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Corky Smith gave himself to Laguna: now his hometown has the chance to give back

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

These days, it’s easy to take Laguna’s clean ocean and pristine surf spots for granted. The undeveloped hillsides behind our town, home to hidden waterfalls and clandestine caves, almost feel fated. This wasn’t always so. It was a group of mid-century residents who ensured the preservation of our natural treasures. 

Briggs Christian Morris-Smith, better known by friends as “Corky,” is one of those local institutional legends. Corky became largely responsible for cleaning up our filthy ocean and preserving the hidden history in our hillsides. All that after years of serving his country overseas. Now, at 83, the Department of Veterans Affairs is letting Corky down. They’ve denied him access to a much-needed hip replacement. For the man who gave to his community, now there’s an opportunity for our community to give back. 

Corky Smith close up

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Corky poses at home, modeling his pal Mark Christy’s Ranch apparel

The Silent Generation or the Lucky Few?

It’s fitting that Corky was born in the center of the Silent Generation, a period marked by both good and lousy luck. They were silenced by the McCarthy Hearings and scarred by Korea. Sandwiched between the Great Depression and WWII – resulting in a relatively low birthrate – members of this era were typically stoic, hardworking, and kept their mouths closed. Corky embodies all those traits. 

A 2008 book authored by Elwood Carlson coined the cohort the “Lucky Few,” in part because this was the first generation in American history to be smaller than its predecessor, and because they came of age during a relatively prosperous time. Veterans of the Korean War suffered fewer casualties than their WWII fathers and enjoyed higher employment, better health, longer lives, and earlier retirement.

This duality sums up Corky’s life. Where one might see danger, Corky saw adventure. Another man’s battle became Corky’s challenge. In almost every situation Corky found himself in, there was both a silver lining and a cutting sword. 

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A quintessential storyteller, even the origin of Corky’s moniker hints at his colorful character. As a baby, his grandparents threw elaborate champagne-fueled parties on their estate. “I’d take the corks and suck on them,” he told OC Weekly back in 1999. “I was an alcoholic at 18 months old.”

Today, unlike many of his fallen friends, he’s still standing. But it’s getting increasingly hard with a hip that’s giving out and a system that’s unwilling to help. 

Korea’s youngest soldier

In 1952, Corky faced a difficult decision. He’d had a fallout with his father, and a rocky relationship with his mom. At age 16, he could become a ward of the state, reside in juvenile detention, or enlist early into the Navy. He chose the latter. His own father flew thunderbolts during WWII, so there was some military precedent. 

The only man in his company to qualify for the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (known as the “Seabees”), Corky was soon sent to Japan and told he was no longer in the Navy, but now in the Marine Corps and required to complete marine combat training. 

By the following year, he found himself flying between Korea and Japan, pushing cargo strapped to parachutes out of C-119 Flying Boxcars. “We carried no ID and flew in unmarked planes,” Corky says. “I learned to never ask any questions.” Pushing cargo earned Corky $200 a month. For an extra $100, he volunteered to test parachutes by jumping out of planes. His efforts earned him Korean presidential citations. But, six decades later, he carries the reminder of those jumps in his deteriorated hips. 

After a short 30-day leave in Laguna, Corky was sent back. This time to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands – one of the largest missile tracking stations in South Asia set on a tiny piece of land that occupies just over six square miles. Corky says most people couldn’t handle it out there. He made it 18 months. When the day finally arrived for him to ship home, he was informed the military had made a mistake and extended his tour for another four months. “Typical military mess up,” he says.

He keeps a photograph of himself with five friends as a reminder of those difficult days. “When I asked about his friends in the photo, Corky took a few deep breaths and began to carefully give the name and a detailed story of each face in the photo,” says friend and local Laguna legend Mark Christy. “Where they were from. A key personality trait. Where and how they had died. Most had died in battle, another had gone by suicide. Finally, still staring at the picture, he said, “’I’m the only one left.’”

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Corky (far left) poses during a well-deserved R&R with his fallen friends

If early life events turn into our story’s prologue, shaping who we become, this was who Corky became – a man who never ran from risk, who didn’t shy away from a challenge, and who put his own life and well-being on the line to protect others. He siphoned that energy to protect Laguna’s greenbelt and our stretch of the Pacific Ocean. 

Battling Hurricane Hattie

Corky returned from the service and settled back into his life in Laguna. He married his wife, Pat, in 1961 and they decided to join some local friends at a skin diving resort in Belize. 

It was October and hurricane season was well underway in the Caribbean. Corky and Pat had been there two weeks when Hurricane Hattie struck their small island. It hit on his birthday and bore his grandmother’s name. Winds up to 160 mph pummeled the island. Waves rose 25 feet. “Men tied women to posts,” Corky says. Of the 73 homes on the tiny island, only one and a half were left standing. Corky and Pat were in the half. The death toll began to climb.

The town was described as “nothing but a huge pile of matchsticks.” Officials in Belize City declared martial law. Then the looting began. “Guatemalans came up,” Corky says. “The British from Jamaica. They started shooting people.” 

Corky helped Pat evacuate back to Miami, but he stayed behind to help. Mass graves were dug, bodies burned and buried to prevent the spread of disease. He cleared a landing zone, allowing helicopters to drop aid and supplies. One of those helicopters delivered a marine lieutenant who turned out to be one of Corky’s surfing buddies from Laguna (coincidences like those often happened to Corky). He told his pal they needed water and rations and weapons.

The British soon discovered Corky was American and arrested him. Corky found himself in the middle of a race war, the only Caucasian in a sea of Jamaican looters in jail. “They were about to beat the hell out of me when someone recognized me and told them I was okay.” 

Was it another case of bad luck turned good? Or, more likely, good luck turned bad? Regardless, it was another case of Corky taking significant risk and making significant sacrifice.

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After returning from overseas, Corky worked for Surfer Magazine and acted in several commercials with Tom Morey and Brenda Benet

Communing with the man in the cave

Whether it was his time overseas or simply his nature, there’s a significant spiritual side to Corky. While studying anthropology, archaeology, and ethnic studies at Cal State Fullerton, Corky uncovered a remarkable cave in Laguna’s vast greenbelt. It started small, only two and a half feet tall, when he began excavating it in 1960s. By the time he finished, the cave was large enough to accommodate a six-foot man.

Inside he discovered arrowheads, quartz crystals, and human bones. He contacted a shaman to bless the cave and carbon dated the human remains. They were 1,500 years old. The cave became a sacred spot for Corky, a place where he could commune with its spirit.

“An argument could be made that Corky is Laguna’s foremost archeologist,” says Christy. “In his home, there are countless books – all neatly stacked and categorized – about the indigenous people who were here centuries before us and he has an encyclopedic understanding of who they were, where and how they lived.” 

While most students’ theses clock in around a hundred pages, Corky’s was close to 1,000. Local interest began to grow alongside his research. He eventually attracted the attention of Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Sidney Cohen, who he took to the cave. At the same time, Corky fought alongside James Dilley to preserve the greenbelt from development.

“I have been in Laguna my entire life and have spent literally thousands of hours in these hills exploring every nook and cranny,” says Christy. “When the massive development was proposed in Laguna Canyon, I was on the original Board of the Canyon Conservancy. Corky took a few of us on a deep dive tour of Laguna Canyon’s hillsides. With palpable reverence, he revealed hidden Native American sites. He demonstrated how they would hunt and harvest only what they needed to survive. They used micro-dust from fungus to determine which way the wind was blowing on a windless day, staying downwind of prospective prey. To date, it was the most fascinating few hours I’ve spent in Laguna’s hills.”

Before Corky’s hips went bad, he led student tours through the preserve. Inner-city kids, disadvantaged youth, those without access to nature. He delivered lectures about environmentalism and preservation at UCLA, the Bowers Museum, California State University Fullerton, and Scripps Institute of Oceanography. On one notable occasion, Corky led a small group of blind students from the Braille Institute in Santa Ana. About 10 children, all 10 years old, tied themselves together with a long rope, and hiked into the hills. They sat amid the grasses and trees and identified the sounds of birds. “The stuff they could hear and smell,” Corky says, looking a little choked up. “It was so far superior to anything I’d seen.” 

It’s easy to see he’s itching to get back out there.

Corky’s Erin Brockovich moment: Battling Big Water

In January 1997, like he did every day, Corky went for a run along Aliso Beach. He dove into the ocean and swam along the shore. Two days later, his skin exploded. “Everything was swollen,” he told OC Weekly in 1999. Soon the skin on his hands and feet began to split and bleed. It lasted nearly two weeks. 

The cause? Raw sewage – 440,000 gallons of it – had been dumped into the ocean. It was the equivalent of 100,000 toilet flushes. And it was neither the first nor last time. In 1997, Aliso was deemed the second dirtiest beach in the United States.

What ensued was a multi-year legal battle between Corky and the Moulton Niguel Water District and the South Coast County Water District over what we argued was their failure to provide adequate pumps and backup precautions when the systems overloaded, resulting in multiple and routine sewage spills into Aliso Creek and, ultimately, the ocean. 

Although Corky lost the suit – at tremendous personal expense – during the course of their fight, the water district made several critical improvements. But the battle essentially bankrupted Corky. He lost his home and all his financial reserves, while Laguna gained much cleaner water.

A local surfing legend

In 1989, Corky became the co-founder of the Surfrider Foundation in Laguna. “Corky is deserving of a place on the Mount Rushmore of Laguna’s surf legends,” Christy says. “When I was a kid, during the nastiest of big winter storms, there were only a few that would paddle out in the ‘victory at sea’ conditions. Corky, Big John Parlette, Joe Epps, Mike Armstrong, and a few others. The rest of the tribe would sit on the rocks at Brooks and watch these warriors navigate the huge and random peaks breaking beyond second reef. It was Laguna’s version of Da Bull (Greg Noll) at Makaha.”

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Corky around age 21

Maybe it’s his membership in the Silent Generation. Or perhaps because he spent his formative years in war. Or maybe it’s simply built into his DNA. But Corky’s many sacrifices – both physical and financial – are remarkable. 

