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Laguna Beach Live! co-founder and president Cindy Prewitt on the importance of building community, sharing music, and giving back
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Ye cannot live for yourselves,” Henry Melvill wrote in an 1855 sermon. “A thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men; and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.”

If Lucinda (Cindy) Prewitt lives her life with an internal code in mind, it might be this. So strong is her sense of community, and the importance she places on philanthropy, that she’s already instilling those values in her two-and-one-half- month-old grandson. OshKosh provides clothing to needy families and Paul isn’t too young to ceremoniously contribute. She recently captured a photo of him handing over his donated pajamas. “As I look at my grandchildren and what we want to instill in them, what we want them to do, it’s always community involvement and giving back.”

Laguna Beach grandson

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Cindy, holding grandson Paul, reflects on the values she wishes to instill in the next generation

Cindy’s parents imparted these values. Her mother, active in the PTA and scouting, paved the way for Cindy’s own involvement in the Laguna Beach schools, SchoolPower, and other community organizations when she became a mother herself. These ideals likely guided her decision to pursue a career in counseling. They certainly led to her nearly two-decade commitment to Laguna Beach Live! and her unwavering dedication to bring high quality, affordable, and diverse live musical performances to our town.

Alongside that altruistic streak runs Cindy’s tenacity, efficiency, and amazing ability to multitask. Words like formidable and pitbull appear in articles about her. “Talk about tough women,” said former LCAD President Dennis Power in a 2009 Daily Pilot article about Cindy, “she’s frightening.”

There’s something about women who came of age in the 1960s – particularly those who pursued higher education and embarked on careers that, until then, had been reserved for men. These were America’s first women who wanted it all, but then had to manage it. They didn’t have older generations to rely on for guidance. Instead they seemed hardwired to juggle, seeking out creative solutions to complex problems, all while managing households, husbands, and children.

Laguna Beach Watson

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Cindy poses with international trumpet artist Bijon Watson, a staple performer at Laguna Beach Live! events

In virtue, one gains knowledge

Cindy attended Smith College – a private, liberal arts school in Massachusetts – graduating in 1967 alongside alums like Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem, and Catharine MacKinnon. An all-women’s institute instills a certain confidence that gender is no barrier to opportunity. The college also likely reinforced Cindy’s innate belief in the necessity of community involvement. Their motto: “In virtue, knowledge.”

“Educate a boy, and you educate an individual,” said Canadian educational reformer Adelaide Hoodless. “Educate a girl, and you educate a community.” Cindy brought her education back to California and put it to work across a spectrum of causes. Having majored in psychology as an undergrad, she acquired her master’s degree in family therapy at Hunter College in New York. Cindy moved with her husband, Dr. Paul Prewitt, to Laguna in the 1970s. Here she worked in both private practice and at the Orange County Mental Health Department. She started a youth shelter. She helped schools set up group counseling support services. And she volunteered at Human Options, a Laguna Beach shelter for abused women and their children.

 “Back then, you could get to adolescents early,” says Cindy. “If children were truant or stayed out late, they were considered status offenders and we could counsel them and get them on track. Today, there’s no funding for that. Offenses must be much worse. Then we could be preemptive. Now everything is done after-the-fact.”

Cindy’s curiosity and quest for knowledge set her apart. Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society, said in that same Daily Pilot article that Cindy’s greatest attribute is her desire to learn. Deeping her education, in whatever field she enters, is ingrained in her DNA. “If she doesn’t know it today, she will know it tomorrow,” Corey said. 

Building community begins at home

Cindy met Paul on a blind date in college. He was at Yale, working on his Bachelor’s degree in pre-med before getting his Medical Doctorate at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York. Paul practiced internal medicine at South Coast Medical Center (now Mission Hospital) for over 33 years, serving as their Chief of Staff. They were married 51 years until his passing last February due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

When their two children arrived (Sean in 1976 and Jennifer in 1977), Cindy moved to private practice so she could work part-time. But by 1982, with the takeover by HMOs and funding cuts for mental health, the situation became untenable. 

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The view from Cindy’s living room

Cindy committed herself to the community, becoming the President of SchoolPower and devoting herself to the Laguna Beach school system, as well as scouting.

It was also the time she began her involvement in the arts. Appointed to the City’s Arts Commission and instrumental in the formation of the Laguna Beach Alliance for the Arts, she further developed her reputation as the one with resilient grit who could get things done. While working at the Artists’ Theatre, she received the wrong fax one day and became aware of a position at the Philharmonic, writing press releases for the House of Design. “It was one of those serendipitous things,” Cindy says. “Like meeting my husband on that blind date. Things just fell into place.” So began her career in music.

Although she’s not a musician herself, claiming the only thing she plays is the radio, her tastes are wide and her interests diverse. It makes her ideally situated for her role at Laguna Beach Live! 

The origin story of Laguna Beach Live!

All of Cindy’s skills and values coalesced one day in 2000 when her friend, Sam Goldstein, approached her with an idea. Laguna had plenty of art, but it was primarily visual. Where were the live performances? Where was the music? “Sam has wonderful ideas,” says Cindy. “Then he gives them to me to implement.”

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Cindy introducing a Laguna Beach Live! jazz event

Alongside partner Joe Byrne, the trio put in money and launched Laguna Beach Live! in August of 2001. They started with free chamber music on the first Sunday of each month at the Laguna College of Art & Design. Sally Kellerman came after, offering a cabaret performance at [seven-degrees]. Their partnership with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County began in 2003. 

Today, Laguna Beach Live! brings more than 30 concerts to town each year. From bluegrass to blues, gospel, jazz, big band, chamber, and pop, they hold events in partnership with the Laguna Art Museum, the Playhouse, LCAD, [seven-degrees], and more. “I love bluegrass,” says Cindy. “We do a concert in the LCAD parking lot with that enormous sycamore tree as the backdrop. It’s lovely. We have local barbeque, wine, and beer. It’s a real community event. And we’re now the only bluegrass concert in Orange County.” 

They’re also committed to education, holding informative and interactive events at the Boys and Girls Club, in our schools, at Glennwood House, and other outreach programs. “Some of the kids are very serious,” Cindy says. “Even if they saw the same group at El Morro and are now at the Boys and Girls Club, they’ll sit right up in the front row and listen again.” Students have access to some incredible talent. Renowned violinist and conductor Joshua Bell joined high school students for pizza one day, answering their questions and just hanging out. Small lectures, conversations, or demonstrations also accompany many of the performances, giving the audience an education alongside their entertainment.

Laguna Beach Live! is also committed to keeping their concerts affordable and accessible to the entire community, and outlying communities as well. “It’s important that cost not be a barrier. But it’s difficult to get young people to concerts. If they have families, if they’re paying a babysitter and dinner and ticket prices while both parents are working, it’s not feasible. But we do bring the same music, the same quality performances that they offer at Segerstrom, where you’ll pay $60, to Laguna for $30 a ticket. That’s a service we provide.”

Laguna Beach volunteers

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Cindy poses with Laguna Beach Live! volunteers Maura McDonald and Carole Boller 

 As she reflects back across her many accomplishments and points of pride, it is the moments of musical joy she’s brought to Laguna that bring her the most satisfaction. “Counseling was gratifying,” she says, “but this is pure happiness. Rarely did I hear from patients after I treated them. Now I hear from people every day telling me how much they enjoy the events.” One happy regular referred to Cindy as “Mrs. Rose Garden,” associating her with the live music in the park. 

“I feel good about giving back to the community and watching the success of Laguna Beach Live! If I see someone who came through a trauma, or I’m able to help someone realize their potential, it’s gratifying.”

Being involved in the local community, as opposed to international organizations or large-scale global projects, allows Cindy to witness the effects of her actions. “If we do an event at Glennwood House, we can see the impact immediately,” she says. “Everybody needs music, especially in bad times. If there’s something bad going on in the family, or illness, music helps. It brings people together.”

Finding music in nature

As we wrap up our nearly 90-minute interview, I ask Cindy if there’s anything else I should know. I’ve already heard a remarkable amount. Cindy shrugs, looking out her plate glass window at an expanse of ocean and says, “What else?” Not until now does she mention her extensive international travels, running a marathon, and jumping out of a plane when she turned 50. I settle back down. Clearly we should keep talking.

Turns out, Cindy is also a nature enthusiast. She’s an avid hiker, biker, runner, surfer, and snorkeler. Trips have taken her to Patagonia, Africa, India, and Turkey. She’s barged the canals of Europe and hiked the hills of Peru. How many countries in all? Cindy can only laugh and throw up her hands. Who knows? 

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Cindy in her south Laguna home where she’s lived since 1982

Her next adventure will take her to Sicily with her sister, but her goal is to see the northern lights and dog sled through Scandinavia. 

Of course Cindy uses her time outdoors to multitask. Meetings are conducted while hiking. Press releases are mentally composed on a run. And every new country explored opens up new opportunities to learn. “I’m not a foodie,” she says. “But I’m very open minded.” There’s almost nothing she won’t try.

If Cindy were to rewrite Melvill’s sermon, she might say it’s a thousand musical notes – instead of fibres – that connect us to our community. For every act Cindy takes to support the musical arts our town, the effects return. They’re seen dancing in the aisles. They’re heard in the applause of the crowds. They are children smiling, musicians playing, and singers singing. They are troubled souls who can’t help but sway in their seats. They are friends gathered together at a concert. They are strangers who bond over a song. 

Music might be the antidote we need to unite us. And Cindy intends to continue delivering it all across our town.

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Fire Chief Mike Garcia: A multi-faceted man running a multi-faceted fire department


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

After a recent downpour, while splashing through puddles on the way to interview Fire Chief Mike Garcia, it occurred to me that he must love when it rains and the risk of fires is low. But that turned out to be a naïve assumption because, of course, fighting fires is only a small part of what firefighters do every day. I should have known. 

Chief Garcia, a bulwark of a man who radiates goodwill, graciously set me straight. 

“If there’s enough of it, rain causes mudslides and floods, so that’s another challenge for us and the community. At the Fire Department, we have to be prepared for any and all disasters. Everything needs to be in balance. When conditions are out of whack, that’s where we come in.”

What a misnomer, then: the Fire Department really should be called something like the “Disaster Mitigation and Risk Management Department that saves human lives on a regular basis and occasionally rescues cats and dogs, usually from drainage pipes. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

Too long, of course, but far more accurate: only 15 percent of calls in 2018 related to fires.

fire chief Garcia

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Fire Chief Mike Garcia

Residents call the Laguna Beach Fire Department an average of slightly under 4,000 times a year. 

