increases to $50,000 and is installed by the President of the United States. 

Contreras is proud of Willhoft’s accomplishments in the face of adversity. Additionally, as he beams, “He’s our ‘Iron Chef’ in the Teen Cuisine program!”

Teen Cuisine is one of Contreras’ favorite programs. It’s all about healthy eating, good cooking, and proper food prep. Once a month the kids pick a spot on the globe, and investigate recipes from that country. Thankfully, so far they haven’t picked Mauritius, because who knows what they eat there, but they have found plenty of interesting and tasty places. They even learn some things about the culture and history as they explore.

Contreras stocks up for the big cooking fest, and focuses on alternatives like turkey instead of red meat, and low-sodium versions of sauces. “The thing the kids love is that they get to eat what they make,” he said. “And you can’t believe how much they can eat!”

Probably the biggest part of mentoring and encouraging youth to cope with the many anxieties of the teen-aged years is to simply be a good listener. With no judgment, and no anger, good listeners provide a safe zone for kids to express themselves however they need to. It’s not a skill taught in school but one that will get you places in life that you might never have thought possible. 

Miguel Contreras is clearly there, as he’s surrounded by the many teens that know they can count on him.


For Lan Zentil, “Complacency” is not a word in her Idea Notebook

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Back in 2011 at a real estate conference, Lan Zentil thought she was sitting in a crooked chair. When the chair swap didn’t change how her back was feeling against its rungs, she decided there might be another issue. 

Sure enough, she had a lump the size of a Ping-Pong ball in her shoulder blade. Two weeks later, she was undergoing every test imaginable with doctors thinking some kind of cancerous tumor was going on. On the day before Christmas Eve, her doctor confirmed that she had bone cancer (sarcoma) in her shoulder blade.

At that point, Lan and her husband, Tony, had already accepted that some kind of surgery was going to be in her future, so they had already been “partying” for several weeks … their type of party being rock climbing, tennis, backpacking and road tripping with their two kids, Tasha and Hendrix. 

“Our big thing is being active,” says Lan. “So, with this unknown coming up, we decided to make sure we got out and did all the activities we most loved to do.”

And this is how Lan tackles life, it seems. A constant flurry of activity and bubbly energy, Lan only increases the pace when something deigns to block her path.

In March 2012, Lan had surgery to remove the shoulder blade. Now, exactly two years later, she’s still completely cancer-free and the thought of that ordeal really isn’t even in her head anymore … except this one reminder:

“When I found out I had cancer, I had this sense of urgency … ‘Get out there!’ … ‘Stop stalling!’ There’s no assurance that next year is going to be there for any of us,” she says. 

“The key now for me is to not get complacent. I’m healthy again and the cancer thing is already a distant memory … but I won’t allow myself to get complacent.”

Mothers and Daughters Unite!

In the six weeks between surgery and physical therapy, Lan’s “Idea Notebook” expanded significantly. Once PT was underway and she was assured much greater range of motion than her doctors first said, she put the last of her personal worries behind her and got busy “on everyone else who needed help,” she says. 

That spring, she and three friends organized the LagunaLoves.org organization, inviting Laguna Beach-based moms and daughters to get involved in fundraising activities of all natures. 

“Laguna Beach is such an awesome giving town – from families that really don’t have much money all the way to the top,” says Lan. “It still surprised me, though, when so many moms and daughters each committed to at least 10 hours of fundraising time that summer in Laguna Beach.”

As the plan went, moms and daughters would choose their organization of choice, and then work together or in other mom/daughter teams to reach their goals. Whatever their choice of donation, 100% of the proceeds went in that direction.

Lemonade stands popped up all over the streets and sidewalks of Laguna Beach. Makeshift sandwich and cookie stands greeted beachgoers, and neighborhood hot dog barbecues reigned supreme. Moms and daughters flooded into community garden projects, led Zero Trash days to clean up the beaches, and cooked and cleaned at the Friendship Shelter. Lan’s own daughter, Tasha (then 8 years old), scavenged all summer for recyclables, earning more than $300 to purchase three bikes for children in Uganda. 

At the official “end” of the project in August, the entire group got together for a high tea party and discovered they’d raised $4,000 in just three months. 

“I think people want to give,” says Lan. “Sometimes, hey just don’t know how to get started.”

40 Lakes in 4 Weekends

Heady with the success she was seeing in her grass roots idea, Lan decided that same summer to raise her own funds by stand up paddling (SUP) 40 lakes in four weekends, and named it “40 Within 4.” (Granted, most of us wouldn’t paddle 40 lakes in a lifetime, nor would we necessarily take on paddling at all were we missing a shoulder blade, but we’re not talking about us, we’re talking about Lan, the whirling dervish.) 

“I was just so excited that I still had this great range of motion in my arm,” says Lan. “I had only taken a lesson at a women’s clinic, and paddled once or twice beyond that, but it seemed like the perfect thing to do to continue my physical therapy in the outdoors where I wanted to be.”

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Her SUP is a big part of her lifestyle

Because her husband, Tony, was planning a 100-mile bike ride in Lake Tahoe at the end of July, the couple meticulously planned from there. With kids tucked into the “fifth family member – their Euro Van – the family devoted four weekends to skipping from lake to lake in Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Yosemite and everything in between.

She completed the 40-lake voyage and raised $4,500 for her efforts.  

