Brittany Lis: Shining up Marine Room with creativity

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Knowing talent when you see it is a helpful tool when building a portfolio of businesses. So when Brittany Lis applied for a job as a bartender at House of Big Fish several years ago, she says co-owner Richard Ham told her, “I will give you the job, but you’ll end up hating it.” Instead, he offered her the position to manage the corporate office of Casa Resorts, of which he is a co-owner.  Lis accepted, and found herself working for Ham and Chris Keller, two men with very distinct management styles. 

“Richard and Chris are very different, but they balance each other out,” she says.

 

Brittany Lis

After about a year of working at the corporate office, Lis said Keller told her, “If you want to help me, I need help with this.”  “This” was a daunting stack of papers with various projects needing attention. The one on top dealt with the Marine Room, the historic property that Casa Resorts had recently purchased from Kelly Boyd, who had purchased it from the Eltermans, the original family owners of the landmark bar. 

“I don’t live in Laguna; I live in Aliso Viejo. I wasn’t that familiar with Marine Room.  Chris asked me to check it out and I did,” Lis said. “Me, coming from a creative background, I just started having all these ideas. I learned the history. Some renovations were happening at that time so I was there and just started throwing out, ‘What do you think?’ Chris was trusting, and said, ‘OK!’”

Making the most of an opportunity to help

Lis began splitting her time between her corporate office duties and the Marine Room.  Then, Casa Resorts decided to partner with Interstate Hotels and Resorts. 

“After that, there wasn’t really anything for me to do anymore except manage the Marine Room,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait a second…’ I was doing the creative stuff. Doing the day-to-day management is a different skill set.  But I have an extraordinary team behind me.  We all keep it afloat.”

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The marquis sign is one of Brittany Lis’ signature touches

The night Justin Bieber came to play

When stars like Justin Bieber make an unannounced appearance, it’s safe to say that the Marine Room team is doing much more than just keeping afloat.  

“He showed up totally impromptu!” says Lis. 

“I was thinking, this guy looks a lot like Justin Bieber,” she says, laughing.  It wasn’t until after the two went outside, took a stroll to the movie theater and Lis saw him give his body guards a thumbs up that she realized it really was Justin Bieber.  

“No one really knew. There were a couple people who knew it was him, but they were being cool,” Lis said.  “We were dancing, but then a girl ripped his hoodie off his head. He said, ‘Aww…why’d you need to go and do that?’  I guess he figured since his cover was blown he might as well get on stage. He sang two songs, Drake’s ‘Hot Line Bling’ and ‘Sorry.’ He was there for, like, two and a half hours. It was so cool for him to do that!  We want him to be able to come back and always have a good time!”

The many facets of having a good time

Lis is very clear on how the Marine Room should ensure everyone has a good time, not just world-famous pop stars.  Because of the bar’s long history (it has the second oldest liquor license in Orange County, according to Lis), “It has a prohibition era-vibe to it. 

“I did not want Marine Room to feel corporate,” says Lis. “I want people to feel so comfortable they’d bring their laptops and do some work; or (for the ladies) come in wearing a black cocktail dress, feel sexy and get hit on; or come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt and feel comfortable. I wanted this project, like all my projects, to have many facets to them, like a diamond.”

The prohibition-era vibe is also why, Lis says, she wanted to brand the tavern as a whiskey bar.  “We have over 200 whiskeys -- the most in Laguna.  There are some really great selections, some from Japan…That’s the vibe, like a leather tufted couch where you sit and have a glass of whiskey… like you’re in someone’s house.”

Nighttime is the right time at the Marine Room

An accidental model makes the most of it

Lis’ mention of Japan leads us in another direction: her life before Casa Resorts and the Marine Room.  When a friend who was an aspiring photographer asked her to be one of her models, Lis found herself, somewhat accidentally, with a new career.  

After awhile she says, “I realized that all the clients who were booking me were from Asia. I thought, ‘I wonder if I sent my portfolio to some Asian agencies if I’d get a response’.  Within a week I had a response from Japan. My mom was freaking out [about Lis moving to Japan]. But I was thinking, ‘You have to go! This will be the greatest thing for you!’”  

So she went, working and traveling all over Asia, eventually meeting her husband, a Russian, who was also modeling there.  Eventually, despite the glamour and the fun, Lis and her husband decided it was time to come home. 

“It’s not me,” she says of her modeling days.  “I used the fashion industry to travel.”  And, perhaps, find some good Japanese whiskeys – and her husband.  

Keeping her creative juices flowing while “maintaining”

After jet-setting around exotic locales, managing a local bar seems like it could become rather monotonous. Not so, says Lis. “I’ve gotten used to the maintaining part.  My biggest fear is getting burned out. You have to be creative if you’re a creative person. I’m still creating! There are so many projects, so many things I want to do. Yes, you have the accounting, the P&L, and all that, but it’s easy when you’re creating. I have my expectations – and most of the time it’s good!” she says with a laugh.

The Marine Room makes time for community

Many of the projects in which the Marine Room participates benefit the community.  From the Food Pantry to KX93.5, to many other local organizations, the Marine Room is willing to open their doors for a worthy cause.  

“Anyone who knows Chris…he’s a community guy.  He’s heavily involved in helping Laguna Beach.  He’s the one behind those things.  We’re more than happy to help,” says Lis.  She’s also more than happy to keep learning from her mentors.

Learning from the best has been a great experience

“How blessed am I?  Richard and Chris have taught me so much,” says Lis. “So many people want to know how they do what they do.  They’re my mentors and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”  

And she’s not done learning or creating just yet.  “I’m not done at Marine Room, but I think it will get to a point where I will be done,” she says. “I want to do the fun part.  I like to go into businesses that are struggling and help; see something that has potential, and shine it up!”  

Lis says her experience at the Marine Room has been “the best experience for me, because it succeeded. I might feel differently if it had not, but it has been amazing.  

“We are thankful we have the support of the community, and outside the community as well.  We hope to keep it going for another 82 years!”


Dan Pingaro: sailor, ocean advocate, and Community Foundation’s captain for non-profits

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dan Pingaro is the captain at the helm of Laguna Beach Community Foundation. But it’s not the first time he’s been a captain.

Dan Pingaro, Executive Director of Laguna Beach Community Foundation

Before arriving on Laguna’s shores, Pingaro was Chief Executive Officer of Sailors for the Sea, a conservation organization that “inspires and activates the sailing and boating community toward healing the ocean.” 

Founded by David Rockefeller, Sailors for the Sea began as a local east coast organization with zero programs or staff. Pingaro, as the first CEO, grew it into a global concern, creating four affiliate offices on three continents, multiple partnership programs such as the America’s Cup, and creating a diversified funding base. Ultimately, Sailors for the Sea is a way to contribute and create a legacy of change to effectively address environmental threats to the ocean.

Pingaro has had a life-long love for the ocean. He was a county lifeguard at Aliso Beach as a teenager, and fondly remembers fellow lifeguard and PMMC co-founder, Jim Stauffer, and many fun times in Laguna. “Really good memories of going to The Stand for lunch!” he laughs.

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The ocean, his other “office”

Early in his career he created a foul-weather apparel and gear company for sailors, hikers and climbers, called ClewGear. “It was technical and fashion. We sourced materials and manufactured everything in the US,” said Pingaro. 

“With unique, functional components, it’s the best of its class – to this day,” he says proudly.

He met his wife, Kim, on the water too, as they both enjoy sailboat racing. They moved here from Mill Valley. Now, after almost two years of living in Laguna, they both enjoy the weather better than up north, and they like to spend time on the water – surfing, sailing or swimming, when they can.

Navigating his way to Laguna

After his mom died, Pingaro was hoping for an opportunity to live closer to his dad in Orange County to be able to help him out. He still thought of Laguna and had kept up with the goings on in here through his friendship with Greg McGillivray, and their ocean conservation work. When the position with Laguna Beach Community Foundation opened up, Pingaro was the right guy at the right time. 

His dedication to the environment and pursuit of global sustainability together with his aptitude for fundraising and investment strategies has made him a natural fit for the LBCF, whose goal is to provide strategic philanthropy advice.

Prior to his position with Sailors for the Sea, Pingaro had spent ten years with the US Environmental Protection Agency, in San Francisco. He was responsible for grants and financial management, environmental planning and program development. He was on the America’s Cup Sustainability subcommittee, and was the first recipient of the Surfrider Foundation’s Thomas Pratte Memorial Scholarship. Pingaro brings this background to the forefront at LBCF, where he oversees this non-profit for non-profits.

Laguna Beach Community Foundation gives back

“Our Board and Investment Committee are entirely volunteer, so we are a non-profit helping other non-profits, and advising at a very low cost,” Pingaro explains. 

Since he’s been on board, funds and fund holders have increased significantly.

“It’s been great to have the opportunity to grow an organization,” he says. “The communications committee, the board, the staff – all do a great job.”

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Pingaro’s “official” office at LBCF

LBCF offers expertise on planned giving, plus a free speaker series every third Thursday of the month. Anyone may attend but space is limited to 25. The January speaker, for example, is Ed Fuller, former president and managing director of Marriott International, current president and CEO of the Orange County Visitors Association, and president/co-founder of Laguna Strategic Advisors. 

In February the LBCF series will feature a grant writing seminar.

“It’s crazy – it’s free!” enthuses Pingaro. “And it includes free lunch.”

The series is for non-profits to better market themselves or to learn about other local and global opportunities to give them a leg up. The LBCF also publishes a newsletter full of advice and strategies that anyone can sign up for at: www.lagunabeachcf.org

Time, Treasure and Talent

“It’s surprised me how much of a village community there is here, with an incredible number of non-profits,” said Pingaro. “The philanthropy has surprised me in a positive way.”

He relishes the number of programs that Laguna is lucky enough to support, such as arts, the environment, and human health – as evidenced by a good cross-section of its non-profits. LBCF will steer individuals, families, and other group investors toward the non-profit that speaks to their desires, and will endure as a legacy. Any non-profit can take advantage of LBCF’s national grants database for free. They can also match up individual volunteers with specific goals.

“We’re the hub to learn about the non-profits,” he says. “We’re here to support you and your community.” The LBCF motto is: People give Time, Treasure or Talent.

Having settled into Laguna as home, Dan Pingaro is just steps from his house to his office to the beach. He realizes it doesn’t get much better than that. 

From an ocean conservation standpoint, he’s noticed the waters off Laguna have more fish now than he remembers in the past. 

And from a philanthropy point of view, he’s found there are plenty of fish in Laguna’s sea of generosity.


Laura Farinella: Laguna Beach’s Chief of Police

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Laguna Beach Chief of Police, Laura Farinella, graduated from Chapman University with a degree in communications she started her working career doing pre- and post-production on films.  “I loved Orange County so much so, I was traveling to Sunset and Gower (in Hollywood) regularly.  But that got old,” she explains. “It wasn’t the team environment I was looking for.  I’d always played team sports.  And the work was inconsistent and unreliable. So when I decided to do something else I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’”

LBPD Chief Laura Farinella 

She moved to Long Beach with a friend of hers who worked at Vons.  Farinella took a job there in the meat department.  Then she met a friend from high school.  “She was a cop. It sounded interesting. I get bored easily, I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” said Farinella. “I got my civil service book (to study for the entrance exam) and that was that!”

Finding her passion in law enforcement

She went through the police academy in 1990.  “It’s six months of boot camp and college at the same time,” Farinella says.  When I ask if she ever considered quitting she says, “Regularly! People are yelling at you all the time, but that sets the foundation.  Once you get out and apply it, it’s a very exciting job.

“When I was driving around Long Beach I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing it. I loved it. There was a lot of potential for mobility at Long Beach because it’s such a big force.  I took advantage of what they had to offer,” she says.  

Eventually, Farinella became a training officer, then a recruit drill instructor. “I liked the teaching aspect of that.  To be able to mold the new recruits is a pretty cool job, but then I got promoted out,” she says.  

Persevering in a male dominated field

With a ratio of 90% men to 10% women in the force, Farinella says, “You need to find great mentors. Mine were male because there were no female mentors to be found.”  As for bias, she says it existed, but the examples she gives didn’t come from her fellow officers.  

After responding to a call with her female training officer, Farinella recalls the people she came to help saying to her, “They let you two work together?” Another call was met with, “We didn’t call you.”  

“And this was from the public!” says Farinella ruefully.  When asked why there aren’t more women doing police work, Farinella, a mother of two, who is married to a Long Beach detective says, “Shift work when you’re having children is very hard. It’s long nights… you get called out in the middle of the night.  After they have kids, many women retire.”  

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Laguna’s first woman Police Chief

As far as how she handles the life/work balance, Farinella says, “We don’t get to pick the kids up at 3 o’clock. You feel bad about that. But we have family time in the evening.”  

And her kids get to say their mom is the Chief of Police.  Farinella admits, “Yeah, I think they think that’s something.”

Big time training for a small town

With the recent mass shooting events, and the closing of all Los Angeles schools the day before we met, our conversation naturally turned to this tragic “new normal.”

 “If we have a major event, I can handle that. I have relationships worldwide, nationwide and region-wide,” said Farinella. “If I need an asset I know where to get it. We always have to be aware, even though we’re little Laguna Beach – we are constantly talking about active shooter scenarios.  I have my secret clearance, and I’m always getting briefings.” 

Because Farinella spent most of her career in Long Beach (rising to the rank of deputy chief, the first woman to ever hold that position in that city’s history), she brings with her skills that, while not necessarily needed on a daily basis in Laguna, would be very helpful in the event of…well, in the event of something terrible. While the fact that this is a “constant” issue for our police department is a depressing thought, it’s nice to know how prepared they are – just in case.

In addition to what the police are doing, there are things the public can do, as well. “You can always go back (when these tragic events happen) and find something.  Someone said something.  If something doesn’t feel right, say something,” Farinella advises. “A knock on a door from a police officer may be all you need.  And it can be anonymous.”

Community policing shows results

What Chief Farinella is doing that impacts the city more regularly, is part of her practice of “community policing.” 

“This is the community’s police department,” she says. “We talk about providing concierge service but I don’t want there to be a divide.  I think dialogue and a level playing field are very important.”  

To that end, Farinella has implemented several outreach programs, including Coffee with a Cop (where the department provides coffee and anyone who wants to have a conversation can come and talk to an officer), the Dog Walker Watch program, a sort of neighborhood watch program for those out and walking about. There is also the Dinner Downtown Footbeat.  

“We brought the seven bars we are called to most often together, and said, ‘Let’s deal with these problems.’ We have reduced our assaults by 50%,” says Farinella proudly. 

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Additionally, the department sends officers to the youth shelter regularly in hopes of giving the kids there a positive encounter with the police.

Happy to give back to Orange County

“I love it every day I come here,” she says.  After driving to Long Beach for 16 years from Rancho Santa Margarita, Farinella says she is happy to have “two more hours in my day.”  But there is more than extra time that makes her happy with her new job.  “Now I can give back to the county that has given me so much.  

“It’s the cherry on top to work in Laguna Beach! I wanted my last years in law enforcement to be able to give back, and get back to community policing.” 

The LB she came from has 968 sworn officers; the LB where she is now called “Chief” has 50.  Of course, there are differences in the day-to-day issues between the two city police departments and I, for one, find that very comforting.  Chief Farinella’s log sheet may read differently here than it did in Long Beach, but it’s nice to know that whatever calls come in, she most likely has had experience in dealing with it – especially in these days when the unthinkable has become tragically common.


Peter Blake: the art dealer extraordinaire 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

With dogged determination and against most odds, Peter Blake has carved a name for himself, and for Laguna Beach, in the international art world. 

There was a time when he thought he would be forever trapped inside a restaurant, like his childhood spent in his dad’s New York luncheonettes, diners, and coffee shops… “Places with those huge menus,” Blake recalls. He knew he had another passion, but it wasn’t going to be an easy road.

“I was desperate not to end up in the restaurant business,” the gallery owner said.

But restaurant work was not always terrible. That’s how he made a start at a new life right here in our little town.

Peter Blake 

Blake landed in Laguna having wended his way westward from New York via Dallas. His then-wife was not enamored of Dallas and gave him the choice, “New York or DC.” They reached a compromise when Peter countered with, “Let’s give California a try, and if that doesn’t work we’ll move back east.”

He describes driving down the coast from LA and seeing the rocky cliffs by Crystal Cove, entering Laguna – and it was love at first sight. “I thought, my God, this is it!” So move they did, and Peter Blake got a job in what he knew best: a restaurant. 

Romeo Cucina became like a second home, with Blake beginning as a waiter in the mid-1980s, and working his way up to becoming the General Manager. Then in 1993, he and the bartender from the Agean Café realized their joint dream, and opened an art gallery.

Careful when you follow Peter Blake 

“You don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to know when a recession is coming. Just follow Peter Blake!” he laughs. 

The gallery opening was indeed followed by a recession, and then even worse. After opening the unfortunately named Fire Gallery (complete with painted flames in the windows) in the Village Fair, the disastrous Laguna firestorm came. 

“I was working at the gallery seven days a week, and at the restaurant five nights a week. And we were putting in the gas pizza oven at Romeo. When the Laguna fires happened the fire department let me through – you had to have a damn good reason to get through town then, and the gas oven was it,” said Blake. “I was back and forth, back and forth. I thought I’d lose the restaurant or the gallery that day. It was really scary.” 

After that, of course he changed the name of the gallery, and carried on for three more years at both jobs 24/7, until the gallery was able to financially break even. Then he was able to bid farewell to the restaurant world, diving full-time into the ever-uncertain art world.

Reviving Gallery Row

The Peter Blake Gallery opened on Gallery Row at a time when conditions looked much different than they are now. What is now Madison Square Café was then a drug den, with squatters living on the premises. As if it isn’t hard enough for merchants trying to pay the rent by selling art, it was difficult to attract visitors to that area. But Peter Blake not only has an eye for cutting edge art, he also has a progressive, trend-setting sense of the space in which to view art. His minimalist, modern gallery with a big glass front was an immediate eye-catcher, and helped to resuscitate the Gallery Row district.

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To market the area further, Blake and fellow gallerist, the artist William (Bill) DeBilzan started First Thursdays Art Walk in 1998. 

“The galleries were all struggling, and we started to promote Saturday night as art night. Then Bill heard from a Portland friend about First Thursdays,” said Blake. “Siân Poeschl helped with organizing, creating a board, and with the conditional use permits. We wanted it to stay pure, and worthwhile for the entire community.” 

First Thursdays Art Walk’s mission is to promote art education and appreciation in Laguna Beach, and is funded by member galleries, local art institutions, lodging establishments, and the City of Laguna Beach. The first Thursday of the month has now become legendary in Laguna, and another good reason for the local community to get together.

In 2001 Blake further enhanced the North Laguna area with the opening of his now-ex wife’s clothing shop, Fetneh Blake. It was a stressful process getting the shop permitted through the city, and following on the heels of 9/11. Blake attributes the stress of the experience to the end of their marriage. Today, however, they remain on good terms, Blake has re-married (to Stephanie, an artist), and the Fetneh Blake shop has been wildly successful. 

On Ocean Avenue the gallery finds its home

Fast-forward to 2008 when Peter Blake Gallery moved into its new space on Ocean Avenue, for which Peter Blake sunk his life-savings (close to $200,000) on improvements and permits. Then, guess what? Yes, another recession.

Blake jokes that he’s not some guy up on the hill, living behind gates, gazing at his monochromatic paintings. He’s the guy who has had to move into a small apartment, and struggle for the cause of art.

“I came from nothing,” he says. “I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to art school. I work seven days a week. But you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to move anywhere else – any city in the world. I love this town.”

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Peter Blake Gallery, on Ocean Avenue

The recession continued to stink, however, and Blake admits to being late on the rent at the gallery every month until 2013. He had to be creative not only in finding art that speaks to people, but in finding ways to reach out with that art to the buying public.

“Galleries on the internet and art fairs were happening – two things I thought were ridiculous,” said Blake. “Buy art from a computer screen? Hang art in temporary shows, temporary walls, with harsh lighting?” It seemed unreal. But it has happened for Peter Blake in a big way.

Taking art on the road

Fresh off the plane from two art shows, Blake is more than happy to be home. “I’ve never been happier to be home,” he says. His head is still drumming form the electro-Cuban beat pumping out at Miami Art Week, and from the bustle of a Dallas art show. It may have seemed inconceivable once, but these and other art shows have heaped international recognition on the Peter Blake Gallery, and have become part of Blake’s monthly agenda.

Miami Art Week, for example, is a highly prestigious juried show for which you have to plunk down $500 and your art intentions to even be considered as an exhibitor. More than 800 galleries applied this year for the 100 slots available. “It’s a huge honor to be vetted in,” says Blake. The down side is rejection. “They email you and send you a hard copy,” he said. “It’s double humiliation!” 

This year was the second year that Peter Blake Gallery has been accepted and exhibited at Miami Art Week. Though a bit worn out afterward, Blake remarked about how the show puts Laguna Beach on the map. 

“Every booth has the name of the gallery, and the town they’re from,” he said. “There was Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Caracas… and Laguna Beach. That brings notice to Laguna Beach that has transcended my name. It’s given our art a good reputation.”

Home sweet home

Peter Blake is a visionary art dealer who would love to see more visitors, and locals alike, enjoying galleries and shops in our downtown. He hires LCAD students to work in the gallery because he likes the way they think out of the box (“Sometimes they find out how hard it is and they change their major,” he laughs). 

“We need to engage and support the arts,” he says. “To re-invigorate the town we don’t need typical run-of-the-mill shops. We need interesting stores that attract locals and visitors.” Plus mom and pop businesses like Peter Blake Gallery.

His dream for the future is a walking-friendly downtown with one or both Forest and Ocean Avenues closed to traffic, and any business that wants park-lets to have it. 

He is passionate about a safe, accessible downtown, and the successful future of Laguna’s reputation as an arts community.


Pam Wicks: Embracing the yoga of devotion

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Pam Wicks came to Laguna Beach from Aspen, Colorado in 1998.  Her then-husband got a new job in Los Angeles so Wicks and their two young daughters reluctantly followed him to the coast.  “I had no desire to leave Aspen.  And there was no way I was going to live in LA.  So we looked at different places.  I didn’t like any of those places.  I knew about Laguna from a friend.  I needed to check it out.  I’m a small town girl.  I drove into Laguna and I was home.  Something happened to me.  I just knew this was the town,” explains Wicks.

When the water is like diamonds

Despite such a visceral reaction to the town, when Wicks’ husband lost his job, she decided they would move back to Aspen.  She and her two daughters had only been in Laguna for about a month so it had not quite become “home” yet.  “I didn’t intend to stay.  But it was one of those days where the water is like diamonds.  I was at Main Beach and I said, ‘We just cannot leave.’  My husband thought I was insane, but we stayed,” says Wicks.  And in the 17 years since she decided to make Laguna home, Wicks has found Laguna to be a welcoming environment for her many interests, most of which surround India, yoga and the Neighborhood Congregational Church (NCC).  

Pam Wicks, Bakhti yogi, piano teacher and Kirtan leader

A Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion)

As a devotee of the study and practice of yoga for over 30 years, Wicks is extremely knowledgeable on the subject and rattles off yoga references with such ease that it’s hard to keep up.  She has clearly learned a lot since her father gave her her first yoga book. “It was called Yoga USA, or something like that,” she says laughing.  Wicks is so knowledgeable, in fact, she is a Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion). And her yoga practice encompasses much more than mastering poses.  She explains that “that” kind of yoga, the kind most of us are familiar with, is just one part of the practice.  “It’s supposed to keep you healthy and flexible so you can sit and meditate,” she explains. 

Wicks began her yoga practice in earnest when she lived in Boston.  “I had the best teachers.  I really got into it.  Patricia Walden was one of them.  She has become fairly well known,” says Wicks.  “Then I moved to Aspen and had another great teacher. She became my best friend.  By the time I got to Laguna Beach I had my own practice. 

“I don’t really go to class anymore, except Kundalini.  It’s a fabulous class,” says Wicks enthusiastically.  She tells me that all are welcome to attend, regardless of their experience.  It’s at the NCC, 340 Saint Ann’s Drive on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m.  Immediately following this class is another one of Wicks’ passions: Kirtan (or chanting).   

An altitude of attitude and the mastery of Kirtan

“Every religion has some kind of chanting.  It’s what I consider a mystical piece of the spiritual path,” explains Wicks.  “This is devotional singing.  We chant in Sanskrit.  It’s really powerful, even if you don’t understand what you’re saying.  It takes you out of your head, and it’s about the heart.  Everybody gets really happy.  It’s really fun.  People dance.  We dedicate it to peace and healing.”  

It’s called a Kirtan Circle and it follows the Kundalini class at the church. Wicks obviously takes her Kirtan seriously, but there is a vivaciousness to her that makes it all seem very accessible.  It’s not hard to picture her and her best friend on the chairlifts in Aspen practicing their chanting.  “People thought we were nutty,” she says. “But that’s how I learned Sanskrit.”  Yes, Sanskrit.

Pam Wicks, Neighborhood Congregational Church Music Director, at home

With her immersion in yoga and chanting, it makes sense that Wicks would develop a broader interest in India since, she says,  “Yoga is based in Hinduism.” 

Meeting Tenpa Dorjay, owner of the local store, Tibet Handicrafts, has also been an important catalyst.  “He became a good friend,” she says. It is through him that Wicks became involved in hosting the Tibetan monks who now make an annual visit to Laguna. “This began a great relationship. It has been happening for six years.  This year we went stand up paddling.  The monks are so much fun!” 

Meeting the Dalai Lama and helping Norgyeling

Her relationship with Tenpa is also responsible for her meeting the Dalai Lama. 

“Four of us from Orange County went with Tenpa to his village in India.  It’s a Tibetan settlement.  Many Nepalese fled from Nepal and settled in India.  Where they live, this place is a very harsh environment, infrastructure non-existent.  We fell in love with it,” she said. “There is a little monastery there.  They need help.  The village is very poor. The last time we went, two years ago, the Dalai Lama was in the village so we get to meet him.

“We are going back in January,” she enthused.

The last time they went they took solar lanterns purchased with the money they raised.  These lanterns supply 200 families with electricity.  The non-profit organization that raises money for this town and its monastery is called Nying-Je Foundation.  

Join “In the footsteps of Buddha”

After that trip, in early February, Wicks, Tenpa and other intrepid travelers are planning a tour, “In the footsteps of Buddha.”  

“Tenpa is our guide,” says Wicks.  “We will go to his village, then to Bodh Gaya.  If people want we were thinking of adding Bhutan. It’s a good way to go to India for the first time.”  

There are still a few spots open on the tour so if you are interested in going, contact Wicks (949/573-7104).

Pam Wicks in festive holiday spirit at her cozy Laguna Beach home

The music director of the Neighborhood Congregational Church

With Wicks’ immersion in far eastern culture, it might be surprising to learn how deeply committed she is to the Neighborhood Congregational Church.  However, according to Wicks, the NCC is “known for being open.  It’s in our mission statement.  It appeals to my eclectic self.” 

As the NCC’s music director – and a highly regarded piano teacher – Wicks plays piano at every Sunday service.  Coming up at the NCC is their Christmas Eve service.  “It’s big!” says Wicks with enthusiasm.  “We have lots of music, sacred dancing, lots of variety…fiddlers, bells.  It’s fantastic.”  

For more information on the NCC you can go to their website at www.ncclaguna.org.

A personal passion influences her family

“I am a Bakti yogi.  There is nothing I would rather do than serve,” Wicks tells me earnestly.   As evidenced by her many endeavors, she walks the Bakti walk.  

Not surprisingly, her commitment to her practice rubbed off on her daughters.  “They grew up with me going to ashrams and such,” she says.  “They are now 27 and 28 both are very much into yoga.  

“My oldest one a little more, maybe.  She graduated with a degree in Eco-Buddhism from Wheaton College,” says Wicks proudly.  As for the rest of her family, Wicks says laughing, “I’m the weird one who chants.  But everyone has done it, whether they want to or not.”   

Wicks may jokingly call herself “weird”, but if being energetic, enthusiastic, passionate and positive is weird, then sign me up.


Adolfo and family serve up Mexican fare and loads of good cheer for generations of Lagunans  

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Adolfo Vides knows his quetzals from his dollars. But the quetzal, the currency from his native Guatemala, is not nearly as enticing as the American dollar to this hard-working achiever of the American Dream.

Adolfo’s restaurant will turn 31 in their Laguna Beach location this March, but the family started in the restaurant business in Westminster back in 1969. “Rent was only $150 a month!” Adolfo says brightly. “But there was no business.” 

That first day they sold $20 in food, and staged the place with various family members at the tables and put their cars out front so the place looked busy. “No one wants to go into an empty restaurant,” said Adolfo. They lasted there three years before moving on to purchase various other questionable sites – some better than others.  

There was the time his produce supply guy wanted to go into business with him, but that guy didn’t really understand the restaurant business. “I bought him out,” says Adolfo. Or the restaurateur who got depressed because his wife ran off with the cook, and just wanted out. Adolfo paid all his back bills, and took over the restaurant for him. “It was still a bad location,” says Adolfo. “But it was a good deal.” 