“We help residents in many ways, including gas and water leaks, electrical issues, rescues, car accidents, and many other requests for help,” Garcia says. “Each call is different; some are relatively simple medical issues – the majority of our calls are medical emergencies – others may mushroom into a major fire event with dozens of units responding. But each is logged as just one call.”

Fighting fires remains the most dramatic and visible of all LBFD’s activities.

“Our greatest challenges are the vegetation fires that have grown more common and more severe in the last decade,” he says. 

“While there are many rewards to being a firefighter, knowing you’ve made a difference, you’ve saved lives and homes and rescued people in precarious situations, the reality is that you are also witness to some horrific scenes.”

The horror of Paradise

Chief Garcia, Mayor Bob Whalen, and former Emergency Operations Coordinator Jordan Villwock recently visited the town of Paradise or, more accurately, what used to be the town of Paradise. It is rare, the Chief says, for him to visit a post-fire landscape; usually firefighters are in the thick of activities as the fire is burning.

“Complete devastation,” he says. “Such terrible losses. What struck me most was the silence. It was eerie. No flies, no bugs, no birds. No life of any kind. Just carbon and ash. A whole city lost.” 

fire chief family

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Badge-pinning ceremony with daughter Madison, wife Laura, and son Brett; daughter Hailey (not pictured) lives in Arizona

In previous years, camaraderie among the firefighters helped get them through difficult emotions brought on by the horrific sights they’ve seen. 

“The process is more formalized now, with help from mental health professionals, but the support and understanding of peers and the community remains key. The important thing is to communicate and share,” the Chief says. “We need to go through a grieving process. Tell ourselves we did all we could do. We were there to make a difference, and we did. And we will again.”

Garcia says that it is sometimes hard to escape tough memories. “When you serve in a place for a long time, you’re always driving past homes and places where tragedies occurred. The emotions come to the surface. You learn to deal with them, but it’s hard.”

Fire: A blessing and a curse

What is it about fire that so fascinates? Most of us have sat next to a fireplace or campfire, hypnotized by the dance and flicker of flames, and felt the comfort of heat on a cold winter’s night. 

But others have seen their homes burn to the ground, close enough to feel wind-blown ash dust their skin; close enough to experience searing heat; close enough to choke on the smoke from the fire that is torching their every possession, their very history.

“Fire is powerful. It’s unpredictable,” Garcia says. “It brings lifesaving warmth but can also cause death. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Fire mitigation begins with fire prevention, and that’s a key aspect of Chief Garcia’s job. “Not everyone agrees with all our approaches, but that’s okay. Again, the important thing is to find a balance between what residents feel is important to life here in Laguna, and how best we can implement risk management strategies, such as thinning vegetation and widening roads. 

“We’re all about safety and disaster prevention. Our job is to predict a fire’s path as much as possible, get everyone out safely, and stop the destruction.” 

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The Fire Department is always ready for action

The Chief grew up in the La Mirada area, where he still lives. 

“I did well in school but always gravitated to the shop classes. I loved welding and woodworking. I wish there was more of a focus on trade schools these days,” he says. 

After several jobs including working as an EMT and paramedic, after chatting to firefighters and going on ride-alongs, Chief Garcia realized that he wanted to be a firefighter himself and took classes at Cal State Long Beach. 

He served 28 years with the Long Beach Fire Department before moving to the Laguna Beach Fire Department in April 2018.

“It was a long haul to get to where I am,” he says. “But it was worth it.”

Many interests, from muscle cars to musicals

The Chief loves classic cars, especially the ‘60s and ‘70s muscle cars. Over the years he has owned a ‘68 Camaro, a ‘57 Thunderbird, and ‘46 and ‘47 panel trucks as well as a Mustang. His son Brett, a sophomore at UCI, currently drives a 1970 El Camino. 

And he’s also a fan of musicals. One year his wife Laura, an emergency room nurse specializing in pediatrics, “dragged” him to see Les Miserables, and unexpectedly the Chief became fond of the theater. 

“It’s good to get season tickets,” he says. “That way you end up going to plays and musicals you didn’t think you’d like, but then you find you do.” 

He and his wife go to the Laguna Playhouse quite often, a highlight being Million Dollar Quartet earlier this year.

The man is a great animal lover. He’s seen bobcats in the wild and loves to camp, boat, ski, and hike. A current goal is to see bald eagles, maybe in Alaska, and he has a hankering to witness the Northern Lights.

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Bosch donated an e-bike to LBFD: Chief Garcia is on the far right with

(L-R) Steven Sheffield and Jonathan Weinert from Bosch, Fire Engineer/Paramedic Adam Schulenburg, Firefighter Forrestt Lazicki, Troy Lee of Troy Lee Designs, and Fire Engineer/Paramedic Crissy Teichmann

The family owns many pets: Roxy, a chocolate Lab; Bella, an English Golden Retriever; a couple of cats and some chickens.

“We always find the strays and bring them home,” he says.

Chief Garcia is a huge sports fan, especially of baseball. “I support the Angels and the Dodgers, which people say can’t be done, but I follow the Angels primarily,” he notes. 

Daughter Madison happily works for the Angels’ organization, while daughter Hailey is in marketing in the Phoenix area. 

Chief Garcia says that the transition from firefighter to administration isn’t easy for many firefighters, but that he loves his job with a passion. 

We’re all in this together

“Fighting fires and saving people’s lives offers instant gratification. This job makes for a different kind of gratification. Hearing praise heaped upon my team makes me happy. I love to get feedback about how friendly they are, how professional, what they’ve done to help, and I love to see them grow and succeed in their jobs,” he says. “I’m a sucker for success stories.”

Passion matters a lot to Garcia. “That’s what I love about Laguna,” he says. “This town is filled with passionate people who care so much about Laguna – no matter their different opinions, they really do care about the future of the town,” he says.

“We have the most beautiful beaches, maybe in the world, and gorgeous wilderness areas. At the same time, we’re at high risk for fires, mudslides, earthquakes. We all need to be prepared. That’s my job. And it’s the residents’ job. We’re in this together.”

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The Yin and Yang of Moorea and Jade Howson


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang has endured for more than 24 centuries. It’s the principle of duality, recognizing how seemingly opposing or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. Its well-known symbol illustrates the elegant equilibrium between the two counterparts. Each side has, at its core, an element of the other. 

Our town represents this idea. Laguna is a village of artists and creators, and of business owners and entrepreneurs. We live where the mountains meet the shore. We’re passionate preservationists and progressive developers. Our differences are our strengths, and our contradictions can often complement one another. The uniting element at our common core seems to be fervor and dedication.

The Howson sisters embody this duality, as well. They are quintessential Laguna – the Yin and Yang of our town. One is fueled by extroverted energy, the other quiet and reserved confidence. One is an artist, the other an athlete. One a “water baby” who prefers the serenity of the ocean, and the other who’s often found buzzing around the Sawdust Festival. 

The yin at home

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Moorea and Jade Howson at home

Even their heritage reflects the Yin and Yang. Their paternal grandmother hails from Hong Kong, their grandfather from Akron, Ohio. The couple met in the Hong Kong airport in 1957 (one a pilot, the other a stewardess), but made the U.S. their home. East met west. 

Jade and Moorea are so dissimilar, few people recognize they’re related. “No one knows they’re sisters,” says their mother, Kris Howson. This seems true. Mention their names and plenty of locals know at least one of them – often times very well. But the common refrain: “Wait…she has a sister?!” Even teachers they had in common don’t connect the two.

For all the young women’s many differences, there are two crucial connections – their passionate personalities and the significant impact each one has made on our town. 

Queen Moorea

Moorea, the elder of the two, recently turned 21. If you’ve spent any time at the Sawdust Festival or Woods Cove, chances are you know “Moe.” She’s the sister who exudes extroverted energy and a bright personality. It’s probably what led her to be voted Laguna Beach High School’s Homecoming Queen in 2015 and Most Congenial in the California State Homecoming Queen competition that followed.

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Moorea wearing her Homecoming tiara

“Everyone at school had to vote for the homecoming court,” Moe says. “Seven girls and seven guys. They kidnapped us at 5 a.m. We went to Shirley’s Bagels. That’s how we knew we got picked.” 

At the football game, the seven couples made their way to the field and walked through a giant picture frame held by the cheerleaders. They crowned Penn Nielson their king. Then a drumroll began and Moe’s friend and neighbor –Mason Pitz – announced Moorea’s name. She dropped to the ground and kissed the turf.

“The moment was particularly emotional because Mason presented the crown,” Kris says. Marc Pitz, Mason’s father, watched from the sidelines, leaning against a chain-link fence for support. The former owner of Dizz’s restaurant was battling pancreatic cancer and was months away from dying. “It was special having him there at that last game and having Mason as the announcer.”

Moe went on to compete in the California State Homecoming Queen competition. Though she didn’t take the crown, she took something far more meaningful and true to her spirit – the most congenial contestant on the field. The title earned her a trip to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis with 72 other Homecoming Queens to entertain a crowd of 75,000 fans.

It also earned her a day at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to have lunch with a teenage cancer survivor. “I never get enough of what they do for the people there,” Moe says. The experience was the highlight of her life, and perhaps the moment when she discovered her life calling – to put that congenial spirit to work in hospitals and nursing facilities, working with either the sick or the elderly.

Moe’s compassion and empathy are innate. Two weeks after her birth, she was diagnosed with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes heart defects, developmental delays, and cognitive impairments. Moe endured multiple cardiac surgeries as a child. The condition also prevents patients from growing at a normal rate and arrests their mental capacity to around age nine. But it’s also accompanied by a warm, trusting, and sparkling disposition. Those with Williams syndrome tend to have what is described as a “cocktail party” personality – social and friendly – but they have difficulties recognizing nuanced social cues and they’re trusting to a fault. It makes Moe ideally situated for her dream job, lifting patients’ spirits at St. Jude’s and other hospitals and facilities. 

As parents, Kris and Robert Howson have been extremely forthcoming with Moe and the community about her condition. “Everybody has something,” says Kris. “A bad back, food allergies, whatever. We’ve made it very matter-of-fact. We tell her, ‘There are things that are going to be harder for you.’”

Today Moe attends an Adult Transition Program through Capistrano Valley. She learns life skills – budgeting and banking, sports classes, and self-advocacy. She receives Community Based Instruction, working in a senior center, and she attends Saddleback for classes. Math is her favorite. She’s also great with jokes. Here’s one she likes: “What did the dentist get as an award? A little plaque.”

