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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.” 

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Diane at the Memorial Day ceremony

She’s now the Auxiliary Treasurer and Historian.

American Legion Auxiliary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just a Pretty Face

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

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

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

 Diane Soliz-Martese Cookbooks

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

How Diane learned to cook is a whole other story.

Cooking it up

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Now…

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

Everyone wins when Diane is on board.



Mike Churchill: Creating a new playbook for LBHS

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: MARY HURLBUT

In his eight years as Laguna Beach High School Athletic Director, Mike Churchill has seen the school win 109 League Championships and 10 CIF Championships. 

“Even though our league isn’t very good,” he says, “it’s still hard to do.  It’s easy to mess up success.  And winning CIF is hard; it’s really a tough thing to do.  We’re riding a crest of success.”  

Churchill only has a few more weeks of “we” when he talks about the LBHS Breakers.  He is retiring at the end of this year. “I’m going to take a month off and do nothing.  I’m going to try not to wake up at five a.m.  I’m going to figure out what I want to do,” he says of his upcoming retirement.

LBHS Athletic Director, Mike Churchill, is retiring at the end of this school year

From Coach to LBHS Athletic Director

Churchill was a football coach for most of his career.  He was head coach at Riverside Poly High School from 1980-86 when his team won CIF and got to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  He remembers vividly the night his team arrived to play for the championship.  

“Most of those kids had never been out of Riverside.  When we pulled up on the bus and they saw the lights of the stadium…” He trails off.  It was clearly as meaningful an experience for him as coach as it was for his young players.  And yet, when he came to LBHS at the suggestion of the then newly hired principal, Don Austin, he was ready to do something else.  “I had interviewed for a job here (at LBHS), but hadn’t gotten it.  I was kind of disappointed. When Don came he called me and asked, ‘Are you still interested in the job?’  And I said, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘Get your paperwork in.’ And so then I got an interview.  This district does a lot of interviews,” says Churchill.  “That’s how I got hired.”

A dynamic duo

Churchill and LBHS Athletics Secretary, Tracy Paddock, were hired at the same time.  “Nobody really told us what our jobs were.  I didn’t have a job description.  So Tracy and I sat down together and decided that the only way we could get into trouble was if the busses weren’t there or a player was cheating or we were playing people who were ineligible. We divided it all up, but she likes to get involved in everything,” he says smiling.  “She’s great.”

The complex world of high school sports

As the man responsible for 70 coaches who are responsible for 650 student-athletes, Churchill handles much more than busses and eligibility.  When we talked about why LBHS was in the Orange Coast League, as opposed to a stronger league, the complexities of high school sports became very apparent.  

“Laguna doesn’t really have a place to go that fits.  We’re so small.  We used to fit in with the schools down in South County, but now that’s all built out, and we’re still the same.  The athletes are more diluted.  Only 170 kids are two sport players.  We’re in a league that isn’t very good, but it’s good for us,” says Churchill, adding “I believe when you learn how to win it’s easier to win. And the reverse is also true.” 

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Mike Churchill in his office at LBHS

LBHS shines in the Orange Coast League

Leagues are re-evaluated every four years.  LBHS is in its first year of the four-year cycle so, as Churchill explains it, “We’re stuck in this league for three more years.  Things will change after that.  A new Irvine school is coming in; they’ll probably be with us. Crean Lutheran (High School) needs a place to go.  Some of the Santa Ana schools might not be with us going forward.  Another thing is we’re hard geographically to get to.  Hard for other teams to get here; hard to hire coaches, too, for that reason.” 

No uniformity for LBHS in the CIF Southern Section

And divisions?  Most of the sports at LBHS are Division 4, but some are Division 5 and, of course, there’s the girls water polo that’s Division 1.  According to Churchill, the Divisions are set up with two considerations: how good is your league and how good are you in your league?  

“We are in the Southern Section.  Each sport is different.  Take tennis, they go back three years and see how your team did when deciding what Division you are.  Baseball is determined solely by the size of the school.  Football is based on geography, but that changes every two years.  Then you’ve got boys water polo where the other teams (in the League) petitioned to be put in a lower division so we got moved down through no fault of our own.”  Trying to keep up with this makes coaching football seem simple.  Churchill would passionately disagree.

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A show of Breaker pride

A reluctant, but successful, football coach at LBHS

“No one knows how much time it takes to be a coach,” says Churchill.  When he came to LBHS he thought he had left his coaching days behind.  But when Jonathan Todd resigned as head football coach, Don Austin knew just the guy to take his place. 

“I didn’t really want to do it.  I came down here to be the Athletic Director, but I really liked those kids.  Plus, we went to the gunfight with some bullets,” says Churchill smiling.  During his two seasons as LBHS head football coach (2011 and 2012), Laguna won League both years as well as made it to the CIF Southern Division semi-finals.  In 2012, the team won 11 games, the most in the school’s history.  Bullets, indeed. 

However, despite the team’s success, Churchill was ready to hang up his clipboard and just do the job he was originally hired to do.

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Proof of many years of athletic success at LBHS

Two sport athletes, recruiting and other musings

“I miss coaching during the season.  It’s the off season that wears coaches out,” says Churchill.  He feels the same can happen to the athletes. “I think it’s important for kids to do other things, but not all coaches feel that way.  I think it’s good for a lot of reasons.  Kids can get hurt doing the same thing over and over.  Plus, after awhile they tune you out. But if another coach tells them basically the same thing they might hear it because it’s being said differently,” he says.  

As for the high stakes proposition high school sports has become?  Churchill is emphatically opposed to high school recruiting, for example.  “It’s just wrong.  Kids should be playing in their neighborhood.  Now, it’s just wait a month and go (there is a 30 day wait for transfer students in order for them to become eligible).”  Then he tells me a statistic he got from the NCAA.  “If you’re a girl and you want an athletic scholarship, the best sport for you to play is golf. .4% (notice the decimal point) of high school girls who golf get a scholarship.  And that’s the highest!  If you’re a boy, your best bet is football then basketball.”  In other words, the chances of an athlete, boy or girl, receiving a full athletic scholarship to attend college are minuscule.

The importance of learning to compete

For Mike Churchill, high school sports aren’t about what might be; it’s about learning to compete now.  “Learning to compete is part of life.  I just loveto the see the kids compete; watch them grow up and get better every year.  I can’t believe I made a living teaching kids how to play a kids’ game.  I remember as a senior in college telling my friend, ‘If I could just get a head coaching job and make $10,000 a year, I’d be set for life,’” he says, grinning.  That goal stands (and then some), but now Mike Churchill gets to create a new playbook.  

Goodbye X’s, O’s and CIF requirements.  

Hello, bogey, par and, more than likely, a very early tee time.


Ashley Johnson spreading the word:

Laguna Beach is more than a great place to visit

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ashley Johnson is the go-to gal when you want to go to Laguna. Having started out in marketing nine and a half years ago with the Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau, she has been there for the re-imagining and name changing, and is now the Director of Brand Marketing and Communications for Visit Laguna Beach. And no one understands that Laguna Beach is a brand more than Ashley.