The organization that Lan wanted to donate her funds to didn’t exist. So, with help from her social worker at UC Irvine, she created it. 

“I know that a lot of cancer patients really struggle financially, and I wanted to get help right to them, in their hands – just little amounts of money here or there that would make a difference in a day or a week,” she says. Lan made it clear that 100% of her funds would go directly to the patients, so UC Irvine created a fund “depot” just for Lan. 

In that depot, Lan began depositing gift cards as the fundraising came in - $50 and $100 increments – for gas, Target and Wal-Mart, initially. She expanded from there, even including gift certificates to the advanced physical therapy clinic that had given her athletic lifestyle back. Social workers who work daily with cancer patients meet regularly to choose the recipients.  

“The patients know that another cancer patient gave these gift cards to them, and I like that. 

“If I can help relieve a little stress or take the load off, even in some small way, I like being a part of that healing.” 

“The Complacency Barometer”

Recently, after dropping off the last of her “SUP earnings,” Lan realized it was time to “re-fund raise … time to get back out there!” 

Thankfully, a new project idea was readily available in the same Idea Notebook. Lan calls this project “40 Children in 4 Days,” with a plan to pack herself off to India this fall. 

“I turn 40 this year. It’s just time to widen my scope,” she says simply. 

The India trip is one-part help at orphanages she’ll be visiting (4 days) and one-part research (3 days). She’s already planned a couple tea plantation tours, which will further launch her next business, an organic tea company she’s named A Cup of Humanitea.  

“The cancer thing gets you thinking about where you’re spending your time,” she says. “Being a real estate broker in this town is great and I love my clients, but it’s very demanding and time-consuming. I want more time with my husband and kids, and I want a job that actually combines art, creativity and travel. So, that’s why I’m getting into the tea business.” 

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Tea Service for humanitarian causes

Lan has already started blending teas and packaging for distribution. Proceeds, of course, primarily go to humanitarian causes, with countries like India at the top of her list.

“In the end, it’s all about that complacency barometer, you know?” she queries. “You plan to do this with your life, or plan to do this for your fun and, before you know it, the years are just gone. 

“My biggest key to success is anxiety,” she says and pauses to laugh at the surprise statement that just came out of her mouth. 

“All I’m thinking is, ‘You gotta do this! Hurry up!’ There are so many people to help out there! Hurry up!”

 

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the 4-color book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Ethan Damato; a water polo recipe for success

He will be honored Saturday by the national Water Polo Hall of Fame 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

What do you get if you combine two atoms of Hydrogen with one atom of Oxygen, add a little Chlorine, a bunch of Adrenaline, and seven Carbon-based humans? If you’re Croatian or Hungarian, or almost any European, you are not allowed to answer this. 

No, it’s not a science experiment. It is a recipe for the fast-paced, heart-thumping, nearly death-defying sport of water polo. 

In many parts of the USA you’d get a quizzical look and maybe that tired retort about how do you keep the horses from drowning. But not in California. And especially not in Southern California. 

Now if you add a huge heart, a lot of passion, and a focus on every nuance of strategy thrown into the mix, you get Ethan Damato. In this personification you won’t find quizzical looks, but rather recognition, admiration, and respect. Even in Europe, where they think they own the sport.

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Ethan Damato

Laguna Beach takes pride in having nurtured, and witnessed the success this hometown boy has achieved. 

Back when Damato was a lad at Laguna Beach High School his then coach, Rick Scott, saw his future in coaching. “It was after losing a game,” Damato remembers. “We were on the bus on the way back to Laguna and I was so upset. Rick came over to talk with me, and he asked, ‘What do you think we did wrong?’” As Damato has been doing since the day he met the sport in high school, he was replaying every quarter of the game in his mind. Scott valued his feedback. 

“He told me, ‘One day you’re going to be a coach.’”

“I coached him all four years of high school,” Scott told us. “His passion and love for the game was clearly evident. He gave everything the moment he hit the pool deck.” Damato was team captain, and demonstrated early on his leadership capabilities. “He was always talking from the pool, always coaching the players in a very positive manner,” Scott said. “I’ve watched him be a leader outside the pool too. He’s been such a positive role model.”

Damato went on to play at Cuesta College, where his college coach dubbed him “Little Big Man”. “He didn’t think much of me athletically,” said Damato. “But, intellectually; he appreciated my mind.” He, too, saw coaching in the young athlete’s future.

Since Damato took the head coach position at the high school in 2008 he has guided the fall season boys team, and the spring season girls team, training them in-between seasons, and working every other waking hour as a club coach. His assistant is former high school teammate, Trevor Lyle. To date, they have led both the LBHS girl’s team and boy’s team each to CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) championships twice, taken the club team, SET, to the National Junior Olympics for one gold, two silvers, and three bronze medals, and racked up countless tournament wins.

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Photo by DAVID NASH

LBHS girls win 2013 CIF SS Division I Championship

Additionally Damato works with the Youth National Team, as Assistant Coach, where they will be traveling to Madrid to compete in the championships this summer, and he has been selected as Head Coach for the girls UANA Junior World Championships competition between North and South America.

This young man is deservedly being honored April 5 at the Water Polo Hall of Fame awards ceremony, with the Doc Hunkler Distinguished Coaching Award, a national award given to only one coach nationally who has demonstrated excellence in working with female athletes.

