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The Story Maker: Samantha Washer brings Laguna’s legends to life

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Readers familiar with Stu News writer Samantha Washer know she’s got that rare gift for drawing her subjects out by putting them at ease, and an unquenchable curiosity for stories. She profiles our town’s great philanthropists, community leaders, politicians, and business owners. She’s the woman who tells the story behind the story, bringing our local treasures – some of them hidden and some well known – into the spotlight.

Today we get a rare glimpse behind the byline. And we’re lucky to have it, as Samantha describes herself as a “textbook introvert” and visibly flinches at the idea of having that spotlight shine on her. “There’s an excessive cringe factor in all of this,” she says more than once.

The Story at home

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Samantha Washer in her Emerald Bay home

But the story maker has a unique story all her own, one that stretches across four generations in coastal Orange County. Samantha’s many years working with Laguna’s SchoolPower paved the way for countless Laguna youth. And her distinctive style on the page led her to our Stu News family, and the well-deserved place she’s captured in our readers’ hearts.

Maybe storytelling is written in her genes?

Samantha’s Orange County roots reach back to the early 1900s, when her maternal grandfather’s family first came to Newport Beach. Born in 1911, her grandfather, Judge Robert Gardner, moved briefly as a baby to Newport Beach, and permanently returned in 1921. 

Judge Gardner brought a lot of wit and whimsy to the bench. He was described in 2005 by the Los Angeles Times as the “colorful, bodysurfing judge who became as known for his witty writing as for the no-nonsense justice he dispensed for more than half a century on court benches from Newport Beach to American Samoa.”

So famous were his sharp remarks that the University of Santa Clara Law Review would publish them under the dedicated title, “The Gallery of Gardner.” Here’s one from a 1973 opinion: “A juror is not some kind of dithering nincompoop, brought in from never-never land and exposed to the harsh realities of life for the first time in a jury box.” He’s got a million of these. 

But what Judge Gardner may have loved more than the law was body surfing, board surfing, and skin diving. He was known to keep a board in the seldom-used ladies’ section of the city jail, sneaking out to ride waves between cases. He once returned from an afternoon excursion, wearing only a bathing suit beneath his robe. Unbeknownst to him, the bench didn’t hide his bare legs, which sent a woman screaming out of his courtroom, assuming he sat without trousers before her. 

Judge Gardner passed his love of the ocean down to his daughter, Nancy, Samantha’s mom. And though he tried his damnedest to pass it down to Samantha, who indulged him for years, she never quite shared his enthusiasm.

What Samantha did inherit, though, was her grandfather’s love of the written word and his passion for telling stories. Judge Gardner penned three books whose titles speak for themselves about his humor and passions: The Art of Body Surfing (1972); Bawdy Balboa (1993); and, posthumously, Naughty Newport (2015). They’re funny and irreverent, full of dry humor and local lore. “Others have written scholarly, comprehensive, accurate, precise and definitive histories of the City of Newport Beach. That which follows will be neither comprehensive, precise, definitive, scholarly nor necessarily accurate. Rather, it will be an effort to portray the flavor of the town, ‘warts, wrinkles and all,’” he wrote in Naughty Newport’s introduction.

While Samantha’s writings may not be quite as bawdy nor nearly as naughty as her grandfather’s, she adopted his desire to do our town and its people justice, sharing their stories and authentic voices – with maybe fewer warts and wrinkles. 

A rich history in Orange County

Samantha’s parents, and both sets of grandparents, lived in Orange County. Both grandfathers were judges, living in the same Corona del Mar community of Shore Cliffs, which allowed her to walk between them on Christmas mornings. 

Samantha recalls the story of Grandma Gardner threatening divorce if her husband brought any more abalone home from the beach. “Apparently it was a big mess,” she says. “My grandmother had to pound it out. She got sick of it. Can you imagine?” Those were the days before abalone soared to $125 a pound. 

“The years my mom and dad grew up here, the 1940s and 50s, were the golden years. My mom had her horses down on Crystal Cove. There was no Irvine. You’d ride your horse wherever you wanted.” 

Samantha’s mother, Nancy Gardner, is the former mayor of Newport Beach and sat on their city council for many years. Following in her father’s passionate footsteps, she started the Newport Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and actively advocates for the ocean, beaches, and general water quality. She’s currently a columnist for Stu News Newport.

Samantha’s Orange County roots give her an appreciation for the history of our community. Although, she laughs, Laguna and Newport sometimes seem worlds apart. It took some time for her to make the mental shift from Corona del Mar and Newport to Laguna. But having three children and deep ties to Laguna’s schools allowed her to fully assimilate. 

The self-sufficiency of the 1970s

Samantha is a product of her generation – independent and self-sufficient. The 1970s saw divorce rates rise and latchkey kids become the norm. Samantha was no exception. She was an only child. Her parents split when she was four years old. She and her mother returned from a stint in New York (where her father worked as a stockbroker), to Irvine where Samantha grew up. Her mother worked long hours outside the home, leaving Samantha to largely fend for herself. 

