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Laguna Beach


Dave Dixon, Thurston’s primo language and cultural educator is preparing to say adios, au revoir, zai jian

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

A young girl brought her friend around the corner of the building and said, “It’s in here, come on.”  Her friend looked around furtively. “Don’t worry, he’s old school, but he’s nice,” the girl reassured her. She stepped inside the doorway and pointed straight ahead. Her friend laughed when she saw it and exclaimed, “It really is like a museum piece!”

Dave Dixon overheard the whole thing and chuckled, “Yes, it’s a chalkboard. I’m still 20th century!”

And there he is, Señor Dixon personified, pants covered in his usual chalk dust. 

He puts most kids immediately at ease with his breezy nature and Southern charm, so the two girls felt quite comfortable. And, like even the new young teachers at Thurston, they wanted to go over and touch the actual chalkboard. When Dixon retires this year after 25 years of service to the kids of Laguna Beach’s middle school, so too will the chalkboard. Alas, it will be replaced with that ubiquitous staple of the modern classroom, the White Board.

“I really like chalkboards,” Dixon says with his gracious smile, and then recounts the bemused cashier at Staples, where he buys his chalk. “I came up to the register with a box of chalk, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I teach’,’ I told him. He just said, ‘You use a chalkboard?’”

Languages teacher Dave Dixon holds the Key to Thurston

Now, granted, chalk is not the only tool in Dixon’s educational arsenal. When it comes to 21st century technology, his classroom is a veritable treasure trove of gadgets. There are 15 iPads loaded with games and quizzes for Dixon’s Mandarin Chinese, Español, and English (second language) students. Those iPads can connect with the Google TV’s (three of them), so everyone is able to share content and keep up at the same pace.

But another of Dixon’s tried-and-true classroom techniques is decidedly old school. All the desks face forward. Seems like a simple concept, right? Part of the diabolical nature of Dixon’s charm is that he subtly teaches kids how to pay attention, be respectful, and listen to the teacher. That is true genius in the middle school years.

What will all the chalk do without Señor Dixon?

The classroom atmosphere reflects Dixon’s positive attitude in general.  He has Chinese dragon kites hanging on one side, and the Hispanic Wall of Fame on the other. The chalkboard, usually covered with Chinese characters, also props up the Riesgo board – that favorite game like Jeopardy, where student competitors represent different Spanish-speaking countries. And under the side tables are the sodas, juice, and snacks for afterschool pick-me-ups, and regular parties.

“I have been so happy here,” he says. “The district has been really supportive of my ideas, and different programs. And the parents! They send their kids ready to learn here. It makes teaching ten times easier.”

The adults they will become

No doubt, the middle school years are fraught with doubt, peer pressure, and other anxieties. These are the most impressionable years to grasp the concepts of self-respect and kindness toward others, including adults and society as a whole.

Dave Dixon may understand that more than most parents, having been around this age group for so long. He gives sagely advice to the parents on “Back to School” night by emphasizing the influence parents have in the choice of their children’s friends. “I tell them, ‘Encourage your children to choose friends who value succeeding and learning. They will be better off if they make friends with others who value their family relationships.’”

Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg, has been witness to the many accomplishments of this fine teacher. “Dave Dixon is able to teach the love of language, appreciation of culture, and provide an outstanding example for students to be global citizens,” she said. “He teaches by example the dignity of humanity, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”

A date with destiny

Dixon started teaching 40 years ago, when he was a proper Southern gentleman in Virginia and North Carolina. He departed briefly for six years to become a flight attendant in order to satisfy some of his wanderlust. That was when he fell in love with California. A two-week airline training session was unexpectedly postponed and Dixon found himself grounded in Santa Monica for the duration.

When he felt the tug on his heartstrings at the return of school buses in autumn, he knew it was time to get back into teaching. He signed on to teach in Manhattan Beach before joining Thurston in 1989. 

He’s always been a talented Spanish teacher, but along the way he learned German, a little Japanese and French, and continues the herculean task of conquering Mandarin Chinese.

“Now I look like I got off the Ark,” he jokes. Then, as now, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

He started the “Language Wheel” program, where students immersed in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese for six-week sessions each, including language instruction, cultural investigation, and Dixon’s famous field trips. 

“I loved going to Olvera Street,” former student Erik Henrikson said. “I loved Medieval Times!” Nick Henrikson said. Those two favorite trips are still part of the program today, even though the wheel has been changed.

For the last several years, Dixon’s “other half” has been Randi Beckley. Beckley teaches French and Linguistics, while Dixon teaches Mandarin and Spanish. Every nine weeks they switch kids over to each other’s class. Beckley expressed what so many colleagues feel about Dave Dixon’s retirement, “I’m just so sad for me, and for the kids. But I’m also happy for him.” 

This week he was presented the “Key to Thurston” in honor of his stewardship and tenure at the school.

It’s been a fun ride for 25 years and the future looks bright too

Why leave? You’d never know it by his boyish looks, but Dixon is practically ancient! Kidding. “I am!” he insists. “I’m probably the oldest in the district.” At 63, that seems unlikely, but it’s the timing that’s right for Dixon to begin a new chapter.

Chapter two

“I still have the energy, and I want to do something different, and enjoyable,” he says. “My retired friends who are the happiest are the ones who re-invent themselves.” He’s following their cue, and putting a plan in place that ties together all the things he has enjoyed in his career: language, culture, learning, and travel.

Next up – back to being a student. He’ll be attending the International Guide Academy this summer, hoping to launch his own tourism travel service in the next year. His focus is on international travel, most likely to start with a guided tour to Spain, and also travelling by train as a specialty. “I like helping people have fun outside of their every day life,” he said.

This man has been an unbelievably patient, considerate, and devoted educator with a footprint huge in the sands of Laguna Beach. Filling them again will definitely require different zapatos because Dave Dixon is one of a kind.


The Ranch: The Grand Dame’s Final 

(and Most Spectacular) Legacy

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Diane with a little help from The Ranch

 

In 1871, she welcomed the first home in Laguna Beach. 

Now – 142 years later – she will play host to Laguna’s last, great resort.

It’s a fitting honor for this grand dame, who’s so reticent of the spotlight that most people drive right past her without even looking in her direction. Those who have stopped to get to know her, though, come away with a memory that lasts a lifetime. 

For Mark Christy, it’s high time this beauty was introduced to a much larger audience of admirers. 

She is The Ranch at Laguna Beach, formerly a.k.a., The Thurston Homestead, Ben Brown’s and Aliso Creek Inn (Hey, every grand dame is allowed a few name changes over the course of a lifetime.).

From the entryway on Coast Highway, you wonder how a hotel and a 9-hole golf course can be tucked back in what seems like such a tiny space. Drive a few hundred yards into the interior, though, and The Ranch offers a stunning enclave that meanders beneath towering canyon walls. 

“Most people think they’ve taken a wrong turn when they first turn up our street,” says Director of Sales & Marketing Jim Tolbert. “But once they make that final turn and the entire canyon opens up in front of them, they’re just stunned. The Ranch is not what anyone expects.”

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The golf course - today

 

The Ranch is the “yin” to the rest of Laguna Beach’s “yang”

Not even a quarter mile away, the Pacific pounds its way onto the beaches and rocks, and thousands of visitors create their own riotous color palette of beach blankets and umbrellas. There is a constant thrum of energy and activity in Laguna Beach. 