Ashley Johnson

“Visit Laguna Beach oversees the visitor’s center,” she says. “The name helps with Google searches, especially when people want to visit here for the first time.

“Tourism has changed, marketing has changed,” she continued. “We don’t use magazines so much for advertising. It’s now about 80 percent digital and social media.”

People search through Google and sites like Trip Advisor to find out what’s brewing in Laguna. Surprisingly, Ashley tells us that the MTV show, Laguna Beach, is still a major player in tourism here as well. 

“We have families coming in to find out about the show,” she said. “The parents say, ‘We have no idea, except our kids love this show!’”

The office receives about 3,000 first-time visitors per month. There they will find out everything they want to know about that darned TV show, as well as all the activities and events and goings-on about town, seven days a week. 

“There’s so much to do here,” Ashley says. “Our concierges train in telling everything we have in town. And we try to get them to stay at least a night in a hotel.” 

Travel trends and the show circuit

She recently returned from a trade show in Orlando; IPW, the US Travel Association’s forum for travel industry pro’s. There were more than 6,500 people in attendance from all walks of the travel business. The news that Ashley sent out to the tour operators, travel agents, and travel journalists is that Laguna Beach is not just about the beach: we live in a year-round worthy destination. 

“Especially Germans,” she said. “They really like the outdoor components of travel, and they were surprised to learn that Laguna is surrounded by 20,000 acres of wilderness.” 

China is seen as a hugely emerging market because their travel visas have gotten easier to procure. Ashley tells us that their travel trends are changing. 

“In the next few years we will be welcoming 200 million Chinese travelers to California,” she said. 

Whereas once the Chinese would book for group travel, the latest trend is toward independent travel. There’s even an industry term for it, “FIT”, short for Foreign Independent Traveler. 

“We used to see 80 percent group travel in the past, now Chinese operators are booking 60 percent FITs.”

That’s a good thing too, because group travelers tend to not spend very much where they go. Individuals are more likely to branch out to restaurants, concerts, and other cultural events that keep the Laguna economy happy.

Then there is the luxury crowd. At the conference, Ashley met with several Saudi Arabian tour operators particularly interested in luxury travel to Laguna Beach. 

“When they come, they bring extended family and hired help too. They typically spend time at South Coast Plaza, and Fletcher Jones,” she said. “I was promoting places like Montage Laguna Beach, and events such as The Pageant of the Masters, and Laguna Dance Festival. I got very positive responses.” 

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Many tour operators and travel journalists were looking for family destinations, which, in California, is mostly Disney territory. It was Ashley’s joy to tune them in to Laguna’s family-friendly features, such as the Sawdust Studio Art Classes: one-day, in-studio classes, offering instruction in photography, jewelry, oil painting, and other arts.

Let’s Visit Laguna Beach

Visit Laguna Beach has some new interactive and hands-on features that have helped put Laguna on the digital map. One is the app, Laguna Beach Travel Info, a new and improved version – coming out this summer. It’s the official and handy place to tap into all things Laguna (available on iTunes, and Google Play), with extra new features.

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“It’s got a lot more functionality,” Ashley says. “There’s a loyalty program for repeat visitors, and special discounts.” For example, the GPS would be able to connect you with a free drink offer as you walk by Las Brisas, or special deals at shops and galleries you pass.

Another big deal at Visit Laguna Beach Visitors Center, downtown on Forest Ave, is an interactive kiosk. Here, people will be able to not only print out maps and brochures, but also to plan itineraries, make restaurant reservations, and buy tickets to events like Laguna Playhouse or the Pageant of the Masters.

Matters of the heart

To get what it is that excites people about travel, you have to have been bitten by that same bug. Ashley has travelled all over the US promoting Laguna Beach, and she loves it, because she loves to travel too.

Raised not very far away, in Irvine, Ashley went to the University of Arizona for education and became a nut for sports too – especially football and basketball. She will travel just about anywhere the Arizona Wildcats are playing. 

Her work promoting Laguna gets her travelling about quite a bit. So far, her favorite visit was to Nashville. “I loved it,” she says. “The culture, the talent, the music. It’s a great place!” Next up is an international dream to visit Spain. “I want to go!”

Meanwhile, back at the home ranch, Ashley is shaping up wedding plans. She will marry her fiancée, Clint, in October. They may likely serve up some of their home brewed beers. 

Yes, she’s a brewer too. That would be due to Clint’s interest professionally (he’s a beer distributor), and personally (he’s brewing all types at home). “I’m a self-proclaimed wine snob, but I’m coming around to beer,” she says. “I do love the IPA!”

Weekends, when she’s not brewing up some IPA, or off to yoga class, Ashley can be found at flea markets and antiques shows. She’s got a well-rounded repertoire of activities that keep her busy. 

But when it’s time to learn more about what’s going on in Laguna, it’s time to visit Ashley Johnson downtown.


Tyler Russell: Ambitiously changing radio back 

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Tyler Russell, the 26 year old founder and program director of Laguna’s own (and only) radio station, KX 93.5, created his own major at Chapman University: Multi-media Journalism.  “I seriously hope someone else has used it.  I put a lot of work into making it,” he says emphatically.

And that tells you quite a bit about this young man who is passionate about an old technology.  The fact that his college major is still relevant speaks to his youth; the fact that he needed to create something to suit his own needs speaks to his ambition.

The tennis playing radio host

Russell determined radio was his future while still in high school in Tucson, AZ.  Upon graduating he went to Chapman University in Orange because it was a small school with a radio station and a tennis team.

“I loved it.  It’s not the most diverse place, but it’s close enough to LA that the opportunities are there.  I started working at the radio station on day one,” he says. That work led to internships at other stations and widened his knowledge of the inner workings of different stations.  “I thought I wanted to be on air talent,” he explains. “I was an actor when I was young.  I flew from Tucson to LA once a week for auditions.  I got a commercial when I was 10.”

But while there are a lot of aspiring actors, Russell didn’t meet a lot of aspiring radio hosts.  “They’re all old,” he says matter-of-factly.

Tyler Russell, KX 93.5 Program Director in the studio

“…too smart to be on the air.”

As he learned the business as an intern, there was a common theme that everyone he spoke with echoed.  “They were complaining that ‘radio isn’t the same’.  They were really disgruntled.  One of my mentors, Johnny K, the program director at KRTH 101, told me ‘Kid, you’re too smart just to be on the air.’ This motivated me.  You know, be the change you want to see.  My motivation went from being talent to helping an industry that’s suffering.  I hope we’re a trend in the industry.”

The FCC and Clear Channel upend an industry

When asked why he and others feel radio is “suffering” he doesn’t hesitate. “Clear Channel,” he says simply.  “In the early 1990’s the FCC made a change.  It used to be that someone could only own a few stations.  Radio used to be a mom and pop type deal.  Now, because of the Clear Channel ruling, an entity can own as many stations as they want.  Clear Channel went out and bought them all. So the stations all play the same stuff, have the same people on the air…it’s very cookie-cutter.”  