“It literally breaks my heart to see this proud man hobbled and in need of a little help,” Christy says. “He has done so much for this town, Laguna’s legacy, our oceans and our hillsides, and this country he loves so much.”

To date, Corky is two-thirds away from his financial goal. For more information on how to help, click here.


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Wendy Nelson is a driving force – whether it's steering a Vintage Airstream Trailer or at the helm of Laguna’s last remaining gay bar

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut 

Third-generation Lagunan Wendy Nelson swooped back into town approximately six years ago from Northern California to help her brother Jimmy navigate the ups and downs of running Laguna’s only remaining gay bar, Main Street Bar & Cabaret on Coast Highway. 

“I’m here to honor my brother, to honor his desire to save an important part of gay history in this town, to honor all the individuals who have found and continue to find this place a refuge,” Wendy says. “Most of our customers are gay men, it’s true, but I like to say is that we’re human-friendly. We don’t care about anything except whether you are nice. We want to be a safe place that also offers great music and great entertainment.”

OC Weekly says that Main Street Bar offers “The Best Drag Shows in OC.” They’re hosted by Endora, Niobi, Lamb, and Whisper on Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as bingo and karaoke on other nights.

Running a gay bar may sound like an unusual job for a straight woman, but then Wendy is an unusual woman. Her talents are prodigious and varied, her energy unbounded, and her interests many. And she’s got a lot of Laguna Beach cred.

Wendy Nelson Wendy

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Effervescent Wendy has brought new energy to the family business

“I grew up in the sixties and seventies here in Laguna. I sang in the children’s choir at the Laguna Presbyterian Church,” she says. “I walked James Dilley’s collie dog, Patrick, for several years. While in high school, I had a part-time job at 31 Flavors on Broadway. I served Mexican food at the Sawdust. 

“I worked for a conservative Member of Congress. I dated the son of a Democratic Congressman. Politics, religion, sexuality, I don’t care, just be kind.”

A rich and varied work history stands her in good stead

And talk about a rich work history – at various times in her life, Oxford University-educated Wendy has been a forklift operator, a rancher in both Southern and Northern California, and has trained race horses. She’s managed a horse farm and worked in the financial and hospitality sectors. She’s a skilled bartender and chef (though Main Street Bar does not serve food). 

Together with a partner, she once owned 85 Vintage Airstream Trailers, the largest collection in the world. Wendy towed trailers from states as far away as Michigan to California – “which could be quite challenging, because being so old they weren’t always in great shape to pull,” she notes. “But that was fine, I don’t have any problem changing or replacing axles.” She’s down to just 21 trailers at this point.

Her love of classic vehicles is evident in the car she currently drives, a ‘64 Mercury Montclair. She and her fiancé Jeff Hartman – who left Anheuser Busch after 20 years to become an integral part of the family business – own a number of iconic cars, including a ‘65 Volkswagen Bug.

Wendy Nelson car

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Wendy loves vintage and classic cars; here she is with her ‘64 Mercury Montclair

Oh, and she’s also been in movies, including Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen. “Not big parts, no credits. But filmmakers say they like my classic forties’ profile,” she says. “Whatever that means.”

In her spare time (I know!) Wendy volunteers as part of a Red Cross Relief Team and locally she’s been a docent for the Gate & Garden Tour. After her sister died of breast cancer, for eight years Wendy chaired the San Francisco Race for the Cure. “It’s so important to raise awareness,” she says.

For now she knows she must concentrate only on nurturing the success of Main Street. “I focus on the business, it’s about family, blood, and patrons, that’s where I’m at right now,” she says. “I love my brother and those who appreciate what we do.”

Loyalty is a big deal at Main Street Bar & Cabaret

“Loyalty is a big deal here,” she says. “I have a really wonderful crew. And I have to tell you, the resurrection of this place is due firstly to three exceptional people – my lead bartender, Eddie Singletary, who is also an actor, producer, and director, as well as Michael Witkowksi, known as Little Michael, and, of course, our house drag queen, the wonderful Endora.”

Endora – who is also Terry Redding, a hairdresser who works on the same block – gained her drag queen name years ago from no other than Wendy’s brother, Jimmy, with whom Terry had been friends for years. 

“She used to be known as Ginger. Jimmy said, no, you’re Endora Pedora, and she’s been known as Endora ever since,” Wendy says. “When I got here, I told her, bring out your heels and stockings, girl, you’re going to be our House Queen. She was nervous at first, but it’s been great, her bingo show is really popular.”

Wendy Nelson bar

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Wendy is comfortable behind a bar or a desk

Wendy also credits family friend Hunter Mann with helping Main Street Bar succeed. A freelance filmmaker, when he isn’t touring the country making documentaries – one memorable summer with a circus – Hunter is a utility player here in Laguna, providing whatever help and expertise Wendy might need. 

“Brad Morrison and ‘Wolfe’ have helped me too, without question,” she adds. “Oh, and don’t forget to mention Jimmy’s assistant, Laguna local Curtis Pebley.”

(I sense that Wendy would like nothing more than to list quite a few more people, but she understands when I tell her, gently, that there’s a limit to how many accolades can be included in an article like this one.)

One of Wendy’s first moves was to upgrade liquor brands and make the bottles more visible behind the bar. “So it was funny. I was sitting here and Rick Clemons, who would later become one of my strongest supporters, walked in. He noticed the change, and he asked, ‘Is this still a gay bar?’

“And I answered him, as long as I’m in control, this is going to be a gay bar. And that’s the truth. No one’s buying this liquor license, which is one of the oldest of its type in the State. Why? Because all this is in honor of my brother and his goal to keep alive the legacy of the gay community that used to rule this three-block area.” 

Wendy Nelson building

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Main Street Bar and Cabaret proudly flies the rainbow flag

She’s grateful for the regulars at the bar, including a group known as the “Five o’ Clock Queens,” for obvious reasons. “We offer the lowest-price drinks during the Happiest Hour in Laguna,” Wendy claims. 

She tips her hat to other cheerleaders, including Laken Morena, Miss OC Pride, who is transgender. “The transgender community has really embraced me. I was invited to an event and I said, thank you for recognizing Main Street, and they said, no, we are recognizing and honoring you. I was so touched.”

Wendy recognizes that the LGBTQ community is not a monolithic group. There are tensions sometimes, she understands. 

“There’s a lot of drama and emotion among the community about what’s important in running a gay bar,” Wendy adds. “I’ve felt some knives in my back, but I don’t care, this is what I need to do. People need to support one another, not separate. 

“Endora asks me now and again if she can pull out the most recent knife that stabbed me in the back, and I say no, it’s alright, we’re Old Laguna. We got this together. People just need to understand and honor that everyone’s an individual.” 

And that’s exactly the kind of straight talking you’ll always get from the energetic, caring, and multi-faceted Wendy Nelson, a woman dedicated to realizing her brother Jimmy’s dream: to preserve the historic Main Street Bar & Cabaret as a fun, safe, and caring refuge for the gay community.


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Visionary Ben Warner says no movie theater, no problem! – Laguna is nevertheless a natural for a Telluride-style film festival

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ben Warner and his friend Mark Draper, a board member of Laguna Canyon Foundation, recently completed a fourteen-and-a-half-mile “Pint-to-Pint Run” across the coastal hills, beginning with a beer at Newport Coast and ending with an ale at The Ranch – an activity that perfectly reflects Ben’s passion for nature, his joie-de-vivre, and his sense of adventure. 

And these are exactly the qualities that Ben is bringing to bear in realizing his dream: the first-ever Coast Film Festival, focused on all aspects of the outdoors, scheduled to take place in Laguna Beach from November 7 to 9 at a variety of local venues. 

“Laguna’s an incredible town,” says Ben, a good-looking, self-effacing but ambitious man who has lived with his family in the same house on Park Ave since 1998. “We attract visitors because of our reputation as an art mecca and of course because of our coastline and nearby wilderness parks. 

“Now imagine if we add to that a reputation as the oceanside equivalent of Telluride or Sundance, with the twist that we showcase original, compelling films telling stories about our natural environment, as well as outdoor sports. That’s my goal.”

Visionary Ben smeil

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Ben is hard-pressed to think of an outdoor sport in which he hasn’t participated – he loves the outdoors

From an early age, Ben has been passionate about outdoor activities including snowboarding, skiing, surfing, horse riding and mountain bike riding – and many others. Halfway through our interview, I found myself curious as to which outdoor sports Ben hasn’t participated in. This question stumped him for a while. 

Then it struck him. “Scuba diving,” he said. “And I have no idea why not.”

In the meantime, he’s taking a deep dive into the world of film festivals.

A magical mélange of movies, music and even munchies

Ben’s grand vision for the event includes not only inspirational movies but a mélange of music, art, photography, and foodie/wine events surrounding the festival.

“I want this multi-day event to really resonate with locals,” he says. “It has the potential to bring together so many of the creative threads that make up our town.”

A film festival in Laguna Beach may seem quixotic, given that our one and only movie theater is closed and doesn’t look likely to open anytime soon. Ben looks wistful at the mention of the theater – but, always resourceful, he has solutions. 

“For one thing, we plan to utilize the Forum Theatre on the grounds of the Festival of Arts, which is really a terrific venue,” he says. 

Ben’s also planning a form of pop-up tent theater at Seven7Seven on the Canyon Road, where a big screen and sound system will be installed for the event. Food and beverages will be available for purchase, bands will play, and an art gallery will be set up at the venue.

During the three days of the festival, there’ll be talks and conversations with experts, along with the film showings. Oh, and whiskey tasting, don’t forget the whiskey tasting.

Ben is a natural when it comes to nature

Ben admits that he came to conservation late, though he has always loved the outdoors. Growing up on an isolated farm in Connecticut among chickens, goats, and cows, he spent his childhood exploring the acres of woods and streams surrounding his home, glorying in fishing, horse riding, and building forts. In his teens he interned on a horse farm in Wyoming. 

“I also had a lot of chores,” he says. “So I learned to be work hard and be responsible.”

Visionary Ben cactus

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Ben takes his inspiration from the natural world

He loved to watch Warren Miller skiing movies and created collages of sports figures, cutting out photos from magazines to decorate his room. He started a ski club at his high school, found the time to play hockey too, and wore a beloved Quiksilver T-shirt with mountain and wave logo until it was threadbare.