He’s even sold the same restaurant three times. “Nobody else makes it,” he says. “They close the doors, and I start it up again…fix it up.”

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Connie and Adolfo Vides

The man knows his way around a good deal, and the restaurant business has been a darn sight better than when he first came to the U.S. and was picking celery. “I did that one day, and then I couldn’t stand up,” Adolfo recalls. That turned him toward a friend who worked at the Red Onion, and landed Adolfo the second worst job – washing dishes. “It was so busy! And not enough machines!” Figuring in a way to earn more, and keep track of his dollars, he went to school at night to learn bookkeeping. 

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It was a far cry from the career he had as a teacher in Guatemala, where his dad was a doctor, and the family owned a coffee plantation. But he and his wife, of the same town, left Guatemala following a terrible bus accident Adolfo was in, in which five people died, and the survivors received threats on their lives.

He’s a plain talker

“They pay you for this?” Adolfo asks me during our interview. The answer would be yes. “I’m going to charge you for my story!” he says with a smile. 

Adolfo is a guy who puts all his cards on the table – telling it straight, whether it’s about people, his past, culture, or the almighty dollar. He’s still driving a bargain even as he tells me he plans to retire in the next year. 

“I had bladder cancer two years ago: chemo, radiation, surgery,” he shares. “Then intestines last month – like a kink in the hose.” Following that surgery, the spry (almost) 81 year-old is still the second person to arrive at the restaurant every morning by 8 a.m. and then he’s fixing stuff in his garden every afternoon. “I’m okay now. I don’t feel nothing,” he laughs. “I get a lot of exercise here!” 

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He can’t even blame his recovery and good health on the fresh Mexican food at Adolfo’s. “I can’t eat the same thing for 50 years,” he says. “I like Sizzler’s salads, and ice cream!” He steers a little clear of salt and sugar, but will take a beer now and then, “When somebody buys it for me!” Of course. Dos Equis? No, “Coors Lite!”

In fact he was happy to head off this Thanksgiving to his favorite getaway, Palm Springs and the casino slot machines. “I enjoy watching the people losing the money, and they’re screaming,” he says a little sadistically. “But not me. I don’t like to lose money. It’s hard to make!”

It’s a Family Affair

Perhaps Adolfo enjoys the screaming because it reminds him of his own family. “My grandfather came from Spain. Small guy, screaming all the time,” he says. “It sounds like fighting – like Italians too.” As far as real fighting, Adolfo says he’s more likely to get the silent treatment. “Couples always have something to fight about,” he jokes. 

Adolfo is apt to tease his wife, Connie. “She bought a VW camper 14 years ago, and has never used it,” he says of her enthusiasm for camping. “After ten years, the sleeping bag is still in its bag!”

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Adolfo and Connie, together since they were 24 years old

That may be because Connie (short for Concepción) is more of the creative sort. “She loves to sew,” he tells me. “Blouses, skirts, curtains, bedcovers… Beautiful!  She’s smart and talented. People come in and say, ‘Wow, looks expensive!’” And then the teasing, “She made me ties and shirts. One time I was in Costco and someone said to me, ‘Nice shirt!’ and when I said my wife made it, he said he could tell because the pocket was on the wrong side!”

Adlofo’s will continue in the capable hands of his daughter Peggy (named for Peggy Lee), when Adolfo retires. It’s been a family affair since the beginning with Adolfo at the helm, and Connie and Peggy slicing and dicing in the kitchen or ringing and dinging at the cash register.

The American Dream lives on at Laguna’s local Mexican favorite, Adolfo’s.



Monica Silva: Developing big plans for KX93.5

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You might be surprised to learn that a garden helped Monica Silva become the Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna’s only radio station. As the then Assistant Branch Director of the Boy and Girls Club, Laguna Beach (BGC), Silva decided that what they needed was a garden.  The only problem, according to Silva, was “We needed $3,000 by the end of the day. So I gathered my resources.  We partnered with Transition Laguna…” and the Boys and Girls Club got a garden. 

“After that I got the attention of Corporate [Boys and Girls Club Corporate Offices].” 

Her resourcefulness landed her a new position at the BGC: Development and Marketing Assistant.  “I have no formal training.  For me it has been all about learning on the job,” she says of her career in development.  

“But I learned from the best,” says Silva emphatically.  Her teacher? Michelle Ray, Development Director of the BGC.

Monica Silva 

A job turns into a new home

Without her ability to make that garden a reality – in a day – she might still be doing what she had always done: working with children.  A teacher before she had her first child, Silva was enjoying being a stay at home mom in Fullerton when a friend told her of an opening at the BGC in Laguna.  “I knew nothing about Laguna Beach.  I had literally been here for brunch, that was it,” she says, smiling.  

She was intrigued enough to take the job – and make the commute, for a while anyway.  “We had a good thing going.  It was the golden era of TLC (the BGC Branch at Bluebird Park), a really magical time.  I became ingrained in the community,” explains Silva.  She became so ingrained she moved her family to Laguna.

 “My husband was not pleased,” she says.  “Our whole lives were in Fullerton, our families…it was what we knew.  Now, we can’t get him out of here,” she says with a laugh.  “When we drive by on the freeway…I can’t get him to go back!”  

She says the move caused her kids a little bit of “culture shock.”  

“Not my daughter, she was so young when we came here, but it was definitely different for my son.  He didn’t have to fight for the ball,” she says with a smile.  Now, her daughter is in 4th grade, her son in 8th, and Laguna is home.

Transitioning into development at the Boys & Girls Club

Silva says that as the Assistant Branch Director, “I watched a whole class of kids, from kindergarten through 8th grade go through the Club.  I loved it. I worked with the kids, their families.  When you work with someone’s child, they are trusting you with the most important thing in their lives.  The trust that’s built is tremendous.”  However, she was excited to make the switch to her new position.  

“It was a fun transition,” she says of moving to the development side of things.  Plus, the kids still came to find her in her new office.

An “utterly surprising” request – that wasn’t

Then she got a call.  

“I got a phone call from Tyler [Russell, KX93.5’s Program Director],” explains Silva.  “He said I would find what he had to say ‘utterly surprising.’” 

After hearing him out, Silva says,  “I was not surprised!”  She and Russell had worked together on different joint BGC/KX93.5 projects.  She says they had a good working relationship and shared the same can-do attitude.

KX93.5, “Laguna’s only FM” located at 1833 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach 

He asked her if she would come be the Development Director at KX93.5.  “I loved the radio station,” says Silva.  “I saw potential.  It’s just…super Laguna!”  So she took the job.  “I could not have done it without the support of Michelle Ray,” says Silva definitely.

Ambitious goals for a small station

So Silva transitioned to a very different “sell.”  

“The BGC was an easy sell,” she says.  “It’s kids; it wasn’t starting from scratch which is the radio station.  I decided to utilize my strengths as well as figure out my weaknesses.”  

A lifelong music fan, Silva is very busy in her new job.  

“Concerts, parties, events…there’s too much to do – and it’s awesome!” says Silva enthusiastically.  

There are also other less glamorous things like developing a “Street Team” (volunteers tasked with getting the word out about the station), creating strategic partnerships, and launching a teen program.  Silva has big ambitions for the station,  “I want it to become so consequential with new bands it becomes a destination.”  

In the short term, however, she just wants everyone in Laguna to know they have a radio station.  “We want them to know this is not Tyler’s station.  It’s Laguna’s station,” she says.  And Laguna’s station has a lot going on.

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Monica is Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna Beach

Coming up they will be MC-ing Hospitality Night.  Then on December 13th is the Winter Concert Classic at the Irvine Bowl, featuring Kenny Loggins and several other acts.  “This is huge!” enthuses Silva.  

“I love Kenny Loggins!  But I’m from the 80’s so no surprise… This is going to be such a great event!  We’ve partnered with the Montage and it’s a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club, SchoolPower and KX93.5.”  

Then the station hosts its “KX Take Over” where the station turns the airwaves over to “local legends who play music, talk about whatever and raise money for the station,” explains Silva. They also have their “Are You Listening” program that gives free underwriting to local businesses if a customer calls in to the station and lets them know their business is tuned to KX93.5.  Add their “KX Presents” Series that takes place the last Thursday of the month at The Marine Room (“The Marine Room has been awesome! We love them!” exclaims Silva.) 

“In January we will have another big artist play this small venue and provide our community with an awesome night of music,” explains Silva of the event.  And, if you can believe it, there is more – but you will simply have to go to their website (www.kx935.com) to find out what it is.

Doing more than just watching

One of Silva’s goals is to help people appreciate Laguna, “connect the dots,” as she says.  “I love that I have another perspective coming from somewhere else.  We’re really lucky.  Let’s celebrate it and not ignore it.  This is a beautiful place.  Obviously the scenery is beautiful, but I feel like the people make it beautiful.  One of my favorite quotes is ‘Do something more than watch.’  We all do something here.  No wonder I’m here.  I love it!”   

If it’s true that everyone does something in Laguna, as Silva suggests, then it’s also true that Silva just happens to do quite a lot of “something” to spread the word about Laguna’s only FM radio station.  

And that’s exactly how she likes it.


Singing praises for the singer in the band: 

Poul Pedersen

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The first time Poul arrived on Laguna’s shores was in the late 1970’s. It was a damn sight better than the condemned building he called home in Baltimore. There, he would warm up in the wintertime by filling a bathtub full of hot water to jump in straight from bed. “It had running water and electricity. I built a loft along one wall,” Poul said cheerfully. “I was young!” 

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Poul Pedersen

One day he met the world’s first real professional surfer, Corky Carroll. Carroll was also a singer/songwriter, and came to see Poul’s band, The Four Muses, when they opened for Linda Ronstadt. Carroll liked the band, and he and Poul became friends. He told Poul, you gotta get out to California. So he did. 

He got a delivery car to drive to San Diego, actually moved in with Corky Carroll, and started working at Surfer magazine.

“I worked in the warehouse, mailing out T-shirts and stuff, and being a janitor,” Poul said. Finally enough was enough with that line of work, and he paid attention to the voice inside his head. “I’ve got to get a band,” the voice said. 

He started The Breeze Brothers, an R&B band, and got local gigs, including at The Sandpiper, and the Wind & Sea, in Dana Point. From there his band grew, changed, and evolved: A duo with Bob Hawkins (playing at The Marine Room); The Heat Band; The 133 Band… and, of course, The Missiles of October.

He has never had to return to janitorial work. 

It’s about the music – and then some

Missiles of October is a name Poul dreamed up after having seen the docu-drama of the same name. 

He remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolding on the television when he was a lad, dressed in his Cub Scout uniform. JFK was on the TV in the background and his dad, in his Marine Corps uniform, was before him, wagging his finger, no, no, no. “I was trying to show him how to do The Peppermint Twist,” Poul laughs.

Missiles was formed in 1991 by Poul Pedersen and Bob Hawkins. Having played for 25 years at The Marine Room, the current members of Missiles of October, Poul (vocals), Richard Bredice (lead guitar), Jimmy Perez (bass guitar), and Frank Cotinola (drums) have moved with their considerable following to The White House for their regular Sunday afternoon gigs.

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On bass, Jimmy Perez warms up for Missiles of October

They perform a smattering of original music as well as covers with their own unique flavor.

“Generally I bring in the music – and make sure they’re interested in it,” says Poul. “We all like the Missile style. They all put their own spin on it, so it’s an original sound.”

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Frank Cotinola warms up the eardrums!

The Marine Room is going through their own changes, but Missiles is sticking to its own style, which they can do at The White House. “With The Missiles we have tables and dancing,” says Poul. “The White House is one of the last old-school nightclubs in Laguna.”

Judging by the crowd they’ve drawn in, it seems to be a perfect fit.

But Poul and band mate, Jimmy Perez, are no newcomers to The White House. They played with The Heat Band there for almost ten years, back in the 80’s. Additionally, Poul has been known to take up the solo mic there. 

“I’ve been doing open mic night once a month at The White House,” he said. “Candles on the table… it’s a little more intimate.

“I feel really fortunate to make a living playing music,” Poul added.

He has paid that good fortune forward by contributing music to charity, as he did when his first Missiles band mate had a major heart attack. Missiles of October put on a big fundraiser to help Bob Hawkins deal with his medical bills. 

The other musical passion project for Poul Pedersen is the 133 Band. Local, Clay Berryhill got the ball rolling by inviting several of Laguna’s most well-known and well-loved musicians to be in a band together. The concept of putting bandleaders together begs the question, who leads? 

“It’s a band of bandleaders,” says Poul. “All the egos in the band – but interestingly enough, it’s been lots of laughter, lots of talent. It’s really been fun.” For their first gig, the band opened for The Beach Boys when they played here in Laguna a little more than a year ago.

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Berryhill has launched not only a CD from the project, but also a movie about the making of the band, called 133 The Road to Laguna. The documentary is aiming for film festivals such as Sundance or South by Southwest.

“I wouldn’t be involved with [these musicians] if it weren’t for this film,” said Poul. “We just didn’t all cross paths.”

Coming full circle

  Poul was born in Austin, Texas, but moved around quite a bit with his Marine Corps family, landing for a length of time in Virginia. He taught himself how to play guitar when he was 12, with a Beatles songbook. “I thought I was so sophisticated,” he laughs. “As a teenager things were so important.” 

He “got on the singer/songwriter” style of the times and into the reflective approach of the lyrics of the 60’s and 70’s. “I feel fortunate to have grown up with those influences,” he says. It was one part old-school America, one part innocence lost. He cites Van Morrison as a seminal influence (“I like the way he takes Celtic and Blues, and puts them together”).

On a side note, our own Stu Saffer had a most unusual “first” meeting with Poul. Of course they met here in Laguna, but they both shared an Arlington, Virginia background. As they were talking, Stu flashed back to his days as a mail carrier, and said to Poul, “You lived at 308 S. Irvington Street!” Poul was so taken aback he said the hairs on his arm stood up. Quite a history – and quite a memory that Stu has!

Laguna really became home for Poul when he found a home for his band here, and when he met Woody, his soul mate of 27 years. She was then a cocktail waitress at Hotel Laguna, and is now a manager there. With their working schedules they are really like Laguna ships passing in the night.

At least we know that Poul can be found every Sunday at The White House rocking the classic Missiles of October way.



Lisette Chel-Walker: She serves the City of Laguna Beach and enjoys every moment enthusiastically 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lisette Chel-Walker has worked for the City of Laguna Beach since 1983.  “I was the youngest when I started, now I’m the oldest,” she says with a laugh.  Elected as City Clerk in 2012, Chel-Walker began her career at the city with the Police Department – and stayed there for 25 years.  

Hired as Parking Cashier, Chel-Walker eventually ran the entire parking system from receiving all complaints and calls, to mailing late notices, as well as keeping the statistics for parking and traffic.  

Lisette Chel-Walker

Now, as the elected City Clerk, she says her job is to “…promote public participation in municipal government and serve the public, elected officials and the City organization by accurately processing, recording and archiving municipal records for ready retrieval.”  In other words, “this is a paper office,” she says.  

And she owes her career as a civil servant to her father, who was an assemblyman in Long Beach, although it was practicality, not nepotism that prompted the suggestion.

For hire: an aerobics instructor with “experience”

When Chel-Walker first moved to Laguna she started working as an aerobics instructor at the Laguna Health Club, and the Girls Gym.  

“I was a dancer my whole life,” she said. “I came here, went to the Laguna Beach Health Club for a job and said, ‘I teach aerobics,’ even though I really didn’t.  They hired me and we had the best classes!  I was teaching about 12 classes a week. Shape Magazine did an article on me. It was a big, fun thing.  

“Then my dad said to me, ‘What if you get sick? You need a city job.’”  So, being a dutiful daughter she went down to the City and got the job with the Police Department.

From Parking Cashier to City Clerk, she listens to the people

Dealing with the public can be a trying experience, no matter what the job is.  But especially dealing with people who get parking tickets…they’re not the happy customers. 

“I used to field at least 30 complaints a day. I loved talking to people. They were sometimes irate – I’d let them talk. They just wanted to be heard,” she says brightly. “They would always pay their ticket at the end.”  

I’m not sure how many people “love” talking to angry people, but I got the impression that Chel-Walker really does like talking to people, irate or otherwise. And this makes her well suited for her current job as City Clerk, an elected position.

 “A City Clerk is all about details and dates and listening to people.  We are the face of the city, the point of contact,” she explains.  “Customer service is my specialty. I try to be available anytime. I’ve always been a team player. I’m here to promote public participation with the City. You should feel welcome to come in here and get anything.”

Clearly, if you don’t view the City as attentive, you haven’t reached out to Chel-Walker. “We pride ourselves on answering the phones and answering people’s questions.  If we don’t know the answer, we will find out,” she says, adding, “And I don’t mind working 17 hour days when there is a Council meeting.”  

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Lisette Chel-Walker’s office in Laguna Beach’s City Hall

Travel and music – but let’s have good seats

Despite those long days, Chel-Walker carries her enthusiasm into her free time, as well.  As a former owner of a travel agency who is married to a retired pilot (“His line was, ‘Marry me and fly free’ – except that meant stand-by. He left that part out!” she says, laughing), Chel-Walker loves to travel. 

“I love planning group trips. I like being around people. We went to Oktoberfest last year,” she says happily. Coming up next is a trip to Costa Rica. “Nothing makes me happier than being able to include my friends with me on an adventure.”

Another passion is music.  “I love to sit in the first few rows of a concert,” she confesses.  She crossed an item off her bucket list when she took her 22 year-old daughter, who is also a dancer (in her final year at San Francisco State University), to see Elton John. “We sat in the front row. I’ve seen him 20 times. I love 70’s music!  But I’m from that era,” she smiles.

And while you can’t take her aerobics classes any longer (she stopped teaching in the late ‘90’s) you can find her taking a daily jog around the LBHS track.  

“I like to run by myself,” she says. “I run a slow pace. It takes me 40 minutes. It’s a good time to think.”

Sun plus art equals home in Laguna

“To live and work here in Laguna is amazing,” says Chel-Walker. “This is my home, even though I grew up in Long Beach.” 

As a child her father brought her to Victoria Beach in Laguna. “There were the biggest waves!” she recalls.  It took a boyfriend to bring her back again, as an adult. “That just brought me here. I loved everything about it! I loved driving in from the Canyon… it was magical. Every time I was here I was happy,” she says. Her relationship with Laguna outlasted the one with the boyfriend, and Chel-Walker seems more than fine with the way things worked out.

The weather suits her too. “I love hot weather,” she says. “I’m a sun-worshipper.”  

She attributes her love of anything tropical to her Dutch father. “He came from cold Holland,” she says as an explanation for his love of the beach. “I’m a beach girl,” she says. “I take after my dad.”  

However, one thing she inherited from her mother, who was an artist, was an appreciation of art. “I love art, especially by local artists,” she says. “I try and buy a piece of art from every City Hall show.”  And her office looks as though she means it – every wall is covered with colorful, vibrant paintings.

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Part of Lisette Chel-Walker’s art collection.  These pieces are by

 fused glass artist, Maggie Spencer  

It’s not surprising that she is attracted to such paintings; “colorful” and “vibrant” can also be used to describe Chel-Walker herself. As a holder of the “oldest profession in government, along with the tax collector,” her enthusiasm for the job and the city she works for is contagious – and a bit surprising. 

Admittedly, I didn’t have a clear picture of what a City Clerk did prior to meeting Chel-Walker, but whatever I had vaguely envisioned was proven patently false after we met. No soulless bureaucrat here. As an example, when City Clerks were given permission to perform marriages, this go-getter took it upon herself to create wedding vows for those she married. 

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Chel-Walker holding a photo of one of the marriages she has performed as 

City Clerk 

“I wanted it to be unique,” she says. “I googled wedding vows that weren’t religious. I pulled in the things that I liked.”  And then she talks to the couple. “I ask them why they want to be married here and things like that. I just try to personalize it a little.  Why not?  Everyone is unique.” 

That’s true for couples wanting to get married and it’s certainly the case for Laguna Beach’s City Clerk.


Don Sciortino: living the dream

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He received the word of God back in 1972. Don Sciortino was going to community college in Long Island, NY, during what he describes as the “Jesus Movement days” – when young people were looking for alternative ways to perceive reality in the summer-of-love times. He wasn’t particularly religious, and he was partaking of substances to alter his mind as everyone else in college was. Then he took a Philosophy & Religion class, and had a tiresome assignment; they had to read from the Bible, The Sermon on the Mount.

Don became friends with a classmate who happened to carry the Bible. He asked if he might borrow it so that he could get his homework assignment done. That did it.

“I had a spiritual encounter. It was the greatest experience I’d ever had,” Don remembers. “God encountered me like liquid love, going deep inside me. It changed my life.”

Don Sciortino

Indeed, the experience of learning and understanding God’s love led Don to a life lived in terms of Jesus’ teachings. “Jesus heard his father’s voice. God made us not to do to life alone – but to be connected. From Jesus’ connected life, he led people to God,” Don explained. “I wanted to model the life of Jesus.”

Pastor Don has walked that talk. 

Becoming a Shepherd

Don and his wife of 40 years, Karen, met at church – of course. They both were on staff with the Vineyard Church, an offshoot of the Calvary Chapel, “But more charismatic expression,” as Don describes it. That was back in Long Island, but the two headed west to Anaheim, Mission Viejo, and then to the Vineyard Community Church in Laguna Niguel. One day while driving through Laguna, Don had an epiphany.

“I had a supernatural vision driving in front of Main Beach,” he said. “It was a vision of Jesus with a choker necklace on. It was a message, and a strategy in my heart, that necklace of different earthly stones. Then Jesus spoke to me and said, ‘Create a community here, and speak to me’… 

“We sold our house [in Mission Viejo] in one day. It’s been five years now – we love Laguna. It’s so diverse here, and the call of my life: make God visible and love people.”

Pastor Don has been the pastor now for these five years, and serves up his message of love around the clock, and all around the town.

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Photo by Maggi

Net-Works “Living Room”

His Sunday morning message is delivered at The Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach, starting with a breakfast at 9:30. By the afternoon, he is likely back at his Net-Works “Living Room” which is a place to talk, think, pray, and house group gatherings and events – located in the shopping plaza at 303 Broadway. His “flock” of friends, the poor, and the needy stop by regularly for soul-comforting, or a bite to eat, like on Wednesday mornings when he hosts “Bible & Bagels” (the space is conveniently next to Shirley’s Bagels). 

By Sunday evening he may be putting on his live KX93 radio show, “Stairway to Heaven” in which he features songs and lyrics talking about a higher love. “I do a little talk, and tie in some rock and roll songs,” says Don. “Life is a journey that invites and demands us to find answers beyond ourselves. My desire is to give some help and hope in connecting our heart-cries with heaven. It makes the Bible culturally current.”

It’s Net-Work-ing

The community of Laguna Beach is integral with Pastor Don’s mission. 

“I want to be a pastor in and to the city. Then I have the responsibility to love them and care for them. The city is my parish – my flock,” he says. “Embracing all the people – that’s what heaven is going to be like: community, shared life, diversity. A renaissance is coming of people sharing and doing life together.”

The encompassing theme of Pastor Don’s philosophy is that humans are connected one to another, and all to God. He has formed The Laguna Beach “Net-Works”, an affiliation with the association of Vineyard Churches, to bring people together for Sunday gatherings “to celebrate and encourage our identity and mission as God’s people” and weekly groups “to help others pursue their passions and heal their pain” as well as other weekly community groups.

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Photo by Maggi

“We love our city, Laguna Beach,” the mission statement reads. “We love its distinctiveness and heritage as both an artist’s colony and an eclectic marketplace community, as well as being a place of refuge, refreshment and beauty.

“Our desire and mission is to live a life of love as Jesus did, making God and people visible.”  

To keep Net-Works funded, and as another form of sharing some community love, Don has also networked in retail fashion. He has just launched a new shop in town, Laguna Exchange. 

Laguna Exchange 

Laguna Exchange is a non-profit retail store featuring fashion and jewelry, and the neat trick is that the customer can buy, sell, or trade. This is not a thrift store, though the clothes are, for the most part, used. 

“I love fashion and clothes,” says Don. “Plus a place to offer retail with a purpose.”

Modeled after the Buffalo Exchange, this retail adventure offers the customer good quality, unique, and vintage items which they can purchase either by paying for it, or by exchanging items of equal value. The shop purchases items outright, receives them by donation, or pays for items with store credit. 

Don was thinking up the concept for a good year before they opened. He queried kids around town if they shopped at a Buffalo Exchange, and got a resounding yes. He raised money, and searched for the perfect location. The former bead store on South Coast Highway proved to be the right place at the right time. 

“Many of our community come to us from mental institutions and jail,” said Don. “It’s the wealthy that carry us. But I thought God doesn’t want us just to make it. I want to create more.” The store. “God said to me, ‘What’s coming is what you’ve waited for your whole life.’ I was supposed to network the pair – struggle and passion. And I thought of Jesus’ necklace, and this was a bead store…” It just seemed so right.

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Laguna Exchange

Then he set about fixing up the space and renovating, which additionally provided jobs for several of his unemployed flock. Homeless individuals renovated ninety percent of the store. One was able to get a handyman job after this, and then a car, and even a place to live. 

“The connection just grew. It’s just amazing. I saw him on the balcony over PCH having a cup of coffee,” said Don with a tear in his eye. “Change happens when we’re connected. Change doesn’t happen alone.”

The store raises money to provide for the less fortunate in Laguna Beach: the homeless, single moms, mentally ill, and those struggling with addiction. “We open our doors to give people a unique shopping experience with purpose. We open our hearts to work with those who are ready to transition into a new season of life.”

Don’s passion for community stems from his own personal mission to live a life according to Jesus’ teaching. And the store is the vehicle to drive them all together. 

“Let’s network all the non-profits in Laguna. Not only the poor, homeless, mentally ill and addicts – but I also want to bridge to LCAD, and Laguna Beach High School,” he said. “Young people want to do good works with money.”

The store motto is ‘People Help the People’ and, so far, the message is growing.

Every day is Sunday morning

When Pastor Don is not preaching, he’s taking the homeless into his own home, or finding them some temporary shelter. He’s serving food and words of care for single moms. He’s offering young people a place to play and enjoy music at the shop every Friday night. And he’s mindful of focusing the community on a higher purpose.

Next up will be the “Giving Thanks Party” at Mozambique on November 18, a celebration of food, friends and music. It will include “stories from our local friends that we have had the privilege to serve” as well as opportunities for donation. (Want to buy dinner for someone? Contact mailto: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

November is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness month, so the shop is jumping in with all feet to help where they can. December the focus will be on supporting single moms at the holidays. It’s all part of a dream of a better world.

“God made us to be dreamers,” says Don. “He’s the ultimate dreamer, and shares that with us. The dream is to have a good life, a productive life, and help people. 

“This community is an incubator for dreamers. I’m doing my dream!”


With Cerno, it’s product innovation, development and dedication – plus friendship

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If there is such a thing as “typical” Laguna Beach childhood, Cerno co-founders Daniel Wacholder, Nick Sheridan and Bret Englander, might be its poster children.  Sheridan and Englander attended Laguna Presbyterian Preschool together all the way through Laguna Beach High School. They met Wacholder in middle school. The three boys surfed at 9th Street, played club volleyball and, maybe not so typically, enjoyed creating stuff.  

“Usually for fun we’d just build things,” remembers Englander. “We built a huge palapa on 9th Street back in high school that lasted at least half-way through college… We built a stairwell at the end of Circle Drive to memorialize a friend who passed. Dan and Nick built boats from scratch…”

Englander says they sailed the first boat they made to Catalina at midnight, much to the chagrin of their parents. 

Their latest and most lasting endeavor is Cerno. As stated on their website, it is an industrial design and manufacturing company innovating modern LED lighting fixtures and furniture. 

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Bret Englander, Nick Sheridan and Daniel Wacholder of Cerno

Cerno’s designs have won numerous industry awards and they finally – and with some sadness – outgrew their Laguna Canyon Road space and had to relocate to Irvine. But these three friends, each with a separate yet equal role in the building of their company, are not coasting yet, although they are finally down to a five-day work week after six years of 12 hour days, six days a week. 

They have big plans: leaving their well-respected niche status to become a big time player in their industry.  After spending time with Bret Englander, Director of Sales and Marketing, and hearing their story, I’m a believer.

Three friends, three different backgrounds and a lot of respect

After graduating from high school, the three friends went their separate ways to college.  Wacholder, Director of Operations and Engineering, studied engineering, Sheridan, Director of Design, studied architecture and Englander studied journalism.  After college, they went to work in different businesses, doing different things and eventually concluded that what they really wanted to do was something together. 

“We had these three diverse educations and diverse work experiences that gave us a respect for each other – plus this trust we had developed over our years of friendship,” says Englander. “We all wore a lot of hats, and still do, plus we all work really hard.  We are competitive about how hard we work, still to this day.” 

A successful trade show launches a brand

“We wanted to be a design company,” says Englander. 

First, there was a furniture venture, but they wanted something more technical.   Wacholder, an avid reader, as Englander describes him, was learning a lot about the innovations in LED lights.  They were becoming decorative and Wacholder said, “I think we should explore this.”  