Water polo is a rigorous sport that requires individual talent mixed with team coordination, guided by an able coach. But when it’s the high school years, you have to deal with grousing complaints and pushback. 

Damato believes girls are easier to coach because they listen. “I joke with the boys, when they finally learn to trust me, they graduate.”

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Damato’s office

Most fans will bemoan the fact that water polo gets so little attention in the world of sports given that so much hard work goes into it.   

ESPN.go dives into the debate of the toughest sports in the world. With choices based on four factors, endurance, strength, agility, and nerve, this is what ESPN sports columnist Eric Neel says: “We’re supposed to believe (boxing), football, basketball, and tennis are harder than water polo? Please. Endurance? A water polo player swims 1.5 miles a game, with another player dragging and climbing all over him, pushing his head under the water and saying unkind things about his mamma when he comes up for air. Strength? These guys egg-beater their legs for 32 minutes in nine feet of water, muscle each other for position and rise up into the air like they’re jumping off a trampoline to shoot and block shots. Agility? They work back-cuts and spin moves like Kobe and Marvin Harrison. Nerve? They take 50-mph shots in the face and breathe in lungs-full of water. And they keep coming back for more.

“Boxing is the No. 1 sport in our rankings, and boxing is brutal. But you know what water polo is? It’s boxing plus sprinting plus basketball plus wrestling. With no floor beneath your feet. Show me the boxer who levitates and shoots a ball with a defender in his face while he’s bobbing and weaving. Until then, show me love for water polo and the amazing athletes who play it.”

That sounds like the mindset of Ethan Damato.

The small world of water polo can seem a confusing mix of rules and regulations peopled by near cultic fans. Laguna kids start as young as the 10 and under age group in Chad Beeler’s program at the community pool (a boys and girls mixed team), and learn very early on to either love the sport or leave it. It is physically demanding and requires intensive training and time. Those who stay with it get to know every teammate and even many of those they oppose, like one big family.

Shining stars in the Laguna water polo family include Damato’s past and current athletes. Annika Dries (LBHS 2009) plays on the Women’s National Team and won the gold medal with the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Nolan McConnell (LBHS 2012) plays on the Men’s National Team, and current LBHS students, sisters Aria and Makenzie Fischer, each play on national teams. 

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Photo by MAGGI

Aria and Makenzie Fischer

Aria Fischer, only a freshman, has made a huge impact on the team already. “I can wholeheartedly say she’s one of the best players in the country,” Damato said. The Fischers are a water polo family in every sense. Dad, Erich, and mom, Leslie, played water polo when they were at Stanford, and Erich also played for the USA in the 1992 Olympics. 

Leslie says that one of the amazing things about Coach Damato is that he makes the team a family. “He’s so able to make them love and care for each other,” she said. “And so quickly. It takes a special person to do that.” 

Makenzie, a junior, plays on the Women’s National Team, and will continue with competitions overseas. She can attest to the level of her coach’s dedication. “On New Year’s Eve he sent me a video upload of our game! He wanted to analyze it.” 

It’s a good bet we’ll be seeing these young stars playing in the Olympics in the future.

Many of Damato’s high school athletes have gone on to play water polo for some of the biggest names in academia as well; Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Johns Hopkins among them.

How in the world would Ethan Damato find time for anything besides water polo? Cupid must have felt the light bulb go off over his head when he thought of sending love to the pool deck. 

Kari Johnson started at LBHS at the same time as Damato. She was to be the swim coach, and he was to be the water polo coach. Things did not go swimmingly at first, as each maneuvered to gain new territory in the same space.

“We were both laying a foundation, and trying to set a precedent,” said Damato. “It wasn’t easy at first, but we had a lot of respect for each other.” Before long they had more than that, as they fell in love. Aww! Last summer they got married, and you know that somewhere the water gods were smiling. 

It was an action-packed year for Ethan Damato as his club team won the Junior Olympics gold, the high school girls won CIF, he took a national team to Italy, got married, had a honeymoon, and got the distinguished coaching award too.

Go Ethan!


Turning 70, Mick Donoff plans one heck of a ride

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Next week, Mick Donoff turns 70. 

“After last year’s birthday, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my 70th, he says. “I didn’t want a big party, and I didn’t feel like sitting at a resort somewhere, and then I knew what it had to be …”

On April 6, just three days after his 70th, Mick is riding his bicycle from Laguna Beach to St. Augustine, Florida … because that’s what most men want to scratch off their bucket list at 70.

It’s not just his bucket list, though. After seeing many close friends and family members die or suffer from cancer, he’s raising funds with every mile he rides for the charity, Stand Up 2 Cancer. “I think it’s time I stepped up and did something significant with my life to help other people,” says Mick. 

In February, after making his decision for the 3,069-mile trek, Mick set a goal to raise $10,000 for the charity. Stand Up 2 Cancer was co-founded in 2008 by Katie Couric, and gives every penny raised to innovative research teams and scientists who are working on various cancer projects. Mick will be riding under the Ride America 4 Cancer (RAM4C) banner, which creates rides everywhere to help this charitable cause. 

When Mick first made his trans-continental tour announcement to friends, he expected some backlash. “First of all, I’ve never asked my friends for money. And, I figured they would be more interested in talking me off the ledge,” he says. 