Determined to head West “where there were bigger mountains, a bigger sky,” Ben followed his heart and moved to Colorado, where he landed a job he loved, selling classified ads for Powder Magazine, a publication he’d devoured as a kid. 

One of his key achievements was pioneering the Powder Video Awards, now often called the biggest night in the skiing world. This experience foreshadowed his recent work in developing the Coast Film Festival. 

Later, relocating to Southern California, he sold ads for Surfer Magazine, a sister publication, eventually rising to the position of Vice President, Group Publisher, for the Action Sports Group, a division of Primedia.

Nature served Ben, and now Ben serves Nature

For a long time Ben regarded nature as a wonderful playground, a place for sports activities of all kinds, and as the source of a career he very much enjoyed – but in those days he didn’t pay much attention to the importance of sustainability. He was focused only on the next great adventure that might await him. 

“Then, it was all about me,” he says wryly.

That changed for good when he landed a job as the National Advertising Director for the Sierra Club in 2014. Ben says the move to a nonprofit organization was at first challenging.

“Here was a 120-year-old legacy organization that was moving only slowly into the twenty-first century and not using many digital marketing strategies,” he says. “It wasn’t easy to adjust, to implement a more modern business model, but I’m beyond grateful for my time there because it gave me a fresh look at the world. 

“For the first time I became fully aware of the fragility of our planet, that it isn’t just a playground, it’s vital for our existence. I learned about the challenges of climate change and the importance of conservation for future generations,” he adds.

A Lagunan through-and-through

While his focus is currently on making the Coast Film Festival a success, Ben also runs Skeleton Key, located on Forest Avenue, an agency focusing on purpose-based marketing.

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Ben is hands-on when it comes to cleaning up the environment

He is also the co-founder of Laguna Beach Magazine, with which he is no longer associated, though he remains proud of its mission to reflect the pride in, and passion for our town that residents feel. 

“I love Laguna. It’s the closest thing to an East Coast town in terms of community feel and access to the outdoors,” he says. “And it’s a natural for a creative event like this, especially in the off-season.”

Indeed, the Coast Film Festival will make good use of iconic Laguna venues, including the Hobie Surf Shop and the Marine Room Tavern, where the first night’s celebrations will take place. 

The event is intended also to showcase homegrown talent. “I want to bring people, especially young people, together to share a broader vision about the importance of sustainability,” he says.

Featured locals will include, among others, Pat Parnell, event host and well-known sports commentator; Greg MacGillivray, famous director/producer of incredible IMAX movies; and Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. Local film producer Richard Yelland will have a film in the Get Outside short film block. Others will be named later.

Moreover, Ben feels that Laguna is the perfect home for his “awesome” wife Kirsten and two kids, daughter Piper (18) who is studying environmental science at Cal Poly SLO, and son Tate, a sophomore at Laguna Beach High, a member of the surfing team and the golf team. “I’m the parent member for the LBHS Challenge Success Committee,” Ben is proud to note.

Ben and Kirsten met in Squaw Valley, skiing (of course), and they married there in 1998.

“The toughest thing was persuading Kirsten to move from San Francisco to Southern California,” he says. “But now she loves Laguna. Living here and raising a family here is the best.”

And it’s about to get even better (naturally) for them, and for the town, as Ben watches his film festival come to glorious life.

For more information including schedule and tickets, visit www.coastfilmfestival.com.


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Myrna Heitel kept students, colleagues & friends on Top of the World

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I’ll tell you what,” Myrna Heitel would say to a crowd of 60 unruly choral students. “If you can sing this next line of music perfectly – and I mean perfectly – I’ll do a Bambi leap.” The students snapped to attention and concentrated. When they finally met her strict standard, the piano came alive, and Mrs. Heitel would begin her dance. She’d leap into the air, a la Bambi, and bounce around the room. The kids couldn’t get enough. They would work harder, applying themselves to the task, all in pursuit of five more leaps. 

“Now this next line is tough,” Mrs. Heitel would tell them. “I mean really tough. Concentrate. It’s worth 10 leaps.” They would double-down on their efforts, and she would reward them. As Mrs. Heitel sprang into the air, the students counted in unison – “One!” they shouted, “Two!”

“That was the best thing I could have ever thought of doing,” Myrna says. “It gave everybody a break and gave me a break. The students became serious, and I was pretty darn good.” Once a student of both tap and ballet herself, Myrna had the dancing chops. Plus, she adds, her initial idea of bribing them with candy was a disaster.

Music is Myrna’s medium. It’s her way of connecting, creating, and relating not only to students, but to everyone she encounters. In the 35 years she spent teaching in the Laguna Beach Unified School District, she touched countless lives by uniting people through song. 

Myrna Heitel portrait

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Myrna Heitel, retired LBUSC teacher

Though she’s been retired from teaching since 2006, her passion for music has never diminished and her longstanding legacy continues reverberating across our town.

A child who sings is a happy child. Elder Enrique Falabella

Myrna grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. She babysat for the kids on her block, and tutored them in any subject that proved a struggle. “That’s how I discovered I could teach,” she says. 

At age 9, Myrna began taking piano lessons, as well as violin lessons, in her public school. When her talent became apparent, her parents paid for private lessons. All the while, she played in the school orchestra. A gifted and hardworking student, Myrna took every difficult course her high school offered – 

physics, advanced mathematics, biology – all the courses that would be considered AP classes today. “If you didn’t care about a social life,” Myrna laughs, “then you took physics.” 

The hard work paid off. Myrna earned admission to USC, an extraordinary honor for any woman in the 1960s. She opted to attend against her strict Baptist parents’ wishes, who urged her to enroll in a biblical institution. But once they saw her thrive – majoring in music, minoring in English, playing in USC’s symphony, singing for both the University’s choir and opera – they met her accomplishments with pride. 

Nonetheless, Myrna paid her own way. “I taught my way through college,” she says. “I found students who needed piano lessons, violin lessons. Those parents would refer me to other parents. I’d drive quite a distance to teach.” It still took Myrna 10 years to pay off her student loans, but never did she feel deterred. “Everything I did at USC influenced who I became.”

If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Myrna landed her job at the Laguna Beach Unified School District directly out of USC. It was the job that would become a lifelong career. For the next 35 years, she would teach music to students from kindergarten through 8th grade, as well as teaching in kindergarten and lower school classrooms. She taught at Top of the World, El Morro, and Aliso Elementary (until its closure in 1989), as well as Thurston Middle School, where she expanded her instruction to both social studies and the arts. 

“Myrna was the musical heart of Top of the World,” says Sharon Maloney, former Principal and friend. “She would take popular songs and write new lyrics for different occasions. She used music for entertainment and humor and general bonding of staff and community.” Sharon recalls one staff party at a teacher’s home when Myrna led the group in singing Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” “She used music as a binding, loving thing to hold us together,” Sharon says. “Or if a class was rowdy or out of hand, she’d bring them back together with her beautiful voice. She was a master at it. Music was her medium.”

So passionate about both Top of the World Elementary and music, Myrna contacted the Carpenters to get their permission to use the popular song as the school’s official theme song. How could they resist? From then on “Top of the World” was their anthem. “Myrna would sing it for every assembly we had,” says Sharon. “What school has its own [Billboard hit] theme song? Thanks to the Carpenters and Myrna for doing that.” 

Sharon Nilsen, former teacher at Top of the World, shares her own memories of those years. “When I envision Myrna, she’s standing (bouncing, really) in front of maybe 75 kids who are jostling each other atop rickety old risers in some dusty school auditorium,” she says. “Parents and audience behind her, arms akimbo as she engages first one group of singers, then another. Myrna is beaming and bopping to her music. In my vision, it’s ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,’ with even the most reluctant singer gloriously belting out the chorus.”

A good teacher, like a good entertainer, first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson.

John Henrik Clarke

Myrna taught students their 50 states, alphabetically, through song (“Fifty Nifty United States”). Using catchy lyrics, hand motions, and repetition, children internalized knowledge. And it stuck. Years later, her students are still talking about Myrna and remembering the many things she taught them. 

Zac Brewer, now age 25, had Mrs. Heitel for kindergarten and still remembers those days. “I was an anxious kid, but Mrs. Heitel was warm, welcoming, and a calming presence in my day. She was kind and patient with me.” Zac stayed in touch well after kindergarten. They recently had a reunion at the Susi Q Center. “It had been years since I had seen her, but I knew I had to say hello. When I saw her, I told Mrs. Heitel that I’m getting my Masters in school counseling from Concordia University in Irvine. I don’t think I’d be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Mrs. Heitel and the other great teachers and counselors in the District.”

Myrna Heitel meeting

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Myrna meets with former student Zac Brewer at the Susi Q Center in Laguna Beach

Marlise Chel and Jessica Niebuhr both had Myrna at Top of the World. “She was so musical and put her heart and soul into teaching,” they said. “She never forgot about us, and followed our progress throughout our lives. Her students were family to her.” Myrna’s passion paid lifelong dividends for generations of Laguna’s youth.

In 2006, the Daily Pilot recognized the unique and hands-on approach Myrna took to teaching. Her class of kindergarteners created an elaborate map of our town, complete with cutout bunnies, cars, trees, and wildlife. Students could all locate their homes. “Children learn best by doing,” Myrna told the Daily Pilot. “Their interest in painting helps them learn about the town.” By tapping into a child’s innate creativity and helping them use it to explore the world, Myrna solidified not only their knowledge, but their curiosity and desire to learn more. “When the kids are out around town they now point to things they never used to,” Myrna said in 2006. “This wouldn’t have happened two months ago.” 

Though 13 years into retirement, Myrna’s legacy remains. A music scholarship is given in her name each year to several deserving high school students. The Myrna Heitel Music Scholarship is a well-known staple of funding for talented youth. She also continues her involvement as a member of the Retired Elementary School Teachers in Laguna Beach, attending monthly coffees when she can. 

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. –Phyllis Theroux

What Myrna can’t communicate through song, she delivers through the written word and personal gestures. A longtime believer in the power of the pen, Myrna maintains correspondence with a number of people. “I write to people who are in need of encouragement, who are sick, who need a birthday card,” she says. 

