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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!


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.”  

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.


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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

“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!”


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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.

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