“But this big circle of supportive people just keeps growing, and the generosity is really unbelievable.”

See Mick off on Sunday, April 6 at Heisler

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 6, anyone and everyone is invited to Mick’s “Send Off Birthday Breakfast” at the picnic tables in Heisler Park. He’s asking that people kindly RSVP to his email address or phone number so that enough food is provided for all. Beyond that, though, he’s just asking for money contributions, either by check or through the online Stand Up 2 Cancer “file” reserved in his name. (Find all the details at the end.)

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Tools for staying busy and alert while pedaling 100 miles a day

The April 6 Heisler fountainhead is actually part of a larger, organized tour through the Adventure Cycling organization. On that same day, hundreds of cyclists will be leaving San Diego to trek the Southern Tier Route, which meanders through Tempe and Las Cruces, beelines through El Paso and Austin, then trips to Baton Rouge, through Biloxi and the Florida Panhandle, and finally deadheads for St. Augustine. 

“It’s perfect that it ends in St. Augustine,” says Mick. “That’s where Ponce de Leon claimed he discovered the Fountain of Youth. I figure I’ll be needing it right about then.”

Pedaling Into the Heart of Americana

Riders can choose to stay in “packs” or take off on their own. No surprise here – Mick wants to do this on his own, even leaving his usual support crew – Sharon, his wife – in California.

“I figure I can cover about 100 miles a day, but I’m not in a hurry,” he says. For Mick, this is an opportunity to do what he loves to do most – meet people from all walks of life. He loves talking to people and learning about their lives. He says his wife considered driving a support crew van, but finally admitted that she didn’t want to be waiting seven hours at a pre-arranged stop, wondering if he’d been mushed on the road when, instead, he’d probably found a pump jockey to converse with at some “rickety gas station.”

“I can’t help it,” he says with a chuckle. “People are fascinating to me. This is my chance to go at my own pace, and stop and talk whenever I feel like it. I get to be a part of Americana, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”      

For weeks, Mick has been laying out his packs for the ride, testing weight and balance with the bike’s custom saddlebags. Because this is a particularly demanding trek, Mick is leaving his lighter carbon bike behind. This time, for nearly three months, his steel frame bike will be keeping him company. The bike weighs about 36 pounds. Mick weighs about 168 pounds, so total weight should be about 230-240 pounds. 

Tucked, rolled and stuffed into the compact bags are his lightweight sleeping bag and tent, a couple changes of clothes, his bike’s toolkit, his GoPro camera, iPad and iPhone and – most important – his iPhone speaker, attached to the handlebars. 

“I listen to anything from classical to country … and electronica for the hills.”

He’ll stop in Austin for a few days to meet his wife; she’s bringing his “warm weather” clothes to exchange. “Getting through West Texas will probably be the most challenging because there’s not a lot out there … except a lot of wind. So, I figured I’d reward myself after making it through that hurdle.”

An Addiction to Uber

Although he is 70, and though he’s never done a trans-continental trek before, Mick is no stranger to the world of “ultra racing.” 

Mick began running marathons at the age of 34 and, after 30 marathons, decided to boost the mileage count by taking on 50k runs (31 miles). Tiring of that, he upped it again, completing his first 100-mile run at the age of 44. At that point, he was hooked, and participated as an “ultra-runner” in many acclaimed 100-mile races across North America. 

“If you want to get better as a runner, road biking is the thing that gives you the stamina and strength,” says Mick. “So, since I was already doing 80 and 90-mile days on my bike to train for these things, I decided to try ‘ultra-mountain biking,’ too.”

(Sure. Why not? It’s something we all do, after all.)

Through his 50s and 60s, Mick participated in 12 ultra races, some five and six days in duration, covering 500 or more miles. “I had nine finishes of 12 races,” he says. “But I’m most proud of the record I still hold in the Leadville race. I made it five miles before my bike broke. They still have a plaque in my name for that amazing feat.”

On his off weeks, Mick has hiked Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) and Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet).

“I was fortunate to be a teacher for 38 years, so it gave me the freedom to train and go do” says Mick. “And you know, you always have to come back with a story on what you did for your summer vacation.”

Oddly, the man with endless wanderlust loves his roots. He and his wife have been Laguna Beach residents (in the same house) since 1976, and he demonstrated the same “roots” preference in his occupation, too. He taught computer science and history, and coached track and cross-country at Mission Viejo High School for 25 of his 38 years. He was voted “Teacher of the Year” before announcing his decision to retire. “You always want to go out when you’re on top,” he says with a wide grin.  

Not recognizing that he’s already made a difference in so many lives, he talks of his surprise at former students – some of them in their 40s now – who have seen his Facebook entries and have freely donated money and encouragement. 

“I think this is all going to work out,” he says. “And then I’m probably going to do a bigger trip. I’ve been thinking of Canada to the tip of South America …” 

To make a tax-deductible donation for Mick Donoff’s ride:

Make checks out to SU2C, please reference TEAM RAM4C. Bring the check to the April 6 breakfast, or mail it to Mick directly. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details. 