The Laguna community has embraced her. Well known and recognized around town, particularly at the Sawdust Festival and Woods Cove, residents look out for Moe, giving her some degree of independence and autonomy away from her parents. 

World Champion Jade

In contrast to her sister, Jade is tranquil and reserved. Although four years younger than Moe, she’s played the older sister role since around age six. “Jade probably developed so soft-spoken because of Moorea,” says Kris. 

But don’t mistake Jade’s introversion for shyness or insecurity. She’s a warrior on the water – fierce, driven, and competitive. Her quiet confidence is earned.

If you’re a regular Stu News reader, you’ll recognize Jade’s name from frequent headlines. Earlier this month, she took home two gold medals at the International Surfing Association’s World SUP & Paddleboard Championships in El Salvador. Jade earned the World Title for Fastest Sprinter in the Women’s Sprint, even though she’s only 17 years old. Last year, she won first in the junior Technical races in China. Jade is now Laguna’s Athlete of the Year for the 2020 Patriots Day Parade.

The yin Jade with board

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Jade poses with her SUP board

Competitions have taken Jade on international trips to El Salvador, Japan, Tahiti, and Denmark. She’s been to Hawaii multiple times, as well as North Carolina, Oregon, and Santa Cruz. She does 10 to 16 races per year. Her longest, a 27-mile cross from Maui to Molokai in Hawaii, took over four hours. “You need a good understanding of how the ocean works,” Jade says. “Currents, swells, and waves. This would be almost an impossible competition for people who don’t live at the ocean.”

Saltwater seems to flow through Jade’s blood. Robert and Kris own Harbour Surfboards in Seal Beach, Robert an avid surfer himself. Jade’s second home has always been the ocean. She began paddleboarding at age eight, started competing at 10, and now trains four days a week on the water and two more at the gym.

Her competitive edge may be her age, which not only brings the strength of youth, but a mental hurdle for her opponents to overcome. Most competitors are in their mid-20s or early 30s. (They came to the sport later in life. SUP didn’t gain notoriety until relatively recently. The ISA World Championships have only been around since 2012.) “Winning may mean more to them because it’s the sole focus of their lives,” Jade says. Until this year, she competed in the women’s division because they didn’t offer a junior section. And she won. “I’m the little threat,” she says. “I think it’s mental for them, not for me. I’m not out to prove anything. I see these competitions more as fun. Plus, I’ve gotten better at staying calm.”

That calmness comes in handy in several situations. Sharks, for example, aren’t uncommon off Laguna’s coast. They glide beneath her board all the time, so close their dorsal fins skim the surface. “You learn to read their body language,” Jade says. “They leave us alone. They aren’t aggressive unless they’re hungry, and our boards are bigger than they are.” 

But her best marine life sighting was with her dad off Fisherman’s Cove when she was 10 or 11 years old. “It was a beautiful summer day,” Jade recalls. “He had his underwater camera.” They stopped at a kelp bed about half-mile out and spotted a mola mola sunfish, an uncommon and surprising find. “My dad got really excited, taking all these pictures.” Jade reached down and a bee stung her hand. Allergic to beestings, she began to panic, telling her father they needed to go in. “Just one more picture,” he told her. That’s when they spotted a grey whale nearby. They saw the spout. “He came up and slapped his tail down in the water, 25 feet from us. I was crying about my hand and my dad just kept taking more pictures and saying, ‘Wow! This is so cool!’” 

No surprise Jade plans to study marine biology or chemistry in college. She’s up to the task, maintaining stellar grades and getting regular acceptances to her university applications. “She’s gotten very good at time management,” Kris says. “When she was in junior high, she was paddling, playing soccer, dancing, taking guitar lessons, and maintaining her schoolwork. She’s learned to finish her homework during lunch, and study whenever she can.”

The yin Jade at home

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Jade Howson at home

For all her success, Jade doesn’t like the limelight. After winning the World Championship, she preferred sitting under a tree with a well-earned Coke to photo shoots and interviews. “She’s a lot like me,” says Kris. “Even-keeled and calm. But she has my husband’s athleticism.” It’s a winning combination.

What’s in a name?

The sisters’ names themselves hold significance. “Robert proposed to me on the island of Moorea, Tahiti,” says Kris. “At that moment, we started talking about our future and all the excitement to come. We briefly spoke about having children and thought what a cool name for a girl. Two years later, Moorea came and it was perfect for our firstborn. We also thought it was super cute to secretly know the real meaning of the name: yellow lizard.”

The yin trio

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Kris, Moorea, and Jade Howson 

When Jade came along, Kris and Robert wanted another meaningful name. “I thought of Robert’s parents, his mom in particular. She loves jade. I looked up the meaning of jade in Chinese culture. Bingo. It’s the symbol of goodness, preciousness, and beauty. To the Chinese, jade stone is also the embodiment of the Confucian virtues of courage, wisdom, modesty, justice, and compassion. So perfect for her.”

Stitching their Yin and Yang together

Although the sisters now enjoy a close relationship, it wasn’t always so. When they were younger, Moe was hard on Jade. “I pulled Moorea aside and explained that her dad and I wouldn’t always be here,” says Kris. “One day she would need her sister. She needed to be nicer.” That conversation seemed to change the tide. 

Though their parents have gone to great lengths to shield Jade from taking responsibility for her sister, today Jade voluntarily takes on a more caregiving role. She drives Moe around. Jade and her boyfriend take Moe surfing (even though Moe isn’t too keen on the water), and out for ice cream. “She still hasn’t taken me to Disneyland,” says Moe, which is – of course – her favorite spot. She has the annual pass to prove it. Jade, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care for the place.

When Jade cut her hair recently, it didn’t take long for Moe to follow suit and sport a style that matched. For all their opposite interests and distinct personality traits, what they have in common is each other and an obvious affection that transcends superficial differences.

They’re interconnected opposites. Or maybe they’re just sisters.

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Warm, funny, and smart: Kris Thalman, outgoing president of Laguna Beach Seniors, is all that and more


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Kristine Thalman, outgoing president of Laguna Beach Seniors and former executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, says she still owns “three big honking Rolodexes” reflecting a lifetime of building relationships.

“Digital files just don’t feel as personal,” Kris says. “I love the way flipping through the cards brings back memories.”

She waxes nostalgic as we chat in her cozy cottage, which she shares with her partner Lucian Stefanini. A fire flickers in the grate, while outside the sky prepares itself for another stunning Laguna sunset.

“As I grow older, I often think about simpler times. I remember how Barbies were just dolls that we liked to dress up, not lightning rods for controversy,” Kris muses. “But simpler times also meant that girls were expected to become nurses, teachers, or secretaries – or housewives. I’m glad it’s not that way today.”

warm funny table

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Kris is ready to celebrate Christmas

So it was that as a child, Kris dreamt of being a nurse, inspired by The Visible Woman, a transparent figure that displayed a female’s inner organs (in hindsight, a rather cringe-worthy item). 

Instead, she has enjoyed a career studded with remarkable achievements in the business and nonprofit field. 

“Projects just fell into my lap,” she self-deprecatingly and inaccurately says, ignoring her tremendous skills in nurturing decades-long relationships and developing smart strategic plans for local governments, nonprofits, and real estate associations. 

“I’d come upon a new and interesting challenge and branch off to investigate and suddenly find myself on a different path. I never had a long-term plan,” she adds.

A zigzag route to a powerful position

Early in her career, Kris worked in various administrative roles, from file clerk/PBX operator (“think Lily Tomlin, one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy,” she says) to dispatch operator at Disneyland Hotel Security, where she met her future husband Jim, a police lieutenant at the time. After their marriage, she returned to school.

Kris then worked in Anaheim’s traffic engineering department, was promoted to the City Manager’s office as the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Officer, and later accepted a position as KB Home’s first director of local government affairs. For seven years, she was the CEO of the powerful Building Industry Association. In 2011, she founded her consulting company, KE Thalman and Associates. 

warm funny kristine

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Kris Thalman

But the highlight of her career, she says, has been serving as president of Laguna Beach Seniors.

A life-changing experience with LB Seniors

“Honestly, it’s been life-changing. I don’t think the general public fully understands the value of the programs offered at Susi Q. It’s not just about ukulele playing and yoga, fun though those activities are,” Kris notes. 

“It’s a lifeline. Older people often feel depressed and isolated. That’s where the ‘Feeling the Blues’ program comes in. It provides free, private counseling to help with the emotional problems that seniors grapple with. And several people have told me that our LGBTQ Club is a godsend for the community.”

Kris is particularly impressed by Lifelong Laguna, which offers a number of programs including home assessments as well as community resources to help seniors age safely and gracefully in their own homes.

Good at herding cats, too

And she is greatly appreciated by all at Susi Q. 

“Kris has all the sterling qualities one wants in a friend, including a wicked sense of humor,” says fellow board member Chris Quilter. “I’ve seen her in action as board president of Laguna Beach Seniors and chair of the Senior Housing Task Force, and she is one of those rare leaders who knows how to herd cats without raising her voice or losing her cool.”

Executive Director Nadia Babayi notes that her praise for Kris Thalman could be 10 pages long. “The opportunity to work with Kris as our Board President was the greatest privilege of my professional life,” Nadia says. “Her passion for our mission, devotion of time, energy, and funds and ability to see the big picture is admirable. Laguna Beach Seniors has truly benefited from her leadership.”

As a current member of the often-controversial Design Review Board, Kris is fully aware of strong disagreements among residents about the future of the town. 

“I like to fix things. I try to look at both sides,” she says. “It disappoints me that some people automatically throw rotten tomatoes based on assumptions without taking the time to look at the facts.”

But nothing can dent her love for Laguna.

“It’s such an inspiring place,” Kris says. “There’s a conglomeration of different lifestyles, people with different interests, and for the most part it’s live and let live.”

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Some of Kris’s watercolor paintings: she loves portraits

During stressful periods, or simply when the mood strikes, Kris takes refuge in her watercolor art. She began painting after the death of her husband Jim from cancer 16 years ago.

“I went to a painting workshop where I met some wonderful women. One gave me a palette, another a brush, another one some paints, and they encouraged me to get started. I’ll be forever grateful for their support.”

Close friend and fellow artist Joan Gladstone has this to say: “After I made the leap from running my PR firm to becoming an artist, Kris gently yet persistently encouraged me to enter my oil paintings into exhibitions. 

 “A few years ago I mentioned to Kris that I had entered a painting in a Susi Q show and asked if she was going to enter one of her lovely watercolors. 