One of those people is a prisoner in the California State Penitentiary. A cousin’s nephew faced trouble last year, convicted of a crime she believes he didn’t commit. Myrna’s cousin called, knowing Myrna was the right person to help. “It’s Christmas,” the woman said, “Would you send him a card?’” From there, Myrna’s friendship with the man grew. “Whenever he receives my letter, he writes back the same day. It’s been 10 months and now we correspond all the time.”

Letter writing is something Myrna has done for years. “I just started one day. I sent a card to someone and figured it wasn’t enough to just sign my name. So I began writing, and it grew into a thing. Handwritten notes really mean something special to people.”

Myrna is also the first to reach out in person. Sharon Maloney remembers meeting Myrna at a Laguna Beach tennis class. “I was feeling so out of it, not knowing anybody and not having played tennis in years,” Sharon says. “Myrna is the essence of graciousness. She immediately included me, introducing me around and making me feel welcome. That was a gift. She has an enormous heart.”

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. Martin Luther

Bambi leaps are no longer in Myrna’s repertoire. A series of health troubles and medical setbacks have challenged her for years. And yet her positive attitude and hopeful spirit never waver.

A blood transfusion in Myrna’s late teens resulted in an undiagnosed case of Hepatitis C, which didn’t present until the 1990s. She’d been an asymptomatic carrier for years before feelings of fatigue began. 

After a series of experimental drug treatments at UCI, Myrna became a candidate for both a liver and kidney transplant. Understanding the odds were higher of finding a donor in the Midwest, she moved to Nebraska until organs became available. It took time, but Myrna waited while also battling breast cancer, and a separate cancer that appeared on her scalp. 

None of these setbacks dampened Myrna’s attitude. “She’s a fun spirit, as you can tell,” says Sharon. “She’s gone through hell with her health, but you’d never know it. She’s always smiling and anxious to talk.” 

Myrna Heitel with Zac

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Zac stayed in touch with Myrna over the years

Carolyn Delino, also a former colleague and teacher, agrees. “I have long been greatly impressed with Myrna’s fighter demeanor. Through her long fight with Hepatitis C, she never gave up, tried every possible solution, and maintained a positive attitude.”

Today, both Myrna’s liver and kidney are operating at normal levels. “Fifteen years ago, I was told I had 10 years to live,” Myrna says. “I’ve far exceeded those predictions.” And she has the organs of a 19-year-old young woman.

Bambi leaps aside, Myrna still maintains that youthful springing spirit, and the ability to elevate everyone around her. “She always bounces back from continuous setbacks,” says Carolyn. “She’s still bouncy today.”


Laguna Logo

From CAT scans to Catmosphere: Former medical malpractice attorney Gail Landau follows her bliss

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

How about this for a heartwarming tale that captures the essence of Orange County’s only cat café and rescue, Catmosphere Laguna?

Jana Sullivan explains: “Five years ago my cat Kimbo got lost in Laguna, and I’ve missed him ever since. Recently I got up the nerve to look for a new kitty to adopt and give a good home and went to look at Ark of San Juan’s cat adoption page. As I looked though the photos, one stood out – it looked exactly like my missing Kimbo. I traced him to Catmosphere Laguna, where he was now being housed.”

“Roady” walked up to Jana immediately when she stepped into the cat lounge and started purring loudly, rubbing his face all over her face in greeting, just like Kimbo would have done, Jana says. 

“He was the same size and weight as my missing cat, had the same loud purr, same face and body shape, had the same white marking on his belly, and other unique markings, along with some new white patches of fur growing over several gnarly six to eight inch mostly-healed scratches all down his back. He’d clearly lived through something intense. 

“I remembered how he had gotten a cut when he was a kitten from playing, and when it healed over it healed white, like the new scratches on his back. I looked and realized this cat even had that same small white patch on his arm.

“It was Kimbo.” 

From cat cafe

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Gail Landau’s Catmosphere Laguna Cat Café & nonprofit rescue foundation fulfills, she believes, her purrpose in life

These are the kinds of match-ups that thrill owner and founder Gail Landau, a blonde, blue-eyed, statuesque woman almost always garbed in elegant cat-themed outfits. Her nonprofit foundation rescues cats and provides them with a loving home at the cat café until they find their perfect parents – in this case, Kimbo’s original parent.

The selected cats come from shelters or in one recent case, from a duffel bag of kittens abandoned on Forest Ave.

Gail believes that her deep desire to care for cats was implanted early in her life, when her family lived in a house in Northern Illinois surrounded on all sides by farmland. 

“My memories are full of cats and dogs coming and going all the time. Our home was a magnet for all kinds of animals, especially barn cats. My mom and I loved to take care of them.”

CAT scans and an endoscopy machine lead to matrimony

Catmosphere Laguna came into being after Gail retired from a long and successful career as a medical malpractice defense lawyer, where part of her job entailed reviewing, yes, CAT scans. “But to own a cat café was always my dream,” she says.

During the course of her work, she met her other great love, her husband Dennis, a doctor, who knew just how to woo her – and it wasn’t with a fancy diamond ring.

“For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to marriage again,” says the previously divorced Gail. “But then Dennis invited me to come to his office to see his new endoscopy machine. And when I saw how passionate he was about his work, I knew he would be supportive of my dreams, and it was clear he was the right man for me.”

Who knew an endoscopy machine would lead the way to matrimony?

Dennis now adores cats, though when he first met Gail, he hadn’t given much thought to matters of the feline kind. “They clamber all over him now,” says Gail, who has three cats at home – and two daughters. “We were a package deal.”

From cat Gail

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Gail’s daughters invented the Catmosphere name and logo

Gail’s daughters are very much involved in the enterprise.

“Behind the feline scene, my daughter Erin is our social media guru and handles coverage of all events and daily goings-on including communications with all our adopting pawrents,” Gail notes. “She’s a trained yoga instructor and runs our Cats on Mats Meowga every other Wednesday morning from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

“My daughter Sasha writes the Mewsletter our followers enjoy each month and helps coordinate the adoption process and the necessary final step in our procedure, home checks. Of course, behind the scenes, they also assist me in keeping Catmosphere Laguna purring along.”

Oh, and it was Gail’s daughters who came up with the name “Catmosphere” – though it’s not the only Catmosphere cat café – there’s one in Sydney, it turns out, and apparently at least one person has mistakenly booked time with Australian moggies instead of American cats. 

Pied Piper – but no rats

Gail’s love for her furry short-term residents is obvious, and it’s a love that is fully requited. The cats follow her wherever she goes in the cat lounge. She is their Pied Piper, and while she doesn’t lead them to rats as they might hope, she does make sure that they are fed tasty, nutritious food and receive the maximum affection. 

She is, indeed, their Furrless Leader.

From cat cats

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Catmosphere Laguna cats are the luckiest of rescues

How does it feel when cats are adopted from Catmosphere Laguna? Gail and café manager Madison Mister say in unison: “We cry!”

With happiness, of course, because the mission of the nonprofit foundation is to find “furrever” homes for rescued kitties of all ages. But Gail and her staff are also sad to say goodbye to their feline favorites, kittens, especially.

Gail takes great care to ensure that the cats’ future homes are safe and loving.

“We could have adopted out many more of our kitties if we weren’t so meticulous about inspecting their future homes. I had to refuse someone who had no screens on her windows – plus her neighbor breeds pit bulls. That was an easy no. Others are more complicated. We’re very picky.”

A relentless punster, this cat Meowmy

As readers can tell, Gail is a relentless punster. For example, for shy cats, a private “meowting” with possible owners can be arranged. 

And she’s very creative when it comes to special events. Lots of kids have held their birthday “pawties” on the premises. 

Naturally, there is a “happy meowr,” during which customers enjoy beer, wine, and tasty toasts and salads – or, yes, they can choose to have a meowmosa. 

Gail also holds Drag Queen Bingo on a monthly basis, with prizes.

Many visitors to nonprofit Catmosphere Laguna are there simply to enjoy the company of the romping or sleeping cats for an entry fee of $22 per hour. 

“Cat cafés charge up to $35 an hour, so we’re on the low side,” Gail adds. “The money goes to the care of our kitties. There’s no admission fee for eating lunch in the cat café and watching the cats through the glass window, of course.”

The nonprofit is grateful for community support

Visitors to Catmosphere Laguna, entranced by the cats’ antics in their decked-out playroom, complete with an enormous fake palm tree and wall-caves, often don’t realize how much activity goes on behind the scenes at the nonprofit – and how costly it is to run the operation. There’s microchipping to be done, spaying and neutering, regular flea treatments, veterinary bills, rent to be paid, and toys and food and litter to be bought for the 14 - 16 cats that call the place their happy home at any given time.

From cat kitten

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Catmosphere Laguna kitten considers adopting a human

“We’re so very grateful for donations and our volunteers,” Gail says. “It’s with the community’s help that we’ve been able to ensure that these rescues get to live their best life. In one year, we adopted out 58 cats, more than one a week.”

Herding cats is Gail’s specialty

“Surprisingly most of the cats get on with each other or ignore the others. Sometimes bonding happens, with an older cat snuggling with a younger cat. That happened with Arthur and Tostito, who were adopted together as a bonded pair and are now therapy cats at the Silverado Nursing Home.”

Gail feels that her background as an attorney helps in running this unusual nonprofit.

“Put it this way, I know how to herd cats – for a long time I was the managing partner at a firm of attorneys, one difference being that lawyers weren’t adopted out, though maybe I’d have liked some of them to have been…But they were similarly intelligent and strong-willed, though not as mysterious.

“So I learned important organizational and management skills, and how to build relationships. That’s been vital in making Catmosphere Laguna a success.”

True, but it’s Gail’s warm heart, passion, and devotion to all matters cat that sets her cat café/rescue apart. Just one visit to see Gail interacting with her beloved furry charges is enough to turn one’s heart to mush.

Let’s face it, Gail is simply meowvalous.

Oh, and Kimbo?

“He is still the same sweet, fearless kitty, and he doesn’t seem traumatized or scared,” Jana says. “He seems very happy and content now that he’s home.”