Or, go online to www.StandUp2Cancer.org - the search is so convoluted for your specific donation for Mick that we’re providing the shortened link directly to Mick’s page here: http://bit.ly/1hgKPYP

Follow Mick’s progress at the same StandUp link, above, or at his Facebook page, facebook.com/mick.donoff


Joanne Culverhouse, a leader among leaders

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Joanne Culverhouse arrived in Laguna 15 years ago like a breath of fresh air. Her light-hearted personality was immediately apparent when she spoke before the community, and her keen intellect has guided an educational upswing for three of Laguna’s four schools.

At her first presentation for PTA’s “Coffee Break” she put the crowd at ease with her assured style, evident knowledge and concern for our youth, and with her sense of humor. “How did you decide to come to Laguna?” was one of the questions asked. Culverhouse smiled and weighed in with her hands, “Hmm… Hemet or Laguna? That was an easy decision!”

She served as an elementary school principal in the Hemet School District (Whittier Elementary School), and before that she was a teacher and a principal in Reno, Nevada. The coastal life in Laguna Beach seemed a dream come true, and Culverhouse is still filled with the enthusiasm and joy of those first days.

Now the Laguna Beach High School principal, she has been there for hundreds of kids as they transitioned from elementary, to middle school, and on to high school. The current eighth graders represent the last batch of El Morro and Thurston kids that Culverhouse will have known as principal in all three schools. The pictures in her office tell the story: There she is bending down to the little tykes as she gives them graduation papers at El Morro, standing up beside them at Thurston, and then looking shoulders above her at their high school graduation. 

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Dr. Culverhouse assists Sarina Strickland in the LBHS Library

Confidence of a natural-born leader

Culverhouse is a powerful influence in the community, garnering such awards and distinctions as the Principal of Excellence Award (The Irvine Educational Excellence), Laguna’s 30 Most Influential People, Woman of the Year (American Association of University Women), and Coast Magazine Orange County’s Top 10 Influential People.

One of the reasons for her success is that she enjoys what she does. She was always interested in teaching, and had the confidence of a natural-born leader.

Raised in a military family, Culverhouse encountered the daunting experience of a new school every couple of years as they moved from town to town. But she had (and still has) a loving and supportive family, and the will to conquer her fears. Not that there were many fears because she is, admittedly, very competitive by nature. She embodies the “can-do” spirit. 

Her sister and her father now live in Nevada, but the Culverhouse family remains very close. Joanne calls her father every morning on the way to work. “He just sets my day,” she says. “He is such a positive person, always full of love. I’ll say, ‘How’s your day?’ and he always says, ‘It’s a great day!’”

Three sports star at Nevada

That may be where she got her zest for life. In addition to all the great work she does on behalf of education, Culverhouse is an avid outdoors person. She loves to hike, bike, run, ski, and play lots of sports. 

While she was on her own educational track she participated in three NCAA sports at the University of Nevada: volleyball, softball, and basketball. It was the early years of Title 9, and Culverhouse was a stellar athlete as well as student. She had one year out of softball season due to an injury, but managed to make that up with an extra year, all with full-ride scholarships. 

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An impromptu three-way Frisbee toss in the quad

She loved sports so much she never imagined a life without them. But, inevitably, along comes graduation and the team goes their separate ways. Thankfully Culverhouse fell in love with teaching, and that led her to pursue double master’s programs (Master of Science, and Education Specialist, both at U of N), and a PhD (Educational Leadership, UCLA).

She remains good friends with her athletic teammates from back-in-the day, and they go on annual trips together. This summer they will be hiking in Ireland, from coast to coast. It takes ten days, apparently, if you’re in good shape. That sounds relatively easy when you find out she has biked the entire United States. 

Back in 1986 Culverhouse and some friends wrote on the back of a napkin about things they would like to have done once they reached the ripe old age of 50. The funny, crazy coincidence is that one of her best friends wrote the exact same thing, even though they had never discussed it. Identically they had the same Big Dream written on the back of a napkin. They knew, then and there, they had to – ride a bike across America.

She made the journey with two friends, all the way from Anacortes, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts in 42 days. Yes, they crossed five mountain passes in four days. Yes, it rained a lot and camping gear was soaked. Yes it was often miserable. But how else would you ever encounter Small Town America, like the one with a population of 200 where the neighbors took them into their homes and their lives?

In her “Back of a Napkin” address to the LBHS graduating class of 2013, Dr. Culverhouse reflected on that trip with the wisdom of hindsight. 

These 27 years later she remarked, “What in the world were we thinking? How could we have thought this would be fun? Standing in the pouring rain at a pay phone (ask your parents what a pay phone is) in the middle of nowhere, I called home. When I heard my dad’s voice I lost it and started to cry. I told him I had bitten off more than I could chew and just wanted to come home. But as the years have passed the most meaningful aspect of our journey now is not so much the actual ride across America, but the memories of the overwhelming generosity of spirit of the people we met along the road, and the sustaining satisfaction of successfully accomplishing a very difficult goal.”

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It’s a treat for our community that Culverhouse will share these stories and, in fact, she gives a darn good speech. For some of us, public speaking is a whopping challenge, but Culverhouse speaks as if in a friendly salon with like-minded people. She engages, makes you think and usually makes you laugh too. She has that edge of confidence, bolstered by passion, and tempered by humility.

Recognizing how much influence a teacher holds

Participating and speaking at workshops and conferences has become a regular part of her life and she enjoys it. One of her favorite events was when she was invited by the Department of Defense, of all things, to speak in Germany at a conference of teachers. Her speech was titled “Mentor of Hope and Creator of Dreams.” 

That speech highlights the overlying theme in her approach to education; how educators have the power to influence the life of a child. “As a teacher, you have so much power to influence them,” she says. “Teachers need to be reminded of that. Every one of us can think of a teacher who has impacted our lives.”

Culverhouse’s influence is certainly remembered by her students. One example was her experience as a new fifth grade teacher. She taught her class about voting, and the importance of registering to vote when they turn 18. “If you do,” she told them, “contact me and I’ll take you out to lunch.” Sure enough, five of those kids stayed in touch, registered to vote and their former teacher took them out for lunch. “It’s so rewarding when that happens.” she says. That’s what it’s all about.

Her influence is also evident by the appreciation of the teachers she leads.

In the back corner office of LBHS, where Culverhouse quietly conducts business there is a framed sheet of music. Most people, and certainly not the naughty pupil sent in will look at it closely, but Culverhouse shared the story when we talked the other day. 

It was in her first job as principal in 1995, and she really didn’t know how much influence she wielded. But, when she was leaving to move on to another school, the teachers gathered for a farewell party in the gymnasium. Unbeknownst to her, the music teacher had been secretly practicing the orchestra with a piece of music he wrote just for her. It is titled “No Words Can Say” and the lyrics include, “You’re a leader in the best sense of the word. The driving wheel that makes others turn.” That treasured sheet of music is a moving and touching testament that indeed no words can say. It’s an expressive thank you from the heart.

Joanne Culverhouse, pillar of the community, champion for education, and fun to hang around with!


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Kirsten Sedlick

 

Saving seals and sea lions is just another day in the office

If it hadn’t been for her knee injury, she wouldn’t have discovered the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Canyon. Kirsten Sedlick began as a PMMC volunteer and now, 18 years later, she is a PMMC Supervisor with an extraordinarily unique life experience under her belt. After all, how many people on this planet get to nurse sick and injured marine mammals back to health? 

At 18, Kirsten Sedlick was a volleyball player on scholarship, bound for college. When her knee took her out of the game, she fell back on what she loved most: animals and the ocean. 

Growing up in Newport Beach, Kirsten was the rescuer of every stray to come her way. She would agree to Mom’s rules - keeping the rescued stray in the garage - but somehow that stray would find its way into the family living room. She also remembers reading a Jacques Cousteau book on sharks and their primary prey, the Elephant Seal. At that point, she decided she’d be a Protector of the Elephant Seals. 

And now … she is. And they know it.  

Kirsten roams the large red barn hospital in Laguna Canyon, checking in on her sick seals and sea lions. She whips up Herring Smoothies and works with team members to herd recovering seals into the “small pool” for feeding. 

Throughout, no matter what her activity, the seals pad after her and gaze up at her. She is oblivious; they are not. Inherently, these injured creatures seem to recognize what Kirsten is here for. 

Kirsten heard of the PMMC when she was working at the Long Beach Aquarium, teaching kids about the universe that exists underwater. On further research she learned that the PMMC was responsible for the entire Orange County coastline in the rescue of Elephant Seals, California Sea Lions, Pacific Harbor Seals and some Northern Fur Seals. The PMMC rescues beached whales and dolphins, sea turtles and sea otters, too. 

“What drew me here aside from the obvious … all these critters … was meeting John Cunningham,” says Kirsten “As soon as I started as a volunteer, he found me and chatted with me. He was so welcoming and so committed to the purpose here, and that’s what I try to emulate with all our staff and volunteers.”

 

Each Patient a Unique Personality

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Averaging 180 patients a year; dealing with an alarming and exhausting onslaught of 373 patients last year; and enduring fire, flood, swarms of bees, famine, disease, poisoning, coyotes and more, you’d think Kirsten and her mighty PMMC crew are participating in an “End of Times” Hollywood movie. 

“It’s never a dull moment here,” Kirsten says with a hearty chuckle. “Every day is different, and every patient’s story is definitely unique.”

The staff is trained to maintain an emotional distance from its patients, even while each patient hangs out for an average of two to four months. The goal, after all, is to release these wild animals back to the seas. While the staff purposely does not interact or make eye contact, they still name each of their incoming patients based on a personality feature, or an issue the poor thing is enduring. 

“Big Bruce,” a recent Sea Lion patient with a Great White Shark bite, was named after the “Jaws” creature (nicknamed Bruce), and the “recovering” Great White in “Finding Nemo.” 

Today, Kirsten and her crew are nursing eight patients, among them “Sir Edmund” (“we found him at the top of a cliff, which Elephant Seals really don’t do”), “Abalone” (who arrived on Kirsten’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and was discovered on a bed of abalone), and “Otter Pop,” (simply “slick on wheels”).

As she thinks back to her favorites, Kirsten mentions Bismarck (a Sea Lion missing both rear flippers), Fiddler (rescued from the top of a roof in Newport Beach), and Captain Hook, a Sea Lion who arrived with more than 70 hooks and lines imbedded in his skin and flippers. He was rehabilitated and eventually released, only to be rescued seven days later toting more hooks and wire. 

“He was like some kind of magnet, the poor guy,” Kirsten commiserates. On Captain Hook’s second release, a Coast Guard ship did the honors of depositing Sir Hook on the far side of the Channel Islands, and he’s been hook-free since.