“Ever modest, she said no. I was glad when she reconsidered because her painting sold the first day! That’s Kris, a beautiful woman with a huge heart who always puts others first.” 

Family matters, and that includes a dog

A dog-lover, Kris tells me how her mixed breed dog, Arnold, comforted her after the death of her beloved husband.

“Arnold was a member of the family. He was almost human. I got him because I was afraid at night by myself after all those years of marriage. One bad day, I was sitting on the couch crying, and he came up to me and licked the tears from my cheek.” Her voice trembles a little. “It was an unbelievable feeling.” 

Kris grew up in Pico Rivera, a small suburban area in LA County, the only child of a single mother. She adores her mom, who now lives in Laguna Woods.

Her relationship with her late eccentric father – who was, among other things, an adventurous World War II navy man, a hypnotist, a strong man in the circus, and one of the earliest solar power entrepreneurs in the late sixties, among other things – was complicated. 

“I’ve gotten over my angst. I wish now that I had a chance to talk to him, to ask him questions about his life,” she says.

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A photo of Kris’s eccentric father is prominently displayed

Family is of the utmost importance to Kris. Her son Larry is the Interim Chief of Police in Riverside. Daughter Jennifer is a manager for Southern California Gas. 

And then there are the four grandchildren, ranging in age from 19 to six: Brianna, Larry, Garrett, and RJ – as well as step-grandchildren Jake, Sabrina, Taylor, and Brandon, who are spread out in the western U.S.

They’re what makes her happy.

And what makes her sad? “Homelessness.” She grimaces. “The news.” 

Being Kris, she’s doing something about the homeless. She’s a board member of Jamboree Housing, a nonprofit with the goal that every person should be able to live in a strong, healthy, sustainable community. 

And despite her occasional nostalgia for earlier times, she’s looking forward to many more fun detours along the road of life.

“If I think I’ll learn something, I’ll take almost anything on,” she says. “As long as it stays interesting.”

Interesting is never a problem in Laguna Beach, so plan to continue to see a lot more of the inimitable, deeply empathetic, and talented Kris Thalman, who no doubt will fill up at least one more “big, honking Rolodex” in the years to come.

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The Marriner Family celebrates nearly a century of exploration & entrepreneurialism in Laguna Beach


Picture a time in Laguna’s past when the Canyon Road provided the only access into town. Eucalyptus trees drooped over the dirt pass, filling the air with their minty scent. On the outskirts of town, which still clung to the coast, the smell of wood-burning stoves took over. Smoke hung in the trees. 

Picture lobster and abalone so abundant that strollers along our rocky coastline could collect them by hand. Lobsters sold for a buck a sack. Villagers grew tired of eating abalone. But potable water, dispensed from a single pump far from town, required frequent trips out to the canyon.

Picture rumrunners using the secret coves along our coastline for their whiskey drops during Prohibition. Imagine the day when a gunfight broke out on the beach, and lucky locals scrambled to collect the burlap bags of dumped rum. 

In those days, Laguna’s residents numbered no more than 300. They gathered around a long table in front of Hotel Laguna to socialize. Hollywood’s silent filmmakers and actors set up shop along the beaches and cliffs. 

This was 1925, the year 26-year-old Richard “Tip” Marriner first came to town. He hopped a train from Lincoln, Nebraska and arrived in Los Angeles with two dollars in his pocket. “He had to live for weeks on oranges and soup cooked on a gas heater in his third floor room in an old wooden house at 9th and Hope Streets,” recalls his nephew, Harry Marriner. But he brought with him his father’s appetite for adventure, talent for journalism, and an entrepreneurial spirit he would continue passing down through the five generations of Marriners who have made Laguna their home.

Blazing a multigenerational trail into town

Seeing the ocean for the first time and getting a whiff of the salty air, Tip Marriner declared: “This is my kind of country!” He blazed the family’s trail into Laguna around the same time Coast Highway paved another path into town. 

A journalist by trade, Tip began managing Laguna Beach Life in 1925 (the paper went on to become South Coast News, which lasted until 1960), and distributed the LA Times in our area for 35 years. His own father had been a journalist in England before he boarded a clipper ship and set sail to Australia in the year 1877. Henry Marriner would complete two trips around the world by boat before settling in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

The Marriners Tip and Plane

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

Richard “Tip” Marriner readies for an aerial photography trip over Laguna 

Although Tip had found his final home, it didn’t quell his sense of adventure. He soon took to the skies as a photographer, taking some of the earliest aerial photographs of Laguna Beach, which he would turn into a series of colorful postcards to sell in what would become Laguna’s iconic Marriner’s Stationery store.

The founding of Marriner’s Stationery and Booksellers

Two years after arriving in Laguna, Tip hatched a plan. Sacrificing his scanty assets and assuming a big loan, he purchased Walt Stromerson’s photo shop –located near the old Lifeguard Tower and across from South Coast Theater – for $1,500. He delivered newspapers to supplement his meager income from the store. By 1929, business was so good Tip moved the store to a larger location by the White House Café. 

While the rest of the country suffered under the Great Depression, Laguna was building its infrastructure. By the mid-20s, the Laguna Beach County Water District was established. Coast Highway made the town more accessible. And, in 1927, the city was able to incorporate. “Local food sources from fruit trees and gardens kept life affordable,” says Mike Marriner, Sr. (Tip’s grandson). “There was abundant food from the ocean, too.” All this allowed Laguna’s small businesses to prosper during difficult times.

Marriner’s Stationery soon blossomed into a thriving family business. Tip and his wife, Frances, welcomed their first son in 1927, the same year the store opened. Willard (Bill) Marriner grew up in the shop and would spend the bulk of his life running his father’s store, passing it down to his own two boys – Mike and Norm. 

The Marriners LA Times

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

Marriner’s Stationery and Booksellers, circa 1930s: (L-R) Tip Marriner, George Henry, Christina Reed, Jack Pope, R. MacDonald, George Henry, and McChesney Bethea

In 1951 the Marriners completed construction and moved to a larger building on Forest Avenue. They expanded the shop, selling typewriters, books, and office furniture.

A 1975 piece printed in the Laguna News Post reported: “By 1951 Grandpa Tip and Daddy Bill took son Norm as an advisor in toys (he broke them) and magazines (he ate them). Typewriters were added along with son Mike in 1954. He was a specialist in typewriters (sticking keys together and chewing on covers). Business was booming and so was the family. Dave came along in 1955 and, to keep the profit and loss statement in balance, toys had to go – especially footballs.”

The Marriners inside store

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

A view inside Marriner’s Stationery, circa 1951

“One time I went in looking for a nib for an antique pen I had bought,” longtime Laguna resident Ann Christoph wrote in the Laguna Beach Independent in 2015. “It wasn’t even as new as a fountain pen, it was the kind you dip into an inkwell. Mel rummaged around behind the counter and came up with a new pen point that fit the old pen perfectly. Need ink too? Of course they had that in whatever color desired.”

“I’ve always tried to put a label on what it was about the store that made it so special,” says Mike Marriner, Sr. “It wasn’t a tangible thing. I think people liked that it was a family-run business, that it had a little history, and it fostered a staff that had a special connection to the community. It was the closest thing to a social network before the Internet. Not just our store, but all of downtown Laguna. We had the pharmacy, the meat shop, the bakery – all the basics were there. Locals couldn’t go anywhere else. There was no Fashion Island. Forest Avenue was the heart of this community.” 

Unearthing the Laguna Woman

The Marriners aren’t only defined by their commitment to our community and an entrepreneurial spirit. There’s also a strong streak of curiosity, adventure, and discovery. It’s what prompted great-grandfather Henry to board that clipper ship in 1877, and Tip to take to the sky. 

It’s little surprise that Tip’s nephew, Harry, and his sister, Carla, spent their childhood exploring the hills and valleys of Laguna’s canyons. They played in Robber’s Cave, wondering about the holes drilled into the walls to harness horses and hold rope ladders. Ed Marriner (Tip’s brother) found an old beekeeper’s house with rooms wallpapered in newsprint from the 1890s.

The Marriners Robbers Cave

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

Harry and Carla posing in Robber’s Cave (now known as Dripping Springs Cave), circa 1954. (Note the peg holes used for tying horses, rope ladders, and hanging items.)

But the best discovery happened on one of Laguna’s typical warm and sunny days in 1933. Ed and his pal, Howard Wilson, heard tales of construction crews on St. Ann’s Drive making some interesting finds. The boys had a taste for archaeology. “Howard had already amassed a sizable collection of stone tools, arrow points, carved shells, and cooking utensils left behind by now vanished peoples,” Howard Tumbull reported in 2003.

“My friend Howard Wilson and I used a rod to poke a hole in the dirt bank after getting off the bus to see if we could find any Indian things,” Ed wrote. “One day we hit a hard spot and dug in. He ran home to get a shovel and pick. We found an Indian skull and he ran home with it.”

That Indian skull came to be known as the Laguna Beach Woman. The first carbon dating revealed the remains were 17,000 years old, though revised measurements suggest it originated during the Holocene era 11,700 years ago. Nonetheless, she’s recognized as the oldest human skull ever discovered in the western hemisphere.

The end of an era

Back in town, half a century later, the business began to suffer. Although Mike and Norm expanded Marriner’s Stationery to several locations around South Orange County throughout the 1970s and 80s, they foresaw the future and knew what was coming. Big business began creeping in, squeezing out the smaller mom and pop shops.

The Marriners store

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

A view of Marriner’s Stationery in the 1970s

The Marriners continued running the store until the mid 1990s. But they had the foresight to diversify. They began developing supply chain software, a business Mike ran until 2011. “In the 1970s, Norm and I created software to make business more efficient. That category of retail was challenged, but software was still useable for other types of retail. We were able to make a living.” Though he sold the software seven years ago, it’s still being used today. 

The birth of Roadtrip Nation: Mike Jr. continues his great-grandfather’s vision with a 21st century twist

All these industrious family traits crystalized around the turn of this century when Mike Jr. was attending Pepperdine University. Mike majored in biology, but it quickly became clear science wasn’t the path he wished to pursue. What he wanted remained a hazy mystery. Roadtrip Nation was born out of that common college dilemma: What should I do with my life? “What felt like a massive crisis,” Mike says, “became a massive opportunity.”

In 2001, Mike Jr. took to the road with his pals, Nathan Gebhard, Brian McAllister, and Amanda Gall. Together they traveled across the US in a 1985 broken-down lime green RV, interviewing anyone who would talk to them – the chairman of Starbucks; a lobsterman from Maine; the director of Saturday Night Live; the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic; the first female Supreme Court Justice of the United States; head stylist for Madonna; and the CEO of National Geographic Ventures. When the trip concluded, they’d interviewed 140 men and women about their unconventional and highly personalized paths.