So, armed with prototypes only, they went to the Dwell Trade Show.  

“People were like, ‘What are these?’  And fortunately for us we ended up selling several thousand dollars worth of lights,” said Englander. “After that, we decided we were just going to focus on lights.  Our learning curve was vertical.”

He and Sheridan spent a month in New York.  According to Englander, “That’s the market. We’re isolated on the other coast.  

“We learned we weren’t anywhere near as novel as we thought we were, technically.  But aesthetically, we were novel. I credit Daniel for that. The older manufacturers were putting old technology in new forms.  We were designing new technology.”

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One of Cerno's signature lights, made in California

The market responded to their product as evidenced by the fact that they’ve gone from about 3,000 square feet to over 12,000.  

“Every move has been terrifying,” says Englander. “But so far it has proved to be the right decision every time.”  The space is utilized for both offices and warehouse as well as manufacturing.  

California-made and Laguna-proud

Cerno products are made in California – not just assembled in California – but made here.  “We’re super proud that we do it here,” says Englander.  He tells me about the recent GE decision to move jobs overseas.  “I take it as a defeat.  We’re not a player, but if you have 1,000 Cernos then those jobs start to add up.”  

Another thing Englander says they are proud of is that there are six LBHS graduates working at Cerno.  

“The Laguna Beach community has been so supportive and genuinely curious.  People I know, but don’t know well, ask how we’re doing all the time. That’s rad!”

Cerno is very much of Laguna, regardless of where they are headquartered. “Leaving the canyon was emotional for us, even though it was long overdue,” says Englander.  “We’re attached to the old Laguna, the beach culture.”

Englander also credits their geography with giving them idea that they could be successful. “Growing up in Laguna you see all different types of success.  All the surf companies that have come from here…when you know it’s possible – that’s part of the privilege. You’re naively optimistic because you see the success stories all around you.”

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Another innovative Cerno product

Belief plus hard work – lots and lots of hard work – have all contributed to their success.  “We jumped into the trenches together with the attitude that it was going to be really, really hard.  But failure was not an option,” says Englander.  

That work ethic is still with them, and they still compete to see who can work the hardest.  But it’s nice working “only” five days a week.  

“It was time,” Englander said. “We needed to spend time with our families – and go the beach a little bit more.” 

He smiles. Cerno may have left Laguna, but Laguna has definitely not left Cerno.


Christine Casey: Determination to do it right with Chhahari – a lifeline for at-risk children in Nepal

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut and Chhahari

The first thing Christine Casey decided to do when her only son went off to Stanford University was to leave the desert and return to Orange County. She arrived in Laguna Beach in 1995. The next thing this retired banker and single mother did was to get involved in her community, volunteering her time with an AIDS services organization, her church (St. Catherine’s) and the Assistance League, to name a few.  

“I’m not one for sitting around watching television,” she admits. 

A life-changing trek to Nepal

To further the point, in 2004 Casey went on a trek to Nepal… even her leisure activities aren’t very leisurely! But this trip turned out to be a life-changing event – and not just for her. 

Profoundly moved by the plight of the abandoned and orphaned children she saw there, Casey could not stop thinking about them when she returned home to Laguna.

Christine Casey 

“Seeing kids discarded like garbage…it stays with you,” she said.  “I told my son I really wanted to go back there and do something for those kids.  He helped me realize that I could go back. I had no restrictions; no husband, no children at home…so I backed off all the other things I was doing and started getting money from people, from my church, to help the kids.”

Tom Davis, Chhahari and making a real difference

Realizing that to be truly effective she needed to form a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, she called local lawyer, Tom Davis.  

“I knew his wife, Martha, from volunteering at AIDS services, so I called him, explained who I was and what I needed.  For a very small retainer fee he helped me set up Chhahari. That was the last one I ever gave him! Now he’s the Chairman of the Board.  This guy…you can’t even believe how great he is,” says Casey enthusiastically.

Chhahari, Nepalese for “shelter”, is the organization Casey formed in 2007 to help some of those children she met in Nepal.  

Chhahari’s mission states that it “…is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds to provide food, shelter, education and health care for the multitude of orphaned and underprivileged children of Nepal.” Chhahari currently houses and cares for approximately 25 children.

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Chhahari kids get to smile and have some fun together 

The process for vetting the children who come to Chhahari is extensive. They must either be orphaned or their families have no ability to care for them. 

“The only way to change these poor, corrupt countries is from within,” laments Casey. “They want to keep the poor - poor.” 

Determined to do things right

Setting up a charitable organization in Nepal was neither simple nor straightforward. Finding the right people to run things almost 8,000 miles away was the first challenge.  

“I was a banker my entire adult life.  I want the nuts and bolts to add up at the end of the day,” she says, adding gratefully that she has “full faith” in the Nepalese people working for Chhahari.  “There has never been a penny missing.”  

And she can count the pennies because the operating budget is about as tight as it can be. “We are all volunteers,” she said. “I pay my own way back and forth every time I go. Our budget is $35,000 a year. $500 of that goes to marketing and advertising.  Other than that it all goes to Chhahari. I had to make it so that I know that your money is going here and doing exactly that.  We are doing it the right way.”

Unlike the United States’ “failed foster care system”, as Casey calls it, her kids never “age out.”  

“We will never kick a kid out in the street,” she says. “You need to give them a chance.”  Making them leave before they are ready means they have to deal with the same problems at-risk kids do here, even if the means are different. 

“Glue sniffing is a big problem there.  So is alcohol…it’s the homemade kind that kills you, by the time you’re 30,” she says sadly.

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The children of Chhahari

Beyond their basic needs, Casey is determined to bring her charges into the 21st century. “I took them to see ‘The Laramie Project’,” she says. (The Laramie Project is a play, based on the aftermath of the young gay man, Matthew Shephard, murdered in Laramie, Wyoming.)  

“The play came to Nepal.  It was a hard thing to explain [to the kids]…the whole LGBT thing… but they eventually got it. I saw two of our boys crying during the performance. 

“It’s important to me that they are educated academically, but also socially in the world,” she says. 

“We have Hindus and Buddhists in Chhahari. There are very strong caste systems. During the earthquake, rice would be dumped far outside a village, and if the area was within a certain caste, no one would go in there to bring it to them! That’s how bad it is. 

“We had to teach our kids that they we’re all brothers and sisters,” she continued. “Now they don’t know the difference. They ask me, ‘Nanna (that’s what they call me), …why are the people fighting?’ 

“I try and explain it to them, but they see here that it can be different. It has them thinking.”

Walking the walk – and then some

Casey’s commitment to her cause got me thinking, as well, especially when she told me she lives in affordable housing, in a 10x20 foot room.  “I used all my savings to start it [Chhahari] up,” she says.  “I’ve lived the good life. I’ve traveled. I don’t need anything…

“I don’t need any more clothes. Where would I put them? I have everything I need,” she says in her matter of fact way. And this revelation absolutely shocks me. It’s so surprising that I’m sure it says something about my own priorities that I wouldn’t care to admit. 

When Casey says she has given everything to Chhahari, she isn’t exaggerating. And she certainly doesn’t want to make a fuss over it. It is a choice she made and she is very content with it. 

A devout Catholic, Casey brushes off my compliments and admiration. She speaks of her mission as just something that must be done, no applause, no fanfare. …It’s just about raising enough money to help “her children”, and make their world better.

Another opportunity to make a difference

“We are not free from problems,” says Casey about the Chhahari non-profit. “It is always three steps forward, one step back. The government is a hindrance. The earthquake was even worse. It was very traumatizing for our children, even though none of them were hurt.”  

But so many others were. And Casey has found another way to help: prosthetics.  

Because of the earthquake, Casey’s kids lost friends or had friends who became amputees.  “They came to me and said, ‘Nanna, maybe we can help these children?’ And it was so…this was my impetus,” she says, again repeating her mantra, “We are going to do this right.

“A five year old child will need six to ten change-outs (of their prosthetic limbs) in their lifetime… They need rehab… The families need training to show them how to deal with these issues and injuries,” she explained.  So she has partnered with a Nepalese man in Kathmandu who makes prosthetics.  

She recently had a fundraiser in Corona del Mar to support this new outreach program.  And of course, it circles back to Chhahari.

“I want them to be socially conscious.  They’ve never been taught. These countries are so poor; the people are so poor that they turn into takers. I want them to learn to look outward,” she says.  

Every child has potential and deserves a chance

She tells me about one of her children who has developed into an award-winning artist.  “Every child has potential and deserves a chance,” says Christine Casey.  

“If he was tending goats, this would never have happened!”

Casey is not naïve; she knows that giving 25 kids a chance isn’t going to change the world. However, as the saying goes, it has changed theirs. And who knows what happens beyond that? 25 can turn to 50, and on it goes. 

Christine Casey is not stopping. “I’m 72 years old.  I’m in good health.  My life is Chhahari,” she says simply.  

Christine Casey is a woman of modest means who set out to make a difference in the world, and does so every single day. It’s rare to meet someone willing to give everything they have for others. But she did…and still does.  

The next time I’m tempted to buy something to put in my already-full-closet, I will stop and think of her. Another pair of shoes? Or the chance to make a difference somewhere? The answer should be easy.  

For Christine Casey, there isn’t even a question.   

To find out more about Chhahari or to make a donation go to www.chhahari.org.


Angie Miller: with can-do spirit, she’s a giver, a doer, and she likes having some fun in between

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I’m trying to keep up with Angie Miller, but her thoughts and words are as busy as her life in general. She’s got her corporate advertising, design and promotions company, Miller & Associates, firing on all cylinders and an event company she’s partnered on (Fun is First), for which she is, no doubt, the life of the party. She’s an artist. She’s big on pinnipeds (serving on the board at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center), humans (on the board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation), and flora; she’s a certified Master Gardener. 

Oh, and then she’s hopping aboard Semester at Sea’s ship with her friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She calls him Little Arch!

Angie Miller

I can’t stop writing as we talk, and I can’t stop laughing at her off-the-cuff tales.

There was the time she thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get other people’s take on me? So, she sent out postcards to friends, teachers, family, and people who have influenced her, asking, “What is an Angie Miller?” The responses came back in all forms. “The collection is the funniest little thing,” said Angie. “There were words, poems, photos – and even scratch and sniff!”

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Angie has had 12 years of classes and been certified as a Master Gardener

Or the time her friend and business partner at Fun is First threw her a parade for her birthday. Karen, who Angie calls The Queen of Fun, got the high school marching band to bring their oohm-pa-pa on down to Forest Avenue, and Angie, who at the time was not in the mood, was forced to get out front with a baton. You can’t help but change your mood when that happens!

“I couldn’t have started a business with someone more fun,” Angie says about Karen. “I was so uptight – I’m selling heart valve parameter charts!” Fun is First is the perfect foil to Miller & Associate’s straight-man.

One of her long-time clients is Edwards Life Science, for whom Miller & Associates does marketing display type products. “It’s like bi-polar with the two businesses,” she laughs. “It’s stents, and vascular stuff – or party.” 

Heading West – and around the world

Back in the day when Angie Miller was trying to shed her Georgia accent as a college freshman in California, she would drive her roommates slightly nuts. She was an art major who freely admits, “I would do anything!” One day she’d move the dryer into the living room so she could work on silk screening 2,000 shirts. Another day she’d be on a Master Framing project, and fill the place with frames of every size.

Ever hardworking and motivated, Angie attended Chapman University on a full scholarship. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree, she expanded her silk-screening into graphic design and into a full-on marketing business. Her first real workspace was at the Newport Shipyard, and her clients quickly grew: “start-ups” such as Platinum Software, and Three-Day Blinds. When the business moved to Laguna Beach they were the biggest shipper at the local FedEx. 

She attributes her entrepreneurial drive to her junior year, when she went out on Semester at Sea, a shipboard program for global study abroad. It was a work/study situation, and Angie worked as the ship’s photography assistant. The program taught her about the world, and more importantly the world of ideas, which she loves. “That’s when you realize the world is flat,” she says.

Semester at Sea studies include mentors and world leaders on occasion, such as the civil rights activist Julian Bond, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Angie is a founding board member of Semester at Sea’s Alumni Board of Directors and still joins the group at sea a couple of times a year to serve as a mentor to the students.

A commitment to care

A couple of things have caused life-changing moments for Angie. Professionally, she has worked hard to keep the business moving forward; from personally fighting for small business laws in Sacramento, to recovering from the heartbreaking loss of many clients in New York on 9/11. 

Personally, she made a decision to help someone who had become close to her: the Laguna FedEx driver, Susan. Angie and I talked on the exact anniversary of Susan’s death 11 years ago. 

“When she got cancer I committed as a friend to help her. I took time off work to care for her. We had a team; it was a hell of a journey,” she said. “It made me realize I need to be not so serious about work.

“There was quite an impact. I lost a chunk of business when I took care of her – so now I do what I like.” 

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The business she has, she likes. And her time to “give back” has grown exponentially. Those are the things that matter to Angie Miller.

“You know people for all different types of reasons,” she says philosophically. “That’s what I love about it.”

First things first

Perhaps she met her Fun is First partner to balance all the “whacky-doo” stuff she does with brochures and serious medical subject material. “We were not thinking it would be a big thing,” said Angie. “Fun is First was meant to do little pretty parties!”

Then they got a big ole party in San Diego, and then they got another biggie right in their own backyard – the opening of the Montage. They put on a doozy. 

“That was the best thing that ever happened,” Angie said. “It’s amazing that we sell fun. And we like it when fun comes back!”

Montage’s party lit up with fireworks, literally. The only other time there were private fireworks in Laguna that I know of? At Angie Miller’s 40th birthday. Not that it could ever happen again, but be on the lookout for something coming up – Angie’s birthday is November 19. 

Like the song says, the future’s so bright I’m wearing shades! 

Angie’s worked out a good balance in her life of hard work, good fun, and giving her best to many of Laguna’s charities. And she does it all with thoughtfulness, humility, and joy. Her head may be dreaming up some new schemes, but her feet are firmly planted on the ground. 

Going forward, Angie is making plans… 

“Good friends, good health, throw some travel in there – and make it flat!”


Neil Skewes: A true professional behind the bar

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Until meeting Neil Skewes, I’m not sure I had ever met a true bartender. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met plenty of people who work behind a bar and mix drinks.  But a bartender – one who revels in the profession, and sees it as such…I have not met many, if any, of those until I met Skewes.  

Skewes is that kind of true bartender, as well as the bar manager at Starfish Laguna Beach, and he loves what he does.  He has been doing it in Laguna since 1999 when he started at French 75, but his career stretches back much farther than that. 

 “I grew up in Michigan.  I started managing a gas station out of high school and my brother started waiting tables at a fancy French restaurant,” said Skewes.  “I figured if he could do it, I could do it.  I just took to the business.”  

He started tending bar full time in 1985.

Neil Skewes

Working to make you feel better

Talking to Skewes about “the business” makes one appreciate the true professionals that work in the restaurant industry.  Much is made these days about chefs, and rightly so, but when you are served by someone who is a true professional, you know it – and it just makes whatever comes out of the kitchen that much better. Skewes approaches his job as much a performance as crafting cocktails.   

“I love working with the public.  I love changing people’s disposition,” he says.  “I really enjoy making someone feel better leaving than when they came in. That makes it really rewarding.”  Add to that a devotion to creating signature cocktails, and it’s no wonder people follow him wherever he goes.  

“I am a foodie. I love good food,” he adds. “Good food and drinks are one of the great things of life.

“I love putting flavors together…ten years ago I started doing that.”

And “that” is not something he takes lightly.  

Getting creative behind the bar

When we first spoke, I asked him for a drink recipe that he thought was pretty original.  He delivered.  But then the next day he called me back because he said that, after thinking about it, the one he originally gave me “may have been borrowed by other restaurants”. (Duly noted, Skewes is exceedingly diplomatic, very quick to praise others and not very interested in talking about himself.  This makes him a very delightful person, but a challenging interview.)  He asked if he could give me another drink recipe. 

The “Laguna Lemonade”, as he calls it, is a coconut strawberry lemonade made with fresh strawberries, coconut vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice and house-made lemon grass syrup. Sold!  He also mentioned a Harvest Martini with cinnamon apple liqueur, cranberry juice and a sprig of mint, which sounds delightful.  

Seeing as it’s now October, the coziness of autumn should be beckoning, but since it’s still 85 degrees, the Harvest can wait…I’m all about the Lemonade.  But I digress…

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Laguna Lemonade and other colorful and creative drink concoctions 

The success of Starfish

Skewes started at Starfish in June of 2011.  He was brought over by Nancy Wilhelm but effusively credits new owners, Archie O’Connell and Gretchen Andrews for the restaurant’s success.  

“They have worked diligently to get the word out about this place.  They have worked tirelessly to make this restaurant a success,” he says.  Their commitment to the restaurant comes up repeatedly in our interview.  As someone whose career spans 30 years, he has seen a lot of restaurants come and go.  In other words, he undoubtedly knows good management when he sees it.

A career of loyalty and longevity

“I find myself content wherever I’m working.  However, it’s a fickle business.  Sometimes places just run their course.  I stay until it’s not viable for me to stay any longer,” he explains. “I was at the Ritz Carlton for five years, the Dana Point Resort (now the Laguna Cliffs Marriott) for five years, French 75 for five years…now Starfish for over four.”  When you think of the normal turnover in the restaurant business, such longevity is astounding.  

After talking with Skewes, it’s not surprising.

Several times in our conversation I tried to get him to take credit for people following him from one place to the next.  The most I could get from him was to say that “people have said that, but I don’t think that’s true.”  Then he heaps more praise on O’Connell and Andrews! 

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Neil Skewes works his magic behind the bar at Starfish Laguna Beach

Working on weekends suits him just fine

He doesn’t limit his praise to the workplace.  Skewes has been married for 20 years.  He smiles and says, “I married up.” His wife is currently serving as the mayor of Laguna Niguel, and has her own business, Five Star Weddings and Events.  

“She’s a dynamo,” says Skewes. “She has run that business for ten years.”  Luckily, their hours are similar.  

“I love my schedule!” enthuses Skewes.  “When my alarm clock goes off it means I’m going fishing or skiing,” he says with a laugh. Work often goes late into the night. 

“The shifts are long.  It’s a performance.  It exhausts…takes a toll.  That’s why we normally work four days a week,” he explains.  

He tells me how he and his wife had a rare weekend off and decided to go to the movies. “It was so uncomfortable. You can’t find a parking spot; there was a huge crowd…we’d never seen that before.  When we got to the front of the line the movie was sold out.  I’d never heard of that!”  Turns out, he prefers his Monday nights out; there’s plenty of parking.

The value of human contact

Skewes’ schedule is just one of the perks of his chosen career.  Another important one, as he sees it, is that while he’s working he gets to try to make people feel better. 

“People are looking for human contact.  I think that’s more of a valued commodity these days,” he says of his job.  He also likes that he knows he can go anywhere and make a living doing what he loves.  

He tells me of how he arrived in the Florida Keys as a young man with $15 and no place to stay, only to land a job waiting tables and enough money to secure a place to stay in the same day.  Though his life is much different now, as exemplified by when we spoke, he was lounging by the pool with a pot of coffee nearby – but the work, more or less, is the same.  

And as far as Neil Skewes is concerned, that’s a very good thing.


Laguna powerhouse Laura Tarbox on success & community

By ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

When speaking with Laura Tarbox, the words that come up most frequently are ‘family’ and ‘friends,’ her focus during our interview, despite the fact that we’re seated at the Newport Beach headquarters of the Tarbox Group—the wealth management firm Laura founded 30 years ago. There is an unmistakable down-to-earth quality and warmth about Laura that make her true values come across as clearly as the view of the Pacific Ocean directly behind her. She is a people-person, which is undoubtedly a quality that has helped her along the path to becoming the woman she is today: a hugely successful financial advisor and one of the leading benefactors in the Laguna Beach community. 

The Tarbox Group’s beginnings

Laura, raised in Santa Monica, attended UCLA and—despite her parents’ protests—majored in English. After she graduated in 1980, she found herself faced with the classic dilemma: what do I do with my English degree? 

Fortunately, Laura’s mother’s boyfriend, a stockbroker, had an entry-level opportunity for her at his Tustin office. And with that, Laura did what she thought she’d never do: leave West L.A. and head south for Orange County. She moved to the Victoria Beach area of Laguna Beach, and commuted back and forth along Laguna Canyon Road each day. 

While Laura fell in love with Laguna Beach, she simultaneously became captivated by the financial world. Though she initially spent her first days and weeks post-college cold calling, she was hooked by the industry. Only five years after graduating from college, Laura made the decision to start her own company in 1985. 

“I was working 60-80 hours a week during that time,” says Laura, who held several other jobs—delivering the Wall Street Journal, for example—while she worked tirelessly to build the foundation for the Tarbox Group. 

Her company was one of the early firms to offer fee-based wealth management services. Going against the grain in that sense for Laura meant that those early years required intense effort and determination. But when asked why she didn’t want to build a commission-based business, Laura will simply tell you that she thought she was “doing the right thing.” 

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At work

Today, not only does Laura still have clients from those early days, but she’ll also tell you that the majority of her clients—roughly 100 families—have become close friends of hers. 

As for the Tarbox Group? “It’s like a big family,” she says. 

Which is important, considering the fact that there were obvious challenges present for Laura as a woman entering the financial world, and especially one with an entrepreneurial mindset. She’ll admit that it remains a struggle for her to this day—though she’s had countless victories over the years. One shining moment for Laura? The day she realized that if she wanted to paint her office walls and have her letterhead be purple, then they’d be purple! It’s her company, after all, and she’s learned to embrace who she is as its leader. 

“The number of women in financial services hasn’t really changed much over the years,” she says, “but I’ve always used that to my advantage.” Even still, Laura says that in meetings held at her office, salespeople will sometimes fail to make eye contact with or speak directly to her, even though the company is her namesake. Moments like those, however, don’t hold Laura back. She’s strengthened by her experiences, which she’s shared with countless of those young women and students whom she’s mentored and taught over the years. 

“Numbers and financial skills… anyone can learn those. People skills are so important in this business, because you become so integrated into people’s lives… and I think in many ways, women do better there,” says Laura. 

Laura understands that there are many emotions and issues around money—one of the biggest challenges for her in her day-to-day work—and she’s found that the more personal you can get and the more you can connect with clients, the more it becomes a team effort, where trust and strong relationships are built naturally.

Serving the Laguna Beach community

Relationships, collaboration and connecting with others are values that have enabled Laura to find success and fulfillment in other areas of her life, too—especially when it comes to community service. She was raised by parents who instilled in her the importance of giving back to your community; her father was a member of the Big Brother organization, and her mother held leadership roles within the Girl Scouts organization. For Laura, time spent giving back is just as important as time spent within the four purple walls of her corner office. 

Before her daughter was born and during her first few years as a Laguna Beach resident, Laura joined the SchoolPower Endowment Fund as a Board Member. Soon after, she started to devote her time to other Laguna non-profits, such as the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Community Clinic. 

It wasn’t until she joined the Laguna Beach Community Foundation in the early 2008, however, that Laura discovered an organization through which her leadership could have the greatest impact in terms of connecting with and supporting countless, wide-ranging local non-profits. Today, she’s the Founding Chair, and is undoubtedly responsible for much of the organization’s tremendous growth and success since it was founded in 2004. 

“For me, joining the Laguna Beach Community Foundation was the best decision…a natural fit for what I do business-wise, and I love Laguna,” says Laura, who works most frequently on the investment side of the organization. She loves working with a foundation that can reach all of the other sub-organizations and non-profits in Laguna Beach, and she is a big believer in the organization’s mission: strengthening the Laguna Beach community by encouraging, supporting, and providing expertise and resources for its non-profits. 

It’s a lofty mission, considering the fact that Laguna Beach’s zip code boasts one of the highest numbers of non-profit organizations in California. The sheer number of non-profits can be a challenge, according to Laura, but the LBCF has helped provide so many organizations with tools that they might not otherwise have access to—such as board infrastructure and tax counsel.

 “We see ourselves as unique and special, which we are,” says Laura, when asked why she thinks Laguna Beach has such a wonderfully philanthropic spirit. She also adds that she’s found many great friends through her work with non-profits; the spirit of giving is one that helps form unique bonds among Laguna Beach residents. 

Laura’s vibrant life

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At home

Although it’s hard to believe that Laura has time for anything but work and the LBCF, those things are just a part of what makes her who she is. Today, Laura resides in a beautiful ‘coastal craftsman’ on Manzanita Drive, and she’s an avid reader and adventurer. Some of her favorite activities are partaking in her two local book groups, and practicing yoga at YogaWorks. 

She’s also part of a group of women who embark on annual hiking adventures to various mountain communities in the US; last year, they hiked in Jackson Hole. Oh, and she also somehow finds enough hours in the day to run on a regular basis, too, and to grab a bite at Zinc Café, her favorite Laguna hangout. 

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Laura is also a devoted mother to daughter, Jane, who is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. When asked if her daughter will follow in her footsteps, Laura says, “No! My parents constantly scolded me about getting a degree in English, saying it was impractical. My daughter loves music, and I’ll encourage her to pursue a career in the arts, even if she has doubts about it… I’m happy to just be supportive of her no matter what path she chooses,” says Laura.

Oh, and her best advice to women, self-starters, and people in general? “Be yourself, and play to your strengths,” she says, with the confident smile of a woman whose strength knows no limits.


Elsa Brizzi: open minded, compassionate educator, and she loves a good laugh too!

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Elsa Brizzi is really good at letting go. Letting go of self-doubt, releasing inhibitions, and opening herself up to freedom. She also has a way of inspiring that same sensibility in others.

This was evident to me when I witnessed her reception as Woman of the Year this year at the Woman’s Club. Turn after turn, friends and family spoke about the unique characteristics that have made her the dearly loved aunt, the unwavering friend, and the non-judgmental mentor.

Elsa Brizzi

When we sat down to chat recently I was immediately embraced by her warmth and genuinely compassionate nature. She had already made friends with a random neighbor at the adjacent coffee table while she awaited my arrival. I could tell the “new friend” would rather I had not shown up, so she could continue their conversation, getting to know Elsa better herself! Elsa’s warmth is enveloping.

A renaissance woman

Elsa Brizzi is also a woman ahead of her time. When she was facing the expected path of wife-dom and motherhood in the era perhaps now known as the Mad Men era, she took a long, hard look at what that option looked like to her. Ever the progressive, Elsa could see that was not her path; too restricting. 

“So I joined the Navy,” she said.  “It was the late 50’s, after the Korean War, and I was very patriotic. It was a good way to donate my service.”

Serving in the Navy for two years, she learned to be a weather forecaster. She was stationed in New Jersey where the dirigibles came in. Her time in the military also paved the path toward a new life.

“The GI Bill is how I went to college and could buy a home with no money down,” she said.  “I got a house in Garden Grove, and commuted to Cal State Los Angeles. My sister had a surfer husband, and kids in Laguna Beach. She found a house for me, and I loved it. I got another job just to afford it!”  

Yes, that’s two jobs plus college. No one has ever accused Elsa of being lazy!

Beyond being an admirable student, Elsa became impassioned as an educator. She went to USC on a Ford Foundation Grant to earn her teaching degree at night.

Early on, she got a teaching job at a junior high school, a formal school in Pasadena. The kids were not paying attention. “I had to get them involved,” she said. “So I took the desks and chairs and placed them in a circle. Then they got to know each other, got comfortable. And they found out that making a mistake is okay. Correcting it is wonderful!” 

It wasn’t the stuffy school way. “I got a terrible evaluation,” she admits. She was admonished. “My desks were not in a row!” She smiles, “I left that school.” 

She went from there to an alternative school, where the teachers, in fact, had to make presentations to the students to get them to join the class. That is more her style.

From the outside looking in

Having grown up with a German father, and a Spanish-Mexican mother, in L.A., Elsa blossomed in a multi-cultural landscape. 

“Where we are raised, how we are raised, affects how we learn. There’s something inspirational being in diverse groups. I love being in that environment! It’s terribly exciting to see how people take things in,” she says enthusiastically.

After a two-year stint exploring her creative side, in a seaside house she built herself, in Mexico (with Moroccan design influences), she packed up her ceramic and welding studio, and got into the business of teaching teachers. She started a bilingual program underscored by her great interest in matters of the mind.

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Elsa made this art piece for her house 

“I’ve always been into philosophy and psychology – how do bilingual kids feel learning English?” she asks. “In Rogerian philosophy they flourished.” 

She was hired to train minority teachers. “The program is cross-cultural, to learn communication skills. And I wanted teachers that looked like the kids they taught,” she explained. “I started with giving the aids a title, a ‘Para-Professional’. With a title and training they get respect.

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“I brought the teacher corps program to USC to push for para-professional training. I did programs and conferences with both the teachers and the para-professionals to train as a pair. The para-professionals could also get training and credit toward a teaching degree.”

She then launched a program to get disenfranchised immigrants and poverty bound parents turned on by education. “I did grant writing to Head Start to train single moms and parents with no careers to get college credit units, and we’d help them get into college. They learned to be teachers as well as good parents.”