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“Bond King” Bill Gross reflects on life, love & retirement

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Katie Beverley

Two and a half years ago, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, Bill Gross paid Amy Schwartz a call. Bill was newly divorced and living in Laguna Beach. Amy, a former tennis pro, lived in Santa Monica. The two exchanged emails and Bill suggested that if Amy were ever in Newport, they should have a drink. A few days passed before Amy wrote Bill a “nice little note” saying, “Thanks for the invitation. But if you’re ever in Santa Monica, let’s have that drink.” 

Bill had met his match. He drove to Santa Monica the next day. And the day after that. He was hooked.

Bond King couple KB

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Photo by Katie Beverley 

Bill Gross and Amy Schwartz at Amy’s 50th birthday soiree last month

Bill Gross is not a new name in town, but his life looks remarkably different than it did a few years ago. At one point, the co-founder, former chief investment officer, and managing director of Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) controlled nearly $2 trillion primarily in debt dollars – more fixed income securities than anyone else in the world. Morningstar reported in 2010, “No other fund manager made more money for people than Bill Gross.” 

Well known in the financial world as the “Bond King,” Bill is also one of Orange County’s most notable philanthropists, having donated more than $800 million to various charities over the years. And as a renowned philatelist, he’s slowly been parting with the largest privately held collection of U.S. stamps in the world. Proceeds from auctions of his collection exceed $40 million from 2007 to date and go straight to charity or his charitable foundation.

For a man who never stopped working, Bill is embracing retirement remarkably well. He retired from Janus Henderson Investors in March of this year. Today, the Bond King is responsible solely for his own assets, which Forbes pegs at $1.5 billion. 

But alongside all these mind-bending numbers and impressive statistics is perhaps the less recognized – though no less significant – nuanced private life he leads, and the woman with whom he shares it. 

Finding common ground in their quest for fame

Despite different childhood experiences, Bill and Amy share a few fundamentals – a passion for music (they’ve constructed a three-and-a-half-hour favorite playlist, consisting mostly of 80s music); an addiction to golf (they spend at least three hours, and upwards of six, on the greens each day); and an unquenchable thirst for fame. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Amy and Bill pose before a painting of their vacation in Bora Bora

For Amy, the desire for notoriety began at age eight, when she set her sights on professional tennis. One of the first resident players in Nick Bollettieri’s legendary clinic (alongside Andre Agassi), Nick promised her stardom and he delivered. Amy played professional tennis for nearly 10 years, dominating over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the 1986 Brazilian Open. She also made it to the second round in women’s singles in the 1988 Australian Open. Later she served as tennis consultant for the movie Bridesmaids and taught the game for many years. 

Bill didn’t articulate his desire for fame until his 20s. After receiving his MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and beginning his career at Pacific Mutual, he announced his intentions. “I’m going to be the best bond manager in the world,” he told his parents. If only his parents had understood what being a bond manager meant.

“Not to get all Freudian on you, but the need to be famous is the need to be loved,” Bill says. “Amy and I are both fame-driven. And it’s really about a desire to be loved.”

Inside the King’s mind

For four decades, Bill Gross penned some of the wittiest, wisest, and most insightful monthly forecasts to investors. Known as his “Investment Outlooks,” they were stunningly accurate predictors of global markets. But they also offered insights into life itself. Bill often reflected on human nature, our rapid submission to technology, our innate pull towards tribalism and warfare, and the universal fear of death. He wrote about foxes and hedgehogs and Easter egg hunts. The commentaries were resonant, reflective, and philosophical. Warren Buffet said of them, “The prose is lively, the logic flawless, and his insights valuable.” Not what one might expect from a man so seemingly single-minded and focused on economic success. 

“My best ones, in my opinion, were mentally framed during quiet moments in a shower or after a hard workout at the gym when endorphins open the brain to subconscious thoughts and feelings,” he says. “They are as much of an autobiography as I could have written, but framed in a monthly series of essays, compiled over four decades that show a maturation or perhaps a molting of my life’s philosophy. They represent who I was, who I am, and who I expect to become.” 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill Gross at home in Rockledge by the Sea

There is something humane about his writing that belies the purely methodical and disciplined image of him often portrayed in the press. Now, seven months into retirement and once again smitten by love, it might appear that a more gentle Bill Gross has emerged. He’s shed his signature Hermes ties in favor of snazzy socks. He spends his afternoons at the driving range instead of behind his Bloomberg terminal, which he donated to the Smithsonian in 2015. He prefers the comforts of home to the rigors of an office.

Maybe Amy softened his heart. Maybe retirement has afforded a degree of time and freedom for some lighthearted fun. But a look back across those decades of perceptive missives suggests that introspection was there all along, standing backstage in the shadows of the bright lights that often accompany wealth, fame, and success.

How to become a billionaire

Born in Ohio’s poverty-stricken rust belt, Bill describes his hometown of Middletown (memorialized in J.D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy as “Middletucky”) as backwater and hick. “I grew up going to a four-room brick elementary school. By the look of the class pictures, we dressed like Middletucky, not Newport Beach.” He credits his subsequent success to his parents’ decision to move the family to California when he was 10.

The start of that success lies in a most unlikely place. During Bill’s senior year at Duke University, he was involved in a horrific car accident. His Nash Rambler skidded on an icy road and sent the 22-year-old through the windshield. “I was essentially scalped,” Bill says. He spent months in and out of the hospital, enduring multiple skin grafts and recovering from a collapsed lung. But he also discovered Edward O. Thorp’s Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. Bill applied his idle hours and mathematical mind to the art of counting cards. “I had all the time in the world, sitting in bed,” Bill says. “I went through thousands of hands of cards and realized, this thing works!”

Once he recovered, Bill had a seamstress sew a surreptitious pocket into his pants. There he hid the entirety of his life savings – $200. “I jumped trains from Durham to Charlotte to Atlanta to Vegas,” he recalls. “A freight train dumped me at the Golden Nugget downtown and I still had my $200. I’d scrounged for food at various stops.” Scrounge, he added, was a nice word for it. Bill checked into the Apache Motel for $6/day and, four months later, had made $10,000 at the blackjack tables. After serving three years in the Navy in Vietnam – a time he describes only as a “disaster” – Bill used his winnings to finance his MBA at UCLA. He also applied Thorp’s gambling principles to the bond market, determining when to spread risk and how to calculate odds in his investment decisions.

It was Bill’s mother, he says, who was responsible for finding him that first job after graduate school. “I was not a gregarious, handshaking person. I didn’t like parties or networking,” he says. More comfortable spending time with numbers than people, Bill began sending resumes. “There were no Xerox machines or computers. I used carbon copies and a typewriter. I sent to everyone. Nothing, nothing, no job.” Bill’s mother came down to visit him in Mission Viejo, when Bill and his first wife welcomed their daughter Jennifer. “The LA Times was sitting there on the coffee table and the Want Ads were laying out.” Bill’s mother noticed a job listing for a security analyst for Pacific Mutual. “Bill, here’s one,” she said. “Don’t you like bonds?” 

It didn’t take long for Bill to rise to Second Vice President of Pacific Mutual. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs in my car, driving home to Mission Viejo. I was making $15,000 a year. I couldn’t believe it.” 

In 1971, Bill became the co-founder of PIMCO (alongside friends Jim Muzzy and Bill Podlich), launching with $12 million in assets. At its peak, PIMCO controlled nearly $2 trillion – more money than Bank of America, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs – and remains close to that figure today. He was on a walk one day when that realization struck him. “I just thought, what?!

It was Bill Gross who U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner called during the 2008 financial crisis. “We were trying to provide solutions to the great recession,” Bill says. “That’s something I’ll always remember – a lot of sleepless nights, but the exhilaration of being at the front of the decision making for the country.” 

The king of charity

Today Bill stays busy managing The William, Jeff, and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation, which holds almost $400 million in assets and makes annual grants totaling $21.5 million. Bill and his two children fund a broad spectrum of causes, but focus their efforts primarily on humanitarian causes, health care, and education. Bill also anonymously donates to others in need.

So deep is his belief in charitable giving that during his time at PIMCO, Bill insisted that every one of his fund managers give back as a condition of their bonus. This practice is now a tradition at PIMCO.

Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, focuses her giving on humanitarian efforts. She funds the Africa Mercy, one of several hospital ships run by Mercy Ships that sails up and down the African coast, delivering medical care to people in need. Jeff has honed in on education, including honoring Teachers of the Year. 

The results are rewarding. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to thank me for their medical care and the treatment they received at Hoag. I remind them I just wrote a check. I didn’t deliver their babies. But it’s nice to get that feedback.”

Celebrate Me Home

Apart from managing his foundation, retirement is offering Bill far more time and space to lead the quiet life he desires. Amy and Bill recently moved into Amy’s dream home at Rockledge by the Sea (a name given to the property by its prior owners), which Bill purchased for her as a surprise. Their home is an architectural reflection of their relationship. And for two people who prefer quiet evenings at home to Orange County’s glitz and glamor, it’s the prefect refuge.

Bond King Rock Ledge MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Rockledge by the Sea, appearing behind Villa Rockledge on the right

“We were looking at it for a year, but Bill wanted a place closer to the golf course,” says Amy. “We were on a plane to Europe when he told me he did something. It sounded like he’d done something bad, so I waited. When he said he’d bought Rockledge, I almost jumped out of the plane.” 

For months, Bill snuck around the property before dawn to peer over the fence. “He was caught on camera,” says Amy. “The homeowners finally asked the broker what they should do. He told them, ‘Just leave Bill alone.’” 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Amy commissioned contemporary artists to decorate Rockledge as a love letter to Bill

If Rockledge was Bill’s love letter to Amy, the contemporary art inside is her reply. And there’s no mistaking the message. From the “Love Shack” entry mat to the gleaming golden heart behind the gate, from a Robert Indiana iconic LOVE statue to the many contemporary artistic hearts inside (including the decorative pillows on their bed), the meaning is clear – love wins. 

Bond King LOVE MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill and Amy with Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture

Amy turned 50 last month, and Bill threw her the party of her life. They invited one of their favorite singers, Kenny Loggins, to perform. With Kenny’s help, Bill took to the stage to serenade his sweetheart. For a soft-spoken man, the song was perfect. “Celebrate Me Home,” he sang to Amy. “Whenever I find myself too all alone, I can sing me home.” 