In contrast, The Ranch is sublime serenity. 

“We have people tell us that as soon as they get beyond the first hole of the golf course, everything changes for them,” says General Manager Kurt Bjorkman. “She just has that kind of way about her.”

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Since Mark Christy and his team took over as The Ranch’s new “caretakers” in late 2013, they commonly refer to the property as “her.”  

“This girl has plenty of personality and – I suspect – many stories to tell,” says Christy. “She’s just so darned charming that it’s made all of us that much more committed to giving her the spotlight she deserves.” 

While daily golfing, family events and catered special events continue through the summer at The Ranch, late September and early October will see the actual spotlight switched to “ON” when renovations are completed for the hotel and banquet hall/restaurant. 

“Renovations” Meaning Building Back Up from the Foundation

Most folks around town think Mark Christy is merely sweeping out the dust on the old hotel room floors and changing a bit of wallpaper here and there.

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Oh no no no. What’s happening here is big … very big. But when all the new is completed, it will look as if she’s been settled here for decades. 

The Ranch is returning to her roots, evolving in a lovely, turn-back-the-clock sort of way as a classic, beachy cottage resort. 

“In all my years growing up, I spent just about every weekend at Crystal Cove in my grandmother’s Cottage #9,” says Christy. “That relaxed, nostalgic kind of feel is what The Ranch imbibes, but it’s also going to be very chic and very cool. We call it ‘unpretentious luxury meets coastal ranch chic.” 

Her Story Till Now

Naming her officially as “The Ranch” came just as easily to the new owners. “We never really sat down and had a brainstorming session on what we were going to call her,” says Bjorkman. “From Day One, this was “The Ranch.” She just had that old-school, relaxed vibe about her.”

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Thurston Homestead

Indeed, “The Ranch” was her first name when the Thurston Homestead was established here in 1871. Remnants of the first cottage were recently found at the golf course’s third hole. Cattle guards still remain in primary roads. And almond and walnut trees are still producing their wares, having been planted more than a century ago as part of the working ranch.

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Girl Scout Camp – circa mid-1950s

In 1927, The Ranch was host to the first Girl Scout camp in California, and in 1950 she was named the Laguna Beach Country Club. In 1960, she was sold to Ben Brown, who had plans for a 10-story hotel. 

While the towering blueprint was actually approved by the City in 1961, the local and national economy wasn’t stable enough to support Ben’s plan. So, Brown resorted to opening a rambling 64-unit apartment complex in 1963, instead. The lovely 9-hole golf course and a hexagonal home for the Browns followed suit.

Brown’s widow held on to the place for decades, finally selling to Aliso Creek Properties LLC in 2004. The Montage Resort managed the property and made upgrades through mid-2013 until the LLC entertained Mark Christy’s purchase requests. 

A Stunning Canyon Experience

When Aliso Creek Properties stepped out in November 2013, Christy and his team moved in like a military operation. 

Gilbert Briseno, “The Tree Whipserer”

While workers began dismantling the hotel roofing and walls, another crew tackled the overgrown golf course, led by none other than Gilbert Briseno. Gilbert began working on Ben Brown’s golf course in 1963 (50 years ago!) as the first Caddyshack “gopher getter,” and was subsequently hired by Fred Lang, the famed landscape architect in 1968. 

In the many years since, Gilbert has become known as the area’s “Tree Whisperer,” as he renovates and reinvigorates plant life everywhere. Since November, Gilbert has worked tirelessly with crews, clearing yards of poison oak lining the course, cutting down diseased pines that threatened healthy tree neighbors, filling 40 dumpsters with invasive weeds and fire-hazard overgrowth, and saving the lives of many trees and plants that others would have been uprooted. 

The result? An unbelievable “new” view that golfers didn’t even know existed. 

For starters, you can actually see the canyon walls and interesting caves on either side. Trees and bushes have sprung back to life. The once-clogged creek now chuckles happily along. And the overgrown site that initially served as the Girl Scout Camp is now a gorgeous, wide-open venue for special events (nicknamed “Scout Camp.”) Even better – erosion hazards throughout the course have been fortified with repurposed red cedar planking that once housed the hotel’s carports.  

The “Scout Camp” set up for a wedding event

Nostalgia Draped in Modern-Day Luxury

As Christy moves from the golf course tour to the hotel renovation explanation, he is positively gleeful. 

“If you want to enjoy your honeymoon in seclusion, you can have that. And, if you want your entire wedding party in a series of hotel rooms that converge onto one courtyard, you can have that, too. This is as individualized or as group-oriented an experience as you wish it to be,” he says.    

The Ranch’s original 64-rooms have been expanded to 97 approved hotel units, including 64 large hotel rooms, nine studios, three massive suites and 20 “cottages” that feature 1,125 square feet in an upstairs/downstairs layout. Lastly, the hexagonal Brown house (now named “The Treehouse”) will be included in the rental mix as a separate, two-story home that overlooks The Ranch’s green expanse. 

In keeping with the beachy, cottage nostalgic feel, the hotel is topped in rusted corrugated tin roofing and “every furniture and décor item you see in the hotel rooms will be ‘found’ items.

“We want a very relaxed, beach cottage feel. Even our air conditioning units will be stealth,” Christy says with a grin. 

Even as the giant, gleaming kitchen continues to cater to incoming, weekly weddings and events, the banquet hall, private dining rooms and primary restaurant are undergoing staged renovation, too.

Here, the ceilings will be popped for another 6 feet of height. Over here, the banquet room will be extended onto a 3,000-foot deck. Behind this bar here, floor-to-ceiling glass windows will slide effortlessly open and closed. Even the hotel lobby’s location is changing to create a greater “sense of arrival” for guests. 

A Magnetic Pull

As we chat, Camron Woods trots in from the same lobby we’re discussing. He is the new Director of Culinary Operations, having recently moved from his Executive Chef’s role at the Grand Del Mar’s Amaya restaurant. 

Assuredly, the Ranch has attracted a veritable “who’s who” in the hospitality industry.

“I was working at my 13th hotel, and it was a pretty amazing place, but I just knew I had to be here at The Ranch,” says GM Bjorkman. “For the most part, people in the hospitality industry consign themselves to a rather nomadic lifestyle – movement is normal. But I know my entire career has led to this project. I’m submerged completely, every day; there’s just nothing like it.”

Adds Tolbert, “Every day I drive up here, I feel folded into the family. There’s a sense of commitment here from everyone involved; it’s become a real labor of love. 

“It’s important that we give The Ranch her chance to really shine in front of the Laguna Beach community … and a global community as well. She is the unique culture of Laguna Beach,” says Tolbert. 

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Bjorkman sits back in his chair and thinks for a moment. “When you decide to make a career in hospitality, you make a commitment to serve others above yourself. 

“And when you think of this place – The Ranch – as a personality, it’s so fitting because she just has this great energy … this air of ‘service’ and graciousness and welcome.

“You just feel … held.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


In the city or on the field, she’s a top team player 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Anyone who has been through the laborious task of home building or renovation in Laguna knows just how many hoops need to be jumped. Hitching up to the zoning and building desk at City Hall is enough to give most of us the heebie-jeebies. That’s when Nancy Csira shines in her best golden light. 

