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Sande St. John: A legacy of loving Laguna

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Woman of the Year, among other things

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

The incomparable Sande St. John, volunteer extraordinaire

The tradition of the Firefighters’ Labor Day Pancake Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

A fun family event on September 20th

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

The American Legion Hall, home to No Square Theater

Opening up the floodgates

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

At least it is for her.

The dynamic duo of “The Sandies”

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

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

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

No Square Theater

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

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

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

If only the Easter Bunny could speak!

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

Trying to pass the torch

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

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

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

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

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

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

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