Elsa is the kind of person who can relate to a variety of people, and always finds a way to bridge the cultural gaps. The culmination of her years as an educator, her heart full of compassion, plus her deft hand at artistry is best symbolized in her book, You are a very special You. She wrote it, illustrated it, and translated it into three languages (English, Spanish, and Chinese).

Bridging cultures and generations

Two years ago Elsa started a literacy program linking seniors as mentors, with second-grade children. The Intergenerational Literacy Enhancement Program pairs an adult with each child. Together they work with the textbook, You are a very special You. The interactive use of the book enforces confidence-building messages, such as “No one thinks the way you think… In the tub… Or in the sink”, and “You are special in everything you do… And everyone around you… is very special too!” 

The idea, Elsa explains, is that both the mentor and the child will have learning opportunities in which to share their feelings and ideas.

“Who you are is in self-discovery,” she says. “In the program book, you relate to an older person. How you act toward me is how I expose myself – or feel proud about myself – in your presence. It’s about head and heart. The mentor furthers praise, proximity, and [reinforces that] making mistakes is okay, celebrating correcting is even better.

“It’s wonderful! I’ve learned so much and experienced so much. I saw how outsiders were treated. I’ve learned to treat mistakes as learning experiences. You’ve already made the mistake – now they’re learning experiences!” 

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Kids participating in Elsa Brizzi’s reading program at the library

Kids and seniors participate in the program at the Boys & Girls Club during the months of January, February, and March, and also at Laguna Beach Library for their reading program. Volunteer mentors come from the Susi Q Center, and AAUW. All get special training for the program “interactions”.

The library gives a presentation for parents to come and see the kids share the book, and their own work. In this way, as Elsa describes it, the parents do the interaction too and can then follow up and reinforce the messages at home.

“It’s a program of self-discovery for me too,” she said. “We’ve all got such potential! I’m learning all the time. Heart and soul and brain turned on – continually growing all the time.”

Yes she is!

And to keep the physical in as good shape as the metaphysical, Elsa has also completed her training as a water aerobics instructor. She teaches a class every week in Foothill Ranch, where “the pool is covered and it’s a nice 80 degrees.” Then she gets back to her garden in Laguna where she claims to have the biggest figs around.

In closing, I am touched by Elsa’s care and concern to make our community, and our country ever better. 

“Education is so very important. Just laws, good education, good health care, that’s what any society, any country needs,” she says. “Our children are critical. This community can BE leadership, and show the way.”

With leaders like Elsa Brizzi I believe that’s true.


John Campbell: a view of Laguna through good times and bad, old times and new times

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

From Laguna’s floods, fires, felled trees, and forced entry – you name the catastrophe, and John Campbell has been there. Not because he’s unlucky. His insurance business has helped countless residents recover from their losses. He’s the guy who makes lemonade out of lemons.

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the recovery

In 1998, Laguna suffered the worst commercial fire in its history, and a 10,000 square foot building was in ruins. It also happens to be where the John L. Campbell Insurance Agency has resided since 1977. I’m pretty sure they had some good insurance coverage themselves, and were able to return to the building once it was reconstructed. His offices command the top floor with great street-side views of the goings on along Forest Avenue.

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 John Campbell

Very early in the morning of December 22, 2012, Campbell found his usual gym, The Art of Fitness, was closed. So, despite the rain he headed to work. Squish-squish went his flops-flops on the ground. As he looked down the length of Forest Avenue he quickly assessed the situation. At his building the water was up to the doorframe, but across Forest Avenue it’s about a foot lower. There was mud everywhere. The Marine Room on Ocean Avenue was under 3-4 feet of water. 

Then there was the arson fire in 1993 that burned almost 400 homes. 

“I had 20 total losses and 60 other fire-related claims. Clients were staying all over the place – with daughters, sons, anyone,” Campbell remembers. “I contacted them all. I was lent a cell phone (they were about ten pounds then), and found them all. I wrote $10,000 checks on the spot to use for food, lodging, whatever it takes. 

“That’s what a small business owner does. That’s Laguna Beach. You take care of your clients and they take care of you.”

The upside of the story is that everyone re-built, thanks to insurance coverage. “There was a guaranteed re-build replacement in those days,” Campbell said.

I remember when

John Campbell is a born and bred Lagunan. His parents moved here in 1948, and his dad was an electrical engineer following the service. They lived for a time in Garden Grove, near his dad’s work, and to Campbell, it was almost heaven. “It was all agriculture then,” he recalls. “It was strawberries, corns, beans – miles of farmland. It was great.”

His uncle ran a repair and sales shop, Klass Radio and Appliance, on Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach. As a kid, John worked there fixing toasters, radios, and TV’s. “It was before microwaves,” said Campbell. “Before you threw everything out!”

Then his uncle was murdered in a robbery, by an ex-convict. It was bittersweet that the uncle’s life insurance money to Campbell’s mom enabled the family to buy a home in Laguna. 

As a teenager, Campbell remembers the iconic things that gave Laguna its reputation and personality.

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“That was an interesting time. I saw some strange things,” he said. “There was the hippie canyon event. I had long hair too, whatever, but I was focused on school.”

He commuted to Cal State Fullerton, first studying engineering, then history and anthropology. 

It was a car accident in 1974 that led him to the future he lives today in the insurance business. 

The car crash in front of the Laguna Royale left him with a broken ankle, femur and neck. He was in traction in the hospital for three months. A friend of his parents came to visit him and told him that he’d be eligible for Social Security disability, and to get training and licensing for insurance. He could come and work for him.

He became an agent for the guy’s agency until 1982 when the business fell apart because the man was running a Ponzi scheme. Thankfully Campbell knew enough about the legitimate business, and had plenty of contacts around town. He opened his own shop and eventually bought up others as well.  

Here’s to good times

There is a personal tradition on Swallow’s Day in San Juan Capistrano. Every year Campbell and his wife Lu would go to the Swallow’s Inn in remembrance of the day they met.

It was March 19, 1977, when Campbell met Lu at a wedding. A friend introduced the couple, and it was love at first sight. By June they had moved in together and in July they were married. 

“She was 19 years older, so it was kind of scandalous,” Campbell admits.

Lu was an artist at the Festival of Arts for a total of 32 years, 16 years as a ceramicist, and 16 as a watercolorist. Sadly, she just passed away this past January after an eight-year battle with lung cancer.

During their marriage, the Campbells loved to travel. One of the places that inspired Lu’s art, and John’s love of good food, good wine, and good friends is the tiny Chianti village of Panzano, Italy. 

“Lu and her friend Sally spent a month there and loved it. It’s all she could talk about!” laughs Campbell. Then he gave in, “Okay. Uncle. I get the picture!” The three bought a place there, and continued to visit for many years. Lu’s ashes are scattered there.

Campbell’s offices are festooned with postcards from Italy and other places they enjoyed travelling around the world. Next up he’s planning a trip to France and Amsterdam this year.

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A community volunteer

A big part of the lifeblood of Laguna’s community services has been generated by John Campbell’s energy. He joined the Jaycees in the 70’s, raised funds for Boys and Girl Scouts, he’s a Business Club past president, and he’s been on the Chamber of Commerce Board for six years. Phew. And then there’s the Rotary Club. He loves the annual Rotary car show, and has been a sponsor of the show’s antique “Woodies” since day one. He is the only Laguna chapter president who has been its president twice.

New times 

In his free time, Campbell loves to cook, and he balances that with exercise – weights, core work, and spinning at his ever-favorite gym, The Art of Fitness.

And he has found love and support once again in his life, with long-time friend of both he and Lu, Dianne Reardon. The two are now engaged.


Lea Abel-Stone: The NextGen is stepping up

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Lea Abel-Stone is a fourth generation Lagunan.  Well-known for their artistic legacy, from architecture to wood-carving, the Abel family has contributed greatly to the aesthetic character that defines Laguna Beach.  Another legacy, equally lasting, is their community involvement.  “I’m really proud of the artistic side of my family,” says Abel-Stone, “but their legacy of philanthropy is a long one that I’m really proud of, too.  Everyone knows they can call them (Gregg and Kathy Abel) and they will be there with their support.” Abel-Stone, with six other Laguna Beach women, all with deep ties to the city, is carrying on this philanthropic legacy with NextGen.  

NextGen emphasizes community involvement

NextGen, according to the group’s website, ”represents the ‘next generation’ of local professionals and residents, with an emphasis on local involvement.” 

“You don’t really see our age group as much (doing philanthropic work).  We’re busy with work and kids.  But then I realized my mom and her friends started getting involved during this time in their lives,” she says.  Abel-Stone is 35.   

“Everyone (in NextGen) owns a business or works for a business in town.”  She herself is the Director of Anneliese School’s Manzanita Campus, as well as a former Anneliese student. “We all have different strengths.  We have a website, and we’re on Instagram.  Well, not me.  I’m good the old-fashioned way.” says Abel-Stone laughing. After referring to Instagram as “The Instagram”, she tells me, her friends have accepted that she will not be the group’s social media guru.

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Lea Abel-Stone, fourth generation Lagunan, and co-founder of NextGen

NextGen members have deep ties to Laguna

The group’s other members are Danielle Shuster, Katrina Puffer, Meghan MacGillivray Weil, Nicole Anderson, Katie MacGillivray and Catherine Talarico.  “An impressive group of gals,” as Abel-Stone describes them, who took the reins of the group when the original founder, Aaron Talarico, Catherine’s husband, had to take a step back.  “The wives just picked it up.  The husbands are involved whether they like it or not,” Abel-Stone says with a laugh. 

Wigging out for Friendship Shelter

NextGen put on their first fundraising event in August: a “Wig Out and Donate” event at the Marine Room benefitting the Friendship Shelter.  “It was our version of Dinners Across Laguna.  My mom started those.  I’ve been involved with the Shelter since I was 12 years old.  I would serve dinner, make care packages.  I always helped at events,” explains Abel-Stone.  “Our event cost $100 to come.  We raised about $6,000 for the Shelter.  We’d like to do other events for other charities, but we will always stay with the Friendship Shelter.  We are taking baby steps,” explains Abel-Stone.

Opportunities are everywhere

Their baby steps may be small but they’re definitely not slow.  With the group officially formed in May, it’s remarkable that four months later they successfully staged an event.  “We support each other’s causes and events.  That’s really important.  And even though we are just starting out we know we have a whole group to tap into.  People we all went to school with who are coming back, bringing their kids back.  We can use this group as a hub because making those connections are important,” says Abel-Stone, adding, “There is an opportunity to give back everywhere you look in Laguna.” 

The NextGen Social

In addition to putting on fundraising events, NextGen is also hosting a “Social” on October 7  at Villa Bella.  Abel-Stone stressed repeatedly her desire to “physically call people together.”  That is the purpose of the Social.  The NextGen members want to talk to other like-minded people and find out what is important to them.  

“We don’t want to be political.  We are open to different opinions.  We even talked about doing a survey because it’s good to have all the info,” she explains.  Newly planned is a holiday event – based around a toy drive, most likely – at Ritual Yoga studio.  Stay tuned!

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Lea Abel-Stone, and her husband, Zeda, await guests for their family get-together

Friendship Shelter is a family cause

  “I’m lucky to have a cause I feel so passionately about. To watch the progress at the Friendship Shelter is so exciting.  There is a difference being made there that you can see.  They make it so clear to everyone where their money is going and what good is being done with it.”  It is even more of a family cause as Abel-Stone’s husband, Zeda Stone, will join the Friendship Shelter’s Board of Directors in September.  In an email, Abel-Stone wrote that she’s “very excited and SO proud!!…as are Gregg and Kathy.” 

Learning about how Laguna Beach works

But her involvement does not end there, hence the group and their mission.  She says she has even been going to City Council meetings, not for an issue that directly impacts her, but because she wants to learn more about how the city works.  

“I went to the meeting about Air BNB.  It doesn’t effect me at all, but it was really interesting and really made me think about both sides of that issue,” she says.

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Lea Abel-Stone in her father, Gregg’s, wood shop

Worth the stress to live in Laguna

“I feel so blessed to be here.  I know it’s definitely hard for new families to move in because it’s so expensive.  It’s such a wonderful place to grow up – really a special place – no matter how stressed you get to live here.  The sense of community…you won’t find it anywhere else.  It’s unparalleled,” says Abel-Stone passionately.  

And she would know.  

She has a lot of history to fall back on when it comes to living in Laguna Beach, as do her NextGen compatriots.  Learning from the past to make the future better…the “present” generation just breathed a sigh of relief.  The “next generation” is here.  Whether they use “the Instagram” or rely on more traditional methods, they are already leaving a legacy for the next “next” generation.



He’s practically synonymous with surf culture… Paul Naudé enjoys it - and success is proof positive

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He was fixing dings and dents in surfboards, and little did anyone know that a surf industry pioneer was at work. Certainly Paul Naudé figured he was just doing something he enjoyed in between surf sessions in his hometown in South Africa. 

Paul Naudé

There were a few others inspired by everything surf-related there in Durban, and it seems like they collectively said, “California here I come!”

They came, they saw, they conquered. Witness the many South African entrepreneurs who conquered our sunny shores with their innovative surfboards, and their surf-style fashion trends. And they grew businesses, placing Orange County on the global map as the economic capital of the surf industry.

How did successes such as Billlabong, and Gotcha blossom from small-time garage stores 10,000 miles away? 

“In South Africa we were outdoor lifestyle driven. The [surf] industry is vibrant in South Africa,” Naudé said. “I don’t know if it’s the work ethic, or it just happened that way.”

Naudé’s early shop progressed from surfboard fixing and building, to the beginnings of surf apparel – wetsuits. From that small and successful business in Durban, he then ran the South Africa branch of Gotcha International, which broadened the nature of surf-related retail. When he was asked to make the move to California he enthusiastically said yes. 

California and Hawaii were always the dream back in South Africa, sparked in no small part by the movie, The Endless Summer. To this day, Naudé has a holiday home in St. Francis Bay, home of the famous Bruce Beauties surf break from the movie.

“Anything California or Hawaiian we gravitated toward, anything surf related – boards, style, apparel…” All good, he says. “All the great board builders – they were all California guys.”

Naudé moved here in the early ‘90’s and has been shaking up surf culture ever since. He recently stepped down after 15 years as the president of Billabong USA. And now he’s in the thick of a new venture.

A world-wide branding

Billabong had been slipping as a publically traded company during the economic woes since 2008. Naude saw the better option, and great potential in taking it private. He took a leave from his position to form a coalition with equity partners and make a bid to buy Billabong himself. 

The tough part was the three-month process of framing the bid. The mixed-benefit side of the next five months of waiting for the decision involved surfing. Of course!

“I headed up Billabong USA for about 15 years and in 2012 decided to step out to try to buy the company and take it out of the public market and into a privately held concern,” he tells us. “The first three months of that project was intense but then there was about five months of back and forth communication that took up very little time daily. It was a sort of forced sabbatical and I got to go surfing virtually every day.”

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 Photo by Jason Naudé

He smiles, “I really got to appreciate Southern California surf. I drove around to different spots and chose to ride whatever board was best for the conditions.

Sometimes I’d have stretches where I’d ride a different board in each of 15 odd consecutive sessions. Anything from a 5’5 board to a 9’6. It was amazing.”

He also found out there’s actually a limit to the amount of free time he can stand. “I found I got a little bored. It cured any thoughts of retirement! 

“I need to be active in business.”

When the bid to buy Billabong was rejected, Naudé decided to take his idea of an independent retail line and run with it. With his years of experience and global contacts, he has already reached markets in more than 30 countries for his new lines: Vissla (men’s clothing), D’Blanc (eyewear/accessory brand), and Amuse Society (women’s beach wear line).

Take a walk around Coast Highway in Laguna and you’ll no doubt see several young guys walking around wearing Vissla T-shirts. The clothes are sold in independent stores, and also on-line. Naudé tells us that the graphics in the designs are key. “With e-commerce you get instant feedback what customers want. T-shirts and board shorts are staple items. The graphics are trend-driven.”

Recent economic shifts are not a downer for the global US market, according to Naudé. “People adapt to economic fluctuation. My own point of view is that the US is going to maintain a position of strength for the next few years. I’m very optimistic about the future. Sometimes correction phases are good reminders. It gets people back to center. Are the best years ahead? Always! I’m an eternal optimist.”

Wildlife, the ocean, family, and other things that matter

Running a global company and surfing, at least on the weekends, is not enough for this South African. He also became an American. “I came to Laguna Beach in ’92. I’m a naturalized American and proud of it,” says Naudé. “It is interesting to learn the history of this country, and it’s an incredible opportunity to become American. I’m grateful for it.”

He also makes the time to give back to two things that have engaged him his whole life: wildlife and the ocean. 

“We have property in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in a wildlife conservancy called Amakhala,” he said. “We have a small game lodge, Hillsnek Safari camp, and are also involved in rhino conservation. Our foundation is Chipembere Rhino Foundation, which is very active on the anti-poaching front.

“I have had a few fundraisers here in Laguna to raise funds for the anti-poaching efforts down there. The good news is that a dollar goes a long way in that country based on the foreign exchange rate. I’ve been interested in wildlife since I was a young boy.”

Ocean conservancy gets his attention in a big way too. Naudé is president of the SIMA Environmental Fund that has an annual fundraiser, The Watermans Ball. 

“We raise funds for surf related ocean environmental groups. We just completed our 26th annual event and have raised about 7.5 million dollars during that time. I’m really proud of the surf industry’s effort in this regard.”

Surprisingly there’s something else he’s proud of, and it doesn’t have to do with any of the above. Back in 1976 he became a publisher, and the magazine is still in business today.

“I started a surf magazine in South Africa called ZigZag (after a surfing term back then). It was pre-desktop publishing. Typesetting, layouts and gluing down columns of copy and captions was painstakingly slow. In my long business career in this industry I’m most proud of the fact that the magazine is still thriving today.”

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Naudé does his own board “up-cycling” at home

Meanwhile, on the home front, Naudé and his wife Debbie have two kids – Frances and Jason. In some backyard downtime they grow grapes on their Laguna hillside, and bottle wine from it. Or he and Jason create camp knives together, out of exotic woods.

But many an afternoon Paul Naudé can be found out back shaping boards just for fun. “I like to build surfboards. It’s how I started. I’ve always liked it. I have a shed at home and I take broken boards and re-build them, I call it up-cycling. I’ll take a broken long board and make it a short board, or a belly board out of pieces that are left. It’s a lot of fun.”

They say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. For Naudé a little hobby, and a little fun have gone a long way. 

And on it goes!


Sande St. John: A legacy of loving Laguna

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sande St. John loves Laguna.  “I love, love, love living in Laguna,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm that belies her 30 year residency here.  “I love how you can agree or disagree with people and still be friends.  I love how everybody works together for a good cause…” and her list went on.  

St. John knows a lot about good causes as she seems to specialize in them.  Not just a few pet projects (though she has those), but many, many causes.  So many causes, in fact, that to list them would make for an article much too long to print.  Suffice it to say, St. John has developed a well-deserved reputation as someone who can get things done, hence the nicknames like the “Uber-volunteer”, ’the ultimate do-er” and “Laguna’s Super Angel”. 

Woman of the Year, among other things

This determination to make things happen, coupled with an apparent aversion to the word “no,” has earned her a myriad of civic awards from being the first recipient of the Laguna Beach Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1996 to the Laguna Beach Seniors Legacy Award in 2013, with many others in between.  Children, seniors, veterans, the homeless and the arts have all received St. John’s attention – over and over again.

The incomparable Sande St. John, volunteer extraordinaire

The tradition of the Firefighters’ Labor Day Pancake Breakfast

Right now, she’s focusing her legendary energy on two events: the Firefighters’ Pancake Breakfast at Heisler Park on Labor Day and a celebration of Jon Coutchie, the Laguna Beach motorcycle officer who was killed in a traffic accident while on duty two years ago.  It’s easy to think things like the Pancake Breakfast run themselves because they have been around for so long and are such a community tradition.  I’m sure St. John wishes that was true.  

However, someone needs get it all planned and nailed down and that someone is St. John.  And still, after all these years, she’s enthusiastic.  

“I just love that the Fire Chief (Jeff LaTendresse) comes year after year and sits there stirring the batter.  He stirs the batter the whole time!  The Fire Chief!  He has been doing it forever,” says St. John.

Honoring a mother’s love for her son, Jon Coutchie

If the Pancake Breakfast is a tradition that needs overseeing, the celebration of Officer Jon Coutchie is a brand new endeavor.  “Jon’s mom, Luciana, wanted to do something for her son.  He loved kids so much.  He loved Halloween. So we decided to make it a Halloween-themed celebration of John and make it a family affair,” says St. John.  St. John got involved because, as she says, “I like Luciana.  I love her. I feel her spirit.”  So she got to work.

A fun family event on September 20th

“We have really good sponsors.  It will be at Tivoli Too.  We will have a lot of games for kids, a lot of community organizers, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the police and fire will be there.  Blue Water Music is doing the music.  We have food from all these different restaurants:  Tivoli will be offering a complete dinner, and Mare, k’ya, Mozambique and Sapphire will be offering small plates.  We’re working on a haunted house because John used to build one for his god children every year,” explains St. John.  She tells me this and then adds, “We’re going to have a silent auction and the funds raised will go to the CSP Laguna Beach Shelter.”  That’s how St. John puts on an event.  

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The American Legion Hall, home to No Square Theater

Opening up the floodgates

Many people put on an event like the ones St. John specializes in once.  St. John has been doing things like this for almost 30 years.  “I first got involved in Human Options because my son, Derek, was the Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Club for Kids, now the Boys and Girls Club.  He was familiar with them so I called and offered to help.”  After that, the floodgates of altruistic endeavors were opened.  “Once you start something,” says St. John, “it’s hard to walk away from it.”  

At least it is for her.

The dynamic duo of “The Sandies”

St. John’s initial volunteering may have been instigated by her son, but it was fostered by her friend, Sandy Thornton. The two women served as co-Directors of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce for years, legendarily putting together a wedding at the Hotel Laguna for two victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, among other things.  The two were, and still are, known as “The Sandies,” even though Sandy Thornton moved to Palm Springs.  “People still can’t tell us apart.  Now, when Sandy comes by they’ll start talking to her, ‘Thank you for this or that’ and she just says ‘You’re so welcome’ even though she has no idea what they’re talking about!” says St. John laughing.

It was the “other Sandy” that got St. John involved with the seniors when they were still using Legion Hall as their home base.  That’s where St. John and I met, as she graciously squeezed me in despite an incredibly hectic schedule made more so by the fact that her daughter-in-law just had a baby and the family, who was moving, needed to be out of their house in days.  The fact that she agreed to meet and be interviewed despite her very impacted schedule speaks both to her generous nature and to that problem she has of saying “no.”  “I love working with the seniors.  They are so happy to be out.  They’re so nice and grateful,” she says fondly.

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Sande St. John shows off the newly spruced up entrance at the Legion Hall

No Square Theater

  “I love this building,” says St. John of the Legion Hall.  It was in a rather chaotic state when we met, but she seemed unfazed.  It was just another project to tackle.  Now, the building is home to No Square Theater, of which St. John is a founding member (of course!).  “My goal in life is to keep the theater alive,” she says with passion.  But she won’t be aiding that cause by performing on stage.  

“When I was at the Chamber, Bree (Rosen, founder of No Square Theater) insisted I be in the show.  I did it for five or six years.  But I was also doing events and I really like doing those more.  Plus I don’t have any talent.  I don’t want to be a tree or a stone or a rock.  It takes too much time to just be a tree or a stone or a rock!” she says adamantly.  “I still provide dinner at the theater every night,” she adds as if someone might be questioning her commitment to the cause.  “I love all my people at No Square Theater!  I will leave them everything -- which isn’t anything -- but I love them!”  

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Sande St. John shows off some props at No Square Theater

If only the Easter Bunny could speak!

One of the other things St. John loves (and she loves a lot of things!) is her direct connection to both the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.  “I own the real ones!’ she states emphatically.  Then she tells me a hilarious story about when she had to dress up as the Easter Bunny and, because the Easter Bunny “can’t talk”, she took to “beating” a volunteer who was not going to give a kid an Easter basket because their name wasn’t on the list.  “Since I couldn’t talk I just started beating on them to please give this kid an Easter basket. I’m sure it was much worse watching the Easter Bunny whacking this volunteer…I should definitely not be the Easter Bunny,” she says shaking her head.

Trying to pass the torch

She may not feel well suited as the Easter Bunny, but she certainly makes a great stand in for the Energizer Bunny. But even that long-lasting, hard-charging critter has to slow down at some point.  

“I would love to get younger people in these organizations.  Every single group needs people.  They need people with passion and vision.  It’s hard to get them.  So much has been done and there are so many groups out there.  

“Way back when there was just the Laguna Beach Service Council.  Once a month we got together and sat around and just talked about the things the city needed.  So many of them have been done or there are really great organizations working on them,” she says with a mixture of pride at how much has been done and a little melancholy for simpler times.  But if that sounds at all like a complaint, it isn’t.  

“I love and feel so blessed just to live in this incredible place.  It’s paradise.  If you live in Laguna you’re lucky enough,” says St. John emphatically.  

Because of people like Sande St. John, I couldn’t agree more.


Music, fishing, surfing – it’s more than 

common sense for Nick Hernandez

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I caught up with our local rock star at his “office”, aka the patio beside Sapphire. Nick Hernandez makes regular stops there to fuel up on coffee, and just about everyone stops by to chat him up.

Nick Hernandez

Having spent many years on the road touring with his band, Common Sense, it feels good having a home base. Really, he’s happy making music anywhere. “I love waking up in a new place every day, touring on the road. And I love it here at home,” says Nick. “If you’re me, it’s awesome!” No doubt.

Musical sense

Common Sense is the first of Nick’s bands to go really big. It’s still going strong, but in its most prolific years the band sold more than 50,000 albums, with “Psychedelic Surf Groove”, and 10,000 with “State of the Nation, Now and Then”. A couple of his songs have made it to Hollywood. “Never Give Up” is a big song that made it into the movie, Speed Two, and “In Your Eyes” was in the Kingpin movie, which Nick says has got a cult following.

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 Photo from Facebook

Recently Nick recorded music with Wyland as a benefit following the Gulf oil spill disaster, a trio of albums called Blues Planet I-III. And this past winter he played with noted Hawaiian musician, Willie K in his Maui music festival along with the likes of Steven Tyler, Mick Fleetwood, and Taj Mahal.

Altogether with his bands Common Sense, Nick-I, and The 133 Band, he’s made 12 albums. “I like it, but I don’t do enough recording,” Nick said. “I’m mostly a live artist.”

There’s always a crowd on Fridays at Mozambique catching Nick live with his band, Nick-I & A.D.D., and other live gigs at places such as the Coach House, the Belly Up, and the OC Fair as well as special events and corporate gigs.

“You always have a dream as an artist,” he muses. “Now my dream is that The 133 Band will do the film festival circuit.”

Sound like a lot of balls to juggle in the air? Toss in Nick’s co-passion for surfing, and add to that his participation in Surfers Healing and you’ve got one busy dude.

Social sense

Surfers Healing is an outreach program designed to foster joy and promote surf culture in the lives of autistic youth. Nick has served on the board of directors for 17 years. The idea is to get the kids out on the waves with the assistance of able surfers.

“We want to give them one nice beautiful day at the beach, and just feel normal,” says Nick. 

Surfers Healing was founded by the Paskowitz family because their son, Isaiah, struggled with “meltdowns and sensory overload”. Riding the waves with his father calmed him like nothing else. Now Surfers Healing provides wave rides for more than 4,500 participants in their surf camps every year. Their motto is, “One child. One family. One day at the beach.”

“Now we’ve got enough sponsorship, we’re not sleeping on the floor – we all get our own beds now!” said Nick. “It started out, ‘I’m gonna do this ‘cause it’s the right thing to do’, and then I loved it. We’re helping these kids and it feels really good.”

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 Photo from Facebook

Kids enjoy the surf with Nick Hernandez (right) and Surfers Healing

Nick’s just back from a Surfers Healing trip to Australia, where he really hit it off with one of the surf stars who happens to be on the autism spectrum himself; Clay Marzo. “[Surf champion] Kelly Slater said Clay is the best surfer in the world,” Nick said. “But he’s intimidated by people.” 

Nick can relate. “I understand him, ‘cause I’m a little out-there too,” he said. “Things bug me, like loud noises.” Playing music with a loud band is not bothersome, however, it’s more the sound of people “yammering” and dogs barking. “I’ve just always been kind of special,” he admits.

Joining forces with Surfers Healing changed Nick’s life. At the time he was busy and on the road with his band, but something had to give. “I told my band, I’m gonna do this now,” he said. “I took time off to make Surfers Healing a top priority.”

That fulfilled one aspect of life according to Nick. “I do whatever I want, no matter what,” he says. “I don’t need money so much. If I had a lot of money my dreams wouldn’t be the same. I wouldn’t be as creative.” A dream come true? “I’d want to surf and fish and write songs.”

Cultural sense

Nick grew up in Laguna Beach, and learned to love music at the footsteps of his dad, Nick Sr. His dad was in a blues band, and put his son in classes for classical guitar and violin. 

“I hated it,” Nick remembers. “I didn’t like the style. You want to play what’s on the radio! But, if you can play classical or jazz or blues, you can play any pop.”