Nancy Csira keeps a sharp eye on design 

The acting Zoning Administrator has a smile bright enough to light that daunting desk. Part of the reason is because she’s clear on the rules of the City, part is her own experience as an architect, and another part is her sunny personality. Put it all together and maybe building in this town is not so bad after all.

“I believe the process does not have to be contentious,” she says. “My goal is that people will want to live to live in their house after!”

With a passion for design

When Csira moved here 23 years ago she had just left her own architecture firm in New Jersey. She and her then-husband moved west to Laguna to raise a family because they loved this town. New Jersey’s great and all, but… you know.

When she started her architectural design here, she saw first-hand just how long the process was through the building plan-check. So, when she started actually working for the City, she knew what needed to be done to streamline the process. “Knowing the design end helps,” she says.

Since being the full-time, go-to Zoning Administrator she’s not permitted to design within the city, but having an eye for design helps to mitigate those often-pesky issues that come up with folks in the process. 

“I’ll say, ‘Have you considered… such and such’, and work toward compromises so that everyone’s happy,” Csira explained. “I love my job. They can throw anything at me and I’ll make it work!”

Got a building plan? Enter City Hall and step right up to the counter 

Long time resident, lawyer and realtor, Phyllis Snyder has been at the zoning desk across from Nancy Csira many times. She smiled when she shared her side of the story, “If you look up cooperation in the dictionary, you’ll see Nancy’s face!” 

But community development, including the planning, zoning, and design review boards, means more than the sum of its parts for Csira. “My life at the City is a family,” she says. There’s a big group of friends from City Hall, some other single people (“Most of this town is married,” she laments), and they enjoy spending time outside of work too, playing cards, games, having birthday parties and barbecues. Oh yeah, happy birthday to Nancy this past Sunday!

She is a go-getter

Csira is a natural at making friends, with her east-coast brand of reaching out. “I told my neighbors when I moved here, ‘Sometimes I’ll just pop over! You have to get used to that.’ That’s what I do.” She is, as she says, “embedded in a lot of groups.” 

One group that has been with her from the east coast to the west coast, are her sports compadres. 

Every member of her large family still is active in one sport or another as adults, so it might be that it’s bred in the bone. But there’s no stopping this Csira in the soccer domain. Put any other plans on hold if there’s a league night or games day!

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She likes the design of a soccer ball too - ready for free time 

On the field too

She plays with a holiday soccer league in San Clemente, with a Friday night co-ed league in Newport, a women’s team on Sundays, and Wednesday summer night’s pick-up games at LBHS. “I like to do what I like to do!” she says.

All three of her children played soccer as well, and daughter, Jackie, now plays with her on the women’s team. That’s fun, but the coed teams are more challenging. “I really like playing co-ed because there’s no slouching,” she said. 

If Nancy Csira were to slouch it would probably be in a seat watching soccer. She has license to do just that when she goes to the World Cup this month in Brazil. No sloucher on scoring tickets, though, because she’s going to the finals! How do you say soccer nirvana in Portuguese?

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Jackie Csira enjoys spending a little time on the field with her mom 

Raising her three kids meant Csira got to know every field in Laguna very well. Jackie’s the soccer player, son Chip was baseball and soccer, and Brock was soccer and football. She was on the board of the Little League for three years, and remains number two on their all-time volunteer trophy. 

If you’ve enjoyed a burger or two at Riddle Field’s snack bar anytime since its re-do, you’ll have Nancy Csira to thank. She donated her time and design to replacing the tilting, tired shack with the current iteration, complete with new foundation. She enjoyed the project. She said, “I saw it as playing and having fun; not as work.”

She also served seven years as Registrar for AYSO. Dealing with parents and their griping was like negotiation 101 which she’s parlayed into her City work: negotiation 102. 

Playing sports and building things runs in the family. Csira’s son, Chip, is now a local building contractor. When he was little she called him MacGyver; he was always making things out of nothing. “He just loved building things,” she said. “And we both loved Legos.”

Nancy was playing and building with Legos at seven years old, when she mapped out her plan. “I knew I wanted to be an architect and a mom when I grew up. I kind of forgot about the husband part,” she jokes. 

She had an early start in the world of design/build, yet never gave up on her vision. It’s this committed passion to the pursuit of her dreams that keeps driving her vision forward. Doing what she enjoys, and enjoying what she does is what makes Nancy Csira the happy and delightful person she is.


Lisa Mansour: Jumping in all the way for community 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Making the move fourteen years ago with her husband and three daughters, “aged four, two, and new,” Lisa Mansour wasn’t sure Laguna Beach was going to be the place they’d ultimately call home. She and her husband, John, had already had adventurous lives in Chicago and Hawaii, and had had a pause in their hometown of Phoenix.

While in Laguna for John’s job, developing Montage Laguna Beach, the plan was simply to enjoy the beach and sunshine, and more than likely be on to the next project in a few years time. Fourteen years later, Lisa and her family are still here. And while the sunshine is pretty great, it’s the family’s community involvement, spearheaded by Lisa that has played the biggest part in making Laguna their home.

Lisa Mansour, a giver to the community

“I started with just getting involved, but that ended up enriching my life, and the more people I met in Laguna the more passionate I became about this community,” said Lisa. “I want to fill my days doing meaningful things for this town that I love so much.”

And she has. 

Embracing her father’s advice of “leap and the net will appear”, Lisa’s passion for her community and the arts has made an indelible mark for the new hometown she treasures.

Getting involved with her girls

With three young daughters, “meaningful things” started with Lisa’s community involvement circling around them and their interests. First, there was MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), at Coast Hills Church, where she ended up on the Steering Committee as an art coordinator. “Creating a craft project for about 100 moms to do every week – I honestly think I’m still cleaning up glitter!” she laughs.

Then, as daughter Chloe entered elementary school, Lisa soon became co-director of the annual El Morro Talent Show. “One year led to two which led to eight,” she says. 

From these humble yet meaningful steps a dynamic, civic-minded leader in the arts was, if not born, at least certainly awakened.

Sometimes you just have to jump in

Growing up “in art” and always enrolled in some kind of art class, Lisa’s college dream was to further study art, but college reality favored practicality. “I chose the most creative avenue within a business degree; advertising and marketing,” she said. With degree in hand from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, she went off to Chicago to work for a well-known ad agency (remember Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike”?).

Marriage and kids came; roots were set down.

In 2009 a position came on her radar for the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. Lisa thought, why not? “You can wait a long time to feel qualified enough,” she explains. Five years, and three terms later Lisa is more than qualified “enough”. 

Her business background combined with her love of art, have found a perfect balance in her role as Arts Commissioner.

Besides the prominent Art in Public Places program, Lisa knows a lot of behind-the-scenes work, such as budgeting, planning, and forecasting. It all goes along with being a commissioner. 

“We also have a strong and growing performing arts component, including Sunset Serenades, Music in the Park, Friday Flicks at the Forum, and Shakespeare in the Park,” she said. “My whole life I’ve been involved in creative things, but being in Laguna is like creative Utopia. The artistic culture has seeped into all of us.”

A family affair with the performing arts

All three Mansour girls have a passion for the arts too. Chloe, now a freshman at Boston College started out in the community theater. She now travels and performs with the a cappella group, The Bostonians. Tessa, LBHS sophomore, is a classically trained soprano who more than held her own, singing “The Prayer” with Andrea Bocelli last December. She recently portrayed Amy, in “Little Women” at the high school. The youngest, Isabel, exudes creative talent too, and will attend the Orange County High School of the Arts this fall, as a 9th grader.

