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Diane Connell for love of family, America – and food

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Diane Connell works hard at everything she does, with meticulous attention to detail. She’s a numbers person, she’s a people person, and she’s a service person.

I met with Diane to talk about her involvement with the Auxiliary of the American Legion. What I found out is that she came to participate in this non-profit organization through her love of family, love for her country, and her dedication to service. 

The numbers part came about, as she is a financial analyst. The rest is just part of her giving nature.

Diane Soliz-Martese Connell

Diane’s first experience in the service industry was at her mom and dad’s restaurant in L.A., “El Taco”. Her mom was Mexican and her dad was Italian.

“You are who you are by your parents,” she says. “That’s how I look at it.”

“I started working when I was five years old,” she remembers, as I wondered what kind of work a five-year-old could do. Turns out, a lot. “My job was to clean the tables, then separate the twigs and rocks from the pinto beans,” she said. “I was with my sister, and we were at work.”

From business to business her father moved, each time starting something from scratch, growing it to prosperity, and then branching off in another direction. It was a good education for Diane, to go with the flow and help out where she could. Dad went to night school to learn TV repair; Diane read him the manuals and helped him pass the tests so he could become a verified TV repairman. 

“I would go carry the tube caddies when he would go to fix ‘tube’ TV’s. One day he needed a tube – so he took it from our own console,” she laughs. “He cannibalized our only television set! I opened it up and it was just gutted – nothing left!”

Dad opened a Western Auto store: a combination Sears, Ace Hardware, and bike shop kind of place. Diane was the go-to person for customer service.

“At that time, in California farmland, Mexican pickers were brought in, called ‘Nationals’. They came by the busload,” she said. “I learned to speak Spanish [not taught at home], and I learned all the parts names and prices.”

Yes, the days before scanners and barcodes were simpler, yet way more complex. It became apparent this was her forte, and she moved to Stockton to train in accounting.

Accounting is the direction in which her professional life has gone. Before retiring, Diane was a financial analyst for the Mission Viejo Company.

Along the way she met her husband Dave. He had served in World War II and the Korean War. Perhaps fortuitously, he was born in 1927; the same year the government of Laguna Beach was incorporated as a city, and also the founding of American Legion Post 222.

When they retired and came to live in Laguna, they each had the heartfelt desire to give something back to the community.

Dave became active with the local American Legion, and continues to serve to this day, as the 2nd Vice Commander. Diane, meanwhile, considers herself more the quiet type and felt right at home at the library. She serves on the board of Friends of the Library, and as its treasurer. 

But, sure enough, Diane made the time to be of service to our military service as well. She arrived with her husband at a Legion Hall dinner social one night, and felt immediately connected. “I had no idea these types of organizations existed,” she said. “Once I did, I said, ‘I’ve got to get involved!’ I was so impressed with what they do.” 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Diane at the Memorial Day ceremony

She’s now the Auxiliary Treasurer and Historian.

American Legion Auxiliary

The almost one million national Auxiliary members work toward passage of bills affecting veterans. They also fundraise, allocate, and provide services for the military and their families, and generally promote patriotism. 

“We’re the wives, mothers, and children of veterans,” explains Diane. “That connection, and $25 dues allows you to qualify.” 

Diane would like to see the historical significance of the American Legion resonate with the next generation. She has started working with the Laguna Beach Girl Scouts on a project that emphasizes the Auxiliary’s sense of patriotism and respect for the flag. 

In addition to educating the scouts about symbolic gestures such as when one puts a hand over the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, who may salute during flag ceremonies (only military, or police in uniform), or the difference between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, she has introduced them to the star project, “Stars for our Troops”.

“I introduced the Girl Scouts to Stars for our Troops two years ago,” she said. “We take flags to be disposed in a respectful way. The girls cut the embroidered stars out and place them in small bags with words of remembrance.”

The girls hand the little star bags out to anyone in military uniform.

The cards placed inside with the cutout stars read: “I am a part of our American Flag. I have flown over a home in the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that YOU are not forgotten”

Diane believes in teaching the younger generation a little more respect for the military while gaining a little more knowledge.

One of the most important days of the year for the Legionnaires and their Auxiliary is Memorial Day. In the hearts and minds of veterans, active military, their families, and for those who have lost loved ones in war, this marks a time for reflection and acknowledgement. For every single American it signifies respect and gratitude for the freedoms we have because of those who fought and gave their lives.