In those days, the roots of inspiration came thanks to reggae music. “Our heroes were the Rebel Rockers, and Eric Morton, pioneer of surf reggae,” Nick said. “My band, Common Sense, Sublime, and Slightly Stupid spawned a culture of surf reggae, and that influenced fashion too. Laguna Beach is the center of the fashion of surf culture.” 

And just as surf fashion brands began by sponsoring competitive surfers, Nick brought them along to music. For example, there was a two-page spread in Rolling Stone for his music that O’Neill surfwear brand paid for. There is a natural tie-in between the fashion, philosophy, and music of the surf culture.

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T-shirt, trunks, and the backward trucker hat are de rigueur for the lifestyle of Nick-I. The rest of the world seems to have caught on. Nick likes it, “You can wear T-shirts and trunks anywhere now!”

Future sense

There is still something Nick needs to check off his list. “It’s the eight unit monkey sitting on my back!” he says. 

When he was a rising rock star he had to make the ultimate choice: grow the band and take it on the road, or finish school at UC Santa Barbara. Tough choice, as he had only eight units left to finish his degree. “No one believes my story,” he bemoans. “But I’ve got to get it done.” 

It’s been weighing on his mind, so he went ahead and straightened years worth of records out with the registrar, and he found out he could take the required classes at Saddleback, and get that monkey off his back. “They wouldn’t just give me the credits for all the albums I’ve put out,” he laughs. “I’m going to take some ethno-musicology, or history of some type.”

Getting the eight units accomplished and giving his vocal chords a couple months of much-needed rest are in the near future. And the 25-foot wave he caught in Mexico last year is calling him. 

“Maybe I’ll go to Cabo to rest up,” he says. “I could brush up on my Spanish too. And go surfing. And fish a lot.”

After 20-plus years of rocking out multiple nights every week, maybe he deserves a little vacation. But then get back here and light up the stage!


Morris Skenderian: 40 years of improving Laguna

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have lived in Laguna Beach for any length of time it is very likely you’ve heard the name Morris Skenderian. Skenderian, one of Laguna’s most well-known and respected architects first came to Laguna Beach in 1968 when he was a 26 year-old architectural neophyte. The renowned architect, William F. Cody, saw something in the young Skenderian and brought him along to work on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs. This is how Skenderian was introduced to what eventually would become his hometown. 

“We were using stained glass that was made by a Laguna Beach stained-glass artist, Joseph Maes,” Skenderian said. “I knew nothing about stained glass and asked if I could help him work on the panels. I spent two weeks here. That was my introduction to Laguna Beach.” 

Morris Skenderian  

Skenderian liked Laguna Beach enough that when his Pasadena firm wanted to open an Orange County office, he raised his hand to move south and get the office started.  “Now I’m 30…  I moved to Laguna because it was the least expensive place I could find,” he remembers. “I found a house in Arch Beach Heights for $29,000. Then the economy went bad and they decided not to open the office. They said, ‘Come back.’ But I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to come back. I’m going to start my own office.’” 

And he did, finding a 300 square foot cottage where he worked on mostly kitchen and bath remodels.  

AYSO helps launch a career

They say talent always rises to the top.  This is undoubtedly true in Skenderian’s case. However, he credits his big break to a very surprising source: The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). 

“By now my son is six, my daughter is five. They’re in the Laguna Beach school system. My son plays AYSO soccer so I volunteer as a coach. (Being around these people) becomes a resource. They ask me to take a look at their houses. I got all these references through AYSO!” explained Skenderian. “It sounds kind of weird when I say it, but it’s true.”

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Skenderian at work on site at The Ranch at Laguna Beach  

And this highlights another important contributor to his success: Skenderian’s ability to forge and maintain great relationships with his clients.  “One of the things that attracts me to this business is I love the relationships. 90% of my friends are former clients,” he says with satisfaction. After 40 years of working in the same town, suffice it to say, he’s never short on dinner invitations.

“Solution-oriented” design

While some architects have a very consistent aesthetic, Skenderian says he likes to look at design as more “solution-oriented.”  That may be why, after the devastating fire in 1993, Skenderian’s firm designed 25 of the 75 houses built to replace ones that had burned.  

“My office went from three to 13 people.  I gave seminars about how to navigate the insurance claims, how to work with architects,” he said. “My intent was to help people.  The side benefit was that it kept business going.  Once that was over I pared it back down to seven or eight people, which is what I have today.”

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Skenderian’s design work includes the recent remodel of The Ranch pool area 

Skenderian takes a community-minded approach to his design.  Of course, his clients’ needs are of the utmost importance, but he does not work in a client-only vacuum.  “I have a duty to my clients without sacrificing the quality of life for others around it,” he says.  Right now he has about 30 projects going “in one stage or another.” 

While he says he likes doing both commercial and residential work, talking about his involvement with the Athens Group when they were designing and building Montage Laguna Beach back in 1995 brings a heightened level of enthusiasm to the conversation. 

“They came to me and said, ‘What would you do?’  I said, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of responsibility for me to tell you what to do, but I think if you go with a Greene and Greene, craftsman-style and keep a low profile, people will embrace it,’” he said. “They said, ‘Great! Let’s do it!’  With the way it turned out…that feels really good.”

Very close to his grandkids

However, the thing that seems to give him even more pleasure than bringing spaces to life is spending time with his six grandkids, who live in either Laguna Beach or Newport Beach.  “They’re here (at his office) all the time,” says Skenderian.  He proudly describes the projects two of his grandsons worked on recently.  “When you’re this close you get to be a mentor to your grandkids,” he says. Whether the mentoring fosters more architects in the family seems to be beside the point. He just enjoys spending time with them, teaching them different skills, exposing them to new interests.

Unknowingly forging a career path

Looking back, Skenderian says he had some interests that lent themselves to his future career. He liked to build models, for example. “They had these contests and I won three or four of those and that was encouraging. Then I built a car for a soapbox derby when I was 12 or 13.  I was proud of that. And then in high school I wasn’t a good writer, but I was a good printer so I took a drafting class.”

The pieces were falling into place for Skenderian’s future as an architect, but he still wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.   “I didn’t really know what architects did,” he says.  But then he met a friend who told him he should go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “He told me, ‘You’ll love it!  It’s farm country, a small town’…so I took my portfolio, talked to the Dean and got myself invited.  I started in 1958 and graduated in 1962, which was unheard of. My dad said, ‘You have four years’ so I went through kind of scared,” he says wryly.  

After graduating from Cal Poly, Skenderian secured a job working for an architect.  And, minus the year he spent in Memphis with the Navy (he got drafted), and the few years he spent learning how to build things with the Huntington Harbor Company, Skenderian has been an architect ever since.  And while he may not have planned it, he seems very content with the way things turned out – kind of like living in Laguna.

Committed to improving Laguna

“What brought me here was the sheer physical beauty, the village character and the people.  Back then the freeways weren’t all connected.  My clients were not of wealth. I liked what I saw as I became part of the fabric of the town. I wanted to improve it, and also prevent people from ruining it,” he says.  

And while there are a lot more freeways and a lot more people of wealth than when he arrived, he’s still committed to improving Laguna, one project at a time.


The Return of September – McGee that is!

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I love being back with my peeps!” exclaimed September McGee. And we love that she’s back. After a brief one and a half year stint on the east coast, September confirms what she knows, “I know it isn’t my energy over there!”

The long time Sawdust artist is happy to be back in the ‘Dust. 

“Artists are such nice people. They’ve been so wonderful,” September says. “It’s healing for me to be here.” Sage words considering her trip to the east coast was for medical care. The art venue is like a friendly, welcoming embrace upon returning home in good health.

Add to the warm and fuzzy feeling a few new art awards, and September has the makings of a very good summer.

Artist, September McGee

The award-winning artist does not quietly paint away in her studio. She projects her soul into her artwork and the expression gives her voice. She delights in sharing with others, as is evident anytime you happen by her booth where she is usually engaged in animated conversation with her many visitors. 

“I love being at the Sawdust because it’s not lonely, and you get feedback. The customers here rock!” she said. “We have to educate the public – like, explain what is a ghost print, or the use of different papers. I want them to go home happy.”

Art makes a difference

She is an artist changing the world in her own way, by educating and giving back through her medium.

“Art is probably the first language – you know, painting the deer on the cave. I want to use my art to promote non-violence. I would like to see artists come together to promote peace.”

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After 9/11 September was stirred into action and asked herself: “What can you do to promote tolerance?” The answer began with a painting of five children (all from Top of the World School), of different ethnicities holding hands in front of the flag. The painting went to a charity event for Patch Adams, a humanitarian luncheon attended by the Vice President’s wife, Lynn Cheney, and then on to fundraisers for Child Help USA, Children Uniting Nations, and the Hunger Project. September was happy to meet people through this journey, and see her painting as a catalyst. 

“One idea went and did a lot of good!”

Getting notice

Expressing herself through artwork has been something September McGee was good at since about her first art award in the third grade. That one was for a drawing in crayons of a symphony conductor. “I was a realist – staying inside the lines,” said September. “Then I moved on with what-else-can-you-do!” Onto impressionism, training in figurative work and portraiture. 

Submitted photo

Maestro II, McGee’s painting recently juried in to an exhibition in New York

The awards have continued since that third grade win, including numerous juried competitions and elected membership in excusive international artists groups. She was recently notified that one of her paintings has been accepted into the Allied Artists of America Juried Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, New York – that’s a big deal. But there’s more… It’s a painting of a symphony conductor! Just like her third grade self, September is excited, humbled, and amused by the irony that two paintings with the same subject should be honored.

“It’s a big coup and the interesting news is it is a painting of Carl St. Clair who is celebrating his 25th Anniversary with the Pacific Symphony and as you know he lives in Laguna Beach,” said September.

Breaking through

September has shown at the Sawdust since 1993. For two years she participated in the Festival of Arts as well. That was hard, going back and forth between festivals, she admits. “I didn’t know who I was!” But she has been an artist her whole life despite the challenges. Sometimes it’s the difficult obstacles that open new horizons. 

September McGee’s booth at the Sawdust Art Festival

“It’s not easy. It has its tortuous moments – you want to create but don’t always know the way.

“When you have a piece that doesn’t work, it’s torture. You have to have confidence and believe you can do it when you walk up to the easel,” she said. And just when you’re about to lose confidence or feel defeated, September has the solution: “Just hum! Then you can’t criticize yourself!”

Such words of wisdom float around in her brain and are just calling out to be heard. So, she wrote a book. And then another one.

In her words

September has put her passion and inspiration into two books. The first evolved from her children’s art classes around town. Written and illustrated by September, the book focuses on a child’s wonder at the beach. Let’s Sail Away is an educational and fun story about preserving our tidepools. 

Her latest book has just been published. Love is my Favorite Color features her own words of inspiration with her paintings as illustration. “I think I wrote it for myself,” September says. “It’s what I’ve learned about how to be a better human being.”

September’s passion and inspiration are a joy both in print and on canvas.

“This energy is a gift that comes through me for which I am forever grateful,” September says in her Artist’s Statement. “Each painting is my gift back.”


Barbara McMurray: Making it all look much too easy

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Balance.  It’s the word I kept thinking as I sat with Barbara McMurray eating lunch on her glorious deck. McMurray seems to have effortlessly achieved what many of us find so elusive: the ability to balance family, work, community and personal passions.  Of course, just because it appears effortless, doesn’t mean it comes without effort.  But whatever internal struggles she may engage in, to the outside observer, at least, she has them well tamed.

Coming to Laguna Beach

McMurray came to Laguna Beach in 1991. Originally from New York where she grew up on a dairy farm, McMurray came to San Diego for a visit and was so “captivated” by the scenery she was living there six weeks later.  She worked at an advertising agency for the ABC affiliate there in the promotions department.  Then, at a New Year’s Eve party in Mira Mesa, she met her husband-to-be, Ken.  “It was fated,” she says of their meeting. 

But he lived in Laguna Beach so there was a lot of back and forth on the 405 until McMurray decided to move north.  They were married a year later.  “He is my moral compass.  I became a better person when I married Ken,” says McMurray.  

His calibration must be impeccable because McMurray’s willingness to give back to her community is almost legendary.

Barbara McMurray of McMurray Marketing and Communications

CLC, training wheels and a snowball

McMurray pinpoints her daughter’s attendance at CLC (Community Learning Center) as what started her community involvement.  CLC is an alternative school run through the Laguna Beach Unified School District at Top of the World Elementary for 1st-4th graders. 

“When Anna was in CLC the tide turned for me,” explains McMurray.  “We were teaching the kids to be positive, to be involved so I figured I have to try and model these things myself.  I taught yoga.” (Parents are expected to volunteer six hours per month at CLC.). “And it was so fulfilling to make that your goal - to be the things that they were teaching the kids to do.  I love that program.  They helped me be a better parent.  So I got involved in the CLC PTA - my training wheels.  It (volunteering) just kind of snowballed from there,” says McMurray.

The Friendship Shelter calls

One of the places the “snowball” landed was the Friendship Shelter.  McMurray says she was introduced to the Friendship Shelter “the way most people are…through one of their dinners.”  But there was also a CLC connection.  “CLC did a Christmas thing for the Shelter where they would have the kids put essential items, like socks and toiletries and pocket calendars, in bags for residents of the Shelter.  They would make these hand towels into elephants and give them away.  They still do that,” she says with a laugh.  “The kids were so open to it.”  

McMurray was asked to be on the Friendship Shelter Board “a couple of years ago,” she says.  Her ultimate goal for the shelter? Nothing less than solving the problem of homelessness in Laguna Beach.  She feels very optimistic.  

After we met she sent me the following in an email: “In 2009, the city of New Orleans - a major U.S. city - had nearly 4,600 chronically homeless people living on its streets. They initiated a supportive housing program to house and provide services to these folks - and that number is now around 400. That’s a big city - they did it. The state of Utah - an entire STATE - provided housing to homeless residents and their homeless numbers went from 1,932 to 178. So many public resources can be saved using this model. We’re a little city with about 45 chronically homeless people. We can do this.” 

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McMurray working in her home office

Helping Chhahari change lives in Nepal

The other Board she sits on is Chhahari, which runs a home for orphans and at-risk children in Kathmandu, Nepal.  It was founded by Laguna Beach resident, Christine Casey.  “I have so much admiration for her.  I do their Facebook page.  The images, especially since the earthquake…pretty dramatic stuff,” says McMurray.  In case you’re thinking of asking McMurray to join your favorite organization’s Board (And trust me, you want her), “Two Boards is my limit,” says McMurray.  But that doesn’t mean she isn’t active in other organizations, as well.  In fact, it seems that whatever charity you attend you’ll see, McMurray there lending a hand.  

“For me, it gives life heft and meaning - gravitas,” she says.  “Plus there are so many interesting people who do these things!”

While she is definitely a do-er, McMurray is particularly adept at is bringing people together. “I like to be a connector. I want to draw people in.  That’s what being a community is all about.  A lot of the time people want to help but don’t know how.  

“The trick is not asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Then they realize they enjoy it.”

The McMurray’s rescue dog, Milo

Going full steam ahead with McMurray Marketing 

Amidst her volunteer work, McMurray also runs McMurray Marketing and Communications.  Prior to that she worked for the now defunct Opera Pacific.  “It was really fun.  Fantastic people.  But after a few years I couldn’t take the long nights.  But I did learn how to handle a certain donor crowd,” she says with a knowing smile.  “One week after starting McMurray Marketing I discovered I was pregnant with Anna.  She just turned 20.”  When asked if she considered putting her fledgling business on hold after finding out the big news she says, “I just went full steam ahead.  I scaled back when Anna was a toddler, but I’m so glad I kept going.  I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to start something after.”

Clients and causes 

Many of McMurray’s clients reflect her interests.  The Laguna Food Pantry is a client.  “We just had a happy hour taco bar at the Marine Room, which was our debut on the fundraising scene. [The event]…had a low threshold of entry.  It’s good when you give people something easy to say yes to.” She is working to elevate the Food Pantry’s profile so they can better achieve their mission. “It’s a myth that it’s just for the homeless shelter.  It’s for working people who need some help.  It would be great if we could get it to be open on weekends,” she says.

Another client is the Laguna Dance Festival.  “We have two really, really good troupes coming.” says McMurray.  There is Malpaso Dance Company from Cuba and Alonzo King LINES Ballet.  “Alonzo King is featuring ‘Biophany.’  Bernie Krause is a soundscape artist who has collected animal sounds for the last 40 years.  They worked together to come up with this score for the dancers.  This would be a great show for kids if they’re interested in nature, oceanography…”

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A photo taken by McMurray’s son, Owen, next to one of her own prints

Making time for herself

McMurray, despite working, taking care of her family and volunteering, does not neglect herself.  “I do print making on Friday.  And every morning I try to meditate, even if it’s for only five to ten minutes,” she says.  She was introduced to meditation by Dr. Arlene Dorius.  “She had a group made up of really powerful, spiritual women.  I took it and ran with it…It’s very, very handy.”  

She calls herself a “Baby budding Buddhist.”  “I grew up in the Lutheran church.  This (Tibetan Buddhism) feels true to me…very true.  You have to answer to yourself.  It’s very forgiving, non-punitive in nature.”  But graduating to a full-fledged Buddhist may have to wait until she has more time to dedicate to its study.  “There is a lot to it, much to learn,” she says.

The same can be said of McMurray herself. She would be the first to say she doesn’t have all the answers.  Nevertheless, spending even a brief afternoon with her, hearing how she makes it all work, it’s easy to wonder how much more evolved she can hope to be. Maybe it’s the meditation; maybe it’s her husband.  

“I drink coffee,” she says with a laugh.  Most likely it’s all of these things – plus many, many more.  (I mean, I drink coffee…)  

“I remember my mother telling me I had ‘too many irons in the fire’ when I was younger.  I guess I just have a lot of interests,” she says with a shrug.  

Somehow she has managed to master those many irons, forging them into a very complete, well-balanced life.


Ryan Heimbach: a Festival exhibitor’s perspective

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Scott Brashier

Ryan Heimbach strikes me as a young person with an old soul. Unlike many young people, he knows what he doesn’t know, and seeks to learn the answers. He’s the first person I’ve talked with in a long time who actually calls himself an apprentice.

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Ryan Heimbach

The apprentice has enormous respect for his mentor, Festival artist and award-winning sculptor, Andrew Myers. “I didn’t think of art until I worked with Andrew,” Ryan says. Myers taught Ryan technique and logistics and the ins and outs of the art world, while Ryan developed his own artistic voice. Since 2008 Ryan has worked on many of Meyers’ big projects, finding inspiration along the way. 

“I did whatever he was a part of. He inspires me,” says Ryan. 

In “old soul” fashion, Ryan thoroughly appreciates his mentor’s finished works. “Even though my name’s not on it, I’m not that kind of guy,” he says. 

An artist breaks out

Apprentice he may be, but Ryan is accomplished enough to have found his artistic passion, with talent to match. He’s one of the youngest artists ever selected to show at the Festival of Arts, garnering accolades and art patrons along the way.

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His piece this year, titled Breaking Through, is a cast bronze, plaster, and stainless steel sculpture of hands emerging from the wall. A narrative piece in three parts, the first hand is clenched around an egg, moving on to the next hand with the egg cracking, while the third hand presents a fist emerging from within the egg it holds. It’s provocative sculpture, and draws queries and dialog with the patrons at the Festival.

“I think it’s my mental mindset,” said Ryan. “I want to take things further and break through.” 

Art emerges

He grew up in Laguna Canyon, the son of a single mom, Diane DeBilzan, who had a gallery in Laguna for many years. His uncle is the artist William DeBilzan. Ryan was surrounded and nurtured by art before he realized he, too, was one of their kind. 

“I grew up doing cartoons, and copying things. I just enjoyed it,” he says. “I tried to be precise to what it was. I saw something and I could recreate it. When Andrew showed me techniques, I started to look at every little detail, every shape.”

Any figurative sculptor will tell you certain body parts require more attention to detail than others. “Sculpting hands and faces are the hardest thing.” Ryan laughs. And that’s what I do!”

Plus there is a story to tell with the hands. “There are so many emotions you can create with the hand – the fist shows power, or pushing through with strength.”

This year’s Festival piece, Breaking Through, represents just that emotion. The hand holds an egg that at first is solid like a stone, then it starts to crack, and then it’s polished and gleaming in its final incarnation, a new fist emerging as if to say, Yes, I can! 

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“It’s like when you think you’ve broken through,” explains Ryan. “But you can still do more. Breaking through can be positive, like finding a cure for something, or mentally battling with something and then emotionally breaking through.

“I left it a little open so it would be universal.”

There’s something mathematical to his sculptural precision: an understanding of proportions and dimensions. Ryan seems to have a left brain/right brain thing going on. Not surprisingly, while at Laguna Beach High School he won awards for accounting and pottery.

Personal breakthroughs

“I wanted to do something I could relate to,” Ryan says about his Festival exhibit.

He was remembering his own challenges. One was when he thought it would be a good idea to go live with his dad in Florida. He gave it a try – taking the only job he could find there: working the graveyard shift at Lowe’s. 

Working at night, sleeping in the day. “It was not my thing,” he says, simply.

He pushed through and worked his way back to Laguna, knowing it was his true home and knowing he would have to work hard to stay.

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“I like being in ‘clutch moments’,” he said. “I can handle problem solving like that. I don’t want charity. Nothing is owed to me. I always want to feel I’ve earned something.” Old soul.

Ryan’s first year at the Festival was 2011, and he was the youngest exhibitor. As one might imagine a young artist would do, he was still emerging his style and decided to change things up for the following year. He experimented with a different sculptural style, but it was not received well. Ryan was juried out. 

“The one year out made me think, and I pushed myself even harder,” he said. “I didn’t hide away or stop doing art. The experience showed me that this isn’t the end; it’s a stepping stone.” Breakthrough.

Pushing on

The greatest sense of satisfaction is when an artist feels “on”. For Ryan, that joy and artistic focus is often born out of frustration or a struggle, but the process of creation pushes past any negativity.

“I like to focus my passion into my art, and not speed through it. I like testing my patience…I push through and get into the rhythm.”

Ryan believes that artists should be proactive and keep pushing themselves. 

“And not worry about what people are thinking,” he says. “Artists have ideas but no money. That struggle is one of the biggest things artists have to face. But you just have to go for it. It’s like going to the gym!”

Now in his fourth year as a Festival exhibitor, Ryan is feeling good about the response Breaking Through has had. 

“I hope this show will inspire thought even more,” he says. 

And he smiles. “A lot of people are totally ‘getting it’. Less talking for me!”


Ryen Caenn: A “mud engineer” living in Laguna

Written by: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ryen Caenn is such a fan of living in Laguna Beach he knows the month he and his wife moved here from Irvine – exactly 18 years ago this month.  “When our kids went off to do their own thing we decided to come to Laguna.  We’ve been here since then,” he says. They were anxious to jump into their new community, even if Caenn didn’t get to spend a lot of time here due to his work in the petroleum industry. 

“We joined Village Laguna when we got here.  My wife was president.  She was also the chairperson of the Charm House Tour.  I was the support person,” he says with a grin.  Caenn’s career has kept him on the road – a lot – especially as southern California isn’t exactly the heart of the oil industry.  

His travels have sent him all over the world, but his favorite place to be is home.

Ryen Caenn at home 

From the oil fields of Houston to southern California

His jobs within the oil industry have changed as the industry itself has changed, not surprising in such a boom or bust field. Starting as a drilling fluid technologist (or “mud engineer,” as it is more commonly referred to) in Houston, Caenn spent two weeks a month on drilling rigs.  At the time, he had young children and the schedule wasn’t conducive to family life so he moved to a working in a lab.  He then got a job in San Diego with a company that made a chemical used for fluid in the drilling rigs.  From then on, southern California became home, despite the fact that it was not a hub of the oil business.  Caenn settled in Irvine with his current wife who was a teacher there.  “When you’re a teacher you can’t really change schools so we stayed in Irvine,” he explains.

Changing with the times means changing careers

 In 1981, Caenn says he decided to become a consultant.  

“It was bad timing,” he admits. It was the beginning of an oil bust cycle.  In 1981 there were 4,000 oilrigs - by 1987 there were 600.  There just wasn’t enough volume for him to continue his consulting business and make money.  

So he reinvented himself again, becoming a technical writer.  He commuted to El Segundo every day and wrote user and maintenance manuals.  After many years of this, Caenn, tired of commuting, decided to utilize his now well-honed writing skills and start a magazine.  It was called  “Drilling and Completion Fluids.”  

“It had a subscription of about 350 people,” says Caenn with a shrug.  After that, Caenn started commuting – again – this time to Houston, two weeks out of the month.  He did this for ten years.  “That gets kind of old,” says Caenn in his understated way.  

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Ryen with a photo of himself on the job in the 1960’s

Helping “The Indy” get off the ground

In the early 2000’s Caenn met Stu Saffer.  “In 2001 the petroleum industry collapsed again. I had some time on my hands. I met Stu at Heidelberg Café. We started spending time together.  He was looking for some help to get a new local paper off the ground.  I told Stu I’d like to help.  I used the same software for my magazine that he wanted to use for his paper,” explains Caenn.  

That paper was “The Laguna Beach Independent” (or the “Indy).  

“The very first issue didn’t go well,” according to Caenn.  “Stu wanted it to be around 14-16 pages.  I ended up with ten.  We had a hard deadline.  I sent the file to the printer and they called and said there was no file.  So I put the file on a CD and my wife drove it over to them.  They still couldn’t read it.  I remember it was raining, and I drove over there and ended up staying until around 1 a.m.  I remember seeing my wife asleep on a desk.  Finally, it got printed.  Stu picked it up and took it out for delivery.  The paper was so light it would blow back when they’d try and deliver it,” remembers Caenn.  

After that first edition, things got easier, but Caenn says, “I didn’t realize how hard it was to put that together…It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.  I wasn’t very good at it, but I eventually got better.”

After a few months, Caenn’s job with the paper evolved.  “I mostly worked on the Laguna Home Companion section. I did that for years. I had a camera so I took pictures; miscellaneous things like that,” he says.  Then, in 2007, Caenn got a call that changed his career path, yet again.

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Ryen Caenn and his wife, Anne, with their 15-month-old puppy

Kazakhstan calls with a proposition

“I got a call asking me if I wanted to teach in Kazakhstan.  My first question was ‘Where’s Kazakhstan?’” recalls Caen with a laugh.  “I wasn’t sure, but my wife said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’  I went back five times and decided I really enjoyed teaching.  Now, that’s what I do, primarily in Houston,” he says.  

Caenn teaches newbies about the petroleum industry.  “Sometimes it’s marketing and sales people, sometimes it’s people who are just interested in the business.  I do not teach people who are experienced in the business,” he says.  “In the last four to five years I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home.  I’ve been everywhere in the world there’s a petroleum industry.”  Now, however, Caenn says his business is slowing down. 

And this time, he welcomes it.  

“I’m getting tired.  My wife doesn’t want me traveling to places where people are getting shot,” he says appreciatively.  But he’s still writing.  He co-authored a textbook titled “Composition and Properties of Drilling Completion Fluids” that is used in universities.  There is a definite theme to Caenn’s work, but apparently you have to be in the oil business to have any idea what it actually means!

Slowing down and getting to enjoy life at home

Finally, Caenn is spending more time at his beloved home in Laguna Beach.  “I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee on the deck and watch the birds.  Right now we have a family of orioles. I sit there and watch the birds, and watch the ocean while I wake up,” says Caenn.  

After traveling for almost all of his adult life, when he talks of these simple pleasures it’s clear he savors them.  But he does more than lounge around and stare at the horizon. There is his pond that needs cleaning; the 15-month-old puppy that needs walking; an exercise class at the Susi Q that needs attending – and he just took up lawn bowling.  “I play for an hour and have a beer,” he says with a smile.  

But he’s not retired yet. “I still enjoy work and I have no plans of retiring,” he says. 

However, he’s is trying to make it so that he can do more of his work online to cut down on the travel.  

When you’ve been everywhere, there really is no place like home.

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Caenn surveys his backyard pond


Robin Wethe Altman: creating heaven on earth

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

She’s the quintessential Laguna summer girl… Growing up in the 1970’s, with her long blonde hair flowing, and stitching macramé necklaces woven with seashells she dove for that morning. She’d gather her paintings and nestle with them in a booth at the Sawdust in the day, and help run a concession at the Pageant of the Masters at night.

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Artist Robin Wethe Altman

Robin Wethe Altman has seen just about every permutation of Laguna life – from sleepy little beach town where she rode her bike to the high school and her horse along the bluff top, to the burgeoning international tourist destination and art mecca, replete with soaring real estate prices.

“Laguna has changed,” she said. “Not so much visually – it is still artistic and tasteful, but back then it was sleepier. It’s more sophisticated now… fancy restaurants and a lot of flashy cars. It’s tough as an artist to live here.”

These days Robin supports herself completely by her art. She is a long-time watercolor artist who has shown at all three Laguna summer art venues, and is watching this summer unfold from her booth at Art-A-Fair.