“John and I are truly in awe of our three daughters and their fearlessness and creativity and passion,” said Lisa. “I think these traits were fostered by the culture here in Laguna.”

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Lisa’s life is immersed in the arts

Fearlessness does not end with the Mansour children, as Lisa stepped out of her comfort zone and joined the local theater troupe, Lagunatics, five years ago. She remembers, “Bree Burgess told me, ‘Adults need a playground too!’ Boy, was she right. I have found my tribe amongst my cast mates.”

Having her passion for the theater ignited, Lisa branched out to No Square Theater’s summer musical, “Ruthless”, and last year she joined the Laguna Tunes Community Chorus. With her contagious enthusiasm, she wanted to be sure it was known that Laguna Tunes is a no-audition chorus and anyone from the community is invited to join.

Turning loss into a dream realized

Lisa’s father, her “best friend”, passed away from pancreatic cancer two years ago at the age of 70. It was heart wrenching and a terrible reminder of how fleeting time can be. “I thought my dad would have had 20 more years at least,” she said. “With my grief came middle-aged musings: have I done everything I wish I had done?” For she still had a dream unfulfilled.

Her dream had been easy to put aside for other obligations for nearly 30 years, but now the timing was right.

Back to the future - art school it is!

Lisa enrolled in the Laguna College of Art and Design, and is pursuing that elusive Bachelor of Fine Arts. “I can’t go to school in my flannel pajamas like the other kids!” Lisa laughs. She has jumped in whole-heartedly. “The students are incredibly talented. It’s daunting, but I’m trusting the process, and enjoying every minute of it.”

Giving back

With their incredibly full lives, both Lisa and John manage to find volunteer opportunities that they can do together. Five years ago they joined the Friendship Shelter, as 20th anniversary Trustees.

“My dad instilled in me the need to help those less fortunate,” Lisa said. “He fought in Vietnam, and was actually there when I was born. I remember a day when we ran into a homeless vet on the street. He and my dad started up a conversation and ended in a bear hug, both with tears in their eyes. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’ my dad would often say.”

With that motto always in mind, and a desire to give back to the community they feel has given them so much, John and Lisa recently joined the Board of Trustees of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation. “LBCF is at a point where it is really being energized by the new executive director. We are very excited about the future growth of the organization and its desire to encourage philanthropy,” Lisa said. “This community embraces anyone willing to step out and get involved.”

While others may “step”, it is very clear that Lisa Mansour chooses to leap.


Larry Nokes, a Renaissance man in our time

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Larry Nokes, esquire, is a problem solver. Larry Nokes, Chamber of Commerce president, is a man with a finger on the pulse of business Laguna. And Larry Nokes, family man, grows his own veggies, puts them together as an amazing cook, and tops it off with a guitar serenade.

Larry Nokes

Back in 1982, Larry was a young hotshot lawyer, and he had just started with a big-name law firm in Newport Beach. Pretty soon he was handling cases all over the country, commuting airport to airport. He managed to anchor a home in Laguna Beach in 1986, but when he and his wife, Cathy, had a child he knew something had to change. “I was all over the place,” he explained. “And then I knew, I’ve got to make a choice. You’ve got to enjoy your kid growing up!”

McKenna Nokes is no doubt happy with that choice too, as dad has been present at her birthday parties, coached her soccer team, and plays guitar and records music with her. 

Since opening his own firm, Nokes & Quinn, in 1993, Larry has been active in the legal world, his community, and savored the experience of his daughter’s growing up. “I love it. I could be involved, I could coach soccer,” Larry says. “I could even stop and see a play on the way to court!” 

It’s a charmed life being able to balance work and family.

Chamber man

One day Michael Kinsman, then president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, called and said, “Why aren’t you a member of the Chamber?” Larry had no good answer for that other than timing is everything. He was familiar with the Chamber business even while growing up in Holladay, Utah, where both his parents were active in the Junior Chamber.

Since that call in 2009, Larry has been an active member. He’s served on the Board since 2010, and is currently the president. His goals for the Chamber of Commerce are like everything he’s passionate about: be effective, communicative, and responsive.

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A mover and shaker, with accolades to match

In lawyer-speak, Larry comments on the Chamber business: “We’ve made a conscious effort to be responsive to the City government, and economic trends. We do everything we can between commercial and residential areas to improve and promote floundering areas.” 

They’ve been very successful at that, with events such as the Pearl Street commercial district “ribbon-cutting”, and the Taste Of Laguna, which started out with around 200 attendees and is now closer to 1,000.

The Chamber has improved communication, getting the word out there via their website and e-mail blasts. This has directly related to a jump in membership, from 100-175 to now more than 400 paying members. “The open-rate response has been very high,” said Larry. “So we feel we’re doing a better job staying in touch.”

Looking out

The biggest community kerfuffle Larry Nokes has deftly handled lately has to be the View Ordinance. 

On January 15, 2013 the City Council voted to form a View Equity Committee headed by Mayor Kelly Boyd. The goal of the Committee was to recommend modifications to the City’s View Preservation program, a highly contentious issue in Laguna, as it is in a lot of coastal communities.

At the first hearing 18 months ago, the committee, including Nokes, Boyd, and seven other people Larry Nokes considers “a really good group – passionate and well organized”, presented a lot of research. They compared other city ordinances for reference; places such as Tiburon, Malibu, and Palos Verdes. Then they analyzed what the restrictions were within Laguna, what was the layout and intent of specific neighborhoods, and what can be done to honor that.

“Interest in the community was huge,” Larry said. “But ultimately three groups congealed: people for maximum tree trimming, people for preserving vegetation, and people for the right trees in the right places.” The key was to get them all in the same room, and be heard. 

Toward that end, the committee has held eight public meetings, taking in the City staff’s points of view as well. The ordinance passed its first reading on May 29.

“We came pretty close to threading the needle on that ordinance. It took a lot of time,” Nokes said. “It may be amended and changed, but it’s a good place to start.” 

The ordinance still has to be passed by a second reading, but there’s enthusiasm for trying it out. “Some believe it’s gone too far, some think it’s not enough, and some are in the middle,” he said. “It’s a nuanced issue.”

Thankfully there are people like Larry Nokes willing to thread that needle.

A guitar is always on hand to balance the left-brain thinking

Looking back 

If you think growing up in the Salt Lake Valley sounds like an inauspicious beginning, then you don’t know Larry’s mom. “She’s still a fireball!” Larry tells us. 

Jackie Nokes retired in the mid 1990’s, but was well known in the Salt Lake area, first as the “Romper Room” lady (only those born before 1965 will be smiling now), and then as a local television interviewer and, finally, as Director of the Utah State Fair.

Larry’s dad seasoned his legal chops: he was a lawyer too.

Speaking of seasoning, his parents also fostered Larry’s love of cooking. Sprinkle in a mission trip he took to Italy for two years, and you have the makings of a serious foodie (who reads and speaks fluent Italian).

With his busy life including fingers in many pies, Larry Nokes finds sanctuary in his favorite de-stressing activity: baking. Cathy got him the gift of baking sessions at Pain Quotidien, and since then he’s been off and running. “I like the precision of baking,” he says. “It’s chemistry, really.”