From the project came the company Roadtrip Nation and its website (, of which today Mike is co-founder and President. It also gave rise to four New York Times bestselling books, including Roadtrip Nation: A Guide to Discovering Your Path in Life and Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What To Do. 

The Marriner Roadtrip RVs

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Courtesy of Roadtrip Nation Photo Archives

Mike with Roadtrip Nation RVs 

Today the media company reaches over 60 million households, 14 million students, and over 12,000 schools each year. Roadtrip Nation, based in Costa Mesa with over 90 employees, has been awarded the Excellence in Programming award by American Public Television, two Telly awards, and won an Emmy in 2019. Mike has been featured on news outlets including the NBC Today Show, CBS Early Show, BBC News, Outside, Forbes, Esquire, USA Today, and many others.

Turns out, Tip Marriner had a lot in common with his great-grandson. He would have made an ideal Roadtrip Nation interview subject, advising Mike and his friends to cast their nets wide, combine their quirky interests, and use that synergy to create something new. For Tip, melding his background in journalism with his passion for aerial photography, his fearlessness in hopping trains and taking risks, and his entrepreneurial spirit was the exact recipe for enduring success.

The Marriners postcard

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Courtesy of Marriner Family Photo Archives

A typical colored postcard created by Tip Marriner from his aerial photography

Today Mike Jr. models that approach. He calls himself a social entrepreneur, carrying on Tip’s mission of bringing communities together. “When you think about it,” Mike Sr. says, “the stationery store was all about communicating. Sending photographs and letters and postcards. Connecting communities together. Mikey continues that tradition.”

Now a new generation of Marriners has arrived. Mike Jr. met his wife Katy at that same Thurston Middle School bus stop in Laguna where he met his lifelong pal and business partner, Nathan. They have two children, Alia and Tyler. In total, there are six Marriners attending Laguna Beach schools: Sophie, Olivia, Klee, Forest, Alia, and Tyler. The Marriner name will continue on – with deep roots and broad branches all across our town.

The Marriners generations

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current three generations of Marriners celebrating Hospitality Night in downtown Laguna: Mike Jr., Tyler (4), Katy, Mike Sr., and Alia (7)

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Sculptor Stephanie Bachiero Blake: A life story – and art – with many twists and turns


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Less than eighteen months after a three-story fall that resulted in serious brain injury – rendering then 21-year-old Stephanie Bachiero unable to talk or walk, broken in mind and body – her therapist, watching her progress slowly toward recovery, handed her a Saddleback College catalogue.

“Time to exercise that brain,” the therapist said, or words to that effect. 

Through the fog of her damaged cognitive abilities, Stephanie, determined once again to be self-sufficient, couldn’t have been happier at the suggestion, even though at that point she was barely able to communicate verbally. 

Touch would be her savior.

“At the time of my fall, I had been studying at Boston College, planning to become a lawyer,” she says. “With the damage to my critical thinking skills, I realized I’d have to find a new career. I looked at different courses at Saddleback but most were fully booked – except for a ceramics class. So I enrolled. And I was hooked.”

Sweetly-spoken Stephanie says that sculpting with clay during those classes engaged her mind and hands and allowed her to explore facets of her being that she never knew existed. 

“I had lost my ability to think critically but had gained intuitive qualities and a sense of unfettered optimism,” she recalls. 

Inspiration is followed by nurturing, focus and patience

Subsequently she chose to work with porcelain, a temperamental clay that demands intensive nurturing, focus, and patience – the same qualities necessary to recover from brain trauma as severe as Stephanie’s. 

Sculptor Stephanie portrait

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Stephanie Bachiero Blake

“The properties of porcelain were a metaphor for my recovery. Art brought me into the light,” Stephanie says. “Sculpting and working with my hands enabled my cognitive abilities. My mind recovered through my hands.”

The sculptor adds wryly, “Porcelain is extremely challenging and unforgiving. If porcelain feels like exploding in the kiln, it will, and more often than not, it will be your favorite work. It reminds you who’s the boss quite often.” 

The art born of Stephanie’s trauma is remarkable. In her sunny canyon studio, she bends and flexes her sculptures into shapes that are ethereal yet at the same time sturdy, that seem to float yet are anchored in reality – and to the wall or floor. 

Now, 15 years after that ceramics course and 16 since her accident, she is internationally known for sinuous sculptures, some of which have been juried into the New York Armory Show and exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. – and, of course, at the Peter Blake Gallery. 

And she’s been flying high since she hired a fabricator who works on stealth bombers for the military. 

“He’s always encouraging me to dream bigger,” she says. “Over the last few years I have turned to casting my works in metal. I’ve also worked with the 3D process where my small sculptures are realized in a scale previously unobtainable. They can be as large as 20 feet tall and wide.”

Sculptor Stephanie sculpture

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One of Stephanie’s sinuous sculptures in her studio

Stephanie’s pieces are generally white, beige or metallic hues, though some spectacular works are cobalt blue. Recently, the City of Newport Beach acquired Pinnacle, which is displayed in the rotating sculpture garden.

Her favorite piece is a work called Push, a word that encapsulates her relentless drive toward full recovery. 

“It’s a very sensual form that appears to be holding up a wall. I love how it projects so much strength and yet is so feminine,” she says.

Music, too, has become vital to her, the soundtrack of her work.

“We [she and her gallery owner husband Peter Blake] don’t have a TV but we do have an incredible stereo and listen to records every chance we get. Despite my hearing loss from the accident, I’ve taught myself how to listen more acutely,” Stephanie says. 

“I’ve learned to hear the difference between MP3, CD, and vinyl. There’s nothing like experiencing music on a great stereo. I love Alt Country, Folk, and 70s rock. There are some contemporary bands I really enjoy as well. I love Ryan Adams! I listen to music all day long.”

Becoming a politician’s wife

Last year brought a new challenge into Stephanie’s life – becoming a politician’s wife after Peter ran for and won a seat on the City Council. Stephanie giggles at the word “politician” being applied to her husband.

“I still struggle to say that word,” she says. “Politician!”

Sculptor stephanie work

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Stephanie at work in her studio in the Canyon

Stephanie met Peter back in 2007 through a series of coincidences: her best friend was Peter’s dentist’s daughter (got that?), Vanessa Vigoren. Vanessa invited Stephanie to an art opening at Bloomingdale’s. 

“Peter was there. At the time I had no idea who he was. I was intrigued by him. He asked me about my art and invited us to go back to his place for an after-party. He wanted me to ‘see his ceramic collection’ (quite the come-on line). I don’t think I ever left.

“[Going forward] he accepted me for who I was and never judged me. At the time I had not fully recovered socially. He brought me into his world. I suddenly found myself socializing five nights a week surrounded by artists, curators, critics, and collectors. It was a whirlwind. Needless to say, I was forced to recover. I had no choice!”

Stephanie says that she is thrilled to have made new friends outside the art world that normally consumes her as a result of her husband’s newfound politician status.

“The campaign was exhausting but exciting, and it opened me up to a new world. I love going to the City Council meetings. I have so many new friends now.”

The two of them prefer to eat raw vegan meals at home – “though sometimes we cheat,” she admits. 

Stephanie says she rises each day just glad to be breathing. 

From trauma to bliss

“Technically I ‘died’ so every single day is a blessing for me. I’m super happy and content working in the third dimension. Designing exhibitions at the gallery has become another art form for me. It turns into a large and multi-faceted artwork in and of itself. During my recovery I worked with jigsaw puzzles. Installing shows at the gallery was a natural progression from them.”

Sculptor stephanie studio space

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Stephanie Blake with her artwork

She remains eternally grateful for her friends and family.

“I was driven by guilt over the sorrow I had caused them. I couldn’t let them or myself down. I was also fortunate to have gifted therapists who inspired me to rise above my limitations,” she makes sure to note.

And Stephanie is sublimely happy to live in Laguna Beach, where her favorite activities include yoga with Bob Metzler and the simple joys of shopping at Whole Foods and seeing friends.

“Laguna is the most incredible place in the world! It is art. The ocean, hills, light, and weather form the backdrop for my life. I’m never at a loss for inspiration in Laguna,” she adds.

And with that, our interview is nearly over. Stephanie has work to do – the following day, she and Peter would be heading off to Design Miami. 

But she can’t resist reiterating one more time her excitement with her career and her affection for the husband she adores and the gallery he owns. 

“My involvement with the gallery allows me to explore the many facets of running a business so I’m fulfilled in many ways. I love traveling to major cities and representing the gallery and its artists,” Stephanie concludes. 

“There is always that moment when a show opens and the adrenaline kicks in. The months of planning, hard work, and sleepless nights are over and there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that rivals any high I know. I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

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The transformative power of Pastor Jeffrey Tacklind


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

There’s a well-known passage by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi that I often use as a guide in my relationships and my work: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Last week, I met Pastor Jeff Tacklind there. 

Jeff, obviously, is a man of God. His congregation at Church by the Sea describes itself as “a community of believers endeavoring to live as God’s people with Christ as the central focus.” Grounded by his own humanity, Jeff is quick to confess he has more questions than answers. Like many, he’s curious, humble, vulnerable, and still as much seeker as prophet – the very traits of a remarkable pastor. 

The transformative preaching

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Pastor Jeff Tacklind addressing his congregation at Church by the Sea

I come from a long line of dedicated agnostics. Which is to say that although Jeff and I approach life from different perspectives, we still found a wonderfully rich field on which to meet. 

This is a story about that field, where Jeff meets anyone who arrives. It’s the story of a pastor, but also a philosopher, a writer, a musician, and a scholar who approaches the world by embracing all its paradox and complexity. It’s about Jeff but – in its specificity – it’s also a universal story about all of us.

Sowing small town seeds

Jeff spent his formative teenage years in Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, the mountain town equivalents of Laguna’s seaside village (albeit even smaller). A middle child, sandwiched by sisters, Jeff enjoyed a sheltered childhood. His parents – now in their mid-70s – are still devout, married, and living in Jeff’s hometown where he and his family will spend Thanksgiving.

After graduating from Rim of the World High School, Jeff imagined he’d follow in his father’s engineering footsteps. He began his studies at Cal Poly Pomona, but soon discovered that science, while interesting, wasn’t his calling. “That was my first crisis of not knowing what I wanted to do,” Jeff says. “I like science and physics, but I don’t love it. And you have to love it.”