Indeed he can.

Bond King with Loggins KB

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Photo by Katie Beverley 

Amy and Bill with Kenny Loggins


Laguna Logo

Paula Olson, outreach director for Laguna Canyon Foundation: Educator, explorer and environmentalist

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Paula Olson, outreach director of the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF), was unfazed when a second grader asked recently whether the group would see “bears and giraffes” when they headed out on the trails as part of an educational outing.

“So many of the kids on these field trips have had virtually no exposure to anything other than an urban landscape,” Paula says. “A question like that is a great opportunity to tell them about the animals that do call our wilderness parks home. 

“We can’t guarantee that we’ll see deer or bobcat or coyotes, so we tell them that the next best thing is to look for evidence of wildlife. This of course includes scat, which we call poo to begin with, which makes them giggle. Then they turn serious about tracking. They often tell me this was their best day ever.”

Paula the Educator

The kids’ program is Paula’s favorite among the many outreach and volunteer programs under her direction. During the course of a year, approximately 4,000 second to fifth grade students explore the park during field trips, learning about flora and fauna and the importance of preserving their natural surroundings. 

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Paula, with her dogs Miro and Reggae, points out that some trails allow dogs, and some don’t – look for the dog icon – Meadows trail is a no, Aswut is a yes

Prior to her LCF job, Paula was Vice President of Marketing for Western Growers. One of her responsibilities was managing Western Growers Foundation, created by the organization’s members with the goal of putting “an edible garden in every willing school.” She played a major role in starting approximately 1,000 edible school gardens in California and Arizona. 

“The makeup of those schools mirrored in many ways the makeup of the schools and students we work with at LCF. Many immigrants; many ESL learners,” Paula notes. “As the grandchild of immigrants, I am invested in ensuring those kids, like I did, have opportunity: nutritious food, a hike in a wilderness park. We want the children in our LCF education program to know they belong in the wilderness parks too…that they can come on a hike with their families any time, and it’s their land to protect.”

Paula loves the fact that the adult volunteer count for Laguna Canyon Foundation stands at exactly 133, just like the state route. “The perfect number,” she says, “though of course we’d welcome volunteer number 134.

“Our volunteers are a delight – curious, friendly, happy, and dedicated,” she adds. “I love being with them.”

Those are qualities that she herself exhibits every day at work and in life, according to her colleagues at LCF – not to mention that Paula is also creative and accomplished. 

Paula the Explorer

Paula recalls her passion for exploring when she was a child. Unfettered by the restrictions placed on kids these days, she loved to roam the cliffs of San Pedro and find her way down to the ocean, preferably by herself.

“Part of the fascination for me has always been imagining the early history of Southern California, how Native Americans lived off this land 200, 300 years ago,” she adds.

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Paula is happiest outdoors, whether on the land or the ocean

Serendipity, she says, led to her hiring by LCF. She’d lived in Laguna Beach for twelve years when she attended a presentation on fuel modification at Moulton Meadows. That’s where she met Hallie Jones, executive director, and Alan Kaufmann, restoration program director. Later she joined them to do trail maintenance. The three of them got along swimmingly. 

Hallie, Paula found out later, was interested from the moment they met to hire her in some capacity, though it took months for the time to be right.

“I am so impressed with Hallie,” Paula says. “She’s done so much to build this organization. I’m grateful for the team she’s built around her.”

The admiration is mutual. “One of the real joys of working in a nonprofit, mission-based organization is that we get to work with people who are passionate about the very things we believe in,” Hallie says. “Paula embodies that. Her work at LCF is more than just a job – it’s a calling. She brings that enthusiasm and joy to everything she does.”

Interestingly, for such a passionate lover of nature, Paula is not a fan of camping. She struggles to find a good reason – discomfort and lack of indoor plumbing don’t bother her, so it’s not that. As we hike the steep Valido Trail (I’m puffing, she’s leaping up the trail like a mountain goat), we hit upon the solution: not only are there just “too many people at campsites,” but camping is too static an activity. Like a shark, Paula needs to keep moving. 

And keep moving she does. It’s the explorer in her.

“When Hallie hired me, she told me she wanted me out on the trails at least 50 percent of the time, checking on conditions, overseeing volunteer activity, working with OC Parks staff, interacting with hikers and bikers. That sold me. The last thing I wanted at this stage of my life was a nine to five office job,” says the former marketing executive. 

Paula the Environmentalist

Paula’s favorite trail is Mentally Sensitive, and not just because of the great name, which was created when someone removed letters from a sign noting that this was an “environmentally sensitive” area.

“Going down the canyon, there are beautiful views,” she says. “I’ve seen birds at eye level. It’s challenging but fun.” 

paula olson sign

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The wilderness parks primarily protect the habitat, and secondarily provide opportunities for recreation

Paula is as much at home in the ocean as on the land. “The best gift I ever received came from my husband, Brian – a set of scuba diving lessons,” Paula notes. 

Their first dog together, Eiffel – which Brian was training as a seeing eye dog – was in their wedding in Dana Point.

She and Brian also play tennis, hike, ski, snowboard, and ride bikes. For their 25th anniversary, they visited Barcelona, which they loved.

They also share a passion for dogs, particularly their own, naturally: Miro, a German Shepherd mix named after Spanish artist Joan Miro, and Reggae, a black lab reflecting Brian’s and Paula’s love of that music.

“Paula and I immediately bonded over our love of dogs, but more specifically German Shepherds,” Cameron Davis, LCF’s outreach manager, says. “We have so much more in common than just being crazy dog moms. Turns out we are both wildly passionate about the wilderness. Paula is a true steward of the land. I mean in addition to the woman who does regular trail work, she recently took up mountain biking and volunteers for Crystal Cove also. She’s basically a superhero.” 

I asked Paula the greatest misconception people have about the wilderness parks. 

paula olson trails

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As Outreach Director, Paula spends 50 percent of her time on the trails

“Some people think the parks are for recreation first, and wilderness second, but it’s the other way around. Our goal is preservation of the habitat,” she says. “That’s why we don’t allow dogs on most trails – because their presence disrupts the wildlife. It can also be dangerous out there for the dogs, given the heat, rattlesnakes, and coyotes.”

Coyotes happen to be Paula’s favorite animal, which may surprise some residents. “They’re durable, smart, adaptable, and family-oriented, raising pups together,” she says. “They’re also misunderstood.”

Above all, Paula is an educator who wants visitors to understand the natural glories that surround them and the reasons why it is so important to preserve our wilderness parks – and she’s an explorer who can’t get enough of the wilderness during its changing seasons. 

“To quote our volunteers,” Paula says, “I keep hiking so I can keep hiking.” 

So it’s just as well for Laguna Canyon Foundation that there are more than 22,000 acres locally to keep her interested and on the move, as she works with the LCF team to preserve a wilderness where indigenous plants and animals can thrive while at the same time provide pleasure for nature-loving visitors, hikers, and bikers.


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El Morro Elementary Principal Christopher Duddy captains a winning team

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It cannot be coincidence that each school Christopher Duddy serves is soon anointed academic recognition by the State of California. Since his arrival at El Morro Elementary in 2004, the school has enjoyed a string of successes. It received the Distinguished School Award in 2008 and again in 2014, and was granted California’s coveted Gold Ribbon Award in 2016. It’s up for national Blue Ribbon recognition this year. 

El Morro isn’t the only school Chris has gifted with his golden touch. Thurston Middle School, where Chris served as both Assistant Principal (from 1998 to 2001) and Principal (from 2001 through 2004), was designated a Distinguished School in 2003.

Chris is a team player, and he’s the first to acknowledge that institutional success requires a great deal of teamwork and collaboration. But he’s also the team’s steadfast captain, and his example sets the course. It doesn’t take long in Chris’s company to understand why his approach works so well. “We have all the ingredients to have a high performing school,” he says. “Wonderful resources, excellent teachers, eager students, and active parent involvement. Plus, the surroundings are beautiful.” Still, what is that elusive mix of personality traits that makes a successful captain?

El Morro awards

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Principal Christopher Duddy holding the many awards bestowed on El Morro Elementary by the State of California. Note the California Gold Ribbon Schools Award was created to honor schools in place of the California Distinguished Schools Program, which remains on hiatus while the state implements its new assessment and accountability systems.

Life lessons learned on the basketball courts

Chris will tell you he wasn’t always an eager student. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really like school. I was a decent student, but studying wasn’t my favorite thing as a kid.” Basketball, however, was his favorite thing and he was fortunate to have a high school coach who taught him the importance of hard work and the benefits of focusing on his studies. “My high school basketball coach had a huge impact on my life,” Chris says. “He was really dedicated and provided structure. Eventually, I decided I wanted to help kids the way he helped me.”

Chris played basketball throughout high school and into college, both at Fullerton College and then at Cal State Fullerton. He continued playing well into his 40s, on a recreational league and also with his son. “Now,” he laughs, “I don’t want to get hurt.” But the practice taught Chris a lot about teamwork, hard work, practice, and dedication. 

“Show up to every practice as though you’re playing in a game,” he says. “If you’re really specific and intentional about your practice and bring the same intensity you’d bring to the game, you’ll perform.” The same is true for everything else, he’s learned. “If students do their homework as though they’re taking the final test, they won’t need to step up or try harder on exam days. They’ll be prepared. The test is the game.” 

Chris combines that mixture of focus and dedication with a calm and empathetic personality. “I don’t get too riled up,” he says. “I rarely ever yell. I try to look at both sides of whatever the issue is – from a parent’s, teacher’s or child’s perspective – and figure out the best course of action for the kid.” And students clearly appreciate that quiet foundation. When Chris steps out onto the playground, children flock around him. Whatever the barriers one often expects between adults and children, principals and students, they don’t seem to exist with Chris.