Bake it, broil it, grow it and grill it

Just about every Saturday he dons a long apron and pulls out a sack of flour, some yeast, water and salt. That’s all he says is needed for a good baguette. His little secret is to add a bit of honey to the yeast, “Just to get it really going.” And then it’s the perfect baguette.

McKenna grew up making another favorite – pizzas  – with dad. Now she’s grown up and graduated college (from Charleston, SC, another foodie town. Coincidence?). She’s out of the nest and making her own pizzas, and now Larry’s two little nieces are the students learning from the maestro.

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Ava, left, and Lila, right, learn the best pizza technique from Uncle Larry

First, start with garden produce, which, of course the Nokes’ grow fresh in their Top of the World backyard. “Right now there’s gardening work I’ve got to do,” Larry said. “I started with fruit trees and a couple of beds, and all of a sudden we’re growing our own basil for pesto, lettuce, potatoes… It’s an irresistible force you have to take advantage of!”

Growing your own and cooking outside are just two of the reasons this is such a great place to live.

For outdoor cooking, Larry likes to use the grill for slow-cooking meats, ribs, and…macaroons?  “We’ve tackled some bizarre things on the grill,” he tells us. For pizzas, he’s put a special oven attachment onto one of the grills. His recipe for success is to invite 10 or 12 friends and they all have a good time designing custom pizzas.

Larry Nokes is a well-rounded man - in the good way! He’s truly a giver to the community, in all those things that really matter: commitment, citizenship, family, and the joys of simple things.



Tom Klingenmeier keeps the Sawdust moving forward

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Many things call people to Laguna Beach.  For Tom Klingenmeier, General Manager of the Sawdust Festival, it was his son’s request to go fishing.    

“In 1978 we were firmly entrenched in Chicago. We had two bars, an ad agency and two retail stores.  Needless to say, we had our hands full.  One day my six year-old son, Michael, asked me, ‘How come you never take me fishing?’ Pretty much right after that, my wife, Patty, and I packed up the kids and took a year traveling around.  We came to Laguna and settled in Top of the World”, he explains matter-of-factly. 

“When my boys took their first look at the hills they said they couldn’t wait to sled down them,” he adds, chuckling.

36 years later, Tom still gets a little emotional when he relays his son’s lament.  The fact that he took the question to heart and did what he felt needed to be done says a lot about the man who runs one of Laguna Beach’s most famous attractions. 

Making his mark at Laguna Beach High School

After getting settled in Top of the World, Tom went back to what he knew, working in retail; then he went to write for the “Tides and Times” newspaper where he covered the School Board.  When a position opened up at Laguna Beach High School for a journalism teacher he was encouraged to apply for the job, which he got.  Tom kept his plate full at LBHS by teaching journalism, auto shop and, eventually, becoming the Athletic Director, a position he held for nine years.  

LBHS Football Coach Klingenmeier

During his time there Tom says he “coached almost every sport they had.”  When asked if he had a favorite, there’s no hesitation in his reply, “Baseball. I got to coach with Skipper (Carrillo) and that cemented the deal. I didn’t care if I got paid or not as long as I could work with him.”

Stepping up and making changes at the Sawdust Art Festival

After 24 years, Tom retired from the school district. Apparently not one who likes to sit back and relax, Tom applied for and got the job as the Sawdust Art Festival’s General Manager. 

He explains, “My wife, Patty of Patty’s People, has been a long time exhibitor at the Festival so I was selfishly motivated. I wanted my wife to succeed.” And while there is undoubtedly truth to that, when a friend told him that taking the job was “going to be like stepping into a buzz saw” one can’t help but assume there was more than self-interest as a motivating factor. 

So for the last ten years, Tom has climbed the stairs to his office on the Festival grounds and managed the many pieces that need to be in place to welcome the over 200,000 visitors who come each year to experience the Sawdust Festival from around the world.   

When asked how the Festival has changed during his tenure, Tom explains, “We’ve gotten away from the old ways, basically.  The Sawdust Festival had a reputation of being a bunch of fun loving hippies and that changed...People in the art community realized how important they are and they started taking what they do seriously.”  

And while acknowledging this new “professionalism” doesn’t sit well with some, Tom feels strongly that “there are reasons for the rules we have.  We have building requirements from the city.  We have requirements from the fire department.  Safety has to be a main concern, especially after (the fires) in 1993.  That was a big wake up for the community.”

Other changes have been less contentious. In the past ten years, the Sawdust Festival, under Tom’s leadership, has greatly enhanced its community outreach through art education geared towards children, as well as adults.  There is one month out of the year that’s entirely devoted to glass blowing, for example, one of the most popular attractions at the Sawdust Festival. Continuing this expansion is at the top of Tom’s wish list for the Festival’s future.

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A signature look is born

Another popular attraction is Tom’s rather extravagant mustache. When asked about its origins, it’s not surprising that his answer centers around family. 

“When my grandson was very young (he’s now 15), he started calling me ‘dude’, for some reason.  It kind of stuck, so now they all call me ‘dude’.  Well, one day my other grandson was watching a Yosemite Sam cartoon and he points at Sam’s mustache and says to me, ‘Bet you can’t do that, dude.’  So, of course, I had to, and have worn it ever since.”  

No big deal; as if everyone would accept a child’s innocent challenge and grow an enormous moustache – and then keep it.  

Does anyone have a 1963 Corvette?

In addition to the mustache, Tom is known for having a penchant for classic cars.  As a former auto shop teacher this isn’t too surprising.  When asked to list some of the cars he has built, it’s an impressive list, featuring mostly Corvettes and MG Midgets.

“I’m working on a ’62 Midget right now.” His last project was a 1957 Chevy, carefully restored to perfection.  On a road trip to Las Vegas a friend of his son’s asked if Tom wanted to sell it.  He didn’t.  When the friend explained that his father was dying of cancer and he wanted to give it to him as a gift, Tom changed his mind. “So I sold it,” he explains.  Again, no big deal.  

“But,” he adds, always onto the next challenge, “I’m really looking for a 1963 Split Window Corvette.” 

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Family, work, and community make for a full life

There is no question Tom Klingenmeier is passionate about his job as General Manager of the Sawdust Festival.  2016 is the Festival’s 50th Anniversary and all one needs to do is ask about the plans for that to see his excitement.  He loves working with the artists and their “creativity, ‘orneriness,’ cooperation and volunteerism” even though, he jokes, that “sometimes I’ve been kidded that it’s a bit like trying to keep cats happy in a sandbox. There are always a lot of different ideas, creative ideas.  I love it all.”  

And that’s not hyperbole. However, Tom’s passion doesn’t begin or end with his work.  Sitting down with him, his love for his family was obvious in the first five minutes of our conversation, all conveyed in his engaging “just the facts” style.  His is a life, and like the mechanic he is, everything seems to be working just fine. 

Now, if only he could find that Corvette.  


Bree Burgess Rosen: she’s a woman for all seasons

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Pacific Symphony elementary school-year program, Class Act, has just finished, but the Writer and Director managed to squeeze in a Laguna Tots production, while going straight into Lagunatics rehearsals, and opening the newest No Square Theater production just this past week. In July the ever-busy Artistic Director of the No Square Theater is getting the next show up, while the Symphony youth programs start up again in August. And, don’t forget, Lagunatics opens later this year, poking fun at all things Laguna.

Phew!

If you think that sounds like a lot, then you don’t know Bree Burgess Rosen, the epitome of energy, whose hearty laugh, and hilarious stories would keep you up way past your bedtime.