Not until Jeff worked as a youth pastor at a summer camp – where his roommate was hiring at a big church – did he realize the ministry was a career he could pursue. “It was always a passion, but not something I thought you could do vocationally. The church where I grew up didn’t offer paid positions. I was delighted to discover I could follow this longing. I continue finding such meaning in what I do. I feel very grateful.” He went on to obtain his master’s degree in Philosophy and a Doctorate in Semiotics and Future Studies.

Not only did he find his fit in the church, he found it again in rediscovering his small town roots. Whether by upbringing or woven into his DNA, small towns spoke to Jeff. “My parents had an appreciation for the small town,” he says. “It was interesting coming to Laguna and finding that feeling again. Laguna is very different [from Lake Arrowhead], but we also have one high school for the town. We also have the Patriot’s Day Parade. I love it. Small towns were always such a fit.”

He attributes much of that “fit” to the human desire to be known, and to cast his roots deep instead of wide. After spending his younger years in a large church in Fullerton – where he was often recognized, but unable to sufficiently connect with the congregation – he felt isolated. Being seen by many isn’t the same as feeling deeply understood by few.

Little Church by the Sea is quintessential Laguna

Jeff discovered The Church by the Sea in 2001. He and his wife, Patty, had been married less than a year. Jeff was planning to take a position at a big church. But he received a surprise call from Brad Coleman, then the lead pastor at Church by the Sea. 

“When we walked into this little church, in this little town, I knew this was it,” Jeff says. “Patty and I both felt like we would be known. We felt a real belonging and acceptance. We felt safe. That’s such a deep human longing.”

Because the little church was already filled to capacity with over 300 members and not an inch of space to expand, it freed Jeff to consider how to make the community stronger and healthier without making it bigger. 

The congregation might be as diverse as Laguna itself. Full of artists, musicians, creatives, and intellectuals, the community provides a rich mixture of thought, if not geography. It’s quirky and multi-generational, full of longstanding characters and newcomers. It’s Laguna.

What separates the shepherd from his flock?

Jeff incorporates his background in philosophy and semiotics, his love of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, his gift for metaphor and allegory, and his passion for music into his sermons. 

The transformative office

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Jeff’s office reflects his wide range of reading, thinking, and curiosities

“Church is like a one-room schoolhouse,” Jeff says. “You can only teach one lesson, and everybody needs to take something from it. Wherever you are on your journey, you can grab hold.” 

Jeff translates complex ideas – whether spiritual, philosophical, or scientific – and makes them accessible to his congregation. “Good philosophers and scientists have a sense of wonder and play,” Jeff says. All the disciplines echo each other. “If we pursue truth with a sense of wonder, following the beauty and elegance, if we have a sense of playfulness, we can hold onto these ideas longer.”

“The Winding Path of Transformation: 

Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility”

This past July, Jeff published his first book. It wasn’t without its struggles. Yes, he wanted it written. But that didn’t mean Jeff wanted to write it. Any artist is familiar with this feeling of resistance. It’s the entire subject behind Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (a book Jeff knows well).

“When are you going to do this?” asked Cathleen Falsani, who eventually wrote the book’s foreward. “So how’s the book coming?” asked Jeff’s friend, Mark Metherell, who didn’t live to see it published. 

The transformative book

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Jeff’s book is available in paperback at all major booksellers

“It wasn’t written after-the-fact,” Jeff says. “It was written very much in-the-midst. It’s a book about transformation – and how God does that – in the complexity, paradox, messiness, and tension of life. It wanders through these different seasons of change that happened. There are stories from my own life about hearing and discerning God. Moments when I didn’t know what was going on. Moments of doubt. That was all part of the journey.”

The struggle itself proves the book’s worth. If writers are honest in their message, that message rarely comes easily.

“There’s this expectation that pastors have it all figured out,” he says. “And I’ve never felt qualified.” The book is tangible evidence of Jeff’s qualifications.

Shaping the personal into the universal

The Winding Path is full of tender, vulnerable moments. Jeff recalls one Halloween when a co-worker dressed “in costume” as him. “Everyone thought it was hilarious,” Jeff wrote. “He had on one of my sweaters, was carrying my mug, wore a terrible wig, and did his best to mimic all my mannerisms. I was horrified.” Of course the gesture was intended as compliment. Imitation, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, is flattery’s sincerest form. But Jeff had doubts. He wrote, “I felt naked and exposed. I wanted to disappear. I’m afraid that maybe I’m the reason that everyone is laughing. That I’m the joke and everyone is just too polite to let me in on it.” 

The transformative close up

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Jeff’s iconic style is comforting and accessible

The book teems with this kind of raw exposure. Not for the sake of pity or sympathy, but as a means of universal connection, and a method of aligning himself ever closer to God. Jeff wants you to know he’s standing in that wide open field – outside ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing – waiting for you to join him so he can tell you he knows, he’s been there, he gets it.   

In another passage, Jeff grapples with an email he received from a friend-of-a-friend and fellow Christian, taking issue with one of Jeff’s blog posts that “quoted a known homosexual.” Jeff describes his blood boiling with defensiveness. “He pleaded with me to simply present God’s truth…which I’m assuming meant quoting Scripture… exclusively,” Jeff wrote. “Why do we do this? Broad sweeping statements of rejection of anyone we find a particular disagreement with, even when the disagreement is completely unrelated.” 

One senses an immediate safe space with Jeff. Whatever your beliefs or doubts, your struggles or your grief, your shame or insecurities, he’s been there. He’s heard them. He’s prayed over that problem and, if he hasn’t, he’s open and willing to try. 

Jeff writes honestly about his marriage with Patty (a dance teacher, fitness instructor, and wellness coach), and all the feelings of jealousy and unworthiness that necessarily accompany long unions. “As Patty grows in new ways, I can tend to shrink back,” he writes. “I feel judged, or inferior, or inadequate. I start to feel threatened or scared. Like maybe I’m not enough for her.” Marriages – even happy and fulfilling ones – aren’t without their trials. And from those trials, something deeper can often be found. Jeff is honest about that, too. “Under the embarrassment was something more than I could hope for,” he writes. “True acceptance. And as painful and costly as it might be, there was nothing I wanted more.” 

The transformative family

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Jeff with his wife, Patty, and their children: Gabe (17), Lila (10), and Mia (15)

And he writes about fatherhood, with all its heartbreaks and intimate moments. Surfing with his son, fly fishing with his two eldest. He relays a moment of pride, celebrating a perfect report card, followed by a boomerang of pain when his son discovers the coveted award (a discount card for local restaurants and shops) has been lost. Jeff captures his heartache as he watches his son attempt to conceal how much he cared about this meaningful win. The story has a happy, and then suddenly complicated and unsettling, end, as honest stories often do. There is the conclusion, and then there is the lesson. This is Jeff’s gift – exposing his own humility in all its complexity. In the process, he creates something bigger and more universal for the rest of us to experience for ourselves.

The transformative piano

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Jeff sharing his passions, and a tender moment, with Lila

“Carl Rogers said, ‘What is the most personal is the most universal,’” Jeff wrote in the book’s preface. “I wrote the book taking that by faith,” Jeff says. “This is the book that came about from something really personal. But I’m not alone. I hope it proves helpful to people in finding their own story within it.” 

The elegant tension of contradiction

Jeff embraces the middle space – that in-between, murky ground where self-discovery happens. As writers darken the page and pastors lighten the heart, Jeff does both. And there’s nothing contradictory in this tension. 

Not only does his book explore the lovely paradox between glory and humility, self-doubt and confidence, curiosity and faith, so do Jeff’s life and teachings. Certainty, Jeff argues, is a dangerous state. Truth lies in the quest and the struggle. It exists in the middle.

There is a field. Let’s meet there.

Last week, Jeff gathered with his congregation at the Sawdust Festival grounds for a Thanks-Chili celebration. Some members brought their favorite chili recipes. Others filled in the side dishes. Musicians played. Worshippers sang. A community came together – 150 strong – under their shared love of Christ. 

“I stood next to friend of mine and he said, ‘This is church,’” Jeff says. “You feel the intertwined family gathered together. People who are walking through life together. The deep bond, the joy, the lightness of a shared meal. That’s a lot of the fruit of church. The common bond and camaraderie and family connection. Not because we’re achieving or attaining some big thing. But because there’s so much compassion. It’s a healthy sign that the church is growing and generous.” 

A moment passes before he adds, “I’m proud of this church.” He stares at the ground with a smile – whether in glory or humility, I can’t tell. But I’m pretty certain it’s both.

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Lighthearted but not lightweight: Faux Paw’s Debby Carman puts her heart into her art and her business


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Stepping into the Faux Paw Gallery at 611 South Coast Hwy the other day felt like crossing the threshold from real life with all its worries into Kaleidoscope Land, where everything is colorful and fanciful and carefree. 

Indeed, I experienced a certain giddiness, as if the dog and cat-themed pillows and tote bags and sculptures and books and ceramics and lampshades and toys and cards and mugs and gorgeous pet bowls were jumping up and down with joy, inviting me to join their happy world. 

Owner Debby Carman leans into the whimsical nature of her art: “For years I’ve been writing daily ‘Whim Shots’ – inspirational sayings that bounce off the whim of life,” she says. “It’s who I am, I’m a seeker and I’m full of hope and joy. Everyone smiles in the same language, right?”

Lighthearted Debby

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Eclectic and elegant: that’s Debby’s style

Debby is stylishly and, yes, whimsically dressed in an outfit that makes the most of her still youthful figure: sleek checked pants, slightly scuffed cowboy boots – evidence of her love of that footwear – red paisley blouse, scarf, and black jacket, hung with a horsehair tassel, which she fingers as we talk. 

“I don’t wear jewelry, only my wedding ring, but I love hanging and dangling things,” she says. “I like to mix up paisley and checks and floral prints.”

Her Maltipoo, Cozy Coquetti, looks on approvingly from under floppy white bangs as we chat, just as Swatch sets the tone at Mood on Project Runway. Previous beloved dogs included Cha Cha the Dancing Dog, who became a character in her Bowzers and Meowzers books for kids. 

A cataclysmic moment leads to a life-changing decision

Debby may be lighthearted, but she’s no lightweight. She owned four flower shops and an event planning company in Newport Beach before experiencing what she describes as a “cathartic, cataclysmic moment” 28 years ago, a moment that changed the trajectory of her life.

“I knew then that I wanted to cartoon,” she says. “I had never done anything like that in my life before, not even as a child. But it felt right. It was my destiny and it became my passion.”