It’s a Laguna thing

When she was just a kid Robin got to join the very first Patriot’s Day Parade: her grandmother started it. Her grandma, Grace Wethe, was a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “She was maybe in her 80’s, but she wanted to bring patriotism back,” Robin tells us. 

Grandma was obviously onto something heartfelt and true, as the parade has been an important historical tradition in Laguna for 49 years now.

“I got to ride in the parade in her honor three years ago,” Robin says with pride.

Robin’s family held another long-time Laguna tradition, at the Pageant of the Masters. They ran the binocular concession, to the delight of an audience who wants to get right up close to the tableaux vivant, and maybe see the artwork move a little. 

“We never missed a single show in 46 years,” she says. “Our whole family depended on that.”

It may seem surprising in light of current standard’s paychecks, but the rental of those binoculars was a way of life for everyone involved: Robin, her brother, mom and dad. It was “a bitter pill to swallow” when the Festival took over the concession, but Robin moved forward, and learned more to appreciate everything she has, in the moment. 

Wise words to live by indicate Robin’s positive sensibility: She says, “Conditions don’t make happiness, happiness makes conditions.”

Since the binocular concession days, she has lived on her art completely.

Portrait of an artist as a young girl

“I rode my bike to Laguna Beach High along the cliffs of Heisler Park, had lunch between classes at Main Beach with my surfer boyfriend, and did my homework on the sand at Rock Pile cove,” she remembers. “On my way home I would tour by the galleries on ‘Gallery Row’ to gather inspiration for my own work. I was determined to be in a gallery there when I was older.”

And she lived according to the mindset of an artist.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 70’s, with the peace movement, love and acceptance for all… The things you think of if heaven was really on earth… I like to paint those things… A more humble, slower pace of life.”

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Robin’s banner is flying high in front of the art festivals

She remembers her young girl spark-of-inspiration at Audubon art/nature shows. “I thought, ‘What is it that’s so weird about me?’ I just felt so much emotion about beauty!” 

Robin translated the beauty she saw with her mind’s eye to the canvas. Then she started selling her art at the Sawdust Festival – that place her parents wouldn’t even let her go to as a kid.

“It was a wild, wild place to be,” she laughs. “I love the spirit of the Sawdust.”

(She was there the day local photographer Doug Miller stepped off the bus in his Navy uniform. She teases him still because he asked her if she knew where the “Strawberry Festival” was.)

The Sawdust was also a fortuitous place to be for Robin’s future as an artist. The Festival of Arts Foundation scholarship program provided her full scholarship to study art at college. She graduated in 1976 with a BA in Fine Art from Principia College.

Robin Wethe Altman has now shown at ten different galleries in Laguna over the years, as well as The Festival of Arts, the Sawdust, and the Art-A-Fair festivals. She is in private and corporate collections, and even has her paintings on Hasbro’s puzzles. Her works are currently featured at Art-A-Fair and also at Laguna Watercolor Gallery, fulfilling her childhood dream of showing on “Gallery Row”.

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R. Wethe Altman’s booth at Art-a-Fair 

“Being an artist in Laguna is like nirvana to me,” she says. “I will never take the life I live for granted.” Part of that blessing is the sense of camaraderie with other artists. “The artists here are beautiful people. There are so many amazing characters, some I have known for over 30 years! When one of us sells a painting, we all celebrate.”

A balancing act

And what does Robin fill her time with while not painting? “Marketing!” she says. “It takes half my time.” But, she adds: “I’m a big believer in balance too – live life to the fullest! Contented artists live it, and it comes across in their art.”

Robin senses things coming together in a positive way especially, these days. It was a happy surprise was when she discovered that the banner she had painted for the city was flying out in the front of the Sawdust this year. Meanwhile, her mural was selected by the Arts Commission for their “Postcards from Laguna” competition, and is now displayed on the Verizon building, next to Whole Foods. And that’s not all! One of her watercolors, a view of Main Beach, is gracing the cover of the Passport to the Arts 2015 brochure. (The Passport to the Arts piece was voted on by all three art festivals.)

“It was like a gift,” she says humbly. 

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From the Arts Commission’s “Postcards from Laguna” series, 

Robin painted another painter- it’s downtown on the Verizon building

It is her gift to give back – as in helping others. For her whole life, Robin has felt that art is a way of helping people. “Maybe to help them evolve,” she says. “Like Shangri-La could be here if we decide to make it.”

Toward that end, Robin continues to spread her positive attitude, and she gives her art for good causes too, such as the My Hero Project to honor women, Transition Laguna’s poster, and cards for an interfaith group.

“Art is important,” she says. “It can be used for a lot of causes.” And she adds, for the benefit of youngsters, “Don’t take art out of schools!”

The forecast is for 100% chance of happiness

The overriding theme of Robin’s artwork is idyll. That’s no doubt in part because she grew up in an idyllic place, and sees beauty everywhere.

“It’s my always theme,” she says brightly. “It’s the idealist in me. Creating art makes me feel so happy. I put my spin on things with color and whimsy – make everything brighter. Like heaven on earth, I paint it the way it could be.”


Donnie Crevier: Helping others overcome obstacles

By Samantha Washer

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I was a real stellar guy,” says Donnie Crevier.  Now, if you didn’t know Donnie Crevier, you might think he was being immodest.  After all, he is the recipient of countless philanthropic and business awards so if he wanted to describe himself as “stellar” few would argue.  However, Crevier was being deeply sarcastic when he used that word to describe himself in his younger days as a teenager growing up in Laguna Beach. Donnie Crevier may be many things, but immodest is definitely not one of them.  

Growing up too fast

He came to Laguna from Glendale when he was five years old with his mother, “…a single, divorced woman with two kids and no skills.”  Why Laguna?  “She was a romantic,” Crevier explains. “I’m very appreciative for that.”  Crevier attended grammar school and middle school in Laguna, but then came the teenage years.  

“By 14 I’m growing up too fast.  I’m hanging out with older kids so…my parents thought it might be better if I moved back to Glendale with my dad for a little more structure.  I lived with him for three years and then begged for forgiveness and was allowed to return (to Laguna).”  

This was mid-way through his junior year at LBHS.  By his senior year he was living on his own.  “I needed an adult to be my guardian. I picked a guy I surfed with.  He was about 22.  I lived with him for awhile.  I barely finished high school.  In fact, I had to take a night class to graduate,” he explains. There is no drama in his recounting of these years, but clearly they were not the easiest of times. 

Donnie Crevier 

Tired of being broke

Crevier attended college for two and a half years.  “I got tired of being broke and got a job in the car business,” he says.  He had some experience.  His father owned a used car lot in Glendale and Crevier worked there as a kid, washing cars and eventually doing some sales.  He took a job selling cars at Theodore Robins Ford in Costa Mesa.  He worked there for eight years.  

“Then my dad started a BMW dealership in 1972 with my uncle,” says Crevier.  His dad had really wanted a Volkswagen dealership, but couldn’t afford it.  Back then, BMW was not widely known in the US so it was cheaper to get BMWs than VWs. Crevier joined his father and uncle two years later, in 1974.

Success beyond their imagination

The dealership grew and grew.  “It grew beyond anything we had imagined,” says Crevier.  “We had some father/son challenges along the way, but our relationship got tighter and tighter with time.  We became mutually respectful of one another,” says Crevier.  His father has since passed away, but it is obvious that father and son shared a deep bond.  

“My dad was a golden rule philosophy kind of guy.  He believed in doing what was right, not just what was legal. And he believed in people.  It is the people in that company…there’s a uniqueness in our people.  We were lucky, but we consciously tried to find that.  It ain’t all GPA or IQ.  It’s how you relate to people.  

Do you care about people…?”  The answer to that question, in regards to Crevier himself, is a resounding yes.  

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Crevier shows off a reprinted newspaper photo from 1955 as a member of the Boys Club of Laguna Beach (now the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach)

Time for cars, time for giving

Crevier sold the company he built with his father in 2011.  However, he is still in the car business.  HIs company, called Crevier Classic Cars, LLC, deals in classic cars as well as sales and leasing for all makes and models, new or used.  The space is frequently used for events, and he encourages people to come check it out.  He’s there every day.  And while the car business still occupies much of his time, his philanthropy is also a time consuming endeavor.

A laundry list of philanthropic awards

His list of honors is ridiculously long, and includes the Orange County Human Relations Award, the Good Scout Award (Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America) and the 2012 Citizen of the Year Award from the City of Santa Ana, to name just a few.  And he certainly didn’t bring this list with him when we met, nor did he mention anything about awards or accolades.  What he wanted to talk about was why the programs he supported were important to him. Two programs he is most dedicated to are The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach and High School, Inc.

An alumni gives back

The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach holds a special place in Donnie Crevier’s heart.  “It was a big part of my life.  Back then it was just The Boys Club.  From the ages of 10 to 14 it was really important to me.  I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to that organization.  Things would have been a lot more complicated for me had it not been in my life,” explains Crevier.  

And to this day, he remains close to Pete Snetsinger, his coach at the Club.  “He was a mentor to me.  I’m having lunch with him next week, as a matter of fact.”  Crevier was presented with the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2009 for his work with the Club.  He is currently still serving on the Board.  

“I’m not sure how things would have turned out for me without the Boys Club.  I want to try and help kids have an alternative like that so that they can feel better about themselves which leads to better choices.”

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Donnie Crevier, Board Member, in front of the Boys and Girls Club

Ambitious plans for High School, Inc.

While Crevier will always be grateful for the Boys and Girls Club, he is deeply involved in a new endeavor that, while not as personal, definitely echoes the same theme: helping kids help themselves. High School, Inc. is a program that provides high school students with real work experience through six different academies: health care, culinary arts and hospitality, automotive logistics and transportation, new media, global business and engineering, manufacturing and construction.  The program is currently at Valley High School in Santa Ana, but Crevier is looking to expand its reach. 

“We just had some wonderful news.  Our graduation rate for kids enrolled in the six academies on campus is 98.5%.  The grad rate for the rest of the kids is somewhere around 85%.  We have 1,000 kids enrolled now.  We need all the kids there to enroll. 

“We are teaching them career opportunities as well as increasing their interest in education as a whole.  We want this to go all over Santa Ana and then the country,” explains Crevier.  He is very enthusiastic about this program and what it can do.  “It’s a partnership between the school district, the business community, and the school.  This is occupying tons of my time.”  

Committed to giving in Laguna Beach 

If High School Inc. is taking most of his time these days; Crevier still has time for more local giving beyond the Boys and Girls Club.  He’s on the Board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation and is heavily involved with the Laguna Beach High School Scholarship Foundation.  

“The reason for the Community Foundation’s existence,” explains Crevier, “is because Laguna is a unique community.  Lots of residents support outside issues but are not aware of the needs in this community.  We are trying to bring awareness to Laguna causes.” 

Adding to his seemingly endless list of awards, Crevier was presented with the Donor Honoree at this year’s LBHS convocation ceremony. He started giving scholarships, now called the April and Daphne Crevier Memorial Scholarships in honor of his mother and sister.  This year eight graduates were awarded these scholarships for doing “the right thing for the right reason.” Additionally, Crevier has his own family foundation that he started seven years ago.  “My kids and grand kids are all a part of it,” he says with pride. 

Really, truly a stellar guy

Donnie Crevier uses words like “luck” to describe his success.  He likes to give credit to others.  And, if I think about it, he really didn’t talk much about himself (except to talk about his wayward youth), preferring to discuss the charities he cares about. He is a man who overcame adversity and became successful beyond his own imagination. 

He spends a lot of time and a lot of money helping others so that they, too, can overcome the obstacles life has placed in front of them.  He would probably not like me to say so, but that, to me, is the epitome of a “stellar guy” (hold the sarcasm).


From an artistic point of view: Kirsten Whalen

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Kirsten Whalen met a young man at Berkeley, she had no idea the life they would create together in Laguna Beach. But they did just that – in a big way. She, a native Californian and he, from small town, Massachusetts, figured Southern California was the place they ought to be, so they loaded up the truck and they moved to – no, not Beverly…

Since that fortuitous move, Kirsten and her husband, Bob, have made an indelible mark on the fabric of our lives. Bob Whalen is, of course, Hizzoner, the leader of our fair city, Mayor of Laguna Beach. Kirsten, meanwhile, represents the artistic side of Laguna’s persona. While happy to support Bob who is obviously motivated by governance and community organization, Kirsten Whalen is rather the alternative, quietly expressive side of the Laguna pair. She is an artist, art activist, and art educator. Her new show of watercolors will open at the Festival of Arts this week. 

Kirsten Whalen

She’d be the first one to say, “What, you’re interested in me?” Yes, usually the press comes a-callin’ about Matters Of The City; addressing civic issues, serving charities, attending functions and the like. But, no, we wanted a heart to heart chat about the ways in which Laguna has shaped the person Kirsten Whalen, and vice versa.

“I’m always more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes gal,” she says, spoken like the person creating the canvas. “I’m always assuming people are interested in the community side of my life.”

When the road leads to Laguna

Kirsten studied art and design, earning a Bachelor of Science in Design from UC Davis. She worked as a graphic designer, designing books and business communications tools. When it was time to move from the Bay area for Bob’s law practice, the pair drew a circle on a map around his office location. That’s how they chose Laguna Beach. It was 1980, and affording Laguna was a long shot.

“We thought it was economic insanity,” Kirsten said.

But move they did. They started a life here, and both became involved in arts organizations and also in the organizations important to their kids: Erika, Andy, and Elliot. 

Bob became president of Laguna Beach Little League, the Boys and Girls Club and SchoolPower, and served on the School Board for ten years before moving on to City Council. Kirsten was also involved in the arts at the schools, and started the Performing Arts Booster Club at the high school.

While their daughter was graduating college, and one son was graduating high school, Kirsten answered the siren call inside her head, and went back to school herself. Where else, but Laguna College of Art and Design? It was a homecoming for her love of education and also her desire to do “more personal” artwork.

“I loved it,” she says. “It was so much fun to go back to school!”

Back in college again, Kirsten experimented with technique and ways to merge traditional watercolor and oil painting to develop her own artistic style. In 2005 she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from LCAD.

The medium and the message

“As a painter, I am drawn to still life because I am fascinated by objects and the power they have to tell stories,” Kirsten says as her Artist’s Statement. “I have always been interested in the human stories we have deduced from the artifacts of previous cultures. Paintings, pottery, sculptures, folktales – all reflect the lives of the people and time in which they were created… but they are also a product of the same universal human urge to create beauty and make sense of the world.”

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There are entire bodies of study into the symbolism within art, especially those works not exactly realist. While Kirsten Whalen’s work is representational, it’s also something not. There is an ironic quality, and a sense of whimsy.

“They are absolutely expressions of myself,” she says.

The scenes and images Kirsten portrays make us notice the world in a whole different way. “My work is narrative,” she says. “I like telling stories with my artwork.”

Trying to describe her work is a personal journey; every audience arrives with their own interpretation. On one of her paintings there are beautifully executed folds on a map, so dimensional you want to reach out and touch it, and then there’s a funny little cowboy toy riding through the western section. Then there’s the globe she painted, in casts of shadow with a miniature aviator dangling from somewhere north of the North Pole… 

“I call them my avatars,” she laughs.

You can’t help but wonder, smile – and maybe start planning a trip.

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As inspiration, Kristen cites artist Wayne Thiebaud, known for his colorful depictions of commonplace objects like cakes, pastries and toys, and Laguna Beach artist Scott Moore, whose works highlight toys and miniatures with surrealist irony.

Trying to sum up her works is even a challenge for the artist to verbalize, “They are… I don’t know? Come see them!”

This is Kirsten’s eighth year as a Festival of Arts exhibitor. Her piece, “Hanging Around” was selected for the Festival’s 2012 souvenir poster. Additionally, her work has won awards in the in the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies Annual exhibit (WFWS 37, Honorable Mention), and the annual City of Laguna Beach Juried Fine Art Exhibitions held by the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. She was a participating artist in the 2012 Laguna Beach Music Festival and with OC Can You Play in 2011.

Whalen’s “Hanging Around”, the Festival souvenir poster of 2012

One of the special things about showing at Festival of Arts is the sense of community with fellow artists. “My work is solitary, so it’s nice to be out and about and talking to people,” Kirsten says. “I love visiting with artists.”

Arts educator

Kirsten is also a big proponent of arts education. In 2008 she started “Art Talks: A Lecture Series” at the Festival, and she’s still spearheading it. 

Every Thursday at noon during the Festival season, artists talk about their inspiration, history, and careers in art. “Listening to the artists present their work is not only interesting and inspiring, but gives attendees a deeper understanding of painting, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics and other art on the grounds.”

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Besides being busy with the many arts organizations in Laguna Beach, Kirsten serves on the board of the Laguna Outreach for Community Arts (LOCA), the nonprofit committed to arts education for people of all ages. 

“Our organization provides workshops to Laguna Beach schools, the Boys and Girls Club, Youth Shelter, Glennwood House, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and the Laguna Beach Senior Center.”

Thinking about it, “There are 22-24 arts organizations in town,” she remarked. “Now I know where my weekends have gone!”

If time was free

Kirsten’s family hails from Sacramento, and her dad built a cabin at Lake Tahoe in the 1950’s. Whenever Kirsten, Bob, and their kids get a bit of free time, they like to get up to the blue lake and enjoy a little kayaking. Maybe there will be time for that after the summer, but for now it’s full steam ahead for the Whalens as they navigate the busy summer season with arts and community matters filling the calendar.

Say hello to Kirsten at her booth “on the main drag” of the Festival this summer.


Tyler Russell: Ambitiously changing radio back 

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Tyler Russell, the 26 year old founder and program director of Laguna’s own (and only) radio station, KX 93.5, created his own major at Chapman University: Multi-media Journalism.  “I seriously hope someone else has used it.  I put a lot of work into making it,” he says emphatically.

And that tells you quite a bit about this young man who is passionate about an old technology.  The fact that his college major is still relevant speaks to his youth; the fact that he needed to create something to suit his own needs speaks to his ambition.

The tennis playing radio host

Russell determined radio was his future while still in high school in Tucson, AZ.  Upon graduating he went to Chapman University in Orange because it was a small school with a radio station and a tennis team.

“I loved it.  It’s not the most diverse place, but it’s close enough to LA that the opportunities are there.  I started working at the radio station on day one,” he says. That work led to internships at other stations and widened his knowledge of the inner workings of different stations.  “I thought I wanted to be on air talent,” he explains. “I was an actor when I was young.  I flew from Tucson to LA once a week for auditions.  I got a commercial when I was 10.”

But while there are a lot of aspiring actors, Russell didn’t meet a lot of aspiring radio hosts.  “They’re all old,” he says matter-of-factly.

Tyler Russell, KX 93.5 Program Director in the studio

“…too smart to be on the air.”

As he learned the business as an intern, there was a common theme that everyone he spoke with echoed.  “They were complaining that ‘radio isn’t the same’.  They were really disgruntled.  One of my mentors, Johnny K, the program director at KRTH 101, told me ‘Kid, you’re too smart just to be on the air.’ This motivated me.  You know, be the change you want to see.  My motivation went from being talent to helping an industry that’s suffering.  I hope we’re a trend in the industry.”

The FCC and Clear Channel upend an industry

When asked why he and others feel radio is “suffering” he doesn’t hesitate. “Clear Channel,” he says simply.  “In the early 1990’s the FCC made a change.  It used to be that someone could only own a few stations.  Radio used to be a mom and pop type deal.  Now, because of the Clear Channel ruling, an entity can own as many stations as they want.  Clear Channel went out and bought them all. So the stations all play the same stuff, have the same people on the air…it’s very cookie-cutter.”  

Now, according to Russell, Clear Channel is called “I Heart Media.”  

“They’ve been losing money so they’re starting to come around now,” he continues.  “About 15 years ago the FCC created the Low Power FM radio service.  This is helping to return local to radio.”  

This is also how Tyler Russell came to Laguna Beach.

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Tyler Russell working his magic in the KX 93.5 studio

A search for a station pays off

He was working as the music director for Crush 1039 in Palm Springs —a prize job for a recent college graduate —but he was becoming disenchanted with the commercial-ness of it all.  In a conversation with his father, he vented his frustration.  His father’s response?  Open your own radio station.  Just 23 years old at the time, Russell decided he would.  So he set about looking for low power FM radio stations he might be able to purchase.

“I Googled and found that The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Laguna Niguel had had an antenna for 15 years that they’d never used.  So I asked them, ‘Would you be interested in selling it?’  They were.  I got my engineers out there and we got them on the air so they could keep their license.  They were three months shy of losing it due to inactivity.  The FCC makes it easy to buy this stuff because you can only be charged what the original owners paid for (the equipment).  But you’re only allowed to move the antennae 5.6 kilometers away from the original spot.  Our current location (1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200) is exactly 5.6 kilometers away.”  And that is how KX93.5 was born.

KX 93.5 is as Laguna local as it can get at 1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200

Building blocks and smart parents

When I asked Russell if he was at all daunted by opening his own station with only two and a half years paid work experience, he shook his head. “I knew all the basics. I’d seen enough of promotions and sales so I knew the building blocks.  I had been a music director so I knew that part of it.  The rest…I have smart parents,” he says. Their advice on certain things was very helpful in the beginning.  Now, it seems, he has it all pretty well figured out.

Laguna’s geography ripe for local radio

“Laguna is a blessing and a curse,” he tells me.  “People have to remember that geographically (as far as radio transmission is concerned) it’s a nightmare. ” The same problems that make it tough for any of us to tune into the larger, more powerful stations hinders KX 93.5.  “On cloudy days the reception is good; on sunny days it’s weaker. I have no idea why.  I just know it is,” he laments.  

But this isolation is a perfect set up for a truly local radio station.  “People in Laguna love Laguna,” says Russell.  And while Russell makes no secret of his interest in developing a career in television, Laguna is home.  “It feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  It feels cool to go places and have people say they liked your show.  I feel like I’ve built the station to the point that it will always be here.  If I were ever to go somewhere else, it (KX 93.5) would stay.  Saying that, I’m less concerned with being famous than helping radio’s future,” he says.

Looking for opportunities beyond radio

How to do that with a station that on sunny days can’t even saturate its own city?  Russell is shooting a pilot for a docu-series about the station. “We think what we do is really interesting.  Whether I have sold my soul to host some music competition,” he says laughing, “I want to promote the KX 93.5 brand and this beach town. I want to keep the integrity of this place.  We really do what we say.  My hope is that we’re true to Laguna Beach, but have gained some international recognition in the process.”

On a local level, Russell’s wish list is more practical. “Maybe we can move our antennae to a higher spot.  We can’t go higher than 33 meters above the average terrain, and it has to be close to where we are now.  Ideally, it would be on private land so we don’t have to go through the city, although we have a good relationship with them.  Maybe we could find a person willing to help us.  I was told that would really help us out a lot.”  

If no one comes forward, don’t count Russell out.  “The one thing I’ve done well is get through red tape,” he explains.  “Like with the Beach Boys concert.  Everyone said ‘You can’t use the (Irvine) Bowl’.  Why not?  That’s when it’s helpful not to be from here.  I just ask questions of people who haven’t been questioned.” 

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Local musician, Jason Feddy, talking about the value of DJ’s with Tyler Russell

“Human-crafted radio” is online, too

In the meantime, if it’s a sunny day and you can’t seem to get reception, listeners can find KX 93.5 online or download the app  (I just typed in KX935, no period).  Once you tune in you can experience “human-crafted radio,” as Russell describes it.  

“We want listeners to know we don’t use algorithms; instant requests are honored…it’s free form radio.”  The station is also putting on a concert series featuring local bands on the last Thursday of every month at the Marine Room called “Sounds of the Sea.”  “We’re focusing on bands that are not your typical local bands,” explains Russell. 

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From inside the studios at KX 93.5 looking out on Coast Highway

No surprise there.   Not much regarding Tyler Russell is typical.  “We don’t really have enough power to be a big influence,” says Russell.  He is talking about the station’s wattage, of course.  And while he may be limited in terms of his antenna’s range, he doesn’t let those limits smother his ambitions.  Whether he can make an impact in radio beyond the limits of Laguna Beach, time will tell.  

In the meantime, he’d really like you to give the station a call. 

“We love interaction. Call in from time to time so it’s not always the same five people,” he says with a smile.  

If you’re trying to ignite a revolution, it’s nice to know there are people out there listening.


Ashley Johnson spreading the word:

Laguna Beach is more than a great place to visit

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ashley Johnson is the go-to gal when you want to go to Laguna. Having started out in marketing nine and a half years ago with the Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau, she has been there for the re-imagining and name changing, and is now the Director of Brand Marketing and Communications for Visit Laguna Beach. And no one understands that Laguna Beach is a brand more than Ashley.

Ashley Johnson

“Visit Laguna Beach oversees the visitor’s center,” she says. “The name helps with Google searches, especially when people want to visit here for the first time.

“Tourism has changed, marketing has changed,” she continued. “We don’t use magazines so much for advertising. It’s now about 80 percent digital and social media.”

People search through Google and sites like Trip Advisor to find out what’s brewing in Laguna. Surprisingly, Ashley tells us that the MTV show, Laguna Beach, is still a major player in tourism here as well. 

“We have families coming in to find out about the show,” she said. “The parents say, ‘We have no idea, except our kids love this show!’”

The office receives about 3,000 first-time visitors per month. There they will find out everything they want to know about that darned TV show, as well as all the activities and events and goings-on about town, seven days a week. 

“There’s so much to do here,” Ashley says. “Our concierges train in telling everything we have in town. And we try to get them to stay at least a night in a hotel.” 

Travel trends and the show circuit

She recently returned from a trade show in Orlando; IPW, the US Travel Association’s forum for travel industry pro’s. There were more than 6,500 people in attendance from all walks of the travel business. The news that Ashley sent out to the tour operators, travel agents, and travel journalists is that Laguna Beach is not just about the beach: we live in a year-round worthy destination. 

“Especially Germans,” she said. “They really like the outdoor components of travel, and they were surprised to learn that Laguna is surrounded by 20,000 acres of wilderness.” 

China is seen as a hugely emerging market because their travel visas have gotten easier to procure. Ashley tells us that their travel trends are changing. 

“In the next few years we will be welcoming 200 million Chinese travelers to California,” she said. 

Whereas once the Chinese would book for group travel, the latest trend is toward independent travel. There’s even an industry term for it, “FIT”, short for Foreign Independent Traveler. 

“We used to see 80 percent group travel in the past, now Chinese operators are booking 60 percent FITs.”

That’s a good thing too, because group travelers tend to not spend very much where they go. Individuals are more likely to branch out to restaurants, concerts, and other cultural events that keep the Laguna economy happy.

Then there is the luxury crowd. At the conference, Ashley met with several Saudi Arabian tour operators particularly interested in luxury travel to Laguna Beach. 

“When they come, they bring extended family and hired help too. They typically spend time at South Coast Plaza, and Fletcher Jones,” she said. “I was promoting places like Montage Laguna Beach, and events such as The Pageant of the Masters, and Laguna Dance Festival. I got very positive responses.” 

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Many tour operators and travel journalists were looking for family destinations, which, in California, is mostly Disney territory. It was Ashley’s joy to tune them in to Laguna’s family-friendly features, such as the Sawdust Studio Art Classes: one-day, in-studio classes, offering instruction in photography, jewelry, oil painting, and other arts.

Let’s Visit Laguna Beach

Visit Laguna Beach has some new interactive and hands-on features that have helped put Laguna on the digital map. One is the app, Laguna Beach Travel Info, a new and improved version – coming out this summer. It’s the official and handy place to tap into all things Laguna (available on iTunes, and Google Play), with extra new features.

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“It’s got a lot more functionality,” Ashley says. “There’s a loyalty program for repeat visitors, and special discounts.” For example, the GPS would be able to connect you with a free drink offer as you walk by Las Brisas, or special deals at shops and galleries you pass.

Another big deal at Visit Laguna Beach Visitors Center, downtown on Forest Ave, is an interactive kiosk. Here, people will be able to not only print out maps and brochures, but also to plan itineraries, make restaurant reservations, and buy tickets to events like Laguna Playhouse or the Pageant of the Masters.

Matters of the heart

To get what it is that excites people about travel, you have to have been bitten by that same bug. Ashley has travelled all over the US promoting Laguna Beach, and she loves it, because she loves to travel too.

Raised not very far away, in Irvine, Ashley went to the University of Arizona for education and became a nut for sports too – especially football and basketball. She will travel just about anywhere the Arizona Wildcats are playing. 

Her work promoting Laguna gets her travelling about quite a bit. So far, her favorite visit was to Nashville. “I loved it,” she says. “The culture, the talent, the music. It’s a great place!” Next up is an international dream to visit Spain. “I want to go!”

Meanwhile, back at the home ranch, Ashley is shaping up wedding plans. She will marry her fiancée, Clint, in October. They may likely serve up some of their home brewed beers. 

Yes, she’s a brewer too. That would be due to Clint’s interest professionally (he’s a beer distributor), and personally (he’s brewing all types at home). “I’m a self-proclaimed wine snob, but I’m coming around to beer,” she says. “I do love the IPA!”

Weekends, when she’s not brewing up some IPA, or off to yoga class, Ashley can be found at flea markets and antiques shows. She’s got a well-rounded repertoire of activities that keep her busy. 