El Morro fist pump

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El Morro students naturally gravitate toward Chris Duddy’s accessible and empathetic style

Some of his philosophies may come from another basketball idol – Coach John Wooden. Chris’s office library is peppered with Wooden’s books. He pulls a copy of Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success from his shelf. “I love John Wooden,” he says. Wooden’s motivational quotes are so inspiring, they became known as “Woodenisms” and have become guiding principles for educators and coaches alike. “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” asks Wooden. A few more notable ones – “Make each day your masterpiece,” “The best competition I have is against myself to become better,” and “Young people need models, not critics.” 

Chris puts these aphorisms into action on El Morro’s campus, inspiring students to be kind over competitive, and bring their A-game every day. Mistakes, he says, are opportunities for growth. They’re not to be feared or avoided.

Perspectives about education across time

Much of this gentle guidance may also stem from mere longevity in the field, and the quiet confidence that grows with perspective. Chris has been in education since the 1980s, beginning as an English teacher at Brea Olinda High, where he himself had attended school. After five years of teaching, Chris worked as a guidance specialist in Brea Junior High. He came to the Laguna Beach Unified School District in 1998 as an Assistant Principal at Thurston, quickly advancing to his position as Principal in 2001, and has served as El Morro’s Principal since 2004.

“Each position has given me a new perspective on the bigger picture,” says Chris. “Having children of my own drastically shifted my perspective again. I realized anew the importance of school and education, of entrusting the school with my most loved asset. It’s a different perspective, growing from being a teacher to an administrator, and that other perspective as a parent.”

Though his two children are now grown, Chris still carries that visceral parental feeling with him every day and respects the responsibility with which he’s been entrusted. 

Teaching through turmoil

Chris also arrived at each new position in a time of external turmoil. Laguna was still recovering from the devastating 1993 fire and subsequent floods when Chris came to Thurston. Part of the school itself had burned. The loss of so many homes also impacted the school’s budget, which didn’t have as much property tax revenue to draw from and impacted the bottom line. 

“It was a hard time for Laguna Beach,” Chris says. “But after so much hard work, after the community pulled together and rebuilt, look at the schools now. We rebuilt bigger, better, and stronger than we were before.” 

El Morro door

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El Morro’s campus, like other Laguna Beach Schools, is warm and welcoming

And he will never forget where he was on September 11th, having just begun his role as Thurston’s new principal the prior week. “It was a strange feeling,” he recalls. “We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but we had a lot of follow-up discussions with kids in their classrooms. We made them understand they were safe, that we would carry on with our lives, and that we had to move forward together.” 

Once Thurston’s remodel was complete in 2004 – with a new gym and black box theater – Chris didn’t remain to enjoy the fruits of all that labor. He accepted a position at El Morro, where he has remained ever since.

Enjoying the journey

But even without catastrophic outside events, a lot has changed since 2004, both in education and the world in general. Chris recalls teaching in a time without cell phones. “Students talked to their teachers a lot more,” he says. “We had to have conversations because kids couldn’t simply look things up on their phones or text each other assignments.” This has led, he believes, to a need for instant gratification. “I try telling students the journey is the cool part. Not the destination. What did you learn? How did you build up to something more long-term and satisfying? That’s the key to life. Enjoy the journey.”

To that end, the school has started the Wait-Until-8 campaign for cell phones (“eight” means 8th grade, not 8 years old). “Kids don’t need cell phones in elementary school,” he says. “Be a kid. Not having a cell phone allows kids to enjoy that time.” 

El Morro closeup

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Principal Chris Duddy in his second home at El Morro Elementary

His other advice for enjoying the journey: reading. “I recommend for parents of elementary kids – find a book they like, any book, and read to their kids. This is especially important in the primary grades. Books about going to school, or the playground bully, they like reading about things relevant to their lives. It’s important to find the kids’ interests and what they want to learn about.”

Understanding the need for downtime

Chris himself enjoys the journey by unplugging on Saturday mornings and hitting the surf. “There’s no better feeling than paddling off and leaving your troubles on land,” he says. “The water cleanses you. If you catch a great wave, all the better, but just being out there is a release from everyday pressures. No one can call or email you. There’s no cell phones in the ocean.” The ritual centers and calms him at the beginning of the weekend so he can enjoy his days off.

Chris acknowledges the importance of that time off, with the increase in anxiety and stress among students and adults alike. El Morro has woven social-emotional learning into their curriculum to teach students how to handle stress. “School has changed a lot in that regard,” he says. “There used to not be much instruction on the social-emotional part. Now it’s embedded into the curriculum.” He’s become a good role model for students and faculty on the importance of unplugging and self-care.

Family man

If it’s true for children that success begins at home, that may also account for Chris’s calm and steady nature at work. His parents, ages 84 and 82, celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, and live in nearby Laguna Woods. Chris and his wife, Teri, celebrated 30 years of marriage this August. And they’re both very close with their two adult children, Taylor and Paige, who also live in Orange County. The family enjoys summer fishing trips and close connections. “It doesn’t hurt that Dad pays for the trips,” Chris laughs. “But we’re a tight family unit.” 

A success salad

To keep all these ingredients for success in mind, Chris often references the “success salad.” “So many things go into creating a successful school,” he says. It starts with a supportive and actively involved community who willingly provide resources – time, talent, and financial support. It requires dedicated and enthusiastic teachers. It benefits from an eager and curious student body. And it’s all guided by strong and steady leadership.

The El Morro administration puts this metaphor into practice by frequently collaborating and building the “friendship salad” together. “I bring the lettuce. Someone brings chicken or avocados or whatever. We toss it all in a bowl and no matter what people have brought, it tastes really good.” 

Metaphors aside, Chris’s leadership style has a proven track record. The proof is in not only the students’ success and their kindness towards one another, but in the endless stream of smiles across campus. It’s a place where you can’t help but feel welcome and happy and safe.


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Judie Mancuso gets the word out for creatures who have no choice, no voice, no vote

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Getting the word out for animals” is Laguna resident Judie Mancuso’s passionate mission, and she accomplishes it in a groundbreaking way – by fighting to create legislation that protects and saves the lives of animals. She has long been recognized as a leading advocate in California’s battle for animal protection laws. 

In the 12 years since founder, CEO, and president Mancuso started Social Compassion in Legislation (SCIL), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, 16 bills (including the one that was just passed last week) have been put into law in California that have significantly changed the lives of animals long term. Her organization sponsors and supports landmark legislation that promotes the care, rights, and protection of animals. 

Mancuso has been featured multiple times in the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, and has been interviewed on CNN, HLN, Fox News, BBC, NPR, NY Times, NY Post, SF Gate, Sacramento Bee, and many other periodicals, radio shows, online news publications, and all local major network stations. 

Just this past Sunday, Mancuso was on a news conference with NBC’s Conan Nolan to discuss the passing of Wildlife Protection Act of 2019 into law: “People are coming of age on these issues, and the public opinion is shifting.” 

To view the interview, click here.

Mancuso and her organization have had much to do with this change.

Results driven campaigns

One of SCIL’s most well-known successes was the passing of Bill AB 485, in October of 2018, which made California the first state to ban the sale of puppy mill dogs in pet stores. The bill, which also covers cats and rabbits, requires that pet stores only sell shelter/rescue animals.

Mancuso was instrumental in passing the Dining With Dogs law that makes it legal for restaurants in California and New York to offer areas for people to dine with their companion canines. More states are expected to follow suit.

Additionally, she founded the Pet Lover’s License Plate, a California specialty license plate available through the Department of Motor Vehicles, which was created to raise awareness regarding pet overpopulation and fund free and low-cost spay and neuter programs throughout the state. To date the plate has brought in more than 1.6 million dollars for free spay and neuter surgeries. 

Judie Mancuso and dog

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Judie Mancuso with Dinky Pooh

This is a particularly significant week for SCIL. On September 5, the AB 273 (Gonzalez) Wildlife Protection Act of 2019 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. It prohibits commercial or recreational trapping on both public and private lands, making California the first state to outlaw a centuries-old practice of commercial trapping of native species, including gray foxes, coyotes, badgers, beavers, and mink, whose pelts are often sold in foreign fur markets.

Mancuso says, “The signing of this bill into law is the result of compelling data and a change of heart in public opinion regarding animal cruelty.”

Deadline to sign or veto bills

Governor Newsom has until October 13 to sign or veto all bills that come to his desk. Right now, Mancuso has two others awaiting signature and three more one step away – SB 202 Blood Banks (would allow for animals that live with their owners to give blood at commercial blood banks), SB64 Pet Microchipping (currently on the Governor’s desk, passed full Assembly vote 76-0 on September 2), AB 733 Aquatic Toxicity (hazardous waste must be disposed of properly), SB 313 Animals: prohibition on use in circuses (ban on statewide traveling wild-animal exhibitions, passed State Senate), and AB 1260 Endangered Species (also currently on the Governor’s desk). This bill would ban the importation and sale of skin and other body parts from lizards, hippopotamuses, and caimans. 

Mancuso says, “If Governor Newsom signs them all, it will be the first time in history that this number of animal protection bills have been passed and signed into law at the same time.”

Advocating for animals even before SCIL 

Even before founding SCIL, Mancuso had long been an advocate for animal rights.

Although she was born in St. Louis, Mo., and came to Calif. when she was nine months old, the family only stayed a short time and moved back to St. Louis because her mother was homesick. Not surprisingly, Mancuso loved animals as a child and wanted to be a veterinarian. Eventually, 25 years later, she came back out west – to Los Angeles. 

She was appointed as a public member to the California Veterinary Medical Board in July of 2010, where she served the maximum of eight years, two four-year terms. Following a successful 20-year career in the information technology industry, she began using her skills and expertise for advocacy, legislation, humane education, and other pro-animal program development. 

Judie Mancuso three dogs

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With Twiggy, Petula, and Dinky Pooh at Alta Laguna Park. Mancuso also has five cats at home.

In 1995, Mancuso moved to Laguna, selecting this location, “Because of the beauty and its proximity to everything, and the open space and wildlife.” 

How SCIL was born

During her time in L.A., Mancuso says, “I was protesting and saving animal lives one at a time while doing rescue work in Los Angeles. I realized we needed something that would really make change and affect animals on a larger scale, and what we were doing wasn’t moving the needle large scale. So I decided to go big with something sweeping like legislation. My background in information technology gave me the foundation to create solutions and find a path to success. We are results driven.”