Now, according to Russell, Clear Channel is called “I Heart Media.”  

“They’ve been losing money so they’re starting to come around now,” he continues.  “About 15 years ago the FCC created the Low Power FM radio service.  This is helping to return local to radio.”  

This is also how Tyler Russell came to Laguna Beach.

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Tyler Russell working his magic in the KX 93.5 studio

A search for a station pays off

He was working as the music director for Crush 1039 in Palm Springs —a prize job for a recent college graduate —but he was becoming disenchanted with the commercial-ness of it all.  In a conversation with his father, he vented his frustration.  His father’s response?  Open your own radio station.  Just 23 years old at the time, Russell decided he would.  So he set about looking for low power FM radio stations he might be able to purchase.

“I Googled and found that The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Laguna Niguel had had an antenna for 15 years that they’d never used.  So I asked them, ‘Would you be interested in selling it?’  They were.  I got my engineers out there and we got them on the air so they could keep their license.  They were three months shy of losing it due to inactivity.  The FCC makes it easy to buy this stuff because you can only be charged what the original owners paid for (the equipment).  But you’re only allowed to move the antennae 5.6 kilometers away from the original spot.  Our current location (1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200) is exactly 5.6 kilometers away.”  And that is how KX93.5 was born.

KX 93.5 is as Laguna local as it can get at 1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200

Building blocks and smart parents

When I asked Russell if he was at all daunted by opening his own station with only two and a half years paid work experience, he shook his head. “I knew all the basics. I’d seen enough of promotions and sales so I knew the building blocks.  I had been a music director so I knew that part of it.  The rest…I have smart parents,” he says. Their advice on certain things was very helpful in the beginning.  Now, it seems, he has it all pretty well figured out.

Laguna’s geography ripe for local radio

“Laguna is a blessing and a curse,” he tells me.  “People have to remember that geographically (as far as radio transmission is concerned) it’s a nightmare. ” The same problems that make it tough for any of us to tune into the larger, more powerful stations hinders KX 93.5.  “On cloudy days the reception is good; on sunny days it’s weaker. I have no idea why.  I just know it is,” he laments.  

But this isolation is a perfect set up for a truly local radio station.  “People in Laguna love Laguna,” says Russell.  And while Russell makes no secret of his interest in developing a career in television, Laguna is home.  “It feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  It feels cool to go places and have people say they liked your show.  I feel like I’ve built the station to the point that it will always be here.  If I were ever to go somewhere else, it (KX 93.5) would stay.  Saying that, I’m less concerned with being famous than helping radio’s future,” he says.

Looking for opportunities beyond radio

How to do that with a station that on sunny days can’t even saturate its own city?  Russell is shooting a pilot for a docu-series about the station. “We think what we do is really interesting.  Whether I have sold my soul to host some music competition,” he says laughing, “I want to promote the KX 93.5 brand and this beach town. I want to keep the integrity of this place.  We really do what we say.  My hope is that we’re true to Laguna Beach, but have gained some international recognition in the process.”

On a local level, Russell’s wish list is more practical. “Maybe we can move our antennae to a higher spot.  We can’t go higher than 33 meters above the average terrain, and it has to be close to where we are now.  Ideally, it would be on private land so we don’t have to go through the city, although we have a good relationship with them.  Maybe we could find a person willing to help us.  I was told that would really help us out a lot.”  

If no one comes forward, don’t count Russell out.  “The one thing I’ve done well is get through red tape,” he explains.  “Like with the Beach Boys concert.  Everyone said ‘You can’t use the (Irvine) Bowl’.  Why not?  That’s when it’s helpful not to be from here.  I just ask questions of people who haven’t been questioned.” 

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Local musician, Jason Feddy, talking about the value of DJ’s with Tyler Russell

“Human-crafted radio” is online, too

In the meantime, if it’s a sunny day and you can’t seem to get reception, listeners can find KX 93.5 online or download the app  (I just typed in KX935, no period).  Once you tune in you can experience “human-crafted radio,” as Russell describes it.  

“We want listeners to know we don’t use algorithms; instant requests are honored…it’s free form radio.”  The station is also putting on a concert series featuring local bands on the last Thursday of every month at the Marine Room called “Sounds of the Sea.”  “We’re focusing on bands that are not your typical local bands,” explains Russell. 

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From inside the studios at KX 93.5 looking out on Coast Highway

No surprise there.   Not much regarding Tyler Russell is typical.  “We don’t really have enough power to be a big influence,” says Russell.  He is talking about the station’s wattage, of course.  And while he may be limited in terms of his antenna’s range, he doesn’t let those limits smother his ambitions.  Whether he can make an impact in radio beyond the limits of Laguna Beach, time will tell.  

In the meantime, he’d really like you to give the station a call. 

“We love interaction. Call in from time to time so it’s not always the same five people,” he says with a smile.  

If you’re trying to ignite a revolution, it’s nice to know there are people out there listening.


From an artistic point of view: Kirsten Whalen

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Kirsten Whalen met a young man at Berkeley, she had no idea the life they would create together in Laguna Beach. But they did just that – in a big way. She, a native Californian and he, from small town, Massachusetts, figured Southern California was the place they ought to be, so they loaded up the truck and they moved to – no, not Beverly…

Since that fortuitous move, Kirsten and her husband, Bob, have made an indelible mark on the fabric of our lives. Bob Whalen is, of course, Hizzoner, the leader of our fair city, Mayor of Laguna Beach. Kirsten, meanwhile, represents the artistic side of Laguna’s persona. While happy to support Bob who is obviously motivated by governance and community organization, Kirsten Whalen is rather the alternative, quietly expressive side of the Laguna pair. She is an artist, art activist, and art educator. Her new show of watercolors will open at the Festival of Arts this week. 

Kirsten Whalen

She’d be the first one to say, “What, you’re interested in me?” Yes, usually the press comes a-callin’ about Matters Of The City; addressing civic issues, serving charities, attending functions and the like. But, no, we wanted a heart to heart chat about the ways in which Laguna has shaped the person Kirsten Whalen, and vice versa.

“I’m always more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes gal,” she says, spoken like the person creating the canvas. “I’m always assuming people are interested in the community side of my life.”

When the road leads to Laguna

Kirsten studied art and design, earning a Bachelor of Science in Design from UC Davis. She worked as a graphic designer, designing books and business communications tools. When it was time to move from the Bay area for Bob’s law practice, the pair drew a circle on a map around his office location. That’s how they chose Laguna Beach. It was 1980, and affording Laguna was a long shot.

“We thought it was economic insanity,” Kirsten said.

But move they did. They started a life here, and both became involved in arts organizations and also in the organizations important to their kids: Erika, Andy, and Elliot. 