But when it’s time to learn more about what’s going on in Laguna, it’s time to visit Ashley Johnson downtown.



Mike Churchill: Creating a new playbook for LBHS

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: MARY HURLBUT

In his eight years as Laguna Beach High School Athletic Director, Mike Churchill has seen the school win 109 League Championships and 10 CIF Championships. 

“Even though our league isn’t very good,” he says, “it’s still hard to do.  It’s easy to mess up success.  And winning CIF is hard; it’s really a tough thing to do.  We’re riding a crest of success.”  

Churchill only has a few more weeks of “we” when he talks about the LBHS Breakers.  He is retiring at the end of this year. “I’m going to take a month off and do nothing.  I’m going to try not to wake up at five a.m.  I’m going to figure out what I want to do,” he says of his upcoming retirement.

LBHS Athletic Director, Mike Churchill, is retiring at the end of this school year

From Coach to LBHS Athletic Director

Churchill was a football coach for most of his career.  He was head coach at Riverside Poly High School from 1980-86 when his team won CIF and got to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  He remembers vividly the night his team arrived to play for the championship.  

“Most of those kids had never been out of Riverside.  When we pulled up on the bus and they saw the lights of the stadium…” He trails off.  It was clearly as meaningful an experience for him as coach as it was for his young players.  And yet, when he came to LBHS at the suggestion of the then newly hired principal, Don Austin, he was ready to do something else.  “I had interviewed for a job here (at LBHS), but hadn’t gotten it.  I was kind of disappointed. When Don came he called me and asked, ‘Are you still interested in the job?’  And I said, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘Get your paperwork in.’ And so then I got an interview.  This district does a lot of interviews,” says Churchill.  “That’s how I got hired.”

A dynamic duo

Churchill and LBHS Athletics Secretary, Tracy Paddock, were hired at the same time.  “Nobody really told us what our jobs were.  I didn’t have a job description.  So Tracy and I sat down together and decided that the only way we could get into trouble was if the busses weren’t there or a player was cheating or we were playing people who were ineligible. We divided it all up, but she likes to get involved in everything,” he says smiling.  “She’s great.”

The complex world of high school sports

As the man responsible for 70 coaches who are responsible for 650 student-athletes, Churchill handles much more than busses and eligibility.  When we talked about why LBHS was in the Orange Coast League, as opposed to a stronger league, the complexities of high school sports became very apparent.  

“Laguna doesn’t really have a place to go that fits.  We’re so small.  We used to fit in with the schools down in South County, but now that’s all built out, and we’re still the same.  The athletes are more diluted.  Only 170 kids are two sport players.  We’re in a league that isn’t very good, but it’s good for us,” says Churchill, adding “I believe when you learn how to win it’s easier to win. And the reverse is also true.” 

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Mike Churchill in his office at LBHS

LBHS shines in the Orange Coast League

Leagues are re-evaluated every four years.  LBHS is in its first year of the four-year cycle so, as Churchill explains it, “We’re stuck in this league for three more years.  Things will change after that.  A new Irvine school is coming in; they’ll probably be with us. Crean Lutheran (High School) needs a place to go.  Some of the Santa Ana schools might not be with us going forward.  Another thing is we’re hard geographically to get to.  Hard for other teams to get here; hard to hire coaches, too, for that reason.” 

No uniformity for LBHS in the CIF Southern Section

And divisions?  Most of the sports at LBHS are Division 4, but some are Division 5 and, of course, there’s the girls water polo that’s Division 1.  According to Churchill, the Divisions are set up with two considerations: how good is your league and how good are you in your league?  

“We are in the Southern Section.  Each sport is different.  Take tennis, they go back three years and see how your team did when deciding what Division you are.  Baseball is determined solely by the size of the school.  Football is based on geography, but that changes every two years.  Then you’ve got boys water polo where the other teams (in the League) petitioned to be put in a lower division so we got moved down through no fault of our own.”  Trying to keep up with this makes coaching football seem simple.  Churchill would passionately disagree.

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A show of Breaker pride

A reluctant, but successful, football coach at LBHS

“No one knows how much time it takes to be a coach,” says Churchill.  When he came to LBHS he thought he had left his coaching days behind.  But when Jonathan Todd resigned as head football coach, Don Austin knew just the guy to take his place. 

“I didn’t really want to do it.  I came down here to be the Athletic Director, but I really liked those kids.  Plus, we went to the gunfight with some bullets,” says Churchill smiling.  During his two seasons as LBHS head football coach (2011 and 2012), Laguna won League both years as well as made it to the CIF Southern Division semi-finals.  In 2012, the team won 11 games, the most in the school’s history.  Bullets, indeed. 

However, despite the team’s success, Churchill was ready to hang up his clipboard and just do the job he was originally hired to do.

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Proof of many years of athletic success at LBHS

Two sport athletes, recruiting and other musings

“I miss coaching during the season.  It’s the off season that wears coaches out,” says Churchill.  He feels the same can happen to the athletes. “I think it’s important for kids to do other things, but not all coaches feel that way.  I think it’s good for a lot of reasons.  Kids can get hurt doing the same thing over and over.  Plus, after awhile they tune you out. But if another coach tells them basically the same thing they might hear it because it’s being said differently,” he says.  

As for the high stakes proposition high school sports has become?  Churchill is emphatically opposed to high school recruiting, for example.  “It’s just wrong.  Kids should be playing in their neighborhood.  Now, it’s just wait a month and go (there is a 30 day wait for transfer students in order for them to become eligible).”  Then he tells me a statistic he got from the NCAA.  “If you’re a girl and you want an athletic scholarship, the best sport for you to play is golf. .4% (notice the decimal point) of high school girls who golf get a scholarship.  And that’s the highest!  If you’re a boy, your best bet is football then basketball.”  In other words, the chances of an athlete, boy or girl, receiving a full athletic scholarship to attend college are minuscule.

The importance of learning to compete

For Mike Churchill, high school sports aren’t about what might be; it’s about learning to compete now.  “Learning to compete is part of life.  I just loveto the see the kids compete; watch them grow up and get better every year.  I can’t believe I made a living teaching kids how to play a kids’ game.  I remember as a senior in college telling my friend, ‘If I could just get a head coaching job and make $10,000 a year, I’d be set for life,’” he says, grinning.  That goal stands (and then some), but now Mike Churchill gets to create a new playbook.  

Goodbye X’s, O’s and CIF requirements.  

Hello, bogey, par and, more than likely, a very early tee time.



Diane Connell for love of family, America – and food

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Diane Connell works hard at everything she does, with meticulous attention to detail. She’s a numbers person, she’s a people person, and she’s a service person.

I met with Diane to talk about her involvement with the Auxiliary of the American Legion. What I found out is that she came to participate in this non-profit organization through her love of family, love for her country, and her dedication to service. 

The numbers part came about, as she is a financial analyst. The rest is just part of her giving nature.

Diane Soliz-Martese Connell

Diane’s first experience in the service industry was at her mom and dad’s restaurant in L.A., “El Taco”. Her mom was Mexican and her dad was Italian.

“You are who you are by your parents,” she says. “That’s how I look at it.”

“I started working when I was five years old,” she remembers, as I wondered what kind of work a five-year-old could do. Turns out, a lot. “My job was to clean the tables, then separate the twigs and rocks from the pinto beans,” she said. “I was with my sister, and we were at work.”

From business to business her father moved, each time starting something from scratch, growing it to prosperity, and then branching off in another direction. It was a good education for Diane, to go with the flow and help out where she could. Dad went to night school to learn TV repair; Diane read him the manuals and helped him pass the tests so he could become a verified TV repairman. 

“I would go carry the tube caddies when he would go to fix ‘tube’ TV’s. One day he needed a tube – so he took it from our own console,” she laughs. “He cannibalized our only television set! I opened it up and it was just gutted – nothing left!”

Dad opened a Western Auto store: a combination Sears, Ace Hardware, and bike shop kind of place. Diane was the go-to person for customer service.

“At that time, in California farmland, Mexican pickers were brought in, called ‘Nationals’. They came by the busload,” she said. “I learned to speak Spanish [not taught at home], and I learned all the parts names and prices.”

Yes, the days before scanners and barcodes were simpler, yet way more complex. It became apparent this was her forte, and she moved to Stockton to train in accounting.

Accounting is the direction in which her professional life has gone. Before retiring, Diane was a financial analyst for the Mission Viejo Company.

Along the way she met her husband Dave. He had served in World War II and the Korean War. Perhaps fortuitously, he was born in 1927; the same year the government of Laguna Beach was incorporated as a city, and also the founding of American Legion Post 222.

When they retired and came to live in Laguna, they each had the heartfelt desire to give something back to the community.

Dave became active with the local American Legion, and continues to serve to this day, as the 2nd Vice Commander. Diane, meanwhile, considers herself more the quiet type and felt right at home at the library. She serves on the board of Friends of the Library, and as its treasurer. 

But, sure enough, Diane made the time to be of service to our military service as well. She arrived with her husband at a Legion Hall dinner social one night, and felt immediately connected. “I had no idea these types of organizations existed,” she said. “Once I did, I said, ‘I’ve got to get involved!’ I was so impressed with what they do.” 

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Diane at the Memorial Day ceremony

She’s now the Auxiliary Treasurer and Historian.

American Legion Auxiliary

The almost one million national Auxiliary members work toward passage of bills affecting veterans. They also fundraise, allocate, and provide services for the military and their families, and generally promote patriotism. 

“We’re the wives, mothers, and children of veterans,” explains Diane. “That connection, and $25 dues allows you to qualify.” 

Diane would like to see the historical significance of the American Legion resonate with the next generation. She has started working with the Laguna Beach Girl Scouts on a project that emphasizes the Auxiliary’s sense of patriotism and respect for the flag. 

In addition to educating the scouts about symbolic gestures such as when one puts a hand over the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, who may salute during flag ceremonies (only military, or police in uniform), or the difference between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, she has introduced them to the star project, “Stars for our Troops”.

“I introduced the Girl Scouts to Stars for our Troops two years ago,” she said. “We take flags to be disposed in a respectful way. The girls cut the embroidered stars out and place them in small bags with words of remembrance.”

The girls hand the little star bags out to anyone in military uniform.

The cards placed inside with the cutout stars read: “I am a part of our American Flag. I have flown over a home in the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that YOU are not forgotten”

Diane believes in teaching the younger generation a little more respect for the military while gaining a little more knowledge.

One of the most important days of the year for the Legionnaires and their Auxiliary is Memorial Day. In the hearts and minds of veterans, active military, their families, and for those who have lost loved ones in war, this marks a time for reflection and acknowledgement. For every single American it signifies respect and gratitude for the freedoms we have because of those who fought and gave their lives.

The Auxiliary facilitates “In Memory Of” observances during the Memorial Day ceremony at Heisler Park, including floral arrangements, and recognition of the 40-plus non-profit organizations that will bestow plants, wreaths, and flowers to honor the fallen. Diane helped about 15 individuals this year who wished to honor their loved ones personally as well. 

“They’ll call and say, ‘My father died ten years ago, and I’d like to honor him.’ We find out what branch of service, then that person comes and presents the flowers.”

Next up, Diane is really excited about the “Christmas Stockings Project”. It’s one of the outreach programs the Auxiliary does to support those in active duty service. She and her Auxiliary quilting partner, Beth Jensen, have taken on the project to sew and line by hand beautiful patchwork stockings, then fill with goodies to send to the troops overseas. A hundred of them!

For her determined achievement as historian at the Auxiliary, Diane has been awarded the district First Place. Her record keeping and reporting will be honored with a plaque, and she’ll find out at the national convention if she’s achieved national honors as well.

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Diane Connell has been awarded certificates of achievement from the City and State Government for her work with the American Legion Auxiliary  

Not Just a Pretty Face

When Diane Connell was growing up in Lake Tahoe, her dad had a well-known Mexican restaurant called El Zorro. She was the pretty young thing waiting on tables. One day the local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, came to her and offered to sponsor her for the Miss Lake Tahoe beauty pageant. She was a shy 16 year-old, but she thought,  “what-the-heck”. The tough part was not prancing around in a bathing suit, but when they asked her what her “talent” was. Hmm, she thought, “I can make a taco!”

She came in third place in the beauty pageant, and sang a song instead of making the taco. But, really, they should have paid attention to that taco part. This gal can cook.

To date, Diane has two published cookbooks. I can attest to how fantastic they are because she let me have a copy, and I’m a big fan of Mexican food. These are cookbooks that were ahead of their time, yet just as pertinent today.

 Diane Soliz-Martese Cookbooks

Published by a Chinese family renowned in the Asian culinary world, Diane’s recipes were to be the first bilingual cookbook for Asians explaining, along with step-by-step photos, how to prepare authentic Mexican dishes. The first one, published in 1992, is called Mexican Cooking Made Easy. The second book is One Dish Meals, and includes chefs of Italian, Thai, and Japanese cuisine along with Diane’s one-dish Mexican specialties.

How Diane learned to cook is a whole other story.

Cooking it up

Diane Soliz-Matese’s ancestry began when grandpa immigrated to Los Angeles with his son, from Italy. The idea was to find work, and then bring his wife and two daughters over.

“It was the time of bootlegging”, said Diane simply. “And he was gunned down.”

That left Diane’s father, then only 12 years old, alone with no family and no friends. He moved into the YMCA, and found work where he could. One day while delivering newspapers, a couple happened to notice him, and asked him, “Why aren’t you in school?” He told them the story of his family, and they changed his life with four words, “come live with us.” And their 12 other sons.

The big family that took him in were Mexican: the Soliz family. Diane’s father grew up just like one of their own, and learned a lot about Mexican family cooking along the way. He added Mexican to the Italian cooking he already knew, and after stints with the tortilleria El Taco, the TV repair place, the Western Auto shop, and even briefly enjoying a silent film career (phew!), one day he had the brilliant good fortune to open a restaurant in Lake Tahoe: El Zorro. It sat 70 people and had a counter fountain.

“My father would never let me see his recipes!” Diane remembers. “I graduated to ‘help cook’, but he would not share recipes. I watched my dad from the kitchen counter as I did homework. I held up the textbook and would sneak writing down the amounts.”

When Diane met the Chinese culinary publishers, they were enamored of her backstory. They were the ones who prompted her to recreate those family recipes and get them cookbook-ready. With the time-tested recipes in her taste memory, and with help from her sister to recreate them, Diane perfected the recipes her dad never shared.

So, Now…

So nowadays, Diane Soliz-Martese Connell still loves to cook. She enjoys sharing that, and her love of crafts with her grandkids, as well as sewing for the troops overseas. Both the American Legion Auxiliary and the Friends of the Library occasionally get to taste some of her dishes. 

Everyone wins when Diane is on board.


Albie Beeler: Bringing his enthusiasm to the pool

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

If you want to find Albie Beeler, Laguna Beach Water Polo Club (LBWPC) coach and Laguna Beach High School swim team assistant coach, the best place to look is at the Laguna Beach High School/Community pool since he’s there about 13 hours a day.  Surprisingly, one gets the feeling after talking to Coach Beeler that he’d stay longer if it meant he could help kids — and adults — learn to love swimming or water polo even a little bit more.

Growing Laguna Beach Water Polo Club

Albie Beeler came to coach at LBWPC in 2008.  His older brother, Chad Beeler, has run LBWPC since 2000. Back then the program consisted of only 14 eighth grade boys who were trying to get ready for the high school team.  The club has since grown to more than 80 players, boys and girls, from 10 and under (10U) co-ed teams to a 14U girls team, and every division in between.  Part of that growth is due to Albie Beeler.  

As the coach of the 10U’s, Beeler is the one responsible for introducing this extremely demanding sport to most of the kids that come through LBWPC.  If they don’t have a good experience, they probably won’t be back.  Judging from the growth of the club, he is doing his part.

Laguna Beach Water Polo Club Coach, Albie Beeler

Coaching comes full circle

A typical day has Albie at the pool at 6 a.m. to help out the LBHS cross country team with cross training in the pool.  Then he teaches swim lessons throughout the day with a break in the middle to teach a masters swim class.  The energy (and noise) level pick up considerably when the LBHS swimmers hit the pool deck at 3. 

“I only did it [coached the LBHS team] because I thought it was going to be a cold winter and I didn’t want to be giving swim lessons in my backyard pool,” says Beeler. “But it has been so cool to come back and coach this group of kids.  They have a lot of respect for me and I have a lot of respect for them. It has really been the coolest thing ever.  It is very exciting to watch them.  They haven’t changed a bit since the first time I coached them.  They really haven’t!” says Beeler with a laugh.  Beeler coached some of this year’s LBHS senior boys on his first LBWPC team.  Coaching at the high school meant his coaching came full circle.

But it’s not nostalgia that makes Beeler so enthusiastic about coaching the high school team. He tells me that a group of girls on the varsity team asked him for extra help to get faster. He did extra work with them and when, at League Finals, they achieved their goal of swimming the 100-yard freestyle in under 60 seconds, no one — and I mean no one — was more excited than Beeler.  (I can attest to this personally, as I was sitting in the stands when it happened).

He brings that same zeal to his job when the younger kids show up at 5:45 p.m.  And while the LBHS swimmers bring a lot of energy to the pool deck, it pales in comparison to that of thirty-plus 10U kids.  When you walk in it is loud, the pool is full and Beeler is right in the middle of it, on his belly, laying on the wet pool deck so he can be face level with the kids in the water while he gives instructions.

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10U players Brenden Bellavia and Ryley McDennon at LBWPC practice

Coming back after a break

“I grew up in team sports my whole life.  That’s where I’m the happiest.  It’s not really work for me,” he says regarding his enthusiasm for coaching.  

A high school swimmer and water polo player at Canyon High School in Anaheim, as well as a Laguna Beach lifeguard from the ages of 16-25, Beeler played two years of water polo at Fullerton College before heading north to Humboldt where he had a sandblasting business.  “I got burnt out.  I needed a break from the water.  I was done being cold for awhile,” he says of his 10-year hiatus.   

Upon his return from Humboldt, Beeler says his brother “gave me a chance” when he hired him as a water polo coach.  “He is my coaching mentor,” Beeler says of Chad. “He taught me how to talk to kids, the basic drills, things like our counter-attack drill.  I’m still learning from him.” 

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Nate Evans (l), Lauren Short and Rebecca Storke run through drills at practice

 

The importance of team sports

Beeler may still be looking to his older brother for new drills, but he doesn’t need help articulating the role team sports play — or ought to play — in a kid’s life. “I think team sports should be about working hard, being accountable to others and doing something you love.  These days a lot of it is about achieving goals, like a scholarship.  I don’t like that.  I think it should be about playing and learning a sport that you love.” 

Specifically, regarding the youngsters under his tutelage, “My goal is that as long as we get better and better, as long as we learn from our mistakes, that’s enough.  If I can get a kid to shoot who’s not shooting then that’s a win,” says Beeler.

“Water polo is blowing up!”

So I had to ask, when he was growing up, which did he prefer: swimming or water polo?  “I enjoyed being fast and I enjoyed being strong.  I can’t say which I liked more.  I really liked it back when we had seasons (and you could do both),” he says laughing.  As far as where the growth is, it seems to be in water polo.  

“It’s crazy.  I get emails from people moving into the area. They don’t know anything about it, but they tell me, ‘Hey, we’re moving to Laguna and we don’t know anything about water polo but we hear it’s the thing to do.’”  He shakes his head in disbelief. “Water polo is blowing up!  Not just here in Laguna, but everywhere.  When I was in high school we had trouble fielding one team.  Now I have three 10U teams!”

Success creates an interest

Beeler gives a lot of credit for the recent growth of polo in Laguna to parent/coaches Erich Fischer and Scott Baldridge.  Fischer and Baldridge coached the girls teams at LBWPC when their girls, now at LBHS, were in age group water polo.  The LBHS girls team, coached by Ethan Damato, has won 50 consecutive games and back to back CIF Division 1 Championships.  And most of the girls on that team got their start at LBWPC. Judging by the number of 10U girls currently in the pool, their legacy continues. Not insignificantly, both the boys water polo team and swim team also won CIF this year.  Success helps pique interest. 

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10U player Lauren Short and her teammates wait for the next drill

A lifelong ambassador for the water

“We have a good system,” says Beeler. “I’m a little surprised that I’m still doing this, but, really, I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life.  When the high school girls asked me to help them, that’s what it’s all about. And the ten year olds?  They just make me smile every time I’m on the pool deck.”  If Beeler had his way, everyone would be at the pool, at least giving swimming or polo a try.  

“My job is to share these great sports with everybody.”  And if “sharing” means spending more time on the pool deck than off and exuberantly coaching anyone who will listen, then Coach Albie Beeler is doing his job – and then some.


Nadia Babayi is planning for our “older and wiser”

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Nadia Babayi had a moment of epiphany that lingered in her mind. Maybe she could turn the joy she found in volunteer work into a full-time career. Maybe there really was a way to work with passion. Since she’s the kind of person who accomplishes her goals, she went for it – packing up 23 years worth of her professional life as an engineer, and returning to school to start anew. 

At UCI Nadia pursued a certification program to begin the next chapter in her life’s story, specializing in non-profit management. 

“I always loved fundraising and working with people,” she says. “And here at the Susi Q we run a non-profit and a center too. It’s like a double reward for me!”

Laguna Beach Seniors, at the Susi Q, is where Nadia has found not only her profession but also her heart and soul.

Nadia Babayi

“I fell in love with the center the first time I came here,” she said. “It’s so gorgeous and welcoming. And I love talking to wise and knowledgible seniors.”

The term, “seniors” covers a huge number of people with different interests. The Laguna Beach Seniors Susi Q members range in age from 55 to quite a few in their 90’s. Nadia’s challenge and great reward as its Executive Director is finding opportunities to engage every age group. She has seen their membership grow to more than 400, and she’s helped to create 13 clubs both for fun and learning. 

“I’d like to have more!” she says enthusiastically. 

Starting Out

The last time she was with her family in Iran, Nadia remembers being at the airport as the Ayatollah was sending jets out against the Kurdish population. It was 1979, Khomeni had just taken over, and the future was not looking good for a bright, young, modern woman. Her mother said to her, “Don’t come back.” 

 “I had a five hour delay for my flight out,” she said. “I was lucky to be on the last plane taking off.”

She studied in the US to become an engineer. Once she had her career mapped out, and her legal citizenship in hand, Nadia was able to bring her mother to live here. Her sister, Nahid, lives nearby as well. Husband, Frank, and their son Kian round out Nadia’s family network. 

It was Nadia’s mom who introduced to her the world of a senior center. Mom didn’t live in Irvine, but she would regularly go to the Lakeview Senior Center there, because she loved their Persian club. She got Nadia to go, and Nadia was impressed with everything about it. 

“I could see the senior center making a big difference in people’s lives,” she said. She started volunteering there and, ultimately, became involved with the Persian Cultural Council, which she helped to turn into its own non-profit organization.

A Center for the Ages

Here are some of Nadia’s favorite numbers: 

40 – That’s how long Laguna Beach Seniors has been going strong, and serving the community. 

72 – That’s the average age at the Susi Q. 

75 – That’s the percentage that program attendance has increased by, in just the last two years. 

2014 – That’s when Laguna Beach Seniors at the Susi Q received the Spirit of Laguna’s Non-Profit of the Year Award.

The Spirit of Laguna’s Non-Profit of the Year Award

It’s life affirming and heart warming just to know that the senior center is there for you, as every single one of us marches down the road gaining a few wrinkles here and there, and perhaps thinking about what will happen next. The idea is to have a home away from home, where there are helpful resources and activities for the aging years.

“There’s a really big growth in our senior population,” Nadia says. “People are taking care of themselves, and living longer.” In fact, 37% of Laguna Beach’s population is more than 55 years old, and there are more than 3,000 households in Laguna Beach with residents aged 65-plus.

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Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Senior Center 

A very important feature of the Susi Q is one that sets them apart from every other senior center in Orange County; they provide free one-on-one professional counseling for depression.

Case in point is Norman Powell, who Nadia tells us responded to their program called “Are You Feeling the Blues?” … “Well, yes I am,” he said. 

Norman is at a certain age when most of his friends have passed away. Then his wife died, and he was terribly lonely. He read about the program at the Susi Q and gave them a call. Able to avail himself of the counseling and activities at the center, he started developing a new social life. He now feels like it’s his second home, and has even included the Susi Q in his will.

“He enjoys his social life,” said Nadia. “The outcomes of this program are very measurable.”

Inclusive, Diverse, Creative and Fun!

The stated values at the senior center read like the oath for a kindness club:

We help one another meet the challenges of time. We define ourselves and defy stereotypes. We embrace our diversity. We are collaborative and respectful. We give back to our community. We advocate for a hometown where can live for the rest of our lives.” Part of the success of the senior programs is because they echo the spirit that is inherent in Laguna. “We will make the Susi Q an essential resource for ‘boomers and beyond’ and Laguna Beach the best possible place to age gracefully, meet the challenges of time, and live it up for the rest of our lives.”

And they are living it up in the club meeting rooms every day. There’s the super popular ukulele class, which has created quite a few ukulele fanatics. Did you see them march in the Patriot’s Day Parade, with Uncle Sam leading the way? And there’s a big, competitive group at the ping pong tables, beefing up for their tournament in August. But the biggest club is the LGBT.

“I wanted to bring them together, and thank them for all they do in this community,” said Nadia. “They have so much fun, they bring in food, and movies… The Christmas party had about sixty people.”

The Susi Q art gallery, known as Gallery Q, puts on five exhibits a year, and Nadia assures us that their receptions are the best. “We give good food,” she laughs. “And good wine!”

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Nadia Babayi, Christine Brewer, and Andrea Heavican of Laguna Beach Seniors, proud of 40 years successfully serving the community

Forever and ever

When Nadia Babayi is not at her home-away-from-home Susi Q, she might be seen hiking the trails around El Morro, or sailing in Newport bay, or playing volleyball, or camping. She’s always on the go! But her mind is mostly on the goings on with Laguna Beach Seniors. 

She has just completed a three-year strategic plan which includes care resources management and life counseling services, more clubs and classes, and something they’ve called “Lifelong Laguna”; like a Susi Q without walls, so that they can reach out to help seniors in their homes, with whatever resources they need.

“With Lifelong Laguna, we are joining a global ‘aging in place’ movement,” she says. “And we are deepening our commitment to those who have made Laguna Beach the town we love and never want to leave.”

The goal is to be able to live at home, not in a “facility”, and be an active part of the social community.

Nadia Babayi is helping Laguna be the hometown we always wanted – forever.


Marshall Ininns: Creating homes in Laguna

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Marshall Ininns has been an architect in Laguna Beach for 23 years.  He is also President of the Friendship Shelter Board of Directors.  In a way, this makes perfect sense.  Who knows better the importance people place on homes than a person responsible for designing them?  However, when asked why he is so passionate about ending homelessness in Laguna, Ininns’ answer is much simpler than that: “…but for the grace of God, go I, you know?  Looking back there were times in my life when I could have been there.”  

So, now, Ininns works two sides of a very different coin: helping people create their dream homes while working to make sure those with no home can find shelter.  

Building consensus is key

According to Ininns, being an architect is “…one third architect, one third lawyer and one third family counselor.”   He went to school for the first one.  The other two skills have certainly been honed through years of experience.  It’s not hard to imagine that getting a couple to agree on a particular design element could, at times, require a very high level of skill in consensus building.   This ability to wear different hats and listen to different perspectives is undoubtedly helpful in his role as President of the Friendship Shelter.  

“It has been an education,” he says of his tenure as president. “I have a tendency to want to just push things through, but in my role at the Friendship Shelter I try to let everyone speak and build consensus.  It seems to work better that way.”  

Marshall Ininns, owner of Marshall Ininns Design Group and President of the Board of Directors of Friendship Shelter

If you have a home then you’re not homeless

Ininns, though extremely personable when we met, was reluctant to do so.   “I don’t really like to talk about what I do, I just like to do it,” he explains.  And what his role for the Friendship Shelter requires him to do is, according to Ininns: “…to have the Friendship Shelter agenda promote discussion for the board members to come to a consensus as to the best way to make the Friendship Shelter successful.”  

A big part of the organization’s self-defined version of success is getting a permanent housing facility built for Laguna’s local homeless population.  “If we build it then 40 people wouldn’t be homeless anymore,” he says matter-of-factly.  And the building of that permanent facility is still a big “if” since agreement has not been reached among stakeholders on the proposed Laguna Canyon location. “There are a lot of things going on,” says Ininns about the permanent facility.  “It has been interesting.”   

Success in San Clemente

So while the permanent location has been in the works for four and a half years, the Friendship Shelter received $3.4 million to do a permanent housing facility in San Clemente.  The Friendship Shelter remodeled two 4-plex apartment buildings.  It will house disabled people in their late teens. Ininns also says the Friendship Shelter houses 18 people throughout different sites in the county.  

“After a year we have only had one person evicted,” he says with satisfaction.  

The cost of personal convictions

Ininns’ commitment to the Friendship Shelter has not been without professional cost.  People feel strongly about what to do with the homeless population, in general, and the canyon facility, in particular.  “I believe if you’re doing something that’s right you should do it.  If a client says, ‘I don’t want to work with you because you work with the homeless,’ then maybe I don’t want to work with them,” says Ininns.  

One gets the feeling this conversation is not simply rhetorical. On the flip side, however, other clients have been extremely supportive.  “Ivan Spiers (owner of Mozambique), Sam Goldstein, (owner of the Heisler Building), and Chris Keller (owner of The Marine Room, Ky’a, etc.) have all been big supporters of the Friendship Shelter,” says Ininns.

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Friendship Shelter, on S. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach

A family of architects

Whether clients (or potential clients) are supportive of the Friendship Shelter or not, Ininns’ commitment is unwavering.  Another area that has his unwavering commitment is Ininns’ family.  His two sons are following in their father’s footsteps as architects.  It is quite clear that despite Ininns’ understated manner, he is very proud of them.  One is working in Sweden as an architect.  “He applied for a visa, went to Sweden with no job, no house.  He found a job and a great house and is loving it!’ says Ininns.  His younger son is soon to graduate from college with a degree in architecture.  “I get a pay raise when my kid graduates from college,” says Ininns with a smile.

His sons, though in the same profession, have learned their trade much differently than Ininns did. “The computer changed everything.  I haven’t used my drafting table in years,” he says.  But Ininns adapted to the times.  “The computer has made communicating with clients a lot easier.  Revisions are easier.  But the art of doing it by hand has been lost.  I still have a box of 200 markers and 1000 pens,” he says without lament. 

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Marshall Ininns, architect, in his office in downtown Laguna Beach

Dinners Across Laguna

Ininns is also not lamenting the time the Friendship Shelter has worked on developing the permanent shelter in the Canyon.  It’s not his nature.  As with his profession, he simply adapts and keeps working.  

“The Friendship Shelter, as far as value, is excellent. The money isn’t going to administration or marketing.  It’s going to services,” he says.  One of the ways the Friendship Shelter raises money and builds awareness is through their “Dinners Across Laguna”.  Supporters of Friendship Shelter invite their friends to dinner for a fee that is then donated.  “This is how I was introduced to the Friendship Shelter,” explains Ininns.

If interested in hosting a dinner, people can contact the Friendship Shelter at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Laguna will do what’s right

When asked for his “vision of the future” Ininns did not hesitate: “We’d build a building that would house 40 once homeless people in a permanent home and have an alternate sleeping location that would house 30 people.  I feel optimistic because I believe the people of Laguna will do what’s right and take care of the weakest among us.  My long term goal is that we will not have homelessness in the backyard of Laguna.” 

Ininns’ term as president ends in January 2016.  Whether his vision will be realized by then remains to be seen, but it won’t be from lack of trying.


Artist Fitz Maurice is “out there”, heart and soul 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“It frees my soul to be out in nature. In order to do it right, you’ve got to head out,” says Fitz Maurice.  “Why wait for the mountain to come to you? Go to the mountain!”

I talked with the artist in her Laguna Canyon gallery, surrounded by impressions of forests, mountains, lakes and streams. Maurice’s art is a creation comprised of one part soul, one part passion, her God given talents along with classical training, and a whole lott’a inspiration from nature. 

“Don’t Fence Me In” ought to be her theme song.

Fitz Maurice

The works hanging on the studio walls these days represent the beginnings of her most recent and heartfelt endeavor: to paint live at all of America’s National Parks. 

“My soul as an artist gravitates toward pure nature.” 

This artist’s technique involves layering “veils” of color-saturated pigment on linen canvas, all painted in a natural setting. Her paintings require weeks and often months to complete. All the materials are archival – meant to last the ages just as the Great Master’s paintings that Maurice is fond of studying. Her images depict scenes from the years she’s spent in Europe, and the hills and valleys all over the US. 

Among the many awards and accomplishments, her “Tree Series” of paintings earned her the Jackson Pollock-Lee Krasner Award. She was also recently selected by Acadia National Park to be artist-in-residence alternate for the year 2016. 

Many of her works are currently exhibited at the Roberto Pellechia studio in the Laguna Design Center. “These are large and major paintings – almost a retrospective,” she says. “It really shows a good spectrum.” 

Maurice has created more than 1,000 paintings, and devotes five days a week to it. She happily admits to going strong, “A thousand so far, and I’m alive and kickin’!” The other two days she takes a break for fun and relaxation. “I play outside!” Of course.

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Maurice’s canyon art gallery

The ambitious mission to paint all the national parks, live, promises to be a long and adventurous journey. There are 59 national parks, and almost 400 under the park service jurisdiction when you include the national memorials and monuments. 

“I’m just really excited because I know how much truth and beauty I’ll encounter,” Maurice says. “These are the things that soothe your soul.”

The checklist in preparation for Fitz’s grand adventure reads like a gypsy tale. First, take your home with you. Check. She’s got the mobile trailer, and a truck to haul it. Next, reduce and simplify your “stuff”, so that you own just what you need. Check. Then go where the road leads you. Check.

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Truck. Check. Ready to get to the national parks!

Well, she will make some priorities on her calendar according to the best the parks have to give, like flower blossom time in Death Valley, or autumn foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She’s gotten as far as selecting the first two she’ll visit: Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, followed by Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

“Then I’ll see what happens,” the gypsy says. “When you climb a mountain, it’s better not to focus on the top!”

Born an artist

Raised in Westchester County, NY, Fitz felt her calling early on. “I’ve known all my life,” she says. “I’m not a painter, I’m an artist. I have an artist’s soul.” 

Knowing who she was and what she wanted has certainly contributed to her success as an artist. Fitz Maurice pursued art in her education, from her BFA through training at major museums and art schools, and on to follow the Old Master’s footsteps in Europe, training at the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy. She paid her way all along as an artist, moved to Laguna Beach, and raised a child here, all with the income of an artist. No small accomplishment.

The inspiration she takes from nature was also bred in her bones. Her family introduced her to the national parks and the joys of camping out, from as long ago as she can remember. She passed that passion on to her son, Dylan, and even to her nieces, nephews and friends. 

“It doesn’t cost a lot… you have treasured memories, and it’s a blast!” she says. Her challenge to American families now is to get out and enjoy the national parks. “It’s every American’s birthright. Get your hands dirty! Get outside!”

She hopes to turn the next generation on to the wonders of our national parks, and to preserving the environment. 

“When you’re immersed in nature you lose interest in ‘things’. I no longer care about materialism. It’s freedom when you have passion, and put on your play clothes. You turn into a kid again.”  

The Spirit

Maurice found her way to a more spiritual life about ten years ago, by living alone in the middle of nowhere. 

“I lived in the Zuni Mountains for years,” she said. “All alone for four seasons – no cell phone, no TV, no computer… I learned to listen to God. The greatest gift he’s given us is nature. I listened to the birds, learned about the migrations of the seasons, the phases of the moon… I was painting, painting, painting, reading and studying the ebb and flow of nature. 

“It’s a spiritual journey to set your mind free and let your spirit have peace.”

The future is weighing more heavily on Fitz Maurice’s mind, as she considers the preservation of open spaces, particularly lakes and rivers. 

“Water – that’s what the next world war is going to be about,” she says. “Water is a priceless, irreplaceable necessity. People have got to take it personally.”

She has seen lakebeds reduced by half and giant trees left above the former water line simply fall down. 

“The planet running out of water starts in your family… it starts with you. Don’t let the shower run. Get in!”

These are the kinds of issues that Maurice will blog about during her national parks painting adventure. She’ll be sending Stu News updates about her experiences along the road too. She’s very excited to have gotten the website: nationalparkpaintings.com

What she hopes to accomplish with her national parks series is a growing concern for their conservation, and a growing appreciation for their beauty. Plus it’s fun.

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“I want to show the essence and wonders that are unique to each park,” she says. 

And she wants others to follow along. “I want every family to get out there! Learn how to use a compass… learn how to find water. These are the things that are important. It’s about building a generation that’s going to appreciate this heritage we have.”

“As far as I know, I’m the only one who has set out to paint all the parks,” she continued. “But when Fitz says she’s going to do something, she does it! No doubt about it!”


Diane Armitage: Sharing all the Best of Laguna

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“When you have vision and commitment, a path unfolds.” So says Diane Armitage, author of “The Best of Laguna Beach: The best places to dine, drink and play”. Upon meeting Armitage it becomes apparent very quickly that she has an abundance of both.

Her “path” looks more like a bustling highway of projects, but these day she’s motoring full steam towards her book launch, a complete update on her 2013 Laguna Beach’s Best

Expanded from 170 to 380 pages, Armitage lists her favorites of just about everything Laguna has to offer: Best margaritas? Check. Best breakfast burritos? Check. Best of what to do, when? Check. But her favorite of favorites is highlighting “the culinary mecca”, as she calls it, of Laguna Beach.  

To say Armitage is passionate about the artistry and commitment of some of our local chefs is an understatement. “It’s an insane job. It’s a marriage to their craft. They never stop!” Armitage is talking about the chefs she has gotten to know and admire, but she could just as easily be describing herself and her commitment to finding the best of Laguna.

Photo by Mike Altishin

Diane Armitage and her “Best of Laguna” culinary greats: 

Many chefs and GMs of Laguna Beach join Armitage (center) 

for a “best of” celebration 

(First row from left, Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille, Michael and Christine Avila of Avila›s El Ranchito, Jim Tolbert and Kurt Bjorkman of The Ranch, David Fune of Splashes and Surf & Sand Resort, Neil Skewes of Starfish Asian Cuisine, Camron Woods of The Ranch, George Poulos of Mozambique Steakhouse, Josh Severson of Selanne Steak Tavern, Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill, Thomas Crijns of Brussels Bistro. Top row from left, John Nye of Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck, Chis Keller and Amy Amaradio of Juice & Shakes, K›ya, Rooftop and Marine Room, Demetri Catsouras of The White House, Armando Ortega of Lumberyard, Jonathan Pflueger of Sourced Cuisine, Cary Redfearn of Lumberyard, John Bodrero of Orange Inn, Maro Molteni of Maro Wood Grill, Rainer Schwarz of Driftwood Kitchen & The Deck) 

Making it happen

In 2000 Armitage took a job in Carlsbad, despite having her own successful marketing agency, Armitage, Inc., in Colorado. “I was early in the whole Internet marketing thing. They signed me to a three-year contract. It was a very corporate structure. After eight months, I said, ‘It’s fixed, new marketing strategy in place, it’s selling and I gotta get back to running my own company.’ So I called Bob Proctor (a client, mentor and friend) and said, ‘I’m done.’ He said, ‘Where do you want to be?’  I said, ‘Italy!’ He recommended I go some place where I knew they had Internet service,” she says laughing. “So I said, ‘I loveLaguna Beach, but it’s too expensive.’ And you just don’t say that kind of stuff to Bob. He told me ‘Drive up there right now and get a PO box. Make it happen.’ So I did. A week and a half later I got a random email about a rental. I moved in three weeks later.” 

And she has enthusiastically called Laguna Beach “home” ever since.

Submitted photo

“The Best of Laguna Beach: The best places to dine, drink and play

Stepping boldly forward

Securing a P.O. Box without first securing a place to live is not the way most people do things. However, for Armitage, her philosophy of “boldly stepping forward” is a textbook case for creating one’s opportunities. Another “bold step” was when Armitage decided to purchase paint, rugs and patio furniture for an apartment that wasn’t going to be available for two years. 

“I told the manager that I wanted to be the first name on the waiting list when that apartment became available. She told me the couple who lived there had just moved in, signed a two-year lease and were extremely happy. I said, ‘That’s great. Put my name on the list.’” 

Armitage went about selecting items for the apartment and putting them in a storage unit. Five months later, the couple moved out, deciding to buy a house in Dana Point. “I just went to my storage unit and unloaded all my stuff I’d bought and moved in. It was hysterical.” Armitage lived there for seven years.

Creating a “spotlight” on Laguna Beach

As Armitage’s marketing agency continued to grow, her niche expanded to include high-end restaurants and resorts. In 2008, she had an epiphany. “I realized as I was running my team all over the world to these amazing resorts, that I lived in an amazing resort. And there was no spotlight on the culinary world in Laguna Beach. That’s when I started my blog, “Laguna Beach’s Best.”  

With Armitage, Inc. clients that include Michelin-star restaurants in Las Vegas, Armitage had developed a true appreciation for the passion and dedication of great chefs. Getting to know the ones closer to home motivated her to create “a spotlight” on them. “Laguna has this crazy personality. Everyone who is here has chosen to be here.  Restaurateurs choose to be here. This is a magical place where they want to create their magic,” she says.  

It all starts with Mom

The blog had one very dedicated reader when it was in its infancy. 

“My only reader was my mother. Just like that book, Julie and Julia,” Armitage says, laughing. “But I kept going at a good pace. I know what to do to get blogs visible, so I kept working at it and the audience grew. Then I got busy and stepped away from it for a few months. When I checked back in someone had posted, ‘This blog sucks! Everything is old!’ So that got me fired up, and I jumped back into it. Now that I think of it, the person who posted that was probably my mother,” says Armitage, with a knowing smile. “She knows how to get me going.”

Now with an audience of 20,000 subscribers, Armitage no longer needs her mother’s motivation. 

Submitted photo

 

Starfish co-owners Archie McConnell (left) and Gretchen Andrews (right) have been regular and generous contributors to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center since the restaurant’s opening party three years ago. They’re working with Diane Armitage now on a third-year anniversary party at Starfish in June.  

Widget-izing a labor of love

With her blog such a success, turning it into a book seemed a natural progression.  “I talked about it for three years,” says Armitage. “I work with businesses all the time on this kind of thing, but I haven’t necessarily applied what I know to myself. The thing I tell them is, ‘We’ve got to widgetize’. Meaning, they need to create a repeatable something.  Well, I needed to create my own widget! The book was it. It was a lot harder than I expected, partly because my best friend, Lisa, said it had to have color photos,” says Armitage with mock exasperation.  

With her first edition a hit, Armitage decided to produce an updated version. “So much has changed. I needed to update it.  Now, just about every entry is in the book,” she says with pride.  

And while she has written about every nook and cranny of Laguna Beach, it all comes back to her interest in the culinary scene. “The chefs I know are so passionate and so amazing,” she says. 

And that is why she works so hard to highlight their work.  Her blog and her book are true labors of love. No one pays her to promote them; if you’re in her book or blog it is because she is truly excited about what you’re doing. This honest enthusiasm has helped her to become a culinary resource. Where it will lead to next remains to be seen, but Armitage isn’t lacking for ideas or people willing to follow her lead. 

Bringing chefs together, literally and figuratively

The day before we met she had organized a photo shoot with 22 local chefs. “A lot of them didn’t know each other.  They don’t collaborate.  Not because they’re competitors – they aren’t. They’re just too busy,” explains Armitage. And if she has her way, they’ll be even busier. Food truck wars, progressive dinners, beer tastings, and, the thing that is near and dear to her heart, a big dinner benefitting the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC). “They don’t know about that one yet,” she says slyly. However, I’m sure she will be able to convince them to support her cause.

She overflows with gratitude when she talks about the PMMC event that local restaurants, The Deck, and Driftwood Kitchen, put on last year. As she recounted their generosity, she literally got tears in her eyes. “It was such an amazing event!  What they did and how they did it…it was fabulous. They inspired other chefs to get involved.”  

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Diane Armitage with Kirsten Sedlick, 

Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s Senior Animal Care Supervisor, and also a previously featured person in Stu News’ Laguna Life & People

Those sea lions eat a lot of fish

Armitage’s friend, Ruben Flores, got her involved in the PMMC. “I don’t even know how I got to be friends with him!” she says about Flores, laughing. “He is the most amazing person.” She began working on the PMMC events and helping them with their visibility. Now, she’s on the Board. 

“I’m drawn to people with passion and commitment,” she says when talking about the people she works with there. “The cost to run that place is insane!” That’s why a portion of the proceeds from her book, Laguna Beach’s Best will go to the PMMC. “The amount of fish that get eaten every day is extraordinary!” she says. “Argh…not more tears,” she says smiling. “I get emotional when I talk about that place.” 

A full plate of clients, books, blogs and, of course, StuNews

However, there is nothing – not even sick sea lions – that ignites Armitage’s passion like exploring her adopted home town, especially the food scene here. She has embraced Laguna as only one who took a risk to live here can. 

While running a 20-person strong marketing agency, writing a blog that requires a lot of research (hey, finding the best margarita might be fun, but it’s still research!), writing and compiling a 380 page book, volunteering for the PMMC, and writing the “Laguna Dining” column for StuNews, she still has enough energy to plan for and dream of “what’s next.” So it’s almost laughable when Armitage comments, “I guess I’m never not busy.” Uh…I guess not! 

 Book signing celebration at Laguna Beach Books

Next up is her book signing at Laguna Beach Books on Sunday, April 26 at 4 p.m.,  “I want to have a lot of people there! It’s a celebration of Laguna Beach.” 

Spend five minutes with Diane Armitage and you will see there is so much to celebrate. Whether you’re here for a weekend or you’ve lived here your whole life, Laguna Beach’s Best will undoubtedly inspire you to explore the best of what our town has to offer.  

Of course you can always check in to see what’s the latest on Diane’s plate at her website, www.LagunaBeachBest.com and in Stu News Laguna – for all her best.


The many facets of Molly Zurflueh

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What a treat to meet Molly Zurflueh and her adorable one-month-old baby, Lana. Two beautiful people at once! While we talked, more than a few passers-by stopped to coo and shower the baby with attention. Who can resist? 

Certainly Molly can’t. For her whole life she wanted to be a mom. Happily, now Lana’s brother, Chase (“almost eight”), mom Molly and her fiancée, Greg Carpenter (“Oh, God, he’s just a wonderful farm boy from Indiana!”), are one big family and enjoying every moment. It is a conscious choice amidst a busy life for this lawyer, who is also El Morro’s Garden Club director, and the Girl’s Night Out event chair for the Boys & Girls Club. 

Somehow all these roles circle around the joy of children and community, and Molly Zurflueh (the eh is silent) accomplishes it all with grace and charm.

Molly Zurflueh

Whee!

Molly considers herself blessed to have arrived in Laguna. Her dad, a Swiss geophysicist, brought his family to California initially. He fell in love with the place, but, alas, his career took the family back east to reside in Washington DC for all of Molly’s growing up years. It was her grandma who immigrated to the US, and set out for the west coast. She convinced Molly to look into law schools in California. Molly, with her zest for life, had already gone part of the way westward, studying at the University of Texas for her undergrad degree. She moved onward to Whittier Law School.  

She loved it. “I was like, wow, why did we ever leave?” 

Life’s too short to spend it anywhere else but here. The rest of her family remains in the DC area, but Molly was cut of a different cloth in many respects. “I was the youngest of four, but the more adventurous,” as she explains it. “I was the one that was, ‘Whee!’”

Molly was able to spend time with her grandmother before she passed away. “I got two great years with her here,” she says fondly. And she brought to California a skill she had grown up with in DC, and sharpened in Texas: a keen interest in politics.

On the Campaign Trail

“That’s my thing,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the statistics, the political news. I like campaigns and strategy …I’d read all day if I could!”

As a college youngster, Molly Zurflueh jumped out of the gate in a fortuitous campaign for governor; she threw her cowboy hat in the ring for George W. Bush. 

“I campaigned for George Bush when he ran for governor. It was my start,” she said. “When I was in school in Texas I met him, and said, ‘I want to get on board’, and he gave me the [contact] card for his people.”

She campaigned for him for president too, and ultimately there was a place for Molly back in DC. 

She took a job with HUD advocating for elderly and disabled housing, and battling their discrimination. This was a rewarding experience, though she was none too thrilled to be back in DC. Things improved after a call from a colleague in the State Department. She was offered the chance to travel as the president’s press advance, where she would organize and plan strategic areas for the press corps. 

“I did G8 Summit work, then a summit in Mexico, and one in Ireland,” she said. She met the president of Japan and Tony Blair, and even got to ride on Air Force One. “They even give you a certificate for that!” 

She was impressed with how President Bush was with the press corps, she tells us. “He was all access. He knew them all by name, and he knew their families.”

But it was active and physical work, and one day Molly seriously twisted an ankle requiring surgery. If she did work in that arena again, she’d rather be on the policymaking end than on the physical running-around-with-the-press side of things.

Number one priority

After law school, Molly found her way to Laguna through a friend who worked for attorneys Tom Davis and Larry Nokes. She was overjoyed to join that office, and work of council. “I loved their personalities,” she says. “They’re real.” 

And there’s not much better than living and working in Laguna. “I thought, how much better could this be?” And then it was better. When she had a child, her priorities shifted.

It’s the quandary of the modern woman; how much can I take on, and what does “having it all” mean? There was a time when Molly thought she could do it all. But with her baby in the equation she found there was just not enough time to be a complete parent while at the office all day. It was a giant leap into the unknown, but every instinct inside her said, “you’ve got to try!” And so she left the law firm, and went home on her own terms.

“I just went home,” she said. “That’s the beauty of working for yourself.”

The at-home office

With a good sense of where her priorities were, she got to spend time with Chase, take him to his karate classes and to school events. 

“It’s almost selfish how much fun I have with him, we have a blast,” she says. “It’s a privilege and a blessing to raise your children.” 

Ultimately, most of Molly’s clients are friends, and they came knocking on her door. Now she has found the sweet spot between handling as much legal work as she can from home, while enjoying Chase, and now Lana.

Digging in the dirt

A big part of the joy in being a parent is becoming more childlike. When the parent sees the world through their child’s eyes, they can join with them in exploring the wonders of the world around them. For Molly, the happiest place to share that wonder is in the garden. 

She’s gone and gotten her hands dirty in the good earth by volunteering at El Morro’s popular garden club. It’s a two-way street of excitement about every little bud and vegetable they help create. “The kids are amazing! We have such a good time together, I really get more out of it than I give,” she says.

It was Molly’s grandma that introduced her to the joys of gardening when she was six years old. She laughs, “I used to pretend I had a gardening show!”

It’s tomato time

This year Molly took the reins as director of the El Morro Garden Club. Together they plant and harvest vegetables, grow a wildflower garden, and learn about butterflies. Next up she has big, exciting plans to start a worm box and that actually gets all the kids jumping for joy. “They’re so grateful,” she tells us. 

Just like they’re doing now at El Morro, Molly reminds us that now is the time to plant tomatoes. 

Girls Night Out

Even when she didn’t have free time, Molly made time to volunteer in the community. Her first stop of choice was at the Boys & Girls Club. 

Helping out at the club is great for the kids, and fun for Molly too. But to help the club into the future, she’s big into fundraising. There are a lot of expenses associated with the hundreds of children nurtured at the club every day, and the events committees are on top of that. 

“They don’t get discouraged about expenses,” Molly says. “They say, ‘it’s just another hurdle’.” Thankfully the club has a number of hurdlers.

There are two events that really boost the Boys & Girls Club coffers: the Gala, in the spring, and “Girls Night Out” in the fall. Molly is the “fun” part in “fundraising” with Girls Night Out, as this year she chaired the event.

“It’s all women, and everyone dresses to the nines for each other. It’s a night to have fun!” she says.

Behind the scenes, many hands make light(er) the work. There are volunteers out soliciting donations from businesses, others coordinating the food and drink, and more wrapping up baskets for the silent auction. The evening includes a DJ, Starfish catered food, cocktail bars, and a live auction. Oh, and jewelry.

It all begins with a walk down the red carpet into the home of Holly and David Wilson. Along the red carpet are models from the jewelry house of Lugano Diamonds, just dripping in gems. Guests are encouraged to drape the jewels on themselves, and drink fancy cocktails, and go deep in their purses for the success of the Boys & Girls Club. It’s for the kids!

“It’s really decadent fun,” Molly assures.

Keeping it real

Molly, Greg, and Lana

Let’s take a pause to admire the beautiful baby Lana. Ooh, I just can’t help but ooh and awww! 

There’s no one who feels more grateful than Molly. “I really wanted another child, and now I have my daughter,” she beams. The future goes from squiggly baby feet to taking giant steps, and life’s lessons along the way. “I want to teach my kids that we are privileged to be here, but that there are people in need,” she said. “You’re lucky – so get out there and help.”

As for Molly’s future, she’s a self-proclaimed “softie for kids and old people”, so it will involve work on their behalf. 

“I feel like I still haven’t done enough,” she said. “I need to make more time to give back more.”

Yes, invent that – more time!


Ben Simon:

Passion for architecture, design and Laguna

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

When Ben Simon was 10 years old, he and his family rented a vacation house in Emerald Bay.  “I remember the house had a triple-decker bed; there was a tunnel to the beach…we went to the Sawdust Festival and The Cottage, and I thought ‘I’m going to live here one day.’”  

At the time, he and his family lived in Washington, DC so this personal mission was by no means a slam-dunk. Nevertheless, true to his 10-year old self, Simon eventually made his way to Laguna Beach where he has become an important voice in residential design.

Ben Simon, of Acme Architecture and Interior Design Group

A childhood interest becomes a career

As a child, Simon says he sketched “impossible” houses, many of them set on the cliffs of Laguna.  With a mother and grandmother who were artists and a father who was trained as an aerospace engineer, architecture was “the perfect blending of right brain and left brain,” explains Simon.  His childhood interest continued and Simon ultimately graduated from the University of Maryland with a BS in Architecture.  Post-graduation, he took a job in Los Angeles with Albert C. Martin and Associates, a large architectural firm that “designs structures like City Hall and the Bank of America building” in downtown Los Angeles. 

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Ben Simon at his home/office. Partner, Linda Morgenlander, lives right next door

Coming to Laguna Beach – for good

A few years of Los Angeles was enough for Simon, so he relocated to Albert C. Martin’s Irvine office. Finally, he was close enough to realize his childhood goal of living in Laguna Beach.  “I was only there (at Albert C. Martin) a couple of years before I went out on my own.  I always wanted to be my own boss…doesn’t everybody?” asks Simon. 

“This was in the ’80’s so I got my real estate license - everybody got their real estate license in the ’80’s.  I worked for Coldwell Banker, with the office on Crescent Bay Drive and met so many great people.  Then I started staging houses and it just grew and grew.”  There was one detour before Simon jumped back into design wholeheartedly — modeling. “Mostly cheesy romance novel covers,” he says with a laugh.  After a few years, Simon decided he needed a “grown up” job. “Modeling was great for the ego,” laughs Simon, but it was time to get back to his true passion: design. 

Design Review nets a partner

In 1998 Simon was elected to the sit on the Design Review Board.  “I loved it!  It felt very natural for me to participate. It wasn’t always easy, but I really enjoyed it,” says Simon about his time on the Board.  During his last year, in 2004, the architect, Linda Morgenlander, also joined the Board.  The two hit it off immediately.  ‘We were born three days apart.  We’re both from New York.  We’re both Jewish.  We just have a lot of fun together,” says Simon enthusiastically.  A few years after meeting, they became business partners and Acme Architecture and Interior Design was born.  

“It just evolved.  It was meant be. The first house we designed together was my parents’ house.”  Bought with the idea that it would be a second home, the house turned out so nicely, Simon’s parents relocated from Rancho Santa Fe to live in it permanently.  It was an auspicious beginning for the new firm.  It also meant Simon could now just “walk to their house for Thanksgiving” – no more navigating the 405 to Rancho Santa Fe!

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Personal mementos, artfully displayed at Ben Simon’s home

While his parents are close, Morgenlander is even closer.  She lives right next door.  “We talk constantly, Monday through Friday, from 9 to 5.  We do not talk at all on the weekends,” explains Simon with a laugh.  

His house, formerly lived in by Timothy Leary, serves as the main office for Acme.  Spread out around his desk are samples of tile and fabrics to show clients.  “We do the architecture; we do interiors.  We prefer to do both, but will do either, depending on the clients’ needs.  We get very involved with them.  It’s important that the house reflects who they are, and doesn’t just look like the back page of a Restoration Hardware catalog,” says Simon emphatically.

A personal vision

Simon’s home-office is definitely not a re-working of anyone else’s aesthetic vision, rather a very personal statement of meaningful things collected to make a home.  “Right now, I’m having a love-affair with my house,” Simon tells me.  After a brief tour, his affection for the house and its history is obvious. He kept some original bathroom tile, for example, even though it isn’t really to his taste because, “It had to stay.  It’s just part of the house.”

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The upper terrace of Ben Simon’s home is a great place to relax

Hopes for the Planning Commission and something “spectacular”

When asked, “What’s next?” Simon replied that he would like to secure a position on the Planning Commission.  “I’m passionate about Laguna. I understand a lot of different aspects: preservation, real estate, business interests, the tourist economy.  I think a lot of my professional and life experiences could be an awesome addition,” he says.  And his future plans don’t end there. “I know that because I am so lucky and have been given so many gifts it’s important that I show my appreciation by trying to do something important.”  

He smiles slyly when pressed for more details. “I fantasize about doing something spectacular.  Time will tell.”  Regardless of whether or not his mystery plans materialize, Acme Architecture and Interior Design will continue to deliver “classic, timeless and appropriate design.”  

ForSimon’s clients, “spectacular” may have already been achieved.  

 

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our 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.

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