The inspiration for the six characters who animate her books started with Gronk the Green Dog, who, Debby says, came alive in an instant, as though she was channeling his energy: My name is Gronk, and I’m Green/I know I’m a dog/So it’s the silliest thing/For a dog to be green, I mean.

Lighthearted Kittywimpuss

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One of Debby’s Bowzers and Meowzers books for kids

Sheer force of will along with business savvy steered her to the Frankfurt Book Fair – which, incredibly, has been around for 800 years – where she set up her stand with her books and posters, ignoring those naysayers who said that wasn’t the best venue for her to launch Faux Paw.

“By the third day, I had a signed deal for Korean rights. French, Spanish, and Portuguese contracts followed after that and the business took off. Over time the cartoons evolved into all the art you see here.”

Debby gestures to paintings of dogs and cats that adorn canvases and mugs and every imaginable kind of merchandise. “I paint from the inside out, from the heart – you’ll see that each item incorporates a heart. Also I paint in broken lines, using splashes of color to create the whole. I love splatting polka dots on my canvases too.” 

Pet owners come to Debby to depict their dogs and cats in glorious multi-colored form on customized items, from ceramic water bowls to pet urns.

Business challenges leave her undaunted

While Debby’s art may be carefree, running a business in this town can be challenging, given high rents and ebb and flow of potential customers depending on the season. Debby is undaunted. “Though the recession was a challenge ten years ago,” she admits. “Art is a tough profession.” 

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Faux Paw Gallery, presided over by Cozy Coquetti (on the right)

Today she is excited to share that she’s expecting a visit from Costco that might bring in the big bucks. Licensing agreements with major corporations have helped her thrive. And she has plenty of customers who are huge fans – drawn in part, I’m sure, to her ebullient nature. 

After living in Laguna Beach for 40 years and practicing her distinctive art for nearly three decades, one could say that Debby has become a legend in town, though she looks too young – and too present – to be a legend. 

Other interests include Shakespeare and US history

In addition to running her successful business with galleries at two locations – the other one is in Boat Canyon – Debby has a range of interests, some of which might surprise people. 

“If I had to choose a different career, I’d have liked to be a Shakespearian academician,” she says. “My favorite plays are As You Like It, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus. The light and the dark.”

American history also fascinates Debby. Her great-great-grandfather fought in five battles during the Civil War, including Antietam, but she’s more interested in revolutionary times. 

“I try to read at least one biography a year,” Debby says. “I especially admire John Adams. He was indefatigable. George Washington too.”

She holds monthly inspirational meetings at her home, a place she describes as “full of candles, music, color, and texture – I’d call it museum-esque. My guests leave comforted and inspired.”

Debby is also a huge baseball fan, specifically of the Angels – which reminds her of our Stu, also a rabid fan of the team.

Debby remembers Stu

“I adored that man. He was a cartoon.” Debby means this as the highest accolade she can give anyone. “I mean, he just had a cartoon face, full of expression. He was always ready with a smile and a laugh.

“And he was the kindest man. He was a co-parent to my godson Brandon. I’ll never forget how Stu came to Brandon’s USF graduation, even though he was so ill, using a walker, with his oxygen tank. 

“We loved to talk about baseball stats. I miss him. What he did for this community, his values, it’s incredible.”

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Faux Paw pet bowls are uniquely beautiful

Oh, and another passion of Debby’s is cleaning up beach trash, which she has been doing every day for 30 years. There’s a photograph of her dragging an entire abandoned tent off the beach, dwarfed by the burden but dogged (which, come to think of it, seems like the perfect adjective for Debby). “We’ve all got to work together to clean up this planet,” she says.

We tour her gallery, her enthusiasm palpable, my amazement growing at the vividness of her art. “Every day I think, this is all so magnificent, that this is where I am at now,” she says. “I feel so fortunate.”

And with that, she showers me and our photographer Mary Hurlbut with gifts – tote bags and cards – and insists on putting together a packet of books and goodies for my granddaughter. 

After enjoying an amazing forty-five minutes with this kind, passionate, funny, smart, generous woman, I leave her cartoon wonderland into the drab street, as if exiting a psychedelic dream. 

I smile all the way home, and then some.

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Corky Smith gave himself to Laguna: now his hometown has the chance to give back


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

These days, it’s easy to take Laguna’s clean ocean and pristine surf spots for granted. The undeveloped hillsides behind our town, home to hidden waterfalls and clandestine caves, almost feel fated. This wasn’t always so. It was a group of mid-century residents who ensured the preservation of our natural treasures. 

Briggs Christian Morris-Smith, better known by friends as “Corky,” is one of those local institutional legends. Corky became largely responsible for cleaning up our filthy ocean and preserving the hidden history in our hillsides. All that after years of serving his country overseas. Now, at 83, the Department of Veterans Affairs is letting Corky down. They’ve denied him access to a much-needed hip replacement. For the man who gave to his community, now there’s an opportunity for our community to give back. 

Corky Smith close up

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Corky poses at home, modeling his pal Mark Christy’s Ranch apparel

The Silent Generation or the Lucky Few?

It’s fitting that Corky was born in the center of the Silent Generation, a period marked by both good and lousy luck. They were silenced by the McCarthy Hearings and scarred by Korea. Sandwiched between the Great Depression and WWII – resulting in a relatively low birthrate – members of this era were typically stoic, hardworking, and kept their mouths closed. Corky embodies all those traits. 

A 2008 book authored by Elwood Carlson coined the cohort the “Lucky Few,” in part because this was the first generation in American history to be smaller than its predecessor, and because they came of age during a relatively prosperous time. Veterans of the Korean War suffered fewer casualties than their WWII fathers and enjoyed higher employment, better health, longer lives, and earlier retirement.

This duality sums up Corky’s life. Where one might see danger, Corky saw adventure. Another man’s battle became Corky’s challenge. In almost every situation Corky found himself in, there was both a silver lining and a cutting sword. 

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A quintessential storyteller, even the origin of Corky’s moniker hints at his colorful character. As a baby, his grandparents threw elaborate champagne-fueled parties on their estate. “I’d take the corks and suck on them,” he told OC Weekly back in 1999. “I was an alcoholic at 18 months old.”

Today, unlike many of his fallen friends, he’s still standing. But it’s getting increasingly hard with a hip that’s giving out and a system that’s unwilling to help. 

Korea’s youngest soldier

In 1952, Corky faced a difficult decision. He’d had a fallout with his father, and a rocky relationship with his mom. At age 16, he could become a ward of the state, reside in juvenile detention, or enlist early into the Navy. He chose the latter. His own father flew thunderbolts during WWII, so there was some military precedent. 

The only man in his company to qualify for the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (known as the “Seabees”), Corky was soon sent to Japan and told he was no longer in the Navy, but now in the Marine Corps and required to complete marine combat training. 

By the following year, he found himself flying between Korea and Japan, pushing cargo strapped to parachutes out of C-119 Flying Boxcars. “We carried no ID and flew in unmarked planes,” Corky says. “I learned to never ask any questions.” Pushing cargo earned Corky $200 a month. For an extra $100, he volunteered to test parachutes by jumping out of planes. His efforts earned him Korean presidential citations. But, six decades later, he carries the reminder of those jumps in his deteriorated hips. 

After a short 30-day leave in Laguna, Corky was sent back. This time to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands – one of the largest missile tracking stations in South Asia set on a tiny piece of land that occupies just over six square miles. Corky says most people couldn’t handle it out there. He made it 18 months. When the day finally arrived for him to ship home, he was informed the military had made a mistake and extended his tour for another four months. “Typical military mess up,” he says.

He keeps a photograph of himself with five friends as a reminder of those difficult days. “When I asked about his friends in the photo, Corky took a few deep breaths and began to carefully give the name and a detailed story of each face in the photo,” says friend and local Laguna legend Mark Christy. “Where they were from. A key personality trait. Where and how they had died. Most had died in battle, another had gone by suicide. Finally, still staring at the picture, he said, “’I’m the only one left.’”

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Corky (far left) poses during a well-deserved R&R with his fallen friends

If early life events turn into our story’s prologue, shaping who we become, this was who Corky became – a man who never ran from risk, who didn’t shy away from a challenge, and who put his own life and well-being on the line to protect others. He siphoned that energy to protect Laguna’s greenbelt and our stretch of the Pacific Ocean. 

Battling Hurricane Hattie

Corky returned from the service and settled back into his life in Laguna. He married his wife, Pat, in 1961 and they decided to join some local friends at a skin diving resort in Belize. 

It was October and hurricane season was well underway in the Caribbean. Corky and Pat had been there two weeks when Hurricane Hattie struck their small island. It hit on his birthday and bore his grandmother’s name. Winds up to 160 mph pummeled the island. Waves rose 25 feet. “Men tied women to posts,” Corky says. Of the 73 homes on the tiny island, only one and a half were left standing. Corky and Pat were in the half. The death toll began to climb.

The town was described as “nothing but a huge pile of matchsticks.” Officials in Belize City declared martial law. Then the looting began. “Guatemalans came up,” Corky says. “The British from Jamaica. They started shooting people.” 

Corky helped Pat evacuate back to Miami, but he stayed behind to help. Mass graves were dug, bodies burned and buried to prevent the spread of disease. He cleared a landing zone, allowing helicopters to drop aid and supplies. One of those helicopters delivered a marine lieutenant who turned out to be one of Corky’s surfing buddies from Laguna (coincidences like those often happened to Corky). He told his pal they needed water and rations and weapons.

The British soon discovered Corky was American and arrested him. Corky found himself in the middle of a race war, the only Caucasian in a sea of Jamaican looters in jail. “They were about to beat the hell out of me when someone recognized me and told them I was okay.” 

Was it another case of bad luck turned good? Or, more likely, good luck turned bad? Regardless, it was another case of Corky taking significant risk and making significant sacrifice.

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After returning from overseas, Corky worked for Surfer Magazine and acted in several commercials with Tom Morey and Brenda Benet

Communing with the man in the cave

Whether it was his time overseas or simply his nature, there’s a significant spiritual side to Corky. While studying anthropology, archaeology, and ethnic studies at Cal State Fullerton, Corky uncovered a remarkable cave in Laguna’s vast greenbelt. It started small, only two and a half feet tall, when he began excavating it in 1960s. By the time he finished, the cave was large enough to accommodate a six-foot man.

Inside he discovered arrowheads, quartz crystals, and human bones. He contacted a shaman to bless the cave and carbon dated the human remains. They were 1,500 years old. The cave became a sacred spot for Corky, a place where he could commune with its spirit.