Fire, Flood and Pestilence

Kirsten stands in the PMMC hospital wing’s kitchen, whipping up Herring Smoothies for her critical care patients who must be tube fed. She points to individual doctors’ charts, each denoting the name of the patient, a series of progressive photos, its weight gains, and its own unique recipe concoction of said smoothie (some parts Karo Syrup, some parts Milk Matrix, some parts Pedialyte, all parts Herring). 

“We’re not an assembly line here,” she says. “Each patient has its own unique Smoothie requirements,” says Kirsten. 

Has she ever tried a Herring Smoothie? “Uhmm, purely by accident,” she laughs, admitting that she’s never been a fish eater to begin with.

Accidentally ingesting a Herring smoothie is not the first surprise Kirsten has encountered in her 18 years. When raging fires swept down Laguna Canyon in October 1993, all hell broke loose. “We have rescue and removal plans,” says Kirsten. “It was so fast and so sudden, though, that we were moving patients into the back seats of our own cars to evacuate.”

In the Christmas flood of 2010, PMMC thought it was ready for the worst. No one, however, expected the hill behind the facility to break loose and tumble down onto the PMMC. 

“I got a call at dawn, and my people were telling me it was complete devastation,” says Kirsten. “When I finally managed to get here, I could hardly recognize our hospital.” 

Fortunately, amidst all the mud and rising waters, every patient survived. The PMMC shipped its patients to Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro and got to work. They spent the next long month digging out the pools, replacing the entire laboratory, and receiving loads of supplies and calls from locals who thought the whale bones that had washed downstream might belong to them. (Indeed, the whalebone display had gone missing.)

“Most of us worked night and day because we missed our patients so much,” says Kirsten. “It was an eerie place without them.”

Saving 373 Critters in a Single Year

The memory of that silent hospital reversed on a dime when early 2013 saw an epidemic of sick seals and sea lions begin to arrive. “We had our usual 7 patients in December, and then had 17 in January and 30 in February,” says Kirsten. “Then in March, we had 112 new patients. It was … daunting.”

Far beyond the fires and floods, the 2013 epidemic that sent hordes of sick marine mammals to the PMMC was the greatest challenge Kirsten has dealt with yet. “At one point, we had 167 patients here, and it was endless 20-hour days just to keep up on each of their feedings four times a day.”

The PMMC hospital became something more like a MASH triage unit. Kirsten was in charge of organizing the volunteers and staff around the clock, and helped with tiered triage decisions for each patient as it arrived. She, herself, tube fed 60 and 70 malnourished seals a day while singing lullabies over the phone to her toddler who wondered where Mommy had gone. 

“We had Laguna animal control officers, park rangers and lifeguards helping us with as many as 13 rescues a day,” says Kirsten. “Our administrative staff upstairs was down here in the trenches. It was an awesome community commitment. 

“When you see support in such a huge way, it gives you the strength to keep going. We had a record number of seals come in, and we had a record number of releases of rehabilitated seals. I can’t imagine a success greater than that. 

“Every day I know this – but it’s the worst times that remind me that I’m really making a difference. How lucky am I to call this my job?” 

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is a non-profit organization at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and donations are happily accepted.


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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Ron Reno – 32 years – 1,636 weeks – 10,000 days

As his regulars cross the Andree’s Patisserie threshold, he is already bagging their favorite item.

He greets each customer with a happy grin, and gestures with the bakery bag in hand, filled with flaky goodness. This person always wants a Bear Claw. That one prefers the plain croissant. This one is in for his turkey sandwich (no cheese).

As I step up to the worn counter, it is only my third visit in as many months. Ron eyes me momentarily and says, “You’re the decaf Au Lait with not so much milk, right?” I grin and feel important. Heavens, I think … I drop into a large chain coffee shop in Dana Point at least three times a week, and they still look at me as if I’m a newcomer from Kansas. 

For Ron Reno, sole proprietor of Andree’s Patisserie, this is what running a small town bakery is all about. “I have an appreciation for the people who choose me,” he says. “It’s important that every person who walks in my door knows that.”

For 32 years …1,636 weeks … and nearly 10,000 days, Ron Reno has been mixing, baking and serving his famed pastries and coffee in this Laguna Beach historic location. 

He is, quite literally, chief, cook and bottle washer. On the rare occasions that he’s chosen to take a weeklong vacation or been forced into a 4-week leave for ACL surgery, he simply closes his blue door and attaches a note to its front with the date of his return. 

Ron Reno is, otherwise, the one and only person you will see at Andree’s Patisserie, from 7:35 a.m. to about 2 p.m., every day of the week but Sunday. On Sunday, Ron rests. 

The Bakery With the Robin-Blue Door

Andree’s, with its blue awning in the tiny alley behind what is now Selanne Steak Tavern, has seen thousands of people cross its threshold. Initially, the small bakery was put in place in the 1940s as an auxiliary baking kitchen for the first restaurant that stood in Selanne’s location, Andree’s. Its namesake – the independently minded woman, Andree Davis – believed that every restaurant’s foundation stood upon the quality of its baked goods. While she had an executive pastry chef and staff in place, she was often seen in the bakery’s kitchen herself, mixing up her famed steamed pudding. In 1962, she introduced her bakery to Laguna Beach by officially opening to the public. 