 

Bree Burgess Rosen, the life of the party!

“I’ve always been someone who had a lot of balls in the air,” she told us.

Bree is a trained, yet natural entertainer. “My dad said I popped a high C when I was born,” she said. “I was sort of a little musical freak. I stood on a lot of table tops and just belted them out!”

From then on she’s been singing and dancing, and carrying on much to the delight of audiences from Okinawa to Laguna Beach. Full of can-do drive and youthful spirit, is it any surprise that she did a stint on The Young and the Restless?

Growing up in Okinawa, the child of a military family, Bree learned to speak Japanese and she learned that music is another common language. Though she originally wanted to be an astrophysicist, she decided to pursue that as a hobby, while music and the theater has become her life.

Life is a cabaret

Bree was in college in San Diego doing summer stock, and dinner theaters when she was offered a part in Godspell. She followed that with an audition, and subsequent contract with MGM in Las Vegas (now Bally’s). She was signed as the lead singer in their big show for eight years.

While singing and dancing in Las Vegas she became like family with the other performers, and friends with some of the top billing Vegas acts.  

“The big heavy-weights in the industry”, she said, such as Sammy Davis Jr. “He was just a peanut of a guy, but unbelievable live on stage.” 

It was like a close-knit family with the corps of dancers and performers she worked with seven days a week. But in the early 80’s many of them started to become sick; there was no diagnosis yet for AIDS. 

Bree watched as friend after friend withered with illness, and were unable to continue the show. “It was the height of the AIDS crisis,” she said. “Reagan never even said the word AIDS, and I’d already buried 100 friends.”

It was heartbreaking to watch her extraordinarily talented co-performers fall apart, with nowhere to turn. “People didn’t know. They were scared of AIDS,” she remembered. “But where would these people go?”

At first the cast started passing the hat to help their friends out. Then they set up note boards for requests – donations for everything from fixing someone’s car, to a warm coat. Finally they put on a huge benefit show. “The first big show I did,” she said. “There were 250 people in the cast.” 

The show and the money raised launched the Golden Rainbow, a charity program that still today provides support and shelter for victims of AIDS. Golden Rainbow has changed forever the way the entertainment industry in Las Vegas cares for its own.

Then she fell in love with a guy from Laguna.

Rhapsody in (the) blue (coast) 

Some of Bree’s contracted performances are corporate and conference gigs. She loves a good roast and toast! While performing for Isuzu she met Leon Rosen, an executive with the corporation, and she soon added marriage to her repertoire.

She and Leon moved to the coast and landed in Laguna Beach, along the way adding another member to their corps; their son Noah.

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Bree at work at No Square Theater

Laguna lent a whole new perspective on a theatrical life. Bree’s outlook has always been playful so her attitude is, why not just roll with the traffic problems and poke fun at the wacky things that happen in Laguna? 

Don’t let them make you crazy. Be a Lagunatic!

Lagunatics is the brainchild of the zany brain of Bree Burgess Rosen. For 22 years, Lagunatics have been parodying the quirky adventures of life and governance in Laguna Beach, set to show tunes and dance numbers: “schmedlies and schmacting”. Even the City Council participates. “It’s a good palate cleanser,” says Bree. “We are an equal opportunity offender!”

After all, what is humor but hilarity with a tweak of truth packaged inside?

The show must go on

Ms. Burgess-Rosen played out the role of her lifetime when she was diagnosed with cancer last year. A role co-starring the smoke-filled casinos of years past, the diagnosis was smoke related lung cancer. This singer and dancer has never been a smoker, but she breathed lungsful in the bad old days of Las Vegas air. 

“Of course as a singer I thought, ‘What!!? My lungs?’” Thankfully she had a cadre of good friends to accompany her to the doctors appointments, because that was the hardest part, “It was constant bad news,” she said.

This role threw her for a doozy. She had a tumor the size of an orange. 

“I had chemo seven hours weekly, and multiple transfusions,” she said. “But my friends were there for 10 hours at a stretch. They fed my family and took care of my kid.”

Act two will not be a tragedy for Bree. She has passed the major chemo hurdles and the doctor she calls a “wizard” finally gave her the good news that the PET scans show no further cancer. 

He has given her her cue to continue with the show, and additional good news that her voice has not been hurt.

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It has been several months of readjustment as she tries to accustom herself to the wretched regimen of recovery. Still not quite back to full-throttle, Bree has learned to pace herself and limit some of the rehearsal hours while she gains strength. Some scripts are written to ease up on her energy level. 

“I’ve reduced some rehearsal hours at night,” she laughs. “One of my Lagunatics said, ‘Hey this cancer thing is working for me!’”

Bree never let the cancer inflict her funny bone. But, still, cancer gave her a rare glimpse into the eyes of fear. 

Frighteningly, and with a clarity she had never known, Bree experienced stage fright for the first and only time in her life - just after her treatments. She was on stage at the Symphony and in front of 1,000 people. She believes she gained empathy through that experience, “Maybe it was God’s way of showing me what other people go through, because I’ve never had stage fright.” 

Any way you look at life, illness provides another lens. Bree Burgess Rosen is a stronger spirit because of her cancer, and a larger spirit in empathy. 

Laguna is a richer community for the shining light she sheds on our antics and our individuality through the stage, and that’s a symbiotic relationship. 

“I’m never more happy and more confidant than I am on the stage,” she said. “And I love an audience that feels comfortable saying, Whoo-Hoo!


Sean McCracken: Helping to get people together

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have any interest in architecture, or you are simply looking for a group to mingle with, realtor Sean McCracken has one for you: Laguna Friends of Architecture.  In two years the group McCracken started has grown to over 1,000 members.  With meetings twice monthly that have anywhere from 60 to 120 people in attendance, it’s clear this was an idea whose time had come.  

“The original members of the group were really dedicated to architecture.  Now people are coming for the community and learning about architecture,” explains Sean.

The basketball courts at Main Beach are a draw

An east coast transplant, Sean received his MBA from USC.  Finding Los Angeles to be “too smoggy”, he looked up and down the coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, for a place to settle.  The year was 1978 and he chose Laguna Beach.  The 6’5” McCracken remembers, “Laguna was the best place I’d seen.  I saw those basketball courts and I really like to play basketball…”  Having chosen his home he now had to find a way to make a living. 

 “Coming from the east coast, prep-school world, I didn’t understand the real estate economy.  At ‘SC everyone’s father seemed to be involved in real estate, but I went into software technology, real estate software.  It was a lot of planes, trains and automobiles.  Then 9/11 happened.  And the software business isn’t really much of a relationship business.  I liked hanging in town so in 2006 I went into residential real estate. It allowed me to do more of the kind of projects that I like to do,” he explains.

A career change allows for more community involvement

With his business travel over, Sean unleashed his civic involvement with a vengeance.  Tapping into his environmental interests he organized the first toxic waste pick up, then the first city-wide “green” shopping bag (the “Laguna bag”) and followed that with the first water-wise expo.  

Finding these events to be “all one shot deals” (although the toxic clean up and the water expo are still going in different formats), Sean came to realize that “what gets people excited is being introduced to people with the same passions.  People feel disconnected.  As a realtor, when I talk to people about why they’re moving they say they have trouble making friends here.  You drive up your hill, shut your garage and you’re shut out from what’s going on.  I came up with this concept of getting people out of the cyber-world and bringing them together for a common interest.”  