“When I was in kindergarten, I couldn’t tell time but I had to get myself off to school,” Samantha says. “My mom drew a clock, showing me where the hands should be when it was time to leave. I’d wait for my clock to match up to the drawing.” 

Armed with a bike and the many safe streets of Irvine’s planned community, Samantha had the run of the town. Irvine’s bike trails were safer than Newport’s beaches. Samantha played tennis and the local tennis club provided a great social space for her to meet up with friends.

Making a study of stories – USC film school

It was the Terry Gilliam film Brazil that changed everything. Samantha saw it and immediately knew. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make movies, write movies, or write about movies,” she says. “But I wanted to be around people who created things like that.” Although she spent her first two years at UCI, she transferred to USC Film School and double majored in Cinema-Television and English Literature and Creative Writing. “It was a dream,” she says.

Samantha’s family has a long history at USC – both parents, her grandfather, her ex-husband (Greg), and now one son (Zack). But she and her mom are not ones to give in to USC’s exuberance, both “textbook introverts.” 

“It’s very social. I love USC, but I had a different experience than the usual. Everyone’s a little surprised when I tell them I went because I’m not the typical USC alum.” 

But film and creative writing unlocked something in Samantha. “That’s the part of my brain that functions really well,” she says. After graduation, she went to work for a production company specializing in made-for-TV movies and telling real-life stories. But the business of buying the rights to people’s tragedies neither appealed to her nor aligned with her ethics, so Samantha returned to Orange County in 1993 to open a retail perfume, bath, and body store for a brief time. “We were ahead of the curve on creating all-natural perfumes,” she says.

Samantha’s big life surprise – twins!

Mothering, it might be said, is the greatest story maker of all. Creating life, nurturing it, and passing down our generational history while paving a person’s (or, in Samantha’s case, three people’s) future might be the strongest example of our ability to write new stories. “It’s been my favorite job of all,” Samantha says.

The Story Sam and Cleo

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Samantha and Cleo, 14, at home

Twenty-one weeks into her first pregnancy, Samantha learned she was having twins. With no twins in the family and wholly unprepared for the news, she had to quickly adjust to life’s new reality. “We only had one boy name and one girl name,” she says. “Judge” would be the boy, an homage to both her grandfathers who sat on the bench. Baby Boy B became Zack. Five years later, Samantha and Greg welcomed Cleo.

How has the experience changed her? “I’m more careful with how I go through the world as a mother. I feel the responsibility to model good behavior, because I want to show them what being a good person looks like,” Samantha says. “Things feel more consequential. I try to behave in a manner that won’t mortify them.” 

Clearly, her role modeling is working. Zack followed in his family’s footsteps and is a business major at USC. Judge is a water polo player for Santa Clara University, and also plans on majoring in business. Cleo, 14, followed older brother Judge into the pool and also plays water polo.

Empowered by SchoolPower

For her kids, Samantha willingly overcame her “textbook introvert” status and became actively involved in Laguna’s SchoolPower, even serving as President. Given the amount of public speaking the position required, and Samantha’s innate dislike of the spotlight, it was a lot to overcome. “SchoolPower got me involved in Laguna. It tied me to the city and made me feel like I’m part of the town,” she says.

For six years, she worked as the VP of Marketing. The year she was President, 2013, the annual phone-a-thon raised over $510,000 – exceeding all records in its 30-plus year history.

“All the years at SchoolPower served me well professionally. I learned things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” she says. 

Those lessons are about to pay dividends as she embarks on her new career as a copy editor and copywriter, a business she’s planning to start with a friend now that her children are nearly grown.

Getting to know Laguna’s many lives and fascinating people

For our readers, though, it’s Samantha’s empathy and gift of storytelling that pay the true dividends for our town. “Samantha’s stories add so much richness to Stu News’ pages and are a real service to our community. She helps bring us all closer together,” says Stu News owner and editor Shaena Stabler. 

“Samantha has a wonderful turn of phrase,” adds former editor Lynette Brasfield. “Her stories really sing.”

The Story home office

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Samantha applying her craft in her home office

She’s been profiling our town’s entrepreneurs, community service leaders, activists, politicians, artists, educators, and more for six years. While she remains fond of them all, a few still stand out. In 2015, she interviewed Christine Casey, the founder of Chhahari, a Nepalese orphanage that cares for roughly 25 children. Casey took a vow of poverty, funneling all her money and assets into the orphanage. The experience moved Samantha. “Christine was so inspiring,” she says. “She’s a woman who walks the walk. She’s not somebody who has millions, and doing this makes her feel good. She’s sacrificed and given up everything for this. I haven’t crossed over to be like her, but I think about her a lot.”

Even when Samantha had opportunities to interview the big names, like Rick Springfield, she says she still prefers profiling the quiet heroes who live in the shadows and largely go unnoticed. “You never know people’s stories until you ask,” she says.

I couldn’t agree more. Samantha is one of those quiet local heroes who happily live in the shadows. But the storyteller’s story needed to be told.