The Auxiliary facilitates “In Memory Of” observances during the Memorial Day ceremony at Heisler Park, including floral arrangements, and recognition of the 40-plus non-profit organizations that will bestow plants, wreaths, and flowers to honor the fallen. Diane helped about 15 individuals this year who wished to honor their loved ones personally as well. 

“They’ll call and say, ‘My father died ten years ago, and I’d like to honor him.’ We find out what branch of service, then that person comes and presents the flowers.”

Next up, Diane is really excited about the “Christmas Stockings Project”. It’s one of the outreach programs the Auxiliary does to support those in active duty service. She and her Auxiliary quilting partner, Beth Jensen, have taken on the project to sew and line by hand beautiful patchwork stockings, then fill with goodies to send to the troops overseas. A hundred of them!

For her determined achievement as historian at the Auxiliary, Diane has been awarded the district First Place. Her record keeping and reporting will be honored with a plaque, and she’ll find out at the national convention if she’s achieved national honors as well.

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Diane Connell has been awarded certificates of achievement from the City and State Government for her work with the American Legion Auxiliary  

Not Just a Pretty Face

When Diane Connell was growing up in Lake Tahoe, her dad had a well-known Mexican restaurant called El Zorro. She was the pretty young thing waiting on tables. One day the local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, came to her and offered to sponsor her for the Miss Lake Tahoe beauty pageant. She was a shy 16 year-old, but she thought,  “what-the-heck”. The tough part was not prancing around in a bathing suit, but when they asked her what her “talent” was. Hmm, she thought, “I can make a taco!”

She came in third place in the beauty pageant, and sang a song instead of making the taco. But, really, they should have paid attention to that taco part. This gal can cook.

To date, Diane has two published cookbooks. I can attest to how fantastic they are because she let me have a copy, and I’m a big fan of Mexican food. These are cookbooks that were ahead of their time, yet just as pertinent today.

 Diane Soliz-Martese Cookbooks

Published by a Chinese family renowned in the Asian culinary world, Diane’s recipes were to be the first bilingual cookbook for Asians explaining, along with step-by-step photos, how to prepare authentic Mexican dishes. The first one, published in 1992, is called Mexican Cooking Made Easy. The second book is One Dish Meals, and includes chefs of Italian, Thai, and Japanese cuisine along with Diane’s one-dish Mexican specialties.

How Diane learned to cook is a whole other story.

Cooking it up

Diane Soliz-Matese’s ancestry began when grandpa immigrated to Los Angeles with his son, from Italy. The idea was to find work, and then bring his wife and two daughters over.

“It was the time of bootlegging”, said Diane simply. “And he was gunned down.”

That left Diane’s father, then only 12 years old, alone with no family and no friends. He moved into the YMCA, and found work where he could. One day while delivering newspapers, a couple happened to notice him, and asked him, “Why aren’t you in school?” He told them the story of his family, and they changed his life with four words, “come live with us.” And their 12 other sons.

The big family that took him in were Mexican: the Soliz family. Diane’s father grew up just like one of their own, and learned a lot about Mexican family cooking along the way. He added Mexican to the Italian cooking he already knew, and after stints with the tortilleria El Taco, the TV repair place, the Western Auto shop, and even briefly enjoying a silent film career (phew!), one day he had the brilliant good fortune to open a restaurant in Lake Tahoe: El Zorro. It sat 70 people and had a counter fountain.

“My father would never let me see his recipes!” Diane remembers. “I graduated to ‘help cook’, but he would not share recipes. I watched my dad from the kitchen counter as I did homework. I held up the textbook and would sneak writing down the amounts.”

When Diane met the Chinese culinary publishers, they were enamored of her backstory. They were the ones who prompted her to recreate those family recipes and get them cookbook-ready. With the time-tested recipes in her taste memory, and with help from her sister to recreate them, Diane perfected the recipes her dad never shared.

So, Now…

So nowadays, Diane Soliz-Martese Connell still loves to cook. She enjoys sharing that, and her love of crafts with her grandkids, as well as sewing for the troops overseas. Both the American Legion Auxiliary and the Friends of the Library occasionally get to taste some of her dishes. 

Everyone wins when Diane is on board.