From this, Transition Laguna was born.

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Apple trees and strawberries at Bluebird Canyon Farms

 

Transition Laguna and the importance of wine

Transition Laguna merged three things of importance to Sean: food, water and energy use with the idea of local sustainability.  Incorporating the idea from World War II “victory gardens” along with cooking classes and potluck dinners, the group grew to 1,400 members and 60 back yard gardens.  McCracken has a secret for good meetings, calling food and wine  “the back bone”. 

“There’s a reason Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine,” he says with a laugh.  

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Sean with Dr. Dave

Dr. Dave retired from practicing medicine to focus on healing with food and to work with the Tenneys at Bluebird Canyon Farms

With Transition Laguna thriving, Sean took some time to really pinpoint what he wanted to do next.  He decided on a concept: “Friends of…” -  a group of like-minded people who come together for a common purpose.  When an architect-friend mentioned he had just put together a presentation on another architect, John Lautner, the format was set and Laguna Friends of Architecture was born. 

Next up, Laguna Friends of Architecture

Two years in from the start, the group meets at LCAD, in people’s homes (July 19     there is a tour of the famous compound at Rockledge) and takes tours to places like Los Angeles (“that’s where true friendships are made, on the bus over a beer”).  There’s something happening every two weeks, in addition to a newsletter.  

If this seems like a lot, it is.  Luckily, Sean has a lot of help.  In the beginning he did the bulk of the organizing himself, but now there is a core leadership group of 12 people who “are all about building friendships - and there’s something magical about that,” Sean says emphatically.

Stories, people and community are always front and center

True to his Irish heritage, Sean is a storyteller whose enthusiasm is infectious. “I’m an Irish guy who loves people and history”, he says.  He can weave stories about the Smithcliffs socialite, Pancho Barnes, with a tale of the Halliburton House in South Laguna in between an anecdote about his attempt to visit every beach in Laguna, from El Morro to Three Arch Bay after work.  If not a realtor, one could easily envision McCracken as an owner of a local pub, reveling in his patrons and their stories.

When asked what his next “Friends of…” venture would be if there were to be one, he doesn’t hesitate, “I’d like to do one on international real estate or living internationally; how people share houses and things like that.  I don’t know if there’s a group in that, but it’s a big interest for me,” he says.  A member of the Laguna Beach Business Club who participates in a lot of city planning groups, McCracken is a very busy guy.  He says it is “important to give back to the community, plus building trust and putting people together is part of what I do as a realtor.” 

He just can’t help it. “I have a tendency to meet people, say at Dizz’s.  We start talking. Then it’s ‘Hey, let’s hold some local events and have a good time’.  There are so many great stories out there.” 

Sean McCracken is on a mission to hear them all.

Ed. Note: Special thanks to Scott Tenney and wife Mariella Simon for photos taken at their Bluebird Canyon Farms 


Mary Kate Saunders; creating a balanced life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Some people have a quiet gift of enriching other people’s lives without grandstanding, and with utter humility. Mary Kate Saunders is one of those people.

Mary Kate Saunders

There are the hundreds of patients she works with through physical therapy. There are the countless patients with limited means that she helps by serving on the Board at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. And there is her own close family; husband Kirk, and sons Kian and Rory.  They look out for one another while nurturing 24/7 care for Kian, who is severely disabled.

Caring for one another would have been the modus operandi growing up in a large and boisterous Irish family. With seven siblings, Mary Kate learned all the domestic requirements to keep up with family chores, and the nuanced ways to keep the peace within the large brood. Today the siblings are spread all across the US but they still remain close at heart.

“We made a pact to always attend family weddings together,” said Mary Kate. Her parents tallied 23 grandchildren, so that’s a lot of weddings. 

Mary Kate and Kirk met in Hawaii while they each were visiting relatives over the Christmas holiday 26 years ago.  It turned out the relatives knew each other, as both were Navy doctors. It was meant to be that the family would be expanding. 

Two years later Mary Kate and Kirk were honeymooning in France, a place they would return to again and again. (Stu News guest roving reporter, Nick Henrikson, had the great pleasure of looking out onto Burgundy from the Saunders’ charming and historic home in the medieval town of Flavigny, which he shared on these pages in the last couple of weeks).

“I saw Camille Claudel at the Port Theater, and that did it. I said, ‘I’ve got to go see the Rodin museum in Paris,’” said Mary Kate. Kirk surprised her with the Parisian honeymoon. A home in Flavigny was the result of her friend in Laguna, Sukeshi O’Neill. Once the Saunders visited there with her, they were hooked. When the O’Neill family offered to sell, the Saunders family said “Oui!”

Being able to get away to France takes a lot of preparation.

Hardships and blessings 

It’s taken 22 years of preparation; in the case of Kian who requires around the clock care. He cannot make the journey to France, and he relies on live-in hired home care anytime mom and dad are away.

Kian suffers from a rare genetic disorder: inverse duplication of chromosome 15. He also has an additional mitochondrial condition that creates toxins out of many of the medicinal therapies he has been prescribed. It’s been a rollercoaster of trying a new therapy, and then either enjoying its success, or suffering through deleterious side effects.

As a new parent, Mary Kate explained that she couldn’t tell there was a problem with Kian at first. “He appeared a normal baby in every way, except that it was hard for him to nurse,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started to notice what my friend’s baby was doing.” Kian still wasn’t reaching those telltale markers: sitting up, crawling, and holding a bottle.

Mary Kate searched for answers but it took three years to get a diagnosis. She’d take Kian to doctor after doctor, and got everything from “He’s just slow” to laying the blame on her. “One doctor told me, ‘It’s something that happened in utero, and you know what it is’!” Such arrogance and ignorance is hard to comprehend in this day of medical breakthroughs. 

During Kian’s physical therapy sessions, Mary Kate would pore through the therapist’s papers, each week reading a syllabus of studies for those kids who don’t have diagnoses. She requested of her doctor to do a genetic testing. Even then, the doctor said, “Well alright, but you have to agree when it comes back negative not to be surprised.”

The doctor called her in tears with the results. 

“We went through years trying to find out,” Mary Kate says. “Now UCI is thrilled because his condition is so rare, and they can do research.”

At age 12, Kian started having seizures. Last year a seizure caused him to fall forward and knocked out his front teeth. It can happen any time, day or night, so home care workers and Kirk trade off nights sleeping beside him.

His language is limited, but with a mother’s love and patience, Mary Kate can understand what Kian feels. She understands the comfort he finds in reading the same book over and over. With the patience of a saint, she recalls the time she drove back from San Francisco with him, and for seven hours he wanted the same song played again and again. She smiles, “He’d just fall asleep, and I’d sneak to change the tape, then he’d wake right up and say, ‘Again!’”

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Kirk and Mary Kate read Kian’s favorite book with him

There are hardships and obstacles, but also small blessings. This past weekend they took Kian out to his uncle’s house in the desert, where he was able to play in the pool and be out of his wheelchair for two whole days. “He loved it,” Mary Kate said. “He was free in the water, and it made him so hungry, he said the word sandwich!” He had never said the word nor eaten a sandwich before then.

Kian will miss his brother Rory soon, as he heads off to college. 