When she says “we,” she’s including her 10-person board which consists of: Simone Reyes, VP Communications, Leah Sturgis, VP Wildlife, Nickolaus Sackett, Director of Legislative Affairs, Margaret Perenchio, celebrity superstars Diane Keaton and Maggie Q, Haze Lynn, Katie Cleary, and Dr. Karen Halligan. 

A SCIL event Mancuso hosted in July to welcome Keaton and Maggie Q to the board raised $164,000.

Sponsoring legislation is expensive

Since she founded SCIL, Mancuso says, “many people and groups are coming to me saying, ‘We’d like to do a bill on this or that...but I have to say, ‘not without funding.’ Sponsoring legislation is an expensive task.” 

Mancuso currently has six contract lobbyists working for her nonprofit, both state and federal. Her organization also partners with some big groups to utilize their expertise and hundreds of thousands of supporters around the state. They include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). 

She says, “We only have so much expertise – they have doctors, scientists, an army of attorneys and other experts. My group is teeny tiny compared to them, but we have the political strength and know how to get things done.” 

A long path to the governor’s desk

Evidently, it’s not an easy process to get a bill on the governor’s desk for signature. It’s an arduous course of action. Mancuso explains that it requires the navigation of necessary governmental paths, which involves lobbyists, public relations, the Assembly, and the Senate. 

The ideas for bills come from a variety of sources – board members, donors, supporters, elected officials, and Mancuso herself. The SCIL board then votes on the bills to determine which they’ll sponsor. Based on what they decide, other groups and individual supporters provide funding. 

Judie Mancuso kissing

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Dinky Pooh

Mancuso says, “We pitch the bill to an assemblymember/senator and ask if they want to carry it for us. Sometimes a member of their staff is excited about the bill and that helps the process.”

However, she’s immersed on a local level as well. 

Last year, Mancuso ran for a seat on the Laguna Beach City Council.

Recently, she was appointed to the Laguna Beach Environmental Sustainability Committee for a two-year term. Mancuso says, “We are considering a couple of important issues – banning of plastics and pesticides.” 

Advocating for animals here in the wilderness, she fought the City Council’s decision to allow the trapping and killing of coyotes in the city. Her outcry and grassroots support led to the reversal of the decision.

California is an influencer

​ Mancuso made headlines as the organizing force behind the fight to spare the life of local mountain lion P-45 after the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued of a 10-day permit allowing ranchers in Malibu to shoot and kill him after four alpacas were found dead on a farm. The permit was ultimately revoked, and the permit holder instead decided to work with Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, and the Mountain Lion Foundation on better ways to humanely protect their animals from mountain lions. Mancuso was instrumental in that outcome.

Based on her actions, this was a significant step in helping animal welfare organizations in their desire to ultimately pass new legislation to make it tougher to obtain kill permits.

​“California is a significant influencer on the nation,” Mancuso says, “It is the fifth largest economy in the world, as we go, so goes the nation.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mancuso – and her organization SCIL – is a significant influencer in the welfare of many creatures. She has given them a voice and a vote, and all animal lovers applaud her.

For more information on SCIL, go to www.socialcompassioninlegislation.org.


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Vladimir Kush: In a world of pure imagination

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut 

At first, the paintings of artist Vladimir Kush beckon the viewer in, then a glance turns into a second look, and soon, mesmerized, the observer is seduced, unable to look away. Kush says that patrons often admit, “I’ve seen this in a dream, but it’s nebulous, just out of reach.”

“Collectors become addicted to that, the extraordinary angle of looking at things,” says Kush Fine Arts Gallery Manager Brian Stewart. “He has 45,000 collectors worldwide.”

Masterfully and mysteriously, Kush bridges the gap between imagination and reality in all of his creations – paintings, watercolors, sculptures, books, and jewelry. Kush Fine Art in downtown Laguna features only his work, so everywhere the eye falls is another magnificent example of what he says is his goal – to reflect the world in the mirror of metaphor. 

Metaphorical Realism 

In representing the universality of nature, Kush often uses moons, suns, clouds, flowers, animals, insects, and water, however, not in the tradition and expected way. In his works, a surfer rides the waves of a tree trunk, an elephant has a trumpet for a trunk, and humans climb a golden spiderweb overseen by a giant spider.

The connection between artist and viewer is on a microscopic level, invisible to the eye in the conventional sense – images aren’t static but have a jiggly dreamlike quality as if in a cosmic dance – out of focus, yet almost known.

Vladimir Kush outside

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Vladimir Kush in front of his gallery

Kush is the epitome of the American Dream. Born in Moscow, Russia during a time when imagination was suppressed, he flourished in Laguna, where creativity is revered, and opened his first gallery in 2005. Kush now owns two additional galleries – in Maui and Las Vegas (in Caesar’s Palace). 

On August 22, he returned to Kush Fine Arts downtown for a few days to unveil the 7th Human Compilation, in a series. Over that weekend, 240 people attended the unveiling and presentation event. Additionally, in an unprecedented occurrence, the transaction of the sale of one of his paintings was finalized in public. Human Way, an original oil on canvas, was sold to the Founder of Blockchain, Andrew Keys.

As Diana Pinck says in her article “Metaphorical Realism, The Art of Vladimir Kush” in Artist PROOF Magazine, “Kush’s paintings use metaphor to describe the joy of the world, the interconnectedness and dichotomy of all the powerful and driving forces of nature and the universe.” She adds that he was the first artist to use metaphor as his method. 

For Kush, the idea of metaphor as mirror of the world began a long time ago in Moscow. Although Kush’s father Oleg had artistic inclinations, he studied mathematics and physics and taught his son that the “visual metaphor” or idea should be transparent as a formula or equation. 

Kush says, “A ‘good metaphor’ is essentially a formula because it connects seemingly distant notions.” 

Vladimir Kush painting

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“Infinity Trail” painting and “Rose Awaiting” sculpture

Creativity blossoms at a young age

“At the time of my childhood, Russia was still behind an Iron Curtain, and the only way to see exotic and unusual places was by traveling in my own imagination.”

He was already sketching at the age of three and began attending art school at seven. “I was very lucky that my first art teacher did not suppress imagination and allowed certain freedom in the student’s creative flow.” At 12, he went to see an exhibit of 20 avant-garde artists, and his father encouraged him to start experimenting with surrealistic ideas. 

However, he is not a surrealist artist, but a metaphorical realist, and he explains the difference, “The possibility of truthful depiction of the material world combines with my own vision of cultural world tradition and mythology.”

After 10 years at the art school, Kush entered the Moscow School of Art and Design, but within a year, he was conscripted into the Russian Army and served a two-year term. For the most part during that time, he was assigned to produce large paintings for various purposes. 

Kush readily admits that attending art school in Moscow was not without criticism, pressure, and rigorous training, which he believes is lacking in some art classes in the U.S. “There is no progress without it,” he says. 

He also believes art has been replaced by a more digitalized industry, and as a result, the quality is changing. “It’s a skill and few want to take the time.”

Vladimir Kush outside

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Kush with “Route 66” sculpture

How his career began in Laguna

In the early 1990s, the Iron Curtain dropped, and Kush was able to emigrate. In 1991, he came to Los Angeles and soon after visited Laguna where he decided to stay. “I had a sublime connection to the town. I couldn’t let it go, I had to conquer it. I remember walking around taking photos and thinking it would be such a dream to exhibit here.” 

And he did – as an exhibitor at the Festival of Arts. In 2005, the first Kush Fine Arts Gallery opened on Coast Highway next to C’est La Vie restaurant, then it moved to 265 Forest in August of 2009, and in 2015, relocated to the current space at 210 Forest Ave. 

Prolific artist

“The American Dream is not an overnight success or a fairytale, it’s not achieved without effort,” Kush admits. “I don’t fit into any traditional category or belong to any art establishment or commercial art galleries. I have no public relations. I’ve had no outside investors. It’s been achieved by appeal. It’s all from the love of art work.”

Currently, Kush spends most of his time in Maui with his wife Oxana and two daughters, Veronica, who is seven months old, and Victoria, who is three.

Vladimir Kush books

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Kush’s books 

Stewart says, “I would say he is the most prolific artist of our time without a doubt. I’ve been in this business for 13 years and have never encountered an artist with his ability to create as much as he does.”

Adding to his already vast repertoire, Kush began producing sculptures 20 years ago, and has been designing jewelry for the last 10 years. 

Multi-faceted is an understatement when it comes to describing the diversity of his accomplishments. He has since added another endeavor – books. 

Kush’s watercolor of the sheep covered in seashells prompted his father Oleg to write the award-winning children’s book Aries and the Sheep and an Apple iPhone application in which kids can color the illustrations (more apps are in the works). Recently, Kush published Metaphorical Journey, a poetic catalogue of his major paintings and drawings through 2002. He also produces magazines and animated pieces.

7th Human Compilation

Kush explains how the Human Compilation series began. “It was a period beginning in 2000. I was trying to define the notion that all people have in common love, time, and sensation of space, and it was important to compare these things other than in metaphor. Basically, the Human Compilation series serves as a timeline that I considered a script – dividing time by each episode and by doing so – to communicate to all people the legacy of human spirit.”

Vladimir Kush jewelry

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Jewelry designed by Kush 

Now when he releases the sketches, even before the series piece is finished, collectors will quickly buy them up to add to their other series acquisitions. 

“I’m a classic painter,” Kush says when asked about his process. “I start with black and white drawings, or watercolors, and do multiple drawings with pencil and/or ink. It takes skill, there are no tricks. The concept is transparent, and I work to cleanse it. As written by William Blake, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.’ It’s intellectual. Sometimes the conception is unknown to the artist himself.”

Nature is a temple

Kush quotes Charles Baudelaire: “Nature is a temple in which living columns sometimes emit confused works.”

It seems a fitting reference, since Kush’s imaginative works decode that confusion, making the invisible visible in a mystical way that bridges the gap connecting us all. Then he entices the observer to discover that relationship: “You only have to start noticing, and that miracle of connection is everywhere.” 

In his works of art, there is no choice but to notice.

For more information about Vladimir Kush, go to www.vladimirkush.com.

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