Bob became president of Laguna Beach Little League, the Boys and Girls Club and SchoolPower, and served on the School Board for ten years before moving on to City Council. Kirsten was also involved in the arts at the schools, and started the Performing Arts Booster Club at the high school.

While their daughter was graduating college, and one son was graduating high school, Kirsten answered the siren call inside her head, and went back to school herself. Where else, but Laguna College of Art and Design? It was a homecoming for her love of education and also her desire to do “more personal” artwork.

“I loved it,” she says. “It was so much fun to go back to school!”

Back in college again, Kirsten experimented with technique and ways to merge traditional watercolor and oil painting to develop her own artistic style. In 2005 she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from LCAD.

The medium and the message

“As a painter, I am drawn to still life because I am fascinated by objects and the power they have to tell stories,” Kirsten says as her Artist’s Statement. “I have always been interested in the human stories we have deduced from the artifacts of previous cultures. Paintings, pottery, sculptures, folktales – all reflect the lives of the people and time in which they were created… but they are also a product of the same universal human urge to create beauty and make sense of the world.”

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There are entire bodies of study into the symbolism within art, especially those works not exactly realist. While Kirsten Whalen’s work is representational, it’s also something not. There is an ironic quality, and a sense of whimsy.

“They are absolutely expressions of myself,” she says.

The scenes and images Kirsten portrays make us notice the world in a whole different way. “My work is narrative,” she says. “I like telling stories with my artwork.”

Trying to describe her work is a personal journey; every audience arrives with their own interpretation. On one of her paintings there are beautifully executed folds on a map, so dimensional you want to reach out and touch it, and then there’s a funny little cowboy toy riding through the western section. Then there’s the globe she painted, in casts of shadow with a miniature aviator dangling from somewhere north of the North Pole… 

“I call them my avatars,” she laughs.

You can’t help but wonder, smile – and maybe start planning a trip.

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As inspiration, Kristen cites artist Wayne Thiebaud, known for his colorful depictions of commonplace objects like cakes, pastries and toys, and Laguna Beach artist Scott Moore, whose works highlight toys and miniatures with surrealist irony.

Trying to sum up her works is even a challenge for the artist to verbalize, “They are… I don’t know? Come see them!”

This is Kirsten’s eighth year as a Festival of Arts exhibitor. Her piece, “Hanging Around” was selected for the Festival’s 2012 souvenir poster. Additionally, her work has won awards in the in the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies Annual exhibit (WFWS 37, Honorable Mention), and the annual City of Laguna Beach Juried Fine Art Exhibitions held by the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. She was a participating artist in the 2012 Laguna Beach Music Festival and with OC Can You Play in 2011.

Whalen’s “Hanging Around”, the Festival souvenir poster of 2012

One of the special things about showing at Festival of Arts is the sense of community with fellow artists. “My work is solitary, so it’s nice to be out and about and talking to people,” Kirsten says. “I love visiting with artists.”

Arts educator

Kirsten is also a big proponent of arts education. In 2008 she started “Art Talks: A Lecture Series” at the Festival, and she’s still spearheading it. 

Every Thursday at noon during the Festival season, artists talk about their inspiration, history, and careers in art. “Listening to the artists present their work is not only interesting and inspiring, but gives attendees a deeper understanding of painting, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics and other art on the grounds.”

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Besides being busy with the many arts organizations in Laguna Beach, Kirsten serves on the board of the Laguna Outreach for Community Arts (LOCA), the nonprofit committed to arts education for people of all ages. 

“Our organization provides workshops to Laguna Beach schools, the Boys and Girls Club, Youth Shelter, Glennwood House, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and the Laguna Beach Senior Center.”

Thinking about it, “There are 22-24 arts organizations in town,” she remarked. “Now I know where my weekends have gone!”

If time was free

Kirsten’s family hails from Sacramento, and her dad built a cabin at Lake Tahoe in the 1950’s. Whenever Kirsten, Bob, and their kids get a bit of free time, they like to get up to the blue lake and enjoy a little kayaking. Maybe there will be time for that after the summer, but for now it’s full steam ahead for the Whalens as they navigate the busy summer season with arts and community matters filling the calendar.

Say hello to Kirsten at her booth “on the main drag” of the Festival this summer.


Donnie Crevier: Helping others overcome obstacles

By Samantha Washer

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I was a real stellar guy,” says Donnie Crevier.  Now, if you didn’t know Donnie Crevier, you might think he was being immodest.  After all, he is the recipient of countless philanthropic and business awards so if he wanted to describe himself as “stellar” few would argue.  However, Crevier was being deeply sarcastic when he used that word to describe himself in his younger days as a teenager growing up in Laguna Beach. Donnie Crevier may be many things, but immodest is definitely not one of them.  

Growing up too fast

He came to Laguna from Glendale when he was five years old with his mother, “…a single, divorced woman with two kids and no skills.”  Why Laguna?  “She was a romantic,” Crevier explains. “I’m very appreciative for that.”  Crevier attended grammar school and middle school in Laguna, but then came the teenage years.  

“By 14 I’m growing up too fast.  I’m hanging out with older kids so…my parents thought it might be better if I moved back to Glendale with my dad for a little more structure.  I lived with him for three years and then begged for forgiveness and was allowed to return (to Laguna).”  

This was mid-way through his junior year at LBHS.  By his senior year he was living on his own.  “I needed an adult to be my guardian. I picked a guy I surfed with.  He was about 22.  I lived with him for awhile.  I barely finished high school.  In fact, I had to take a night class to graduate,” he explains. There is no drama in his recounting of these years, but clearly they were not the easiest of times. 

Donnie Crevier 

Tired of being broke

Crevier attended college for two and a half years.  “I got tired of being broke and got a job in the car business,” he says.  He had some experience.  His father owned a used car lot in Glendale and Crevier worked there as a kid, washing cars and eventually doing some sales.  He took a job selling cars at Theodore Robins Ford in Costa Mesa.  He worked there for eight years.  

“Then my dad started a BMW dealership in 1972 with my uncle,” says Crevier.  His dad had really wanted a Volkswagen dealership, but couldn’t afford it.  Back then, BMW was not widely known in the US so it was cheaper to get BMWs than VWs. Crevier joined his father and uncle two years later, in 1974.

Success beyond their imagination

The dealership grew and grew.  “It grew beyond anything we had imagined,” says Crevier.  “We had some father/son challenges along the way, but our relationship got tighter and tighter with time.  We became mutually respectful of one another,” says Crevier.  His father has since passed away, but it is obvious that father and son shared a deep bond.  

“My dad was a golden rule philosophy kind of guy.  He believed in doing what was right, not just what was legal. And he believed in people.  It is the people in that company…there’s a uniqueness in our people.  We were lucky, but we consciously tried to find that.  It ain’t all GPA or IQ.  It’s how you relate to people.  

Do you care about people…?”  The answer to that question, in regards to Crevier himself, is a resounding yes.  

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Crevier shows off a reprinted newspaper photo from 1955 as a member of the Boys Club of Laguna Beach (now the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach)

Time for cars, time for giving

Crevier sold the company he built with his father in 2011.  However, he is still in the car business.  HIs company, called Crevier Classic Cars, LLC, deals in classic cars as well as sales and leasing for all makes and models, new or used.  The space is frequently used for events, and he encourages people to come check it out.  He’s there every day.  And while the car business still occupies much of his time, his philanthropy is also a time consuming endeavor.

A laundry list of philanthropic awards

His list of honors is ridiculously long, and includes the Orange County Human Relations Award, the Good Scout Award (Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America) and the 2012 Citizen of the Year Award from the City of Santa Ana, to name just a few.  And he certainly didn’t bring this list with him when we met, nor did he mention anything about awards or accolades.  What he wanted to talk about was why the programs he supported were important to him. Two programs he is most dedicated to are The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach and High School, Inc.

An alumni gives back

The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach holds a special place in Donnie Crevier’s heart.  “It was a big part of my life.  Back then it was just The Boys Club.  From the ages of 10 to 14 it was really important to me.  I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to that organization.  Things would have been a lot more complicated for me had it not been in my life,” explains Crevier.  

And to this day, he remains close to Pete Snetsinger, his coach at the Club.  “He was a mentor to me.  I’m having lunch with him next week, as a matter of fact.”  Crevier was presented with the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2009 for his work with the Club.  He is currently still serving on the Board.  

“I’m not sure how things would have turned out for me without the Boys Club.  I want to try and help kids have an alternative like that so that they can feel better about themselves which leads to better choices.”

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Donnie Crevier, Board Member, in front of the Boys and Girls Club

Ambitious plans for High School, Inc.

While Crevier will always be grateful for the Boys and Girls Club, he is deeply involved in a new endeavor that, while not as personal, definitely echoes the same theme: helping kids help themselves. High School, Inc. is a program that provides high school students with real work experience through six different academies: health care, culinary arts and hospitality, automotive logistics and transportation, new media, global business and engineering, manufacturing and construction.  The program is currently at Valley High School in Santa Ana, but Crevier is looking to expand its reach. 

“We just had some wonderful news.  Our graduation rate for kids enrolled in the six academies on campus is 98.5%.  The grad rate for the rest of the kids is somewhere around 85%.  We have 1,000 kids enrolled now.  We need all the kids there to enroll. 

“We are teaching them career opportunities as well as increasing their interest in education as a whole.  We want this to go all over Santa Ana and then the country,” explains Crevier.  He is very enthusiastic about this program and what it can do.  “It’s a partnership between the school district, the business community, and the school.  This is occupying tons of my time.”  

Committed to giving in Laguna Beach 

If High School Inc. is taking most of his time these days; Crevier still has time for more local giving beyond the Boys and Girls Club.  He’s on the Board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation and is heavily involved with the Laguna Beach High School Scholarship Foundation.  

“The reason for the Community Foundation’s existence,” explains Crevier, “is because Laguna is a unique community.  Lots of residents support outside issues but are not aware of the needs in this community.  We are trying to bring awareness to Laguna causes.” 

Adding to his seemingly endless list of awards, Crevier was presented with the Donor Honoree at this year’s LBHS convocation ceremony. He started giving scholarships, now called the April and Daphne Crevier Memorial Scholarships in honor of his mother and sister.  This year eight graduates were awarded these scholarships for doing “the right thing for the right reason.” Additionally, Crevier has his own family foundation that he started seven years ago.  “My kids and grand kids are all a part of it,” he says with pride. 

Really, truly a stellar guy

Donnie Crevier uses words like “luck” to describe his success.  He likes to give credit to others.  And, if I think about it, he really didn’t talk much about himself (except to talk about his wayward youth), preferring to discuss the charities he cares about. He is a man who overcame adversity and became successful beyond his own imagination. 

He spends a lot of time and a lot of money helping others so that they, too, can overcome the obstacles life has placed in front of them.  He would probably not like me to say so, but that, to me, is the epitome of a “stellar guy” (hold the sarcasm).


Robin Wethe Altman: creating heaven on earth

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

She’s the quintessential Laguna summer girl… Growing up in the 1970’s, with her long blonde hair flowing, and stitching macramé necklaces woven with seashells she dove for that morning. She’d gather her paintings and nestle with them in a booth at the Sawdust in the day, and help run a concession at the Pageant of the Masters at night.

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Artist Robin Wethe Altman

Robin Wethe Altman has seen just about every permutation of Laguna life – from sleepy little beach town where she rode her bike to the high school and her horse along the bluff top, to the burgeoning international tourist destination and art mecca, replete with soaring real estate prices.

“Laguna has changed,” she said. “Not so much visually – it is still artistic and tasteful, but back then it was sleepier. It’s more sophisticated now… fancy restaurants and a lot of flashy cars. It’s tough as an artist to live here.”

These days Robin supports herself completely by her art. She is a long-time watercolor artist who has shown at all three Laguna summer art venues, and is watching this summer unfold from her booth at Art-A-Fair.

It’s a Laguna thing

When she was just a kid Robin got to join the very first Patriot’s Day Parade: her grandmother started it. Her grandma, Grace Wethe, was a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “She was maybe in her 80’s, but she wanted to bring patriotism back,” Robin tells us. 

Grandma was obviously onto something heartfelt and true, as the parade has been an important historical tradition in Laguna for 49 years now.

“I got to ride in the parade in her honor three years ago,” Robin says with pride.

Robin’s family held another long-time Laguna tradition, at the Pageant of the Masters. They ran the binocular concession, to the delight of an audience who wants to get right up close to the tableaux vivant, and maybe see the artwork move a little. 

“We never missed a single show in 46 years,” she says. “Our whole family depended on that.”

It may seem surprising in light of current standard’s paychecks, but the rental of those binoculars was a way of life for everyone involved: Robin, her brother, mom and dad. It was “a bitter pill to swallow” when the Festival took over the concession, but Robin moved forward, and learned more to appreciate everything she has, in the moment. 

Wise words to live by indicate Robin’s positive sensibility: She says, “Conditions don’t make happiness, happiness makes conditions.”

Since the binocular concession days, she has lived on her art completely.

Portrait of an artist as a young girl

“I rode my bike to Laguna Beach High along the cliffs of Heisler Park, had lunch between classes at Main Beach with my surfer boyfriend, and did my homework on the sand at Rock Pile cove,” she remembers. “On my way home I would tour by the galleries on ‘Gallery Row’ to gather inspiration for my own work. I was determined to be in a gallery there when I was older.”

And she lived according to the mindset of an artist.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 70’s, with the peace movement, love and acceptance for all… The things you think of if heaven was really on earth… I like to paint those things… A more humble, slower pace of life.”

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Robin’s banner is flying high in front of the art festivals

She remembers her young girl spark-of-inspiration at Audubon art/nature shows. “I thought, ‘What is it that’s so weird about me?’ I just felt so much emotion about beauty!” 

Robin translated the beauty she saw with her mind’s eye to the canvas. Then she started selling her art at the Sawdust Festival – that place her parents wouldn’t even let her go to as a kid.

“It was a wild, wild place to be,” she laughs. “I love the spirit of the Sawdust.”

(She was there the day local photographer Doug Miller stepped off the bus in his Navy uniform. She teases him still because he asked her if she knew where the “Strawberry Festival” was.)

The Sawdust was also a fortuitous place to be for Robin’s future as an artist. The Festival of Arts Foundation scholarship program provided her full scholarship to study art at college. She graduated in 1976 with a BA in Fine Art from Principia College.

Robin Wethe Altman has now shown at ten different galleries in Laguna over the years, as well as The Festival of Arts, the Sawdust, and the Art-A-Fair festivals. She is in private and corporate collections, and even has her paintings on Hasbro’s puzzles. Her works are currently featured at Art-A-Fair and also at Laguna Watercolor Gallery, fulfilling her childhood dream of showing on “Gallery Row”.

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R. Wethe Altman’s booth at Art-a-Fair 

“Being an artist in Laguna is like nirvana to me,” she says. “I will never take the life I live for granted.” Part of that blessing is the sense of camaraderie with other artists. “The artists here are beautiful people. There are so many amazing characters, some I have known for over 30 years! When one of us sells a painting, we all celebrate.”

A balancing act

And what does Robin fill her time with while not painting? “Marketing!” she says. “It takes half my time.” But, she adds: “I’m a big believer in balance too – live life to the fullest! Contented artists live it, and it comes across in their art.”

Robin senses things coming together in a positive way especially, these days. It was a happy surprise was when she discovered that the banner she had painted for the city was flying out in the front of the Sawdust this year. Meanwhile, her mural was selected by the Arts Commission for their “Postcards from Laguna” competition, and is now displayed on the Verizon building, next to Whole Foods. And that’s not all! One of her watercolors, a view of Main Beach, is gracing the cover of the Passport to the Arts 2015 brochure. (The Passport to the Arts piece was voted on by all three art festivals.)

“It was like a gift,” she says humbly. 

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From the Arts Commission’s “Postcards from Laguna” series, 

Robin painted another painter- it’s downtown on the Verizon building

It is her gift to give back – as in helping others. For her whole life, Robin has felt that art is a way of helping people. “Maybe to help them evolve,” she says. “Like Shangri-La could be here if we decide to make it.”

Toward that end, Robin continues to spread her positive attitude, and she gives her art for good causes too, such as the My Hero Project to honor women, Transition Laguna’s poster, and cards for an interfaith group.

“Art is important,” she says. “It can be used for a lot of causes.” And she adds, for the benefit of youngsters, “Don’t take art out of schools!”

The forecast is for 100% chance of happiness

The overriding theme of Robin’s artwork is idyll. That’s no doubt in part because she grew up in an idyllic place, and sees beauty everywhere.

“It’s my always theme,” she says brightly. “It’s the idealist in me. Creating art makes me feel so happy. I put my spin on things with color and whimsy – make everything brighter. Like heaven on earth, I paint it the way it could be.”


Ryen Caenn: A “mud engineer” living in Laguna

Written by: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ryen Caenn is such a fan of living in Laguna Beach he knows the month he and his wife moved here from Irvine – exactly 18 years ago this month.  “When our kids went off to do their own thing we decided to come to Laguna.  We’ve been here since then,” he says. They were anxious to jump into their new community, even if Caenn didn’t get to spend a lot of time here due to his work in the petroleum industry. 

“We joined Village Laguna when we got here.  My wife was president.  She was also the chairperson of the Charm House Tour.  I was the support person,” he says with a grin.  Caenn’s career has kept him on the road – a lot – especially as southern California isn’t exactly the heart of the oil industry.  

His travels have sent him all over the world, but his favorite place to be is home.

Ryen Caenn at home 

From the oil fields of Houston to southern California

His jobs within the oil industry have changed as the industry itself has changed, not surprising in such a boom or bust field. Starting as a drilling fluid technologist (or “mud engineer,” as it is more commonly referred to) in Houston, Caenn spent two weeks a month on drilling rigs.  At the time, he had young children and the schedule wasn’t conducive to family life so he moved to a working in a lab.  He then got a job in San Diego with a company that made a chemical used for fluid in the drilling rigs.  From then on, southern California became home, despite the fact that it was not a hub of the oil business.  Caenn settled in Irvine with his current wife who was a teacher there.  “When you’re a teacher you can’t really change schools so we stayed in Irvine,” he explains.

Changing with the times means changing careers

 In 1981, Caenn says he decided to become a consultant.  

“It was bad timing,” he admits. It was the beginning of an oil bust cycle.  In 1981 there were 4,000 oilrigs - by 1987 there were 600.  There just wasn’t enough volume for him to continue his consulting business and make money.  

So he reinvented himself again, becoming a technical writer.  He commuted to El Segundo every day and wrote user and maintenance manuals.  After many years of this, Caenn, tired of commuting, decided to utilize his now well-honed writing skills and start a magazine.  It was called  “Drilling and Completion Fluids.”  

“It had a subscription of about 350 people,” says Caenn with a shrug.  After that, Caenn started commuting – again – this time to Houston, two weeks out of the month.  He did this for ten years.  “That gets kind of old,” says Caenn in his understated way.  

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Ryen with a photo of himself on the job in the 1960’s

Helping “The Indy” get off the ground

In the early 2000’s Caenn met Stu Saffer.  “In 2001 the petroleum industry collapsed again. I had some time on my hands. I met Stu at Heidelberg Café. We started spending time together.  He was looking for some help to get a new local paper off the ground.  I told Stu I’d like to help.  I used the same software for my magazine that he wanted to use for his paper,” explains Caenn.  

That paper was “The Laguna Beach Independent” (or the “Indy).  

“The very first issue didn’t go well,” according to Caenn.  “Stu wanted it to be around 14-16 pages.  I ended up with ten.  We had a hard deadline.  I sent the file to the printer and they called and said there was no file.  So I put the file on a CD and my wife drove it over to them.  They still couldn’t read it.  I remember it was raining, and I drove over there and ended up staying until around 1 a.m.  I remember seeing my wife asleep on a desk.  Finally, it got printed.  Stu picked it up and took it out for delivery.  The paper was so light it would blow back when they’d try and deliver it,” remembers Caenn.  

After that first edition, things got easier, but Caenn says, “I didn’t realize how hard it was to put that together…It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.  I wasn’t very good at it, but I eventually got better.”

After a few months, Caenn’s job with the paper evolved.  “I mostly worked on the Laguna Home Companion section. I did that for years. I had a camera so I took pictures; miscellaneous things like that,” he says.  Then, in 2007, Caenn got a call that changed his career path, yet again.

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Ryen Caenn and his wife, Anne, with their 15-month-old puppy

Kazakhstan calls with a proposition

“I got a call asking me if I wanted to teach in Kazakhstan.  My first question was ‘Where’s Kazakhstan?’” recalls Caen with a laugh.  “I wasn’t sure, but my wife said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’  I went back five times and decided I really enjoyed teaching.  Now, that’s what I do, primarily in Houston,” he says.  

Caenn teaches newbies about the petroleum industry.  “Sometimes it’s marketing and sales people, sometimes it’s people who are just interested in the business.  I do not teach people who are experienced in the business,” he says.  “In the last four to five years I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home.  I’ve been everywhere in the world there’s a petroleum industry.”  Now, however, Caenn says his business is slowing down. 

And this time, he welcomes it.  

“I’m getting tired.  My wife doesn’t want me traveling to places where people are getting shot,” he says appreciatively.  But he’s still writing.  He co-authored a textbook titled “Composition and Properties of Drilling Completion Fluids” that is used in universities.  There is a definite theme to Caenn’s work, but apparently you have to be in the oil business to have any idea what it actually means!

Slowing down and getting to enjoy life at home

Finally, Caenn is spending more time at his beloved home in Laguna Beach.  “I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee on the deck and watch the birds.  Right now we have a family of orioles. I sit there and watch the birds, and watch the ocean while I wake up,” says Caenn.  

After traveling for almost all of his adult life, when he talks of these simple pleasures it’s clear he savors them.  But he does more than lounge around and stare at the horizon. There is his pond that needs cleaning; the 15-month-old puppy that needs walking; an exercise class at the Susi Q that needs attending – and he just took up lawn bowling.  “I play for an hour and have a beer,” he says with a smile.  

But he’s not retired yet. “I still enjoy work and I have no plans of retiring,” he says. 

However, he’s is trying to make it so that he can do more of his work online to cut down on the travel.  

When you’ve been everywhere, there really is no place like home.

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Caenn surveys his backyard pond


Ryan Heimbach: a Festival exhibitor’s perspective

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Scott Brashier

Ryan Heimbach strikes me as a young person with an old soul. Unlike many young people, he knows what he doesn’t know, and seeks to learn the answers. He’s the first person I’ve talked with in a long time who actually calls himself an apprentice.

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Ryan Heimbach

The apprentice has enormous respect for his mentor, Festival artist and award-winning sculptor, Andrew Myers. “I didn’t think of art until I worked with Andrew,” Ryan says. Myers taught Ryan technique and logistics and the ins and outs of the art world, while Ryan developed his own artistic voice. Since 2008 Ryan has worked on many of Meyers’ big projects, finding inspiration along the way. 

“I did whatever he was a part of. He inspires me,” says Ryan. 

In “old soul” fashion, Ryan thoroughly appreciates his mentor’s finished works. “Even though my name’s not on it, I’m not that kind of guy,” he says. 

An artist breaks out

Apprentice he may be, but Ryan is accomplished enough to have found his artistic passion, with talent to match. He’s one of the youngest artists ever selected to show at the Festival of Arts, garnering accolades and art patrons along the way.

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His piece this year, titled Breaking Through, is a cast bronze, plaster, and stainless steel sculpture of hands emerging from the wall. A narrative piece in three parts, the first hand is clenched around an egg, moving on to the next hand with the egg cracking, while the third hand presents a fist emerging from within the egg it holds. It’s provocative sculpture, and draws queries and dialog with the patrons at the Festival.

“I think it’s my mental mindset,” said Ryan. “I want to take things further and break through.” 

Art emerges

He grew up in Laguna Canyon, the son of a single mom, Diane DeBilzan, who had a gallery in Laguna for many years. His uncle is the artist William DeBilzan. Ryan was surrounded and nurtured by art before he realized he, too, was one of their kind. 

“I grew up doing cartoons, and copying things. I just enjoyed it,” he says. “I tried to be precise to what it was. I saw something and I could recreate it. When Andrew showed me techniques, I started to look at every little detail, every shape.”

Any figurative sculptor will tell you certain body parts require more attention to detail than others. “Sculpting hands and faces are the hardest thing.” Ryan laughs. And that’s what I do!”

Plus there is a story to tell with the hands. “There are so many emotions you can create with the hand – the fist shows power, or pushing through with strength.”

This year’s Festival piece, Breaking Through, represents just that emotion. The hand holds an egg that at first is solid like a stone, then it starts to crack, and then it’s polished and gleaming in its final incarnation, a new fist emerging as if to say, Yes, I can! 

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“It’s like when you think you’ve broken through,” explains Ryan. “But you can still do more. Breaking through can be positive, like finding a cure for something, or mentally battling with something and then emotionally breaking through.

“I left it a little open so it would be universal.”

There’s something mathematical to his sculptural precision: an understanding of proportions and dimensions. Ryan seems to have a left brain/right brain thing going on. Not surprisingly, while at Laguna Beach High School he won awards for accounting and pottery.

Personal breakthroughs

“I wanted to do something I could relate to,” Ryan says about his Festival exhibit.

He was remembering his own challenges. One was when he thought it would be a good idea to go live with his dad in Florida. He gave it a try – taking the only job he could find there: working the graveyard shift at Lowe’s. 

Working at night, sleeping in the day. “It was not my thing,” he says, simply.

He pushed through and worked his way back to Laguna, knowing it was his true home and knowing he would have to work hard to stay.

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“I like being in ‘clutch moments’,” he said. “I can handle problem solving like that. I don’t want charity. Nothing is owed to me. I always want to feel I’ve earned something.” Old soul.

Ryan’s first year at the Festival was 2011, and he was the youngest exhibitor. As one might imagine a young artist would do, he was still emerging his style and decided to change things up for the following year. He experimented with a different sculptural style, but it was not received well. Ryan was juried out. 

“The one year out made me think, and I pushed myself even harder,” he said. “I didn’t hide away or stop doing art. The experience showed me that this isn’t the end; it’s a stepping stone.” Breakthrough.

Pushing on

The greatest sense of satisfaction is when an artist feels “on”. For Ryan, that joy and artistic focus is often born out of frustration or a struggle, but the process of creation pushes past any negativity.

“I like to focus my passion into my art, and not speed through it. I like testing my patience…I push through and get into the rhythm.”

Ryan believes that artists should be proactive and keep pushing themselves. 

“And not worry about what people are thinking,” he says. “Artists have ideas but no money. That struggle is one of the biggest things artists have to face. But you just have to go for it. It’s like going to the gym!”

Now in his fourth year as a Festival exhibitor, Ryan is feeling good about the response Breaking Through has had. 

“I hope this show will inspire thought even more,” he says. 

And he smiles. “A lot of people are totally ‘getting it’. Less talking for me!”


Barbara McMurray: Making it all look much too easy

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Balance.  It’s the word I kept thinking as I sat with Barbara McMurray eating lunch on her glorious deck. McMurray seems to have effortlessly achieved what many of us find so elusive: the ability to balance family, work, community and personal passions.  Of course, just because it appears effortless, doesn’t mean it comes without effort.  But whatever internal struggles she may engage in, to the outside observer, at least, she has them well tamed.

Coming to Laguna Beach

McMurray came to Laguna Beach in 1991. Originally from New York where she grew up on a dairy farm, McMurray came to San Diego for a visit and was so “captivated” by the scenery she was living there six weeks later.  She worked at an advertising agency for the ABC affiliate there in the promotions department.  Then, at a New Year’s Eve party in Mira Mesa, she met her husband-to-be, Ken.  “It was fated,” she says of their meeting. 

But he lived in Laguna Beach so there was a lot of back and forth on the 405 until McMurray decided to move north.  They were married a year later.  “He is my moral compass.  I became a better person when I married Ken,” says McMurray.  

His calibration must be impeccable because McMurray’s willingness to give back to her community is almost legendary.

Barbara McMurray of McMurray Marketing and Communications

CLC, training wheels and a snowball

McMurray pinpoints her daughter’s attendance at CLC (Community Learning Center) as what started her community involvement.  CLC is an alternative school run through the Laguna Beach Unified School District at Top of the World Elementary for 1st-4th graders. 

“When Anna was in CLC the tide turned for me,” explains McMurray.  “We were teaching the kids to be positive, to be involved so I figured I have to try and model these things myself.  I taught yoga.” (Parents are expected to volunteer six hours per month at CLC.). “And it was so fulfilling to make that your goal - to be the things that they were teaching the kids to do.  I love that program.  They helped me be a better parent.  So I got involved in the CLC PTA - my training wheels.  It (volunteering) just kind of snowballed from there,” says McMurray.

The Friendship Shelter calls

One of the places the “snowball” landed was the Friendship Shelter.  McMurray says she was introduced to the Friendship Shelter “the way most people are…through one of their dinners.”  But there was also a CLC connection.  “CLC did a Christmas thing for the Shelter where they would have the kids put essential items, like socks and toiletries and pocket calendars, in bags for residents of the Shelter.  They would make these hand towels into elephants and give them away.  They still do that,” she says with a laugh.  “The kids were so open to it.”  

McMurray was asked to be on the Friendship Shelter Board “a couple of years ago,” she says.  Her ultimate goal for the shelter? Nothing less than solving the problem of homelessness in Laguna Beach.  She feels very optimistic.  

After we met she sent me the following in an email: “In 2009, the city of New Orleans - a major U.S. city - had nearly 4,600 chronically homeless people living on its streets. They initiated a supportive housing program to house and provide services to these folks - and that number is now around 400. That’s a big city - they did it. The state of Utah - an entire STATE - provided housing to homeless residents and their homeless numbers went from 1,932 to 178. So many public resources can be saved using this model. We’re a little city with about 45 chronically homeless people. We can do this.” 

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McMurray working in her home office

Helping Chhahari change lives in Nepal

The other Board she sits on is Chhahari, which runs a home for orphans and at-risk children in Kathmandu, Nepal.  It was founded by Laguna Beach resident, Christine Casey.  “I have so much admiration for her.  I do their Facebook page.  The images, especially since the earthquake…pretty dramatic stuff,” says McMurray.  In case you’re thinking of asking McMurray to join your favorite organization’s Board (And trust me, you want her), “Two Boards is my limit,” says McMurray.  But that doesn’t mean she isn’t active in other organizations, as well.  In fact, it seems that whatever charity you attend you’ll see, McMurray there lending a hand.  

“For me, it gives life heft and meaning - gravitas,” she says.  “Plus there are so many interesting people who do these things!”

While she is definitely a do-er, McMurray is particularly adept at is bringing people together. “I like to be a connector. I want to draw people in.  That’s what being a community is all about.  A lot of the time people want to help but don’t know how.  

“The trick is not asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Then they realize they enjoy it.”

The McMurray’s rescue dog, Milo

Going full steam ahead with McMurray Marketing 

Amidst her volunteer work, McMurray also runs McMurray Marketing and Communications.  Prior to that she worked for the now defunct Opera Pacific.  “It was really fun.  Fantastic people.  But after a few years I couldn’t take the long nights.  But I did learn how to handle a certain donor crowd,” she says with a knowing smile.  “One week after starting McMurray Marketing I discovered I was pregnant with Anna.  She just turned 20.”  When asked if she considered putting her fledgling business on hold after finding out the big news she says, “I just went full steam ahead.  I scaled back when Anna was a toddler, but I’m so glad I kept going.  I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to start something after.”

Clients and causes 

Many of McMurray’s clients reflect her interests.  The Laguna Food Pantry is a client.  “We just had a happy hour taco bar at the Marine Room, which was our debut on the fundraising scene. [The event]…had a low threshold of entry.  It’s good when you give people something easy to say yes to.” She is working to elevate the Food Pantry’s profile so they can better achieve their mission. “It’s a myth that it’s just for the homeless shelter.  It’s for working people who need some help.  It would be great if we could get it to be open on weekends,” she says.

Another client is the Laguna Dance Festival.  “We have two really, really good troupes coming.” says McMurray.  There is Malpaso Dance Company from Cuba and Alonzo King LINES Ballet.  “Alonzo King is featuring ‘Biophany.’  Bernie Krause is a soundscape artist who has collected animal sounds for the last 40 years.  They worked together to come up with this score for the dancers.  This would be a great show for kids if they’re interested in nature, oceanography…”

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A photo taken by McMurray’s son, Owen, next to one of her own prints

Making time for herself

McMurray, despite working, taking care of her family and volunteering, does not neglect herself.  “I do print making on Friday.  And every morning I try to meditate, even if it’s for only five to ten minutes,” she says.  She was introduced to meditation by Dr. Arlene Dorius.  “She had a group made up of really powerful, spiritual women.  I took it and ran with it…It’s very, very handy.”  

She calls herself a “Baby budding Buddhist.”  “I grew up in the Lutheran church.  This (Tibetan Buddhism) feels true to me…very true.  You have to answer to yourself.  It’s very forgiving, non-punitive in nature.”  But graduating to a full-fledged Buddhist may have to wait until she has more time to dedicate to its study.  “There is a lot to it, much to learn,” she says.

The same can be said of McMurray herself. She would be the first to say she doesn’t have all the answers.  Nevertheless, spending even a brief afternoon with her, hearing how she makes it all work, it’s easy to wonder how much more evolved she can hope to be. Maybe it’s the meditation; maybe it’s her husband.  

“I drink coffee,” she says with a laugh.  Most likely it’s all of these things – plus many, many more.  (I mean, I drink coffee…)  

“I remember my mother telling me I had ‘too many irons in the fire’ when I was younger.  I guess I just have a lot of interests,” she says with a shrug.  

Somehow she has managed to master those many irons, forging them into a very complete, well-balanced life.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

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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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