Rory was this year’s LBHS valedictorian. He gave an inspiring commencement address, with the authority and delivery of a much older person. It’s not surprising that his brother’s condition has given him a unique perspective on life contributing to a sense of maturity. At Dartmouth, Rory plans to study bio-medical engineering.

You’re a mother first!

Mary Kate got her degree in physical therapy when she was 24. But she soon found that the part where you work for someone else, it’s nine to five, and you maybe get two weeks off a year was not the sort of life she had in mind. Kirk, an architect, was like-minded. Maybe not conventional, and maybe not financially a sound bet, they both became self-employed, and started their own businesses in Laguna.

Mary Kate Saunders Physical Therapy has been saving athletes from themselves, the injured, the chronic, and the plain old “that just don’t feel right” bound back to health for 12 years now. Like many in the health care profession, she confronts the current state of affairs, “I love what I do. I just hate all the paperwork.”

Her little office, adjacent to Kirk’s architectural office, on Glenneyre, sees a steady stream of patients and is manned by a talented crew of women. “The staff is like family,” says Mary Kate. “The whole group of us has been together for years.”

Mary Kate Saunders Physical Therapy offers hands-on treatments with regimens including all the tools and the latest gadgets for putting a body back in good form

In addition to being talented therapists, and all women, they are also all moms. They understand the need to be available to their kids at times and they work together to make that happen, like a well-oiled machine. The office hours allow for free afternoons to be with family. “My mantra with all the staff is, ‘You’re a mother first!’” Mary Kate says. “It works for all of us.”

But as a firm believer in guaranteed health care for all, she finds it frustrating that some health insurance covers all of a patient’s physical therapy while others will only cover part or none at all. Balancing that unfair percentage, Mary Kate works with the Board of Directors at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. The clinic offers the opportunity for a huge segment of our local population otherwise not able to afford medical care.

Finding balance in one’s life is essential. With demands of work and family, it is refreshing to know someone who is able to handle that, and so much more. 

Mary Kate Saunders is a gift for her family and for the community.


John Barber: A master shares his passion for glass

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you’ve ever been to the Sawdust Festival you’ve probably seen John Barber at work.  Follow the densely packed crowd standing elbow to elbow around the glass blowing studio on the Festival grounds.  If you see a man creating delicate shapes and colors at the end of a flaming rod, there’s a good chance you’re watching John work his magic. Since 1977 he has sold his glass creations at the Festival, as well as entertained all who stop by to witness how this ancient art form is made.

As these things frequently happen, John came to glass blowing by accident.  After a semester in college, the direction he was looking for had yet to materialize.  With a high lottery number for the Vietnam draft, John decided to take some time off and go visit his sister who lived in Munich with her German husband.  It was a fortuitous decision.

The village where John’s brother in law was from had three glass factories.   One of the owner’s was a friend of the family’s.  He gave John a tour, and a life’s work was found.  “It was just one of those things.  I saw it done and I thought ‘I could do that and have a lot of fun’.  I begged to stay and develop my skills.  The owner agreed and said ‘There’s a bench.’ I stayed for three years.”  Returning to California in 1973, John was now clear on his future, “I made up my mind.  This is what I want to do.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”

Setting up shop in Laguna Beach

Settling in Inglewood, John built his own equipment and set to work.  “Back then, glass blowing was kind of a lost art.  People didn’t know the worth or value of it so a lot of what I did was educate the public.”  After a few years in Inglewood, John decided to change locales.  His mother was a live-in cook for a local family so John was familiar with Laguna and knew there was an arts community, as well as venues to sell art. 

“There was no social life in Inglewood.  People seemed almost afraid to look you in the eye.  It was kind of depressing.  When I decided ‘I’m coming to Laguna’ I knew it would put me more in a community of people where I could develop.”  He had no idea at the time how true this would be.”

Mentoring and creating a community of artists

“I used to be very secretive about what I did.  If you had anything to do with glass my attitude was ‘get out’.  Then I kind of realized that someone was going to have to work for 20 years, learn their own dictionary of techniques, like I did, and I was no longer intimidated.”  So for the last 20 years, just up until a year and half ago, John apprenticed glass blowers.  

“They reminded me of myself.  I decided I was going to offer them what was offered to me.”  When asked if that meant he was training his own competition he smiles.  “I ended up training five artists, now there are nine in the show.  I feel like we’ve reached a tipping point of how many artists the Festival can handle.  I did my part.”

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Private commissions present interesting challenges

With such a long history at the Sawdust Festival, I asked how it had changed over the years.  

“I’ll say this: when I started there was no book of rules.  Now there are.  This has taken some of the fun and spirit out of the show, but it’s still a great place to exhibit and spend time.” According to John, he sells “50 percent of his work at the Sawdust”.  

Some of the other 50 percent is through private commissions.  He explains, “A chandelier, for example, is such a challenge.  There’s the design and then all the engineering. I enjoy that.”  

The Montage isn’t a bad place to start

His work can also be seen in public spaces.  The entrance to Montage Laguna Beach is one of his first public art creations.  “I’ll never forget the meeting with Kim Richards, the president of the Athens Group that developed the Montage.  I had just shown them my proposal for using cast glass and I could hear his people saying that using glass ‘was risky’, and all this stuff.  I had to interrupt them. ‘Let me just say something.  In 5,000 years they will be giving snorkeling tours past this sign.  The longevity is not an issue.’  

Cast glass, different from blown glass, is an area John has become very interested in.  “I’m fascinated by the history of glass.  This technique predates glass blowing by 2,000 years.”  And while the work preparing the molds is quite extensive, it is not as physically demanding as blowing glass.  

“Blowing glass is very physical.  You burn a lot of calories, plus it’s’ a very expensive proposition.  I feel good about developing cast glass.  Once you get everything prepped you put it in and you get four days off.  It’s a more relaxed atmosphere.”  

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A live/work space that feels like paradise

It’s hard to envision John not in a relaxed atmosphere.  We met at his home/studio on Laguna Canyon Road where he has lived and worked since 1985.  Sitting under a huge pepper tree surrounded by his glass creations, it didn’t seem like hyperbole when he said getting the property was “the happiest day of my life.”  

John and Becky share their oasis with others

John and his wife, Becky, are happy to have visitors to the studio – after the Sawdust ends in August. They have hosted groups of 50-60 kids on their property as well as corporate events and private tours.  “We had 40 people from Merrill Lynch come and I did a demonstration with dinner outside here.  They come here and can’t believe this lifestyle.  Here I am living and working in the same property.  I live the life they dream of.”  Another perk is when John gets recognized by his young fans. “These seven and eight year olds will come up to me when my wife and I are walking down the beach and say, ‘You’re totally rad.’ That’s pretty cool,” he says smiling.

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A community turns into a family

John Barber not only found the community he was looking for when he came to Laguna almost 30 years ago; he found an extended family.  He tells the story about his daughter, now an Intensive Care nurse at Scripps.  She “rejected her wild, hippie father’s ways”, he says good-naturedly.  “But she was raised in a bassinet under the counter at the Sawdust. She knows everybody.  Since I could never go on a summer vacation because I was working, she’d go off with her Sawdust friends.  They all took care of each other. That’s her family.” 

And John has no intention of leaving that “family” anytime soon.  “It’s hard to think about retirement from something you love so much,” he says.  

So when you go to the Sawdust and visit the glass blowing booth, look for John.  If he’s not there, his legacy certainly is.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

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