When Ron Reno first heard of Andree’s Patisserie, he was a new graduate in 1979 with a 2-year baking school certification under his arm. Where most people would not wish to engage in an occupation whose workday begins at 4:45 a.m., Ron had quite the opposite opinion.  

“I decided about halfway through college that I wanted to transfer to baking school,” says Ron. “Baking just seemed like a fun thing to do. People are always happy when they come into a bakery. It’s a happy place to be. Who wouldn’t want that job every day?”

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At that time in 1979, one of Ron’s teachers had been moonlighting at the then-downtown Laguna Beach bakery, Renaissance, and hired Ron to take his place at the all-night job. For two years, Ron worked the graveyard shift, endlessly rolling, twisting, pouring and baking every delectable item from donut holes to towering wedding cakes. 

In 1981, Ron heard that the owner of Andree’s Patisserie was looking to retire. He hot-footed it over to the blue awning storefront and agreed, as a term of sale, to learn how to bake the man’s “family recipe” Lemon Squares and Copenhagen Squares. To this day, the lemon squares are offered daily, and the Copenhagen – a puff pastry bottom with rich custard and Danish pastry on top – makes its appearance every Saturday. 

“It’s important to pay respect to a baker’s lineage,” says Ron. “At that point, though, I had developed several of my own favorite recipes so, for the most part, I rolled my program into play. 

“The former owner’s muffins were good,” Ron notes as an example, “But I use buttermilk and honey in my muffins for more moisture and texture. So, it was a combination of carrying the tradition along, and improving on pastry favorites to create my own signature.” 

271 Decadent Pastries & Breads Baked Daily

Every pre-dawn morning, Monday through Saturday, Ron bakes “271 items” for weekdays, and doubles the amount for Saturdays… A variety of muffins. Three kinds of croissants. Three kinds of cookies (Almond Biscotti counts as one). A crowd of Danishes. The inimitable Bear Claw. Elephant Ears. Three kinds of sandwiches, their ingredients piled high inside freshly baked slices of Ron’s secret recipe potato bread. The baked riches neatly stack themselves, shelf upon shelf, readied for another day of happy buyers.   

Longtime fans will call from L.A. to have Ron set their favorite pastry aside. A woman from Brea drives into Laguna Beach to pick up a Bear Claw, and then beelines back to Brea – it is her only stop. Once a week, another woman stops in for a loaf of his potato bread. Ron learns his clients’ schedules and timetables, welcoming clients who troop in for their annual visit from Europe, and prepping 16 sandwiches each workday morning so that they’re ready for his usual crews. 

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Not even recognizing that his thoughtful sandwich prep has now crossed the line into what moms do for their kids on school day mornings, Ron talks about the motherly advice he dispenses (“usually to women”) as they stand before his pastry bins, half-giddy and half-guilt ridden. 

“Sometimes, you just have to walk people through it,” he says with a grin. “This is non-serious food; it’s an indulgence. But sometimes, you just have to assure them that occasional indulgences are good for the soul. 

“There’s nothing like eating a pastry or cookie that was just baked that morning,” he continues. You just owe it to yourself … it’s part of what makes life great.”

“Old Friends” at the Holidays

At the holidays, Ron’s faithful followers spread the love by buying up hundreds of his fabled holiday cookies and pies to share with family, coworkers and friends. 

Freshly baked cutout cookies with thick frosting shoulder their way into the store’s pastry bins at all the major holidays, even the Fourth of July. He creates cookie stacks in cellophane wrap, and they disappear as quickly as they’re bagged and gift-tied.

Even when it’s pie-making season, Ron never resorts to electric appliances or mixers to mix his dough. “The key to great dough is to never over mix,” he says. “I might start with a mixer to create a crumble, but then I work the dough by hand. You have to feel the dough in your hands to get a sense of it. You have to know how “too wet” or “too dry” feels like, and then know how to scale your ingredients in each batch to create that perfect consistency. There’s just no way you can do that with a big commercial mixer,” he says, adding a tiny shrug.

The Always-Changing Movie

Where many Laguna Beach bakeries have been vanquished by larger commercial organizations, and where bakeries everywhere have come to rely on third-party sourcing to fill their daily pastry bins, Ron Reno will continue to wake at 4:00 a.m. and roll his doughs by hand until he’s simply not able to perform the work any longer. 

“I can’t imagine retiring,” he says. “Last year, when I had ACL surgery, I spent four long weeks sitting on my couch, watching each day go by. I’d watch the light change by degrees as it made its way across my backyard until it was dark. I’d go to bed, and I’d get up again to go sit on the couch. It was my own personal Groundhog Day movie.”

“This place …” he gestures to his pastry bins, the window counter with its sentry stools, “This place here in Laguna Beach is the movie I want to see every day of my life.” 

“Laguna Beach offers this unique niche of people who are doing things in a different way,” he continues. “So many people here approach life from a different angle and they’re doing it successfully. They’re interesting …they’re engaged in life … they have great stories to share,” he says. “That’s the movie I get to be a part of every day. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Shaena Stabler and Stu Saffer are the co-owners. Shaena is the Publisher and Stu is the Editor-in-Chief.

Lynette Brasfield is our Managing Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

Katie Ford is our in-house ad designer.

Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Dianne Russell, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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