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Visionary Ben Warner says no movie theater, no problem! – Laguna is nevertheless a natural for a Telluride-style film festival


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ben Warner and his friend Mark Draper, a board member of Laguna Canyon Foundation, recently completed a fourteen-and-a-half-mile “Pint-to-Pint Run” across the coastal hills, beginning with a beer at Newport Coast and ending with an ale at The Ranch – an activity that perfectly reflects Ben’s passion for nature, his joie-de-vivre, and his sense of adventure. 

And these are exactly the qualities that Ben is bringing to bear in realizing his dream: the first-ever Coast Film Festival, focused on all aspects of the outdoors, scheduled to take place in Laguna Beach from November 7 to 9 at a variety of local venues. 

“Laguna’s an incredible town,” says Ben, a good-looking, self-effacing but ambitious man who has lived with his family in the same house on Park Ave since 1998. “We attract visitors because of our reputation as an art mecca and of course because of our coastline and nearby wilderness parks. 

“Now imagine if we add to that a reputation as the oceanside equivalent of Telluride or Sundance, with the twist that we showcase original, compelling films telling stories about our natural environment, as well as outdoor sports. That’s my goal.”

Visionary Ben smeil

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Ben is hard-pressed to think of an outdoor sport in which he hasn’t participated – he loves the outdoors

From an early age, Ben has been passionate about outdoor activities including snowboarding, skiing, surfing, horse riding and mountain bike riding – and many others. Halfway through our interview, I found myself curious as to which outdoor sports Ben hasn’t participated in. This question stumped him for a while. 

Then it struck him. “Scuba diving,” he said. “And I have no idea why not.”

In the meantime, he’s taking a deep dive into the world of film festivals.

A magical mélange of movies, music and even munchies

Ben’s grand vision for the event includes not only inspirational movies but a mélange of music, art, photography, and foodie/wine events surrounding the festival.

“I want this multi-day event to really resonate with locals,” he says. “It has the potential to bring together so many of the creative threads that make up our town.”

A film festival in Laguna Beach may seem quixotic, given that our one and only movie theater is closed and doesn’t look likely to open anytime soon. Ben looks wistful at the mention of the theater – but, always resourceful, he has solutions. 

“For one thing, we plan to utilize the Forum Theatre on the grounds of the Festival of Arts, which is really a terrific venue,” he says. 

Ben’s also planning a form of pop-up tent theater at Seven7Seven on the Canyon Road, where a big screen and sound system will be installed for the event. Food and beverages will be available for purchase, bands will play, and an art gallery will be set up at the venue.

During the three days of the festival, there’ll be talks and conversations with experts, along with the film showings. Oh, and whiskey tasting, don’t forget the whiskey tasting.

Ben is a natural when it comes to nature

Ben admits that he came to conservation late, though he has always loved the outdoors. Growing up on an isolated farm in Connecticut among chickens, goats, and cows, he spent his childhood exploring the acres of woods and streams surrounding his home, glorying in fishing, horse riding, and building forts. In his teens he interned on a horse farm in Wyoming. 

“I also had a lot of chores,” he says. “So I learned to be work hard and be responsible.”

Visionary Ben cactus

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Ben takes his inspiration from the natural world

He loved to watch Warren Miller skiing movies and created collages of sports figures, cutting out photos from magazines to decorate his room. He started a ski club at his high school, found the time to play hockey too, and wore a beloved Quiksilver T-shirt with mountain and wave logo until it was threadbare.

Determined to head West “where there were bigger mountains, a bigger sky,” Ben followed his heart and moved to Colorado, where he landed a job he loved, selling classified ads for Powder Magazine, a publication he’d devoured as a kid. 

One of his key achievements was pioneering the Powder Video Awards, now often called the biggest night in the skiing world. This experience foreshadowed his recent work in developing the Coast Film Festival. 

Later, relocating to Southern California, he sold ads for Surfer Magazine, a sister publication, eventually rising to the position of Vice President, Group Publisher, for the Action Sports Group, a division of Primedia.

Nature served Ben, and now Ben serves Nature

For a long time Ben regarded nature as a wonderful playground, a place for sports activities of all kinds, and as the source of a career he very much enjoyed – but in those days he didn’t pay much attention to the importance of sustainability. He was focused only on the next great adventure that might await him. 

“Then, it was all about me,” he says wryly.

