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Morris Skenderian: 40 years of improving Laguna

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have lived in Laguna Beach for any length of time it is very likely you’ve heard the name Morris Skenderian. Skenderian, one of Laguna’s most well-known and respected architects first came to Laguna Beach in 1968 when he was a 26 year-old architectural neophyte. The renowned architect, William F. Cody, saw something in the young Skenderian and brought him along to work on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs. This is how Skenderian was introduced to what eventually would become his hometown. 

“We were using stained glass that was made by a Laguna Beach stained-glass artist, Joseph Maes,” Skenderian said. “I knew nothing about stained glass and asked if I could help him work on the panels. I spent two weeks here. That was my introduction to Laguna Beach.” 

Morris Skenderian  

Skenderian liked Laguna Beach enough that when his Pasadena firm wanted to open an Orange County office, he raised his hand to move south and get the office started.  “Now I’m 30…  I moved to Laguna because it was the least expensive place I could find,” he remembers. “I found a house in Arch Beach Heights for $29,000. Then the economy went bad and they decided not to open the office. They said, ‘Come back.’ But I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to come back. I’m going to start my own office.’” 

And he did, finding a 300 square foot cottage where he worked on mostly kitchen and bath remodels.  

AYSO helps launch a career

They say talent always rises to the top.  This is undoubtedly true in Skenderian’s case. However, he credits his big break to a very surprising source: The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). 

“By now my son is six, my daughter is five. They’re in the Laguna Beach school system. My son plays AYSO soccer so I volunteer as a coach. (Being around these people) becomes a resource. They ask me to take a look at their houses. I got all these references through AYSO!” explained Skenderian. “It sounds kind of weird when I say it, but it’s true.”

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Skenderian at work on site at The Ranch at Laguna Beach  

And this highlights another important contributor to his success: Skenderian’s ability to forge and maintain great relationships with his clients.  “One of the things that attracts me to this business is I love the relationships. 90% of my friends are former clients,” he says with satisfaction. After 40 years of working in the same town, suffice it to say, he’s never short on dinner invitations.

“Solution-oriented” design

While some architects have a very consistent aesthetic, Skenderian says he likes to look at design as more “solution-oriented.”  That may be why, after the devastating fire in 1993, Skenderian’s firm designed 25 of the 75 houses built to replace ones that had burned.  

“My office went from three to 13 people.  I gave seminars about how to navigate the insurance claims, how to work with architects,” he said. “My intent was to help people.  The side benefit was that it kept business going.  Once that was over I pared it back down to seven or eight people, which is what I have today.”

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Skenderian’s design work includes the recent remodel of The Ranch pool area 

Skenderian takes a community-minded approach to his design.  Of course, his clients’ needs are of the utmost importance, but he does not work in a client-only vacuum.  “I have a duty to my clients without sacrificing the quality of life for others around it,” he says.  Right now he has about 30 projects going “in one stage or another.” 

While he says he likes doing both commercial and residential work, talking about his involvement with the Athens Group when they were designing and building Montage Laguna Beach back in 1995 brings a heightened level of enthusiasm to the conversation. 

“They came to me and said, ‘What would you do?’  I said, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of responsibility for me to tell you what to do, but I think if you go with a Greene and Greene, craftsman-style and keep a low profile, people will embrace it,’” he said. “They said, ‘Great! Let’s do it!’  With the way it turned out…that feels really good.”

Very close to his grandkids

However, the thing that seems to give him even more pleasure than bringing spaces to life is spending time with his six grandkids, who live in either Laguna Beach or Newport Beach.  “They’re here (at his office) all the time,” says Skenderian.  He proudly describes the projects two of his grandsons worked on recently.  “When you’re this close you get to be a mentor to your grandkids,” he says. Whether the mentoring fosters more architects in the family seems to be beside the point. He just enjoys spending time with them, teaching them different skills, exposing them to new interests.

Unknowingly forging a career path

Looking back, Skenderian says he had some interests that lent themselves to his future career. He liked to build models, for example. “They had these contests and I won three or four of those and that was encouraging. Then I built a car for a soapbox derby when I was 12 or 13.  I was proud of that. And then in high school I wasn’t a good writer, but I was a good printer so I took a drafting class.”

The pieces were falling into place for Skenderian’s future as an architect, but he still wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.   “I didn’t really know what architects did,” he says.  But then he met a friend who told him he should go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “He told me, ‘You’ll love it!  It’s farm country, a small town’…so I took my portfolio, talked to the Dean and got myself invited.  I started in 1958 and graduated in 1962, which was unheard of. My dad said, ‘You have four years’ so I went through kind of scared,” he says wryly.  

After graduating from Cal Poly, Skenderian secured a job working for an architect.  And, minus the year he spent in Memphis with the Navy (he got drafted), and the few years he spent learning how to build things with the Huntington Harbor Company, Skenderian has been an architect ever since.  And while he may not have planned it, he seems very content with the way things turned out – kind of like living in Laguna.

Committed to improving Laguna

“What brought me here was the sheer physical beauty, the village character and the people.  Back then the freeways weren’t all connected.  My clients were not of wealth. I liked what I saw as I became part of the fabric of the town. I wanted to improve it, and also prevent people from ruining it,” he says.  

And while there are a lot more freeways and a lot more people of wealth than when he arrived, he’s still committed to improving Laguna, one project at a time.


Music, fishing, surfing – it’s more than 

common sense for Nick Hernandez

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I caught up with our local rock star at his “office”, aka the patio beside Sapphire. Nick Hernandez makes regular stops there to fuel up on coffee, and just about everyone stops by to chat him up.

Nick Hernandez

Having spent many years on the road touring with his band, Common Sense, it feels good having a home base. Really, he’s happy making music anywhere. “I love waking up in a new place every day, touring on the road. And I love it here at home,” says Nick. “If you’re me, it’s awesome!” No doubt.

Musical sense

Common Sense is the first of Nick’s bands to go really big. It’s still going strong, but in its most prolific years the band sold more than 50,000 albums, with “Psychedelic Surf Groove”, and 10,000 with “State of the Nation, Now and Then”. A couple of his songs have made it to Hollywood. “Never Give Up” is a big song that made it into the movie, Speed Two, and “In Your Eyes” was in the Kingpin movie, which Nick says has got a cult following.

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 Photo from Facebook

Recently Nick recorded music with Wyland as a benefit following the Gulf oil spill disaster, a trio of albums called Blues Planet I-III. And this past winter he played with noted Hawaiian musician, Willie K in his Maui music festival along with the likes of Steven Tyler, Mick Fleetwood, and Taj Mahal.

Altogether with his bands Common Sense, Nick-I, and The 133 Band, he’s made 12 albums. “I like it, but I don’t do enough recording,” Nick said. “I’m mostly a live artist.”

There’s always a crowd on Fridays at Mozambique catching Nick live with his band, Nick-I & A.D.D., and other live gigs at places such as the Coach House, the Belly Up, and the OC Fair as well as special events and corporate gigs.

“You always have a dream as an artist,” he muses. “Now my dream is that The 133 Band will do the film festival circuit.”

Sound like a lot of balls to juggle in the air? Toss in Nick’s co-passion for surfing, and add to that his participation in Surfers Healing and you’ve got one busy dude.

Social sense

Surfers Healing is an outreach program designed to foster joy and promote surf culture in the lives of autistic youth. Nick has served on the board of directors for 17 years. The idea is to get the kids out on the waves with the assistance of able surfers.

“We want to give them one nice beautiful day at the beach, and just feel normal,” says Nick. 

Surfers Healing was founded by the Paskowitz family because their son, Isaiah, struggled with “meltdowns and sensory overload”. Riding the waves with his father calmed him like nothing else. Now Surfers Healing provides wave rides for more than 4,500 participants in their surf camps every year. Their motto is, “One child. One family. One day at the beach.”

“Now we’ve got enough sponsorship, we’re not sleeping on the floor – we all get our own beds now!” said Nick. “It started out, ‘I’m gonna do this ‘cause it’s the right thing to do’, and then I loved it. We’re helping these kids and it feels really good.”

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 Photo from Facebook

Kids enjoy the surf with Nick Hernandez (right) and Surfers Healing

Nick’s just back from a Surfers Healing trip to Australia, where he really hit it off with one of the surf stars who happens to be on the autism spectrum himself; Clay Marzo. “[Surf champion] Kelly Slater said Clay is the best surfer in the world,” Nick said. “But he’s intimidated by people.” 

Nick can relate. “I understand him, ‘cause I’m a little out-there too,” he said. “Things bug me, like loud noises.” Playing music with a loud band is not bothersome, however, it’s more the sound of people “yammering” and dogs barking. “I’ve just always been kind of special,” he admits.

Joining forces with Surfers Healing changed Nick’s life. At the time he was busy and on the road with his band, but something had to give. “I told my band, I’m gonna do this now,” he said. “I took time off to make Surfers Healing a top priority.”

That fulfilled one aspect of life according to Nick. “I do whatever I want, no matter what,” he says. “I don’t need money so much. If I had a lot of money my dreams wouldn’t be the same. I wouldn’t be as creative.” A dream come true? “I’d want to surf and fish and write songs.”

Cultural sense

Nick grew up in Laguna Beach, and learned to love music at the footsteps of his dad, Nick Sr. His dad was in a blues band, and put his son in classes for classical guitar and violin. 

“I hated it,” Nick remembers. “I didn’t like the style. You want to play what’s on the radio! But, if you can play classical or jazz or blues, you can play any pop.”

In those days, the roots of inspiration came thanks to reggae music. “Our heroes were the Rebel Rockers, and Eric Morton, pioneer of surf reggae,” Nick said. “My band, Common Sense, Sublime, and Slightly Stupid spawned a culture of surf reggae, and that influenced fashion too. Laguna Beach is the center of the fashion of surf culture.” 

And just as surf fashion brands began by sponsoring competitive surfers, Nick brought them along to music. For example, there was a two-page spread in Rolling Stone for his music that O’Neill surfwear brand paid for. There is a natural tie-in between the fashion, philosophy, and music of the surf culture.

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T-shirt, trunks, and the backward trucker hat are de rigueur for the lifestyle of Nick-I. The rest of the world seems to have caught on. Nick likes it, “You can wear T-shirts and trunks anywhere now!”

Future sense

There is still something Nick needs to check off his list. “It’s the eight unit monkey sitting on my back!” he says. 

When he was a rising rock star he had to make the ultimate choice: grow the band and take it on the road, or finish school at UC Santa Barbara. Tough choice, as he had only eight units left to finish his degree. “No one believes my story,” he bemoans. “But I’ve got to get it done.” 

It’s been weighing on his mind, so he went ahead and straightened years worth of records out with the registrar, and he found out he could take the required classes at Saddleback, and get that monkey off his back. “They wouldn’t just give me the credits for all the albums I’ve put out,” he laughs. “I’m going to take some ethno-musicology, or history of some type.”

Getting the eight units accomplished and giving his vocal chords a couple months of much-needed rest are in the near future. And the 25-foot wave he caught in Mexico last year is calling him. 

“Maybe I’ll go to Cabo to rest up,” he says. “I could brush up on my Spanish too. And go surfing. And fish a lot.”

After 20-plus years of rocking out multiple nights every week, maybe he deserves a little vacation. But then get back here and light up the stage!


Sande St. John: A legacy of loving Laguna

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Woman of the Year, among other things

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

The incomparable Sande St. John, volunteer extraordinaire

The tradition of the Firefighters’ Labor Day Pancake Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

A fun family event on September 20th

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

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The American Legion Hall, home to No Square Theater

Opening up the floodgates

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

At least it is for her.

The dynamic duo of “The Sandies”

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

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

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

No Square Theater

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

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

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

If only the Easter Bunny could speak!

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

Trying to pass the torch

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

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

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

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

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



He’s practically synonymous with surf culture… Paul Naudé enjoys it - and success is proof positive

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He was fixing dings and dents in surfboards, and little did anyone know that a surf industry pioneer was at work. Certainly Paul Naudé figured he was just doing something he enjoyed in between surf sessions in his hometown in South Africa. 

Paul Naudé

There were a few others inspired by everything surf-related there in Durban, and it seems like they collectively said, “California here I come!”

They came, they saw, they conquered. Witness the many South African entrepreneurs who conquered our sunny shores with their innovative surfboards, and their surf-style fashion trends. And they grew businesses, placing Orange County on the global map as the economic capital of the surf industry.

How did successes such as Billlabong, and Gotcha blossom from small-time garage stores 10,000 miles away? 

“In South Africa we were outdoor lifestyle driven. The [surf] industry is vibrant in South Africa,” Naudé said. “I don’t know if it’s the work ethic, or it just happened that way.”

Naudé’s early shop progressed from surfboard fixing and building, to the beginnings of surf apparel – wetsuits. From that small and successful business in Durban, he then ran the South Africa branch of Gotcha International, which broadened the nature of surf-related retail. When he was asked to make the move to California he enthusiastically said yes. 

California and Hawaii were always the dream back in South Africa, sparked in no small part by the movie, The Endless Summer. To this day, Naudé has a holiday home in St. Francis Bay, home of the famous Bruce Beauties surf break from the movie.

“Anything California or Hawaiian we gravitated toward, anything surf related – boards, style, apparel…” All good, he says. “All the great board builders – they were all California guys.”

Naudé moved here in the early ‘90’s and has been shaking up surf culture ever since. He recently stepped down after 15 years as the president of Billabong USA. And now he’s in the thick of a new venture.

A world-wide branding

Billabong had been slipping as a publically traded company during the economic woes since 2008. Naude saw the better option, and great potential in taking it private. He took a leave from his position to form a coalition with equity partners and make a bid to buy Billabong himself. 

The tough part was the three-month process of framing the bid. The mixed-benefit side of the next five months of waiting for the decision involved surfing. Of course!

“I headed up Billabong USA for about 15 years and in 2012 decided to step out to try to buy the company and take it out of the public market and into a privately held concern,” he tells us. “The first three months of that project was intense but then there was about five months of back and forth communication that took up very little time daily. It was a sort of forced sabbatical and I got to go surfing virtually every day.”

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 Photo by Jason Naudé

He smiles, “I really got to appreciate Southern California surf. I drove around to different spots and chose to ride whatever board was best for the conditions.

Sometimes I’d have stretches where I’d ride a different board in each of 15 odd consecutive sessions. Anything from a 5’5 board to a 9’6. It was amazing.”

He also found out there’s actually a limit to the amount of free time he can stand. “I found I got a little bored. It cured any thoughts of retirement! 

“I need to be active in business.”

When the bid to buy Billabong was rejected, Naudé decided to take his idea of an independent retail line and run with it. With his years of experience and global contacts, he has already reached markets in more than 30 countries for his new lines: Vissla (men’s clothing), D’Blanc (eyewear/accessory brand), and Amuse Society (women’s beach wear line).

Take a walk around Coast Highway in Laguna and you’ll no doubt see several young guys walking around wearing Vissla T-shirts. The clothes are sold in independent stores, and also on-line. Naudé tells us that the graphics in the designs are key. “With e-commerce you get instant feedback what customers want. T-shirts and board shorts are staple items. The graphics are trend-driven.”

Recent economic shifts are not a downer for the global US market, according to Naudé. “People adapt to economic fluctuation. My own point of view is that the US is going to maintain a position of strength for the next few years. I’m very optimistic about the future. Sometimes correction phases are good reminders. It gets people back to center. Are the best years ahead? Always! I’m an eternal optimist.”

Wildlife, the ocean, family, and other things that matter

Running a global company and surfing, at least on the weekends, is not enough for this South African. He also became an American. “I came to Laguna Beach in ’92. I’m a naturalized American and proud of it,” says Naudé. “It is interesting to learn the history of this country, and it’s an incredible opportunity to become American. I’m grateful for it.”

He also makes the time to give back to two things that have engaged him his whole life: wildlife and the ocean. 

“We have property in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in a wildlife conservancy called Amakhala,” he said. “We have a small game lodge, Hillsnek Safari camp, and are also involved in rhino conservation. Our foundation is Chipembere Rhino Foundation, which is very active on the anti-poaching front.

“I have had a few fundraisers here in Laguna to raise funds for the anti-poaching efforts down there. The good news is that a dollar goes a long way in that country based on the foreign exchange rate. I’ve been interested in wildlife since I was a young boy.”

Ocean conservancy gets his attention in a big way too. Naudé is president of the SIMA Environmental Fund that has an annual fundraiser, The Watermans Ball. 

“We raise funds for surf related ocean environmental groups. We just completed our 26th annual event and have raised about 7.5 million dollars during that time. I’m really proud of the surf industry’s effort in this regard.”

Surprisingly there’s something else he’s proud of, and it doesn’t have to do with any of the above. Back in 1976 he became a publisher, and the magazine is still in business today.

“I started a surf magazine in South Africa called ZigZag (after a surfing term back then). It was pre-desktop publishing. Typesetting, layouts and gluing down columns of copy and captions was painstakingly slow. In my long business career in this industry I’m most proud of the fact that the magazine is still thriving today.”

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Naudé does his own board “up-cycling” at home

Meanwhile, on the home front, Naudé and his wife Debbie have two kids – Frances and Jason. In some backyard downtime they grow grapes on their Laguna hillside, and bottle wine from it. Or he and Jason create camp knives together, out of exotic woods.

But many an afternoon Paul Naudé can be found out back shaping boards just for fun. “I like to build surfboards. It’s how I started. I’ve always liked it. I have a shed at home and I take broken boards and re-build them, I call it up-cycling. I’ll take a broken long board and make it a short board, or a belly board out of pieces that are left. It’s a lot of fun.”

They say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. For Naudé a little hobby, and a little fun have gone a long way. 

And on it goes!


Lea Abel-Stone: The NextGen is stepping up

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Lea Abel-Stone is a fourth generation Lagunan.  Well-known for their artistic legacy, from architecture to wood-carving, the Abel family has contributed greatly to the aesthetic character that defines Laguna Beach.  Another legacy, equally lasting, is their community involvement.  “I’m really proud of the artistic side of my family,” says Abel-Stone, “but their legacy of philanthropy is a long one that I’m really proud of, too.  Everyone knows they can call them (Gregg and Kathy Abel) and they will be there with their support.” Abel-Stone, with six other Laguna Beach women, all with deep ties to the city, is carrying on this philanthropic legacy with NextGen.  

NextGen emphasizes community involvement

NextGen, according to the group’s website, ”represents the ‘next generation’ of local professionals and residents, with an emphasis on local involvement.” 

“You don’t really see our age group as much (doing philanthropic work).  We’re busy with work and kids.  But then I realized my mom and her friends started getting involved during this time in their lives,” she says.  Abel-Stone is 35.   

“Everyone (in NextGen) owns a business or works for a business in town.”  She herself is the Director of Anneliese School’s Manzanita Campus, as well as a former Anneliese student. “We all have different strengths.  We have a website, and we’re on Instagram.  Well, not me.  I’m good the old-fashioned way.” says Abel-Stone laughing. After referring to Instagram as “The Instagram”, she tells me, her friends have accepted that she will not be the group’s social media guru.

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Lea Abel-Stone, fourth generation Lagunan, and co-founder of NextGen

NextGen members have deep ties to Laguna

The group’s other members are Danielle Shuster, Katrina Puffer, Meghan MacGillivray Weil, Nicole Anderson, Katie MacGillivray and Catherine Talarico.  “An impressive group of gals,” as Abel-Stone describes them, who took the reins of the group when the original founder, Aaron Talarico, Catherine’s husband, had to take a step back.  “The wives just picked it up.  The husbands are involved whether they like it or not,” Abel-Stone says with a laugh. 

Wigging out for Friendship Shelter

NextGen put on their first fundraising event in August: a “Wig Out and Donate” event at the Marine Room benefitting the Friendship Shelter.  “It was our version of Dinners Across Laguna.  My mom started those.  I’ve been involved with the Shelter since I was 12 years old.  I would serve dinner, make care packages.  I always helped at events,” explains Abel-Stone.  “Our event cost $100 to come.  We raised about $6,000 for the Shelter.  We’d like to do other events for other charities, but we will always stay with the Friendship Shelter.  We are taking baby steps,” explains Abel-Stone.

Opportunities are everywhere

Their baby steps may be small but they’re definitely not slow.  With the group officially formed in May, it’s remarkable that four months later they successfully staged an event.  “We support each other’s causes and events.  That’s really important.  And even though we are just starting out we know we have a whole group to tap into.  People we all went to school with who are coming back, bringing their kids back.  We can use this group as a hub because making those connections are important,” says Abel-Stone, adding, “There is an opportunity to give back everywhere you look in Laguna.” 

The NextGen Social

In addition to putting on fundraising events, NextGen is also hosting a “Social” on October 7  at Villa Bella.  Abel-Stone stressed repeatedly her desire to “physically call people together.”  That is the purpose of the Social.  The NextGen members want to talk to other like-minded people and find out what is important to them.  

“We don’t want to be political.  We are open to different opinions.  We even talked about doing a survey because it’s good to have all the info,” she explains.  Newly planned is a holiday event – based around a toy drive, most likely – at Ritual Yoga studio.  Stay tuned!

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Lea Abel-Stone, and her husband, Zeda, await guests for their family get-together

Friendship Shelter is a family cause

  “I’m lucky to have a cause I feel so passionately about. To watch the progress at the Friendship Shelter is so exciting.  There is a difference being made there that you can see.  They make it so clear to everyone where their money is going and what good is being done with it.”  It is even more of a family cause as Abel-Stone’s husband, Zeda Stone, will join the Friendship Shelter’s Board of Directors in September.  In an email, Abel-Stone wrote that she’s “very excited and SO proud!!…as are Gregg and Kathy.” 

Learning about how Laguna Beach works

But her involvement does not end there, hence the group and their mission.  She says she has even been going to City Council meetings, not for an issue that directly impacts her, but because she wants to learn more about how the city works.  

“I went to the meeting about Air BNB.  It doesn’t effect me at all, but it was really interesting and really made me think about both sides of that issue,” she says.

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Lea Abel-Stone in her father, Gregg’s, wood shop

Worth the stress to live in Laguna

“I feel so blessed to be here.  I know it’s definitely hard for new families to move in because it’s so expensive.  It’s such a wonderful place to grow up – really a special place – no matter how stressed you get to live here.  The sense of community…you won’t find it anywhere else.  It’s unparalleled,” says Abel-Stone passionately.  

And she would know.  

She has a lot of history to fall back on when it comes to living in Laguna Beach, as do her NextGen compatriots.  Learning from the past to make the future better…the “present” generation just breathed a sigh of relief.  The “next generation” is here.  Whether they use “the Instagram” or rely on more traditional methods, they are already leaving a legacy for the next “next” generation.


John Campbell: a view of Laguna through good times and bad, old times and new times

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

From Laguna’s floods, fires, felled trees, and forced entry – you name the catastrophe, and John Campbell has been there. Not because he’s unlucky. His insurance business has helped countless residents recover from their losses. He’s the guy who makes lemonade out of lemons.

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the recovery

In 1998, Laguna suffered the worst commercial fire in its history, and a 10,000 square foot building was in ruins. It also happens to be where the John L. Campbell Insurance Agency has resided since 1977. I’m pretty sure they had some good insurance coverage themselves, and were able to return to the building once it was reconstructed. His offices command the top floor with great street-side views of the goings on along Forest Avenue.

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 John Campbell

Very early in the morning of December 22, 2012, Campbell found his usual gym, The Art of Fitness, was closed. So, despite the rain he headed to work. Squish-squish went his flops-flops on the ground. As he looked down the length of Forest Avenue he quickly assessed the situation. At his building the water was up to the doorframe, but across Forest Avenue it’s about a foot lower. There was mud everywhere. The Marine Room on Ocean Avenue was under 3-4 feet of water. 

Then there was the arson fire in 1993 that burned almost 400 homes. 

“I had 20 total losses and 60 other fire-related claims. Clients were staying all over the place – with daughters, sons, anyone,” Campbell remembers. “I contacted them all. I was lent a cell phone (they were about ten pounds then), and found them all. I wrote $10,000 checks on the spot to use for food, lodging, whatever it takes. 

“That’s what a small business owner does. That’s Laguna Beach. You take care of your clients and they take care of you.”

The upside of the story is that everyone re-built, thanks to insurance coverage. “There was a guaranteed re-build replacement in those days,” Campbell said.

I remember when

John Campbell is a born and bred Lagunan. His parents moved here in 1948, and his dad was an electrical engineer following the service. They lived for a time in Garden Grove, near his dad’s work, and to Campbell, it was almost heaven. “It was all agriculture then,” he recalls. “It was strawberries, corns, beans – miles of farmland. It was great.”

His uncle ran a repair and sales shop, Klass Radio and Appliance, on Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach. As a kid, John worked there fixing toasters, radios, and TV’s. “It was before microwaves,” said Campbell. “Before you threw everything out!”

Then his uncle was murdered in a robbery, by an ex-convict. It was bittersweet that the uncle’s life insurance money to Campbell’s mom enabled the family to buy a home in Laguna. 

As a teenager, Campbell remembers the iconic things that gave Laguna its reputation and personality.

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“That was an interesting time. I saw some strange things,” he said. “There was the hippie canyon event. I had long hair too, whatever, but I was focused on school.”

He commuted to Cal State Fullerton, first studying engineering, then history and anthropology. 

It was a car accident in 1974 that led him to the future he lives today in the insurance business. 

The car crash in front of the Laguna Royale left him with a broken ankle, femur and neck. He was in traction in the hospital for three months. A friend of his parents came to visit him and told him that he’d be eligible for Social Security disability, and to get training and licensing for insurance. He could come and work for him.

He became an agent for the guy’s agency until 1982 when the business fell apart because the man was running a Ponzi scheme. Thankfully Campbell knew enough about the legitimate business, and had plenty of contacts around town. He opened his own shop and eventually bought up others as well.  

Here’s to good times

There is a personal tradition on Swallow’s Day in San Juan Capistrano. Every year Campbell and his wife Lu would go to the Swallow’s Inn in remembrance of the day they met.

It was March 19, 1977, when Campbell met Lu at a wedding. A friend introduced the couple, and it was love at first sight. By June they had moved in together and in July they were married. 

“She was 19 years older, so it was kind of scandalous,” Campbell admits.

Lu was an artist at the Festival of Arts for a total of 32 years, 16 years as a ceramicist, and 16 as a watercolorist. Sadly, she just passed away this past January after an eight-year battle with lung cancer.

During their marriage, the Campbells loved to travel. One of the places that inspired Lu’s art, and John’s love of good food, good wine, and good friends is the tiny Chianti village of Panzano, Italy. 

“Lu and her friend Sally spent a month there and loved it. It’s all she could talk about!” laughs Campbell. Then he gave in, “Okay. Uncle. I get the picture!” The three bought a place there, and continued to visit for many years. Lu’s ashes are scattered there.

Campbell’s offices are festooned with postcards from Italy and other places they enjoyed travelling around the world. Next up he’s planning a trip to France and Amsterdam this year.

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A community volunteer

A big part of the lifeblood of Laguna’s community services has been generated by John Campbell’s energy. He joined the Jaycees in the 70’s, raised funds for Boys and Girl Scouts, he’s a Business Club past president, and he’s been on the Chamber of Commerce Board for six years. Phew. And then there’s the Rotary Club. He loves the annual Rotary car show, and has been a sponsor of the show’s antique “Woodies” since day one. He is the only Laguna chapter president who has been its president twice.

New times 

In his free time, Campbell loves to cook, and he balances that with exercise – weights, core work, and spinning at his ever-favorite gym, The Art of Fitness.

And he has found love and support once again in his life, with long-time friend of both he and Lu, Dianne Reardon. The two are now engaged.


Elsa Brizzi: open minded, compassionate educator, and she loves a good laugh too!

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Elsa Brizzi is really good at letting go. Letting go of self-doubt, releasing inhibitions, and opening herself up to freedom. She also has a way of inspiring that same sensibility in others.

This was evident to me when I witnessed her reception as Woman of the Year this year at the Woman’s Club. Turn after turn, friends and family spoke about the unique characteristics that have made her the dearly loved aunt, the unwavering friend, and the non-judgmental mentor.

Elsa Brizzi

When we sat down to chat recently I was immediately embraced by her warmth and genuinely compassionate nature. She had already made friends with a random neighbor at the adjacent coffee table while she awaited my arrival. I could tell the “new friend” would rather I had not shown up, so she could continue their conversation, getting to know Elsa better herself! Elsa’s warmth is enveloping.

A renaissance woman

Elsa Brizzi is also a woman ahead of her time. When she was facing the expected path of wife-dom and motherhood in the era perhaps now known as the Mad Men era, she took a long, hard look at what that option looked like to her. Ever the progressive, Elsa could see that was not her path; too restricting. 

“So I joined the Navy,” she said.  “It was the late 50’s, after the Korean War, and I was very patriotic. It was a good way to donate my service.”

Serving in the Navy for two years, she learned to be a weather forecaster. She was stationed in New Jersey where the dirigibles came in. Her time in the military also paved the path toward a new life.

“The GI Bill is how I went to college and could buy a home with no money down,” she said.  “I got a house in Garden Grove, and commuted to Cal State Los Angeles. My sister had a surfer husband, and kids in Laguna Beach. She found a house for me, and I loved it. I got another job just to afford it!”  

Yes, that’s two jobs plus college. No one has ever accused Elsa of being lazy!

Beyond being an admirable student, Elsa became impassioned as an educator. She went to USC on a Ford Foundation Grant to earn her teaching degree at night.

Early on, she got a teaching job at a junior high school, a formal school in Pasadena. The kids were not paying attention. “I had to get them involved,” she said. “So I took the desks and chairs and placed them in a circle. Then they got to know each other, got comfortable. And they found out that making a mistake is okay. Correcting it is wonderful!” 

It wasn’t the stuffy school way. “I got a terrible evaluation,” she admits. She was admonished. “My desks were not in a row!” She smiles, “I left that school.” 

She went from there to an alternative school, where the teachers, in fact, had to make presentations to the students to get them to join the class. That is more her style.

From the outside looking in

Having grown up with a German father, and a Spanish-Mexican mother, in L.A., Elsa blossomed in a multi-cultural landscape. 

“Where we are raised, how we are raised, affects how we learn. There’s something inspirational being in diverse groups. I love being in that environment! It’s terribly exciting to see how people take things in,” she says enthusiastically.

After a two-year stint exploring her creative side, in a seaside house she built herself, in Mexico (with Moroccan design influences), she packed up her ceramic and welding studio, and got into the business of teaching teachers. She started a bilingual program underscored by her great interest in matters of the mind.

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Elsa made this art piece for her house 

“I’ve always been into philosophy and psychology – how do bilingual kids feel learning English?” she asks. “In Rogerian philosophy they flourished.” 

She was hired to train minority teachers. “The program is cross-cultural, to learn communication skills. And I wanted teachers that looked like the kids they taught,” she explained. “I started with giving the aids a title, a ‘Para-Professional’. With a title and training they get respect.

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“I brought the teacher corps program to USC to push for para-professional training. I did programs and conferences with both the teachers and the para-professionals to train as a pair. The para-professionals could also get training and credit toward a teaching degree.”

She then launched a program to get disenfranchised immigrants and poverty bound parents turned on by education. “I did grant writing to Head Start to train single moms and parents with no careers to get college credit units, and we’d help them get into college. They learned to be teachers as well as good parents.”

Elsa is the kind of person who can relate to a variety of people, and always finds a way to bridge the cultural gaps. The culmination of her years as an educator, her heart full of compassion, plus her deft hand at artistry is best symbolized in her book, You are a very special You. She wrote it, illustrated it, and translated it into three languages (English, Spanish, and Chinese).

Bridging cultures and generations

Two years ago Elsa started a literacy program linking seniors as mentors, with second-grade children. The Intergenerational Literacy Enhancement Program pairs an adult with each child. Together they work with the textbook, You are a very special You. The interactive use of the book enforces confidence-building messages, such as “No one thinks the way you think… In the tub… Or in the sink”, and “You are special in everything you do… And everyone around you… is very special too!” 

The idea, Elsa explains, is that both the mentor and the child will have learning opportunities in which to share their feelings and ideas.

“Who you are is in self-discovery,” she says. “In the program book, you relate to an older person. How you act toward me is how I expose myself – or feel proud about myself – in your presence. It’s about head and heart. The mentor furthers praise, proximity, and [reinforces that] making mistakes is okay, celebrating correcting is even better.

“It’s wonderful! I’ve learned so much and experienced so much. I saw how outsiders were treated. I’ve learned to treat mistakes as learning experiences. You’ve already made the mistake – now they’re learning experiences!” 

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Kids participating in Elsa Brizzi’s reading program at the library

Kids and seniors participate in the program at the Boys & Girls Club during the months of January, February, and March, and also at Laguna Beach Library for their reading program. Volunteer mentors come from the Susi Q Center, and AAUW. All get special training for the program “interactions”.

The library gives a presentation for parents to come and see the kids share the book, and their own work. In this way, as Elsa describes it, the parents do the interaction too and can then follow up and reinforce the messages at home.

“It’s a program of self-discovery for me too,” she said. “We’ve all got such potential! I’m learning all the time. Heart and soul and brain turned on – continually growing all the time.”

Yes she is!

And to keep the physical in as good shape as the metaphysical, Elsa has also completed her training as a water aerobics instructor. She teaches a class every week in Foothill Ranch, where “the pool is covered and it’s a nice 80 degrees.” Then she gets back to her garden in Laguna where she claims to have the biggest figs around.

In closing, I am touched by Elsa’s care and concern to make our community, and our country ever better. 

“Education is so very important. Just laws, good education, good health care, that’s what any society, any country needs,” she says. “Our children are critical. This community can BE leadership, and show the way.”

With leaders like Elsa Brizzi I believe that’s true.


Laguna powerhouse Laura Tarbox on success & community

By ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

When speaking with Laura Tarbox, the words that come up most frequently are ‘family’ and ‘friends,’ her focus during our interview, despite the fact that we’re seated at the Newport Beach headquarters of the Tarbox Group—the wealth management firm Laura founded 30 years ago. There is an unmistakable down-to-earth quality and warmth about Laura that make her true values come across as clearly as the view of the Pacific Ocean directly behind her. She is a people-person, which is undoubtedly a quality that has helped her along the path to becoming the woman she is today: a hugely successful financial advisor and one of the leading benefactors in the Laguna Beach community. 

The Tarbox Group’s beginnings

Laura, raised in Santa Monica, attended UCLA and—despite her parents’ protests—majored in English. After she graduated in 1980, she found herself faced with the classic dilemma: what do I do with my English degree? 

Fortunately, Laura’s mother’s boyfriend, a stockbroker, had an entry-level opportunity for her at his Tustin office. And with that, Laura did what she thought she’d never do: leave West L.A. and head south for Orange County. She moved to the Victoria Beach area of Laguna Beach, and commuted back and forth along Laguna Canyon Road each day. 

While Laura fell in love with Laguna Beach, she simultaneously became captivated by the financial world. Though she initially spent her first days and weeks post-college cold calling, she was hooked by the industry. Only five years after graduating from college, Laura made the decision to start her own company in 1985. 

“I was working 60-80 hours a week during that time,” says Laura, who held several other jobs—delivering the Wall Street Journal, for example—while she worked tirelessly to build the foundation for the Tarbox Group. 

Her company was one of the early firms to offer fee-based wealth management services. Going against the grain in that sense for Laura meant that those early years required intense effort and determination. But when asked why she didn’t want to build a commission-based business, Laura will simply tell you that she thought she was “doing the right thing.” 

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At work

Today, not only does Laura still have clients from those early days, but she’ll also tell you that the majority of her clients—roughly 100 families—have become close friends of hers. 

As for the Tarbox Group? “It’s like a big family,” she says. 

Which is important, considering the fact that there were obvious challenges present for Laura as a woman entering the financial world, and especially one with an entrepreneurial mindset. She’ll admit that it remains a struggle for her to this day—though she’s had countless victories over the years. One shining moment for Laura? The day she realized that if she wanted to paint her office walls and have her letterhead be purple, then they’d be purple! It’s her company, after all, and she’s learned to embrace who she is as its leader. 

“The number of women in financial services hasn’t really changed much over the years,” she says, “but I’ve always used that to my advantage.” Even still, Laura says that in meetings held at her office, salespeople will sometimes fail to make eye contact with or speak directly to her, even though the company is her namesake. Moments like those, however, don’t hold Laura back. She’s strengthened by her experiences, which she’s shared with countless of those young women and students whom she’s mentored and taught over the years. 

“Numbers and financial skills… anyone can learn those. People skills are so important in this business, because you become so integrated into people’s lives… and I think in many ways, women do better there,” says Laura. 

Laura understands that there are many emotions and issues around money—one of the biggest challenges for her in her day-to-day work—and she’s found that the more personal you can get and the more you can connect with clients, the more it becomes a team effort, where trust and strong relationships are built naturally.

Serving the Laguna Beach community

Relationships, collaboration and connecting with others are values that have enabled Laura to find success and fulfillment in other areas of her life, too—especially when it comes to community service. She was raised by parents who instilled in her the importance of giving back to your community; her father was a member of the Big Brother organization, and her mother held leadership roles within the Girl Scouts organization. For Laura, time spent giving back is just as important as time spent within the four purple walls of her corner office. 

Before her daughter was born and during her first few years as a Laguna Beach resident, Laura joined the SchoolPower Endowment Fund as a Board Member. Soon after, she started to devote her time to other Laguna non-profits, such as the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Community Clinic. 

It wasn’t until she joined the Laguna Beach Community Foundation in the early 2008, however, that Laura discovered an organization through which her leadership could have the greatest impact in terms of connecting with and supporting countless, wide-ranging local non-profits. Today, she’s the Founding Chair, and is undoubtedly responsible for much of the organization’s tremendous growth and success since it was founded in 2004. 

“For me, joining the Laguna Beach Community Foundation was the best decision…a natural fit for what I do business-wise, and I love Laguna,” says Laura, who works most frequently on the investment side of the organization. She loves working with a foundation that can reach all of the other sub-organizations and non-profits in Laguna Beach, and she is a big believer in the organization’s mission: strengthening the Laguna Beach community by encouraging, supporting, and providing expertise and resources for its non-profits. 

It’s a lofty mission, considering the fact that Laguna Beach’s zip code boasts one of the highest numbers of non-profit organizations in California. The sheer number of non-profits can be a challenge, according to Laura, but the LBCF has helped provide so many organizations with tools that they might not otherwise have access to—such as board infrastructure and tax counsel.

 “We see ourselves as unique and special, which we are,” says Laura, when asked why she thinks Laguna Beach has such a wonderfully philanthropic spirit. She also adds that she’s found many great friends through her work with non-profits; the spirit of giving is one that helps form unique bonds among Laguna Beach residents. 

Laura’s vibrant life

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At home

Although it’s hard to believe that Laura has time for anything but work and the LBCF, those things are just a part of what makes her who she is. Today, Laura resides in a beautiful ‘coastal craftsman’ on Manzanita Drive, and she’s an avid reader and adventurer. Some of her favorite activities are partaking in her two local book groups, and practicing yoga at YogaWorks. 

She’s also part of a group of women who embark on annual hiking adventures to various mountain communities in the US; last year, they hiked in Jackson Hole. Oh, and she also somehow finds enough hours in the day to run on a regular basis, too, and to grab a bite at Zinc Café, her favorite Laguna hangout. 

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Laura is also a devoted mother to daughter, Jane, who is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. When asked if her daughter will follow in her footsteps, Laura says, “No! My parents constantly scolded me about getting a degree in English, saying it was impractical. My daughter loves music, and I’ll encourage her to pursue a career in the arts, even if she has doubts about it… I’m happy to just be supportive of her no matter what path she chooses,” says Laura.

Oh, and her best advice to women, self-starters, and people in general? “Be yourself, and play to your strengths,” she says, with the confident smile of a woman whose strength knows no limits.


Neil Skewes: A true professional behind the bar

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Until meeting Neil Skewes, I’m not sure I had ever met a true bartender. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met plenty of people who work behind a bar and mix drinks.  But a bartender – one who revels in the profession, and sees it as such…I have not met many, if any, of those until I met Skewes.  

Skewes is that kind of true bartender, as well as the bar manager at Starfish Laguna Beach, and he loves what he does.  He has been doing it in Laguna since 1999 when he started at French 75, but his career stretches back much farther than that. 

 “I grew up in Michigan.  I started managing a gas station out of high school and my brother started waiting tables at a fancy French restaurant,” said Skewes.  “I figured if he could do it, I could do it.  I just took to the business.”  

He started tending bar full time in 1985.

Neil Skewes

Working to make you feel better

Talking to Skewes about “the business” makes one appreciate the true professionals that work in the restaurant industry.  Much is made these days about chefs, and rightly so, but when you are served by someone who is a true professional, you know it – and it just makes whatever comes out of the kitchen that much better. Skewes approaches his job as much a performance as crafting cocktails.   

“I love working with the public.  I love changing people’s disposition,” he says.  “I really enjoy making someone feel better leaving than when they came in. That makes it really rewarding.”  Add to that a devotion to creating signature cocktails, and it’s no wonder people follow him wherever he goes.  

“I am a foodie. I love good food,” he adds. “Good food and drinks are one of the great things of life.

“I love putting flavors together…ten years ago I started doing that.”

And “that” is not something he takes lightly.  

Getting creative behind the bar

When we first spoke, I asked him for a drink recipe that he thought was pretty original.  He delivered.  But then the next day he called me back because he said that, after thinking about it, the one he originally gave me “may have been borrowed by other restaurants”. (Duly noted, Skewes is exceedingly diplomatic, very quick to praise others and not very interested in talking about himself.  This makes him a very delightful person, but a challenging interview.)  He asked if he could give me another drink recipe. 

The “Laguna Lemonade”, as he calls it, is a coconut strawberry lemonade made with fresh strawberries, coconut vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice and house-made lemon grass syrup. Sold!  He also mentioned a Harvest Martini with cinnamon apple liqueur, cranberry juice and a sprig of mint, which sounds delightful.  

Seeing as it’s now October, the coziness of autumn should be beckoning, but since it’s still 85 degrees, the Harvest can wait…I’m all about the Lemonade.  But I digress…

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Laguna Lemonade and other colorful and creative drink concoctions 

The success of Starfish

Skewes started at Starfish in June of 2011.  He was brought over by Nancy Wilhelm but effusively credits new owners, Archie O’Connell and Gretchen Andrews for the restaurant’s success.  

“They have worked diligently to get the word out about this place.  They have worked tirelessly to make this restaurant a success,” he says.  Their commitment to the restaurant comes up repeatedly in our interview.  As someone whose career spans 30 years, he has seen a lot of restaurants come and go.  In other words, he undoubtedly knows good management when he sees it.

A career of loyalty and longevity

“I find myself content wherever I’m working.  However, it’s a fickle business.  Sometimes places just run their course.  I stay until it’s not viable for me to stay any longer,” he explains. “I was at the Ritz Carlton for five years, the Dana Point Resort (now the Laguna Cliffs Marriott) for five years, French 75 for five years…now Starfish for over four.”  When you think of the normal turnover in the restaurant business, such longevity is astounding.  

After talking with Skewes, it’s not surprising.

Several times in our conversation I tried to get him to take credit for people following him from one place to the next.  The most I could get from him was to say that “people have said that, but I don’t think that’s true.”  Then he heaps more praise on O’Connell and Andrews! 

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Neil Skewes works his magic behind the bar at Starfish Laguna Beach

Working on weekends suits him just fine

He doesn’t limit his praise to the workplace.  Skewes has been married for 20 years.  He smiles and says, “I married up.” His wife is currently serving as the mayor of Laguna Niguel, and has her own business, Five Star Weddings and Events.  

“She’s a dynamo,” says Skewes. “She has run that business for ten years.”  Luckily, their hours are similar.  

“I love my schedule!” enthuses Skewes.  “When my alarm clock goes off it means I’m going fishing or skiing,” he says with a laugh. Work often goes late into the night. 

“The shifts are long.  It’s a performance.  It exhausts…takes a toll.  That’s why we normally work four days a week,” he explains.  

He tells me how he and his wife had a rare weekend off and decided to go to the movies. “It was so uncomfortable. You can’t find a parking spot; there was a huge crowd…we’d never seen that before.  When we got to the front of the line the movie was sold out.  I’d never heard of that!”  Turns out, he prefers his Monday nights out; there’s plenty of parking.

The value of human contact

Skewes’ schedule is just one of the perks of his chosen career.  Another important one, as he sees it, is that while he’s working he gets to try to make people feel better. 

“People are looking for human contact.  I think that’s more of a valued commodity these days,” he says of his job.  He also likes that he knows he can go anywhere and make a living doing what he loves.  

He tells me of how he arrived in the Florida Keys as a young man with $15 and no place to stay, only to land a job waiting tables and enough money to secure a place to stay in the same day.  Though his life is much different now, as exemplified by when we spoke, he was lounging by the pool with a pot of coffee nearby – but the work, more or less, is the same.  

And as far as Neil Skewes is concerned, that’s a very good thing.


Angie Miller: with can-do spirit, she’s a giver, a doer, and she likes having some fun in between

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I’m trying to keep up with Angie Miller, but her thoughts and words are as busy as her life in general. She’s got her corporate advertising, design and promotions company, Miller & Associates, firing on all cylinders and an event company she’s partnered on (Fun is First), for which she is, no doubt, the life of the party. She’s an artist. She’s big on pinnipeds (serving on the board at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center), humans (on the board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation), and flora; she’s a certified Master Gardener. 

Oh, and then she’s hopping aboard Semester at Sea’s ship with her friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She calls him Little Arch!

Angie Miller

I can’t stop writing as we talk, and I can’t stop laughing at her off-the-cuff tales.

There was the time she thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get other people’s take on me? So, she sent out postcards to friends, teachers, family, and people who have influenced her, asking, “What is an Angie Miller?” The responses came back in all forms. “The collection is the funniest little thing,” said Angie. “There were words, poems, photos – and even scratch and sniff!”

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Angie has had 12 years of classes and been certified as a Master Gardener

Or the time her friend and business partner at Fun is First threw her a parade for her birthday. Karen, who Angie calls The Queen of Fun, got the high school marching band to bring their oohm-pa-pa on down to Forest Avenue, and Angie, who at the time was not in the mood, was forced to get out front with a baton. You can’t help but change your mood when that happens!

“I couldn’t have started a business with someone more fun,” Angie says about Karen. “I was so uptight – I’m selling heart valve parameter charts!” Fun is First is the perfect foil to Miller & Associate’s straight-man.

One of her long-time clients is Edwards Life Science, for whom Miller & Associates does marketing display type products. “It’s like bi-polar with the two businesses,” she laughs. “It’s stents, and vascular stuff – or party.” 

Heading West – and around the world

Back in the day when Angie Miller was trying to shed her Georgia accent as a college freshman in California, she would drive her roommates slightly nuts. She was an art major who freely admits, “I would do anything!” One day she’d move the dryer into the living room so she could work on silk screening 2,000 shirts. Another day she’d be on a Master Framing project, and fill the place with frames of every size.

Ever hardworking and motivated, Angie attended Chapman University on a full scholarship. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree, she expanded her silk-screening into graphic design and into a full-on marketing business. Her first real workspace was at the Newport Shipyard, and her clients quickly grew: “start-ups” such as Platinum Software, and Three-Day Blinds. When the business moved to Laguna Beach they were the biggest shipper at the local FedEx. 

She attributes her entrepreneurial drive to her junior year, when she went out on Semester at Sea, a shipboard program for global study abroad. It was a work/study situation, and Angie worked as the ship’s photography assistant. The program taught her about the world, and more importantly the world of ideas, which she loves. “That’s when you realize the world is flat,” she says.

Semester at Sea studies include mentors and world leaders on occasion, such as the civil rights activist Julian Bond, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Angie is a founding board member of Semester at Sea’s Alumni Board of Directors and still joins the group at sea a couple of times a year to serve as a mentor to the students.

A commitment to care

A couple of things have caused life-changing moments for Angie. Professionally, she has worked hard to keep the business moving forward; from personally fighting for small business laws in Sacramento, to recovering from the heartbreaking loss of many clients in New York on 9/11. 

Personally, she made a decision to help someone who had become close to her: the Laguna FedEx driver, Susan. Angie and I talked on the exact anniversary of Susan’s death 11 years ago. 

“When she got cancer I committed as a friend to help her. I took time off work to care for her. We had a team; it was a hell of a journey,” she said. “It made me realize I need to be not so serious about work.

“There was quite an impact. I lost a chunk of business when I took care of her – so now I do what I like.” 

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The business she has, she likes. And her time to “give back” has grown exponentially. Those are the things that matter to Angie Miller.

“You know people for all different types of reasons,” she says philosophically. “That’s what I love about it.”

First things first

Perhaps she met her Fun is First partner to balance all the “whacky-doo” stuff she does with brochures and serious medical subject material. “We were not thinking it would be a big thing,” said Angie. “Fun is First was meant to do little pretty parties!”

Then they got a big ole party in San Diego, and then they got another biggie right in their own backyard – the opening of the Montage. They put on a doozy. 

“That was the best thing that ever happened,” Angie said. “It’s amazing that we sell fun. And we like it when fun comes back!”

Montage’s party lit up with fireworks, literally. The only other time there were private fireworks in Laguna that I know of? At Angie Miller’s 40th birthday. Not that it could ever happen again, but be on the lookout for something coming up – Angie’s birthday is November 19. 

Like the song says, the future’s so bright I’m wearing shades! 

Angie’s worked out a good balance in her life of hard work, good fun, and giving her best to many of Laguna’s charities. And she does it all with thoughtfulness, humility, and joy. Her head may be dreaming up some new schemes, but her feet are firmly planted on the ground. 

Going forward, Angie is making plans… 

“Good friends, good health, throw some travel in there – and make it flat!”

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

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. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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