“An argument could be made that Corky is Laguna’s foremost archeologist,” says Christy. “In his home, there are countless books – all neatly stacked and categorized – about the indigenous people who were here centuries before us and he has an encyclopedic understanding of who they were, where and how they lived.” 

While most students’ theses clock in around a hundred pages, Corky’s was close to 1,000. Local interest began to grow alongside his research. He eventually attracted the attention of Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Sidney Cohen, who he took to the cave. At the same time, Corky fought alongside James Dilley to preserve the greenbelt from development.

“I have been in Laguna my entire life and have spent literally thousands of hours in these hills exploring every nook and cranny,” says Christy. “When the massive development was proposed in Laguna Canyon, I was on the original Board of the Canyon Conservancy. Corky took a few of us on a deep dive tour of Laguna Canyon’s hillsides. With palpable reverence, he revealed hidden Native American sites. He demonstrated how they would hunt and harvest only what they needed to survive. They used micro-dust from fungus to determine which way the wind was blowing on a windless day, staying downwind of prospective prey. To date, it was the most fascinating few hours I’ve spent in Laguna’s hills.”

Before Corky’s hips went bad, he led student tours through the preserve. Inner-city kids, disadvantaged youth, those without access to nature. He delivered lectures about environmentalism and preservation at UCLA, the Bowers Museum, California State University Fullerton, and Scripps Institute of Oceanography. On one notable occasion, Corky led a small group of blind students from the Braille Institute in Santa Ana. About 10 children, all 10 years old, tied themselves together with a long rope, and hiked into the hills. They sat amid the grasses and trees and identified the sounds of birds. “The stuff they could hear and smell,” Corky says, looking a little choked up. “It was so far superior to anything I’d seen.” 

It’s easy to see he’s itching to get back out there.

Corky’s Erin Brockovich moment: Battling Big Water

In January 1997, like he did every day, Corky went for a run along Aliso Beach. He dove into the ocean and swam along the shore. Two days later, his skin exploded. “Everything was swollen,” he told OC Weekly in 1999. Soon the skin on his hands and feet began to split and bleed. It lasted nearly two weeks. 

The cause? Raw sewage – 440,000 gallons of it – had been dumped into the ocean. It was the equivalent of 100,000 toilet flushes. And it was neither the first nor last time. In 1997, Aliso was deemed the second dirtiest beach in the United States.

What ensued was a multi-year legal battle between Corky and the Moulton Niguel Water District and the South Coast County Water District over what we argued was their failure to provide adequate pumps and backup precautions when the systems overloaded, resulting in multiple and routine sewage spills into Aliso Creek and, ultimately, the ocean. 

Although Corky lost the suit – at tremendous personal expense – during the course of their fight, the water district made several critical improvements. But the battle essentially bankrupted Corky. He lost his home and all his financial reserves, while Laguna gained much cleaner water.

A local surfing legend

In 1989, Corky became the co-founder of the Surfrider Foundation in Laguna. “Corky is deserving of a place on the Mount Rushmore of Laguna’s surf legends,” Christy says. “When I was a kid, during the nastiest of big winter storms, there were only a few that would paddle out in the ‘victory at sea’ conditions. Corky, Big John Parlette, Joe Epps, Mike Armstrong, and a few others. The rest of the tribe would sit on the rocks at Brooks and watch these warriors navigate the huge and random peaks breaking beyond second reef. It was Laguna’s version of Da Bull (Greg Noll) at Makaha.”

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Corky around age 21

Maybe it’s his membership in the Silent Generation. Or perhaps because he spent his formative years in war. Or maybe it’s simply built into his DNA. But Corky’s many sacrifices – both physical and financial – are remarkable. 

“It literally breaks my heart to see this proud man hobbled and in need of a little help,” Christy says. “He has done so much for this town, Laguna’s legacy, our oceans and our hillsides, and this country he loves so much.”

To date, Corky is two-thirds away from his financial goal. For more information on how to help, click here.

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Wendy Nelson is a driving force – whether it's steering a Vintage Airstream Trailer or at the helm of Laguna’s last remaining gay bar


Photos by Mary Hurlbut 

Third-generation Lagunan Wendy Nelson swooped back into town approximately six years ago from Northern California to help her brother Jimmy navigate the ups and downs of running Laguna’s only remaining gay bar, Main Street Bar & Cabaret on Coast Highway. 

“I’m here to honor my brother, to honor his desire to save an important part of gay history in this town, to honor all the individuals who have found and continue to find this place a refuge,” Wendy says. “Most of our customers are gay men, it’s true, but I like to say is that we’re human-friendly. We don’t care about anything except whether you are nice. We want to be a safe place that also offers great music and great entertainment.”

OC Weekly says that Main Street Bar offers “The Best Drag Shows in OC.” They’re hosted by Endora, Niobi, Lamb, and Whisper on Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as bingo and karaoke on other nights.

Running a gay bar may sound like an unusual job for a straight woman, but then Wendy is an unusual woman. Her talents are prodigious and varied, her energy unbounded, and her interests many. And she’s got a lot of Laguna Beach cred.

Wendy Nelson Wendy

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Effervescent Wendy has brought new energy to the family business

“I grew up in the sixties and seventies here in Laguna. I sang in the children’s choir at the Laguna Presbyterian Church,” she says. “I walked James Dilley’s collie dog, Patrick, for several years. While in high school, I had a part-time job at 31 Flavors on Broadway. I served Mexican food at the Sawdust. 

“I worked for a conservative Member of Congress. I dated the son of a Democratic Congressman. Politics, religion, sexuality, I don’t care, just be kind.”

A rich and varied work history stands her in good stead

And talk about a rich work history – at various times in her life, Oxford University-educated Wendy has been a forklift operator, a rancher in both Southern and Northern California, and has trained race horses. She’s managed a horse farm and worked in the financial and hospitality sectors. She’s a skilled bartender and chef (though Main Street Bar does not serve food). 

Together with a partner, she once owned 85 Vintage Airstream Trailers, the largest collection in the world. Wendy towed trailers from states as far away as Michigan to California – “which could be quite challenging, because being so old they weren’t always in great shape to pull,” she notes. “But that was fine, I don’t have any problem changing or replacing axles.” She’s down to just 21 trailers at this point.

Her love of classic vehicles is evident in the car she currently drives, a ‘64 Mercury Montclair. She and her fiancé Jeff Hartman – who left Anheuser Busch after 20 years to become an integral part of the family business – own a number of iconic cars, including a ‘65 Volkswagen Bug.

Wendy Nelson car

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Wendy loves vintage and classic cars; here she is with her ‘64 Mercury Montclair

Oh, and she’s also been in movies, including Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen. “Not big parts, no credits. But filmmakers say they like my classic forties’ profile,” she says. “Whatever that means.”

In her spare time (I know!) Wendy volunteers as part of a Red Cross Relief Team and locally she’s been a docent for the Gate & Garden Tour. After her sister died of breast cancer, for eight years Wendy chaired the San Francisco Race for the Cure. “It’s so important to raise awareness,” she says.

For now she knows she must concentrate only on nurturing the success of Main Street. “I focus on the business, it’s about family, blood, and patrons, that’s where I’m at right now,” she says. “I love my brother and those who appreciate what we do.”

Loyalty is a big deal at Main Street Bar & Cabaret

“Loyalty is a big deal here,” she says. “I have a really wonderful crew. And I have to tell you, the resurrection of this place is due firstly to three exceptional people – my lead bartender, Eddie Singletary, who is also an actor, producer, and director, as well as Michael Witkowksi, known as Little Michael, and, of course, our house drag queen, the wonderful Endora.”

Endora – who is also Terry Redding, a hairdresser who works on the same block – gained her drag queen name years ago from no other than Wendy’s brother, Jimmy, with whom Terry had been friends for years. 

“She used to be known as Ginger. Jimmy said, no, you’re Endora Pedora, and she’s been known as Endora ever since,” Wendy says. “When I got here, I told her, bring out your heels and stockings, girl, you’re going to be our House Queen. She was nervous at first, but it’s been great, her bingo show is really popular.”

Wendy Nelson bar

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Wendy is comfortable behind a bar or a desk

Wendy also credits family friend Hunter Mann with helping Main Street Bar succeed. A freelance filmmaker, when he isn’t touring the country making documentaries – one memorable summer with a circus – Hunter is a utility player here in Laguna, providing whatever help and expertise Wendy might need. 

“Brad Morrison and ‘Wolfe’ have helped me too, without question,” she adds. “Oh, and don’t forget to mention Jimmy’s assistant, Laguna local Curtis Pebley.”

(I sense that Wendy would like nothing more than to list quite a few more people, but she understands when I tell her, gently, that there’s a limit to how many accolades can be included in an article like this one.)

One of Wendy’s first moves was to upgrade liquor brands and make the bottles more visible behind the bar. “So it was funny. I was sitting here and Rick Clemons, who would later become one of my strongest supporters, walked in. He noticed the change, and he asked, ‘Is this still a gay bar?’

“And I answered him, as long as I’m in control, this is going to be a gay bar. And that’s the truth. No one’s buying this liquor license, which is one of the oldest of its type in the State. Why? Because all this is in honor of my brother and his goal to keep alive the legacy of the gay community that used to rule this three-block area.” 

Wendy Nelson building

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Main Street Bar and Cabaret proudly flies the rainbow flag

She’s grateful for the regulars at the bar, including a group known as the “Five o’ Clock Queens,” for obvious reasons. “We offer the lowest-price drinks during the Happiest Hour in Laguna,” Wendy claims. 

She tips her hat to other cheerleaders, including Laken Morena, Miss OC Pride, who is transgender. “The transgender community has really embraced me. I was invited to an event and I said, thank you for recognizing Main Street, and they said, no, we are recognizing and honoring you. I was so touched.”

Wendy recognizes that the LGBTQ community is not a monolithic group. There are tensions sometimes, she understands. 

“There’s a lot of drama and emotion among the community about what’s important in running a gay bar,” Wendy adds. “I’ve felt some knives in my back, but I don’t care, this is what I need to do. People need to support one another, not separate. 

“Endora asks me now and again if she can pull out the most recent knife that stabbed me in the back, and I say no, it’s alright, we’re Old Laguna. We got this together. People just need to understand and honor that everyone’s an individual.” 

And that’s exactly the kind of straight talking you’ll always get from the energetic, caring, and multi-faceted Wendy Nelson, a woman dedicated to realizing her brother Jimmy’s dream: to preserve the historic Main Street Bar & Cabaret as a fun, safe, and caring refuge for the gay community.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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