That changed for good when he landed a job as the National Advertising Director for the Sierra Club in 2014. Ben says the move to a nonprofit organization was at first challenging.

“Here was a 120-year-old legacy organization that was moving only slowly into the twenty-first century and not using many digital marketing strategies,” he says. “It wasn’t easy to adjust, to implement a more modern business model, but I’m beyond grateful for my time there because it gave me a fresh look at the world. 

“For the first time I became fully aware of the fragility of our planet, that it isn’t just a playground, it’s vital for our existence. I learned about the challenges of climate change and the importance of conservation for future generations,” he adds.

A Lagunan through-and-through

While his focus is currently on making the Coast Film Festival a success, Ben also runs Skeleton Key, located on Forest Avenue, an agency focusing on purpose-based marketing.

Visionary Ben cleanup

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Ben is hands-on when it comes to cleaning up the environment

He is also the co-founder of Laguna Beach Magazine, with which he is no longer associated, though he remains proud of its mission to reflect the pride in, and passion for our town that residents feel. 

“I love Laguna. It’s the closest thing to an East Coast town in terms of community feel and access to the outdoors,” he says. “And it’s a natural for a creative event like this, especially in the off-season.”

Indeed, the Coast Film Festival will make good use of iconic Laguna venues, including the Hobie Surf Shop and the Marine Room Tavern, where the first night’s celebrations will take place. 

The event is intended also to showcase homegrown talent. “I want to bring people, especially young people, together to share a broader vision about the importance of sustainability,” he says.

Featured locals will include, among others, Pat Parnell, event host and well-known sports commentator; Greg MacGillivray, famous director/producer of incredible IMAX movies; and Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. Local film producer Richard Yelland will have a film in the Get Outside short film block. Others will be named later.

Moreover, Ben feels that Laguna is the perfect home for his “awesome” wife Kirsten and two kids, daughter Piper (18) who is studying environmental science at Cal Poly SLO, and son Tate, a sophomore at Laguna Beach High, a member of the surfing team and the golf team. “I’m the parent member for the LBHS Challenge Success Committee,” Ben is proud to note.

Ben and Kirsten met in Squaw Valley, skiing (of course), and they married there in 1998.

“The toughest thing was persuading Kirsten to move from San Francisco to Southern California,” he says. “But now she loves Laguna. Living here and raising a family here is the best.”

And it’s about to get even better (naturally) for them, and for the town, as Ben watches his film festival come to glorious life.

For more information including schedule and tickets, visit

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Myrna Heitel kept students, colleagues & friends on Top of the World


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I’ll tell you what,” Myrna Heitel would say to a crowd of 60 unruly choral students. “If you can sing this next line of music perfectly – and I mean perfectly – I’ll do a Bambi leap.” The students snapped to attention and concentrated. When they finally met her strict standard, the piano came alive, and Mrs. Heitel would begin her dance. She’d leap into the air, a la Bambi, and bounce around the room. The kids couldn’t get enough. They would work harder, applying themselves to the task, all in pursuit of five more leaps. 

“Now this next line is tough,” Mrs. Heitel would tell them. “I mean really tough. Concentrate. It’s worth 10 leaps.” They would double-down on their efforts, and she would reward them. As Mrs. Heitel sprang into the air, the students counted in unison – “One!” they shouted, “Two!”

“That was the best thing I could have ever thought of doing,” Myrna says. “It gave everybody a break and gave me a break. The students became serious, and I was pretty darn good.” Once a student of both tap and ballet herself, Myrna had the dancing chops. Plus, she adds, her initial idea of bribing them with candy was a disaster.

Music is Myrna’s medium. It’s her way of connecting, creating, and relating not only to students, but to everyone she encounters. In the 35 years she spent teaching in the Laguna Beach Unified School District, she touched countless lives by uniting people through song. 

Myrna Heitel portrait

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Myrna Heitel, retired LBUSC teacher

Though she’s been retired from teaching since 2006, her passion for music has never diminished and her longstanding legacy continues reverberating across our town.

A child who sings is a happy child. Elder Enrique Falabella

Myrna grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. She babysat for the kids on her block, and tutored them in any subject that proved a struggle. “That’s how I discovered I could teach,” she says. 

At age 9, Myrna began taking piano lessons, as well as violin lessons, in her public school. When her talent became apparent, her parents paid for private lessons. All the while, she played in the school orchestra. A gifted and hardworking student, Myrna took every difficult course her high school offered – 

physics, advanced mathematics, biology – all the courses that would be considered AP classes today. “If you didn’t care about a social life,” Myrna laughs, “then you took physics.” 

The hard work paid off. Myrna earned admission to USC, an extraordinary honor for any woman in the 1960s. She opted to attend against her strict Baptist parents’ wishes, who urged her to enroll in a biblical institution. But once they saw her thrive – majoring in music, minoring in English, playing in USC’s symphony, singing for both the University’s choir and opera – they met her accomplishments with pride. 

Nonetheless, Myrna paid her own way. “I taught my way through college,” she says. “I found students who needed piano lessons, violin lessons. Those parents would refer me to other parents. I’d drive quite a distance to teach.” It still took Myrna 10 years to pay off her student loans, but never did she feel deterred. “Everything I did at USC influenced who I became.”

If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Myrna landed her job at the Laguna Beach Unified School District directly out of USC. It was the job that would become a lifelong career. For the next 35 years, she would teach music to students from kindergarten through 8th grade, as well as teaching in kindergarten and lower school classrooms. She taught at Top of the World, El Morro, and Aliso Elementary (until its closure in 1989), as well as Thurston Middle School, where she expanded her instruction to both social studies and the arts. 

“Myrna was the musical heart of Top of the World,” says Sharon Maloney, former Principal and friend. “She would take popular songs and write new lyrics for different occasions. She used music for entertainment and humor and general bonding of staff and community.” Sharon recalls one staff party at a teacher’s home when Myrna led the group in singing Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” “She used music as a binding, loving thing to hold us together,” Sharon says. “Or if a class was rowdy or out of hand, she’d bring them back together with her beautiful voice. She was a master at it. Music was her medium.”

So passionate about both Top of the World Elementary and music, Myrna contacted the Carpenters to get their permission to use the popular song as the school’s official theme song. How could they resist? From then on “Top of the World” was their anthem. “Myrna would sing it for every assembly we had,” says Sharon. “What school has its own [Billboard hit] theme song? Thanks to the Carpenters and Myrna for doing that.” 

Sharon Nilsen, former teacher at Top of the World, shares her own memories of those years. “When I envision Myrna, she’s standing (bouncing, really) in front of maybe 75 kids who are jostling each other atop rickety old risers in some dusty school auditorium,” she says. “Parents and audience behind her, arms akimbo as she engages first one group of singers, then another. Myrna is beaming and bopping to her music. In my vision, it’s ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,’ with even the most reluctant singer gloriously belting out the chorus.”

A good teacher, like a good entertainer, first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson.

John Henrik Clarke

Myrna taught students their 50 states, alphabetically, through song (“Fifty Nifty United States”). Using catchy lyrics, hand motions, and repetition, children internalized knowledge. And it stuck. Years later, her students are still talking about Myrna and remembering the many things she taught them. 

Zac Brewer, now age 25, had Mrs. Heitel for kindergarten and still remembers those days. “I was an anxious kid, but Mrs. Heitel was warm, welcoming, and a calming presence in my day. She was kind and patient with me.” Zac stayed in touch well after kindergarten. They recently had a reunion at the Susi Q Center. “It had been years since I had seen her, but I knew I had to say hello. When I saw her, I told Mrs. Heitel that I’m getting my Masters in school counseling from Concordia University in Irvine. I don’t think I’d be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Mrs. Heitel and the other great teachers and counselors in the District.”

Myrna Heitel meeting

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Myrna meets with former student Zac Brewer at the Susi Q Center in Laguna Beach

Marlise Chel and Jessica Niebuhr both had Myrna at Top of the World. “She was so musical and put her heart and soul into teaching,” they said. “She never forgot about us, and followed our progress throughout our lives. Her students were family to her.” Myrna’s passion paid lifelong dividends for generations of Laguna’s youth.

In 2006, the Daily Pilot recognized the unique and hands-on approach Myrna took to teaching. Her class of kindergarteners created an elaborate map of our town, complete with cutout bunnies, cars, trees, and wildlife. Students could all locate their homes. “Children learn best by doing,” Myrna told the Daily Pilot. “Their interest in painting helps them learn about the town.” By tapping into a child’s innate creativity and helping them use it to explore the world, Myrna solidified not only their knowledge, but their curiosity and desire to learn more. “When the kids are out around town they now point to things they never used to,” Myrna said in 2006. “This wouldn’t have happened two months ago.” 

Though 13 years into retirement, Myrna’s legacy remains. A music scholarship is given in her name each year to several deserving high school students. The Myrna Heitel Music Scholarship is a well-known staple of funding for talented youth. She also continues her involvement as a member of the Retired Elementary School Teachers in Laguna Beach, attending monthly coffees when she can. 

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. –Phyllis Theroux

What Myrna can’t communicate through song, she delivers through the written word and personal gestures. A longtime believer in the power of the pen, Myrna maintains correspondence with a number of people. “I write to people who are in need of encouragement, who are sick, who need a birthday card,” she says. 

One of those people is a prisoner in the California State Penitentiary. A cousin’s nephew faced trouble last year, convicted of a crime she believes he didn’t commit. Myrna’s cousin called, knowing Myrna was the right person to help. “It’s Christmas,” the woman said, “Would you send him a card?’” From there, Myrna’s friendship with the man grew. “Whenever he receives my letter, he writes back the same day. It’s been 10 months and now we correspond all the time.”

Letter writing is something Myrna has done for years. “I just started one day. I sent a card to someone and figured it wasn’t enough to just sign my name. So I began writing, and it grew into a thing. Handwritten notes really mean something special to people.”

Myrna is also the first to reach out in person. Sharon Maloney remembers meeting Myrna at a Laguna Beach tennis class. “I was feeling so out of it, not knowing anybody and not having played tennis in years,” Sharon says. “Myrna is the essence of graciousness. She immediately included me, introducing me around and making me feel welcome. That was a gift. She has an enormous heart.”

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. Martin Luther

Bambi leaps are no longer in Myrna’s repertoire. A series of health troubles and medical setbacks have challenged her for years. And yet her positive attitude and hopeful spirit never waver.

A blood transfusion in Myrna’s late teens resulted in an undiagnosed case of Hepatitis C, which didn’t present until the 1990s. She’d been an asymptomatic carrier for years before feelings of fatigue began. 

After a series of experimental drug treatments at UCI, Myrna became a candidate for both a liver and kidney transplant. Understanding the odds were higher of finding a donor in the Midwest, she moved to Nebraska until organs became available. It took time, but Myrna waited while also battling breast cancer, and a separate cancer that appeared on her scalp. 

None of these setbacks dampened Myrna’s attitude. “She’s a fun spirit, as you can tell,” says Sharon. “She’s gone through hell with her health, but you’d never know it. She’s always smiling and anxious to talk.” 

Myrna Heitel with Zac

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Zac stayed in touch with Myrna over the years

Carolyn Delino, also a former colleague and teacher, agrees. “I have long been greatly impressed with Myrna’s fighter demeanor. Through her long fight with Hepatitis C, she never gave up, tried every possible solution, and maintained a positive attitude.”

Today, both Myrna’s liver and kidney are operating at normal levels. “Fifteen years ago, I was told I had 10 years to live,” Myrna says. “I’ve far exceeded those predictions.” And she has the organs of a 19-year-old young woman.

Bambi leaps aside, Myrna still maintains that youthful springing spirit, and the ability to elevate everyone around her. “She always bounces back from continuous setbacks,” says Carolyn. “She’s still bouncy today.”

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From CAT scans to Catmosphere: Former medical malpractice attorney Gail Landau follows her bliss


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

How about this for a heartwarming tale that captures the essence of Orange County’s only cat café and rescue, Catmosphere Laguna?

Jana Sullivan explains: “Five years ago my cat Kimbo got lost in Laguna, and I’ve missed him ever since. Recently I got up the nerve to look for a new kitty to adopt and give a good home and went to look at Ark of San Juan’s cat adoption page. As I looked though the photos, one stood out – it looked exactly like my missing Kimbo. I traced him to Catmosphere Laguna, where he was now being housed.”

“Roady” walked up to Jana immediately when she stepped into the cat lounge and started purring loudly, rubbing his face all over her face in greeting, just like Kimbo would have done, Jana says. 

“He was the same size and weight as my missing cat, had the same loud purr, same face and body shape, had the same white marking on his belly, and other unique markings, along with some new white patches of fur growing over several gnarly six to eight inch mostly-healed scratches all down his back. He’d clearly lived through something intense. 

“I remembered how he had gotten a cut when he was a kitten from playing, and when it healed over it healed white, like the new scratches on his back. I looked and realized this cat even had that same small white patch on his arm.

“It was Kimbo.” 

From cat cafe

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Gail Landau’s Catmosphere Laguna Cat Café & nonprofit rescue foundation fulfills, she believes, her purrpose in life

These are the kinds of match-ups that thrill owner and founder Gail Landau, a blonde, blue-eyed, statuesque woman almost always garbed in elegant cat-themed outfits. Her nonprofit foundation rescues cats and provides them with a loving home at the cat café until they find their perfect parents – in this case, Kimbo’s original parent.

The selected cats come from shelters or in one recent case, from a duffel bag of kittens abandoned on Forest Ave.

Gail believes that her deep desire to care for cats was implanted early in her life, when her family lived in a house in Northern Illinois surrounded on all sides by farmland. 

“My memories are full of cats and dogs coming and going all the time. Our home was a magnet for all kinds of animals, especially barn cats. My mom and I loved to take care of them.”

CAT scans and an endoscopy machine lead to matrimony

Catmosphere Laguna came into being after Gail retired from a long and successful career as a medical malpractice defense lawyer, where part of her job entailed reviewing, yes, CAT scans. “But to own a cat café was always my dream,” she says.

During the course of her work, she met her other great love, her husband Dennis, a doctor, who knew just how to woo her – and it wasn’t with a fancy diamond ring.

“For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to marriage again,” says the previously divorced Gail. “But then Dennis invited me to come to his office to see his new endoscopy machine. And when I saw how passionate he was about his work, I knew he would be supportive of my dreams, and it was clear he was the right man for me.”

Who knew an endoscopy machine would lead the way to matrimony?

Dennis now adores cats, though when he first met Gail, he hadn’t given much thought to matters of the feline kind. “They clamber all over him now,” says Gail, who has three cats at home – and two daughters. “We were a package deal.”

From cat Gail

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Gail’s daughters invented the Catmosphere name and logo

Gail’s daughters are very much involved in the enterprise.

“Behind the feline scene, my daughter Erin is our social media guru and handles coverage of all events and daily goings-on including communications with all our adopting pawrents,” Gail notes. “She’s a trained yoga instructor and runs our Cats on Mats Meowga every other Wednesday morning from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

“My daughter Sasha writes the Mewsletter our followers enjoy each month and helps coordinate the adoption process and the necessary final step in our procedure, home checks. Of course, behind the scenes, they also assist me in keeping Catmosphere Laguna purring along.”

Oh, and it was Gail’s daughters who came up with the name “Catmosphere” – though it’s not the only Catmosphere cat café – there’s one in Sydney, it turns out, and apparently at least one person has mistakenly booked time with Australian moggies instead of American cats. 

Pied Piper – but no rats

Gail’s love for her furry short-term residents is obvious, and it’s a love that is fully requited. The cats follow her wherever she goes in the cat lounge. She is their Pied Piper, and while she doesn’t lead them to rats as they might hope, she does make sure that they are fed tasty, nutritious food and receive the maximum affection. 

She is, indeed, their Furrless Leader.

From cat cats

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Catmosphere Laguna cats are the luckiest of rescues

How does it feel when cats are adopted from Catmosphere Laguna? Gail and café manager Madison Mister say in unison: “We cry!”

With happiness, of course, because the mission of the nonprofit foundation is to find “furrever” homes for rescued kitties of all ages. But Gail and her staff are also sad to say goodbye to their feline favorites, kittens, especially.

Gail takes great care to ensure that the cats’ future homes are safe and loving.

“We could have adopted out many more of our kitties if we weren’t so meticulous about inspecting their future homes. I had to refuse someone who had no screens on her windows – plus her neighbor breeds pit bulls. That was an easy no. Others are more complicated. We’re very picky.”

A relentless punster, this cat Meowmy

As readers can tell, Gail is a relentless punster. For example, for shy cats, a private “meowting” with possible owners can be arranged. 

And she’s very creative when it comes to special events. Lots of kids have held their birthday “pawties” on the premises. 

Naturally, there is a “happy meowr,” during which customers enjoy beer, wine, and tasty toasts and salads – or, yes, they can choose to have a meowmosa. 

Gail also holds Drag Queen Bingo on a monthly basis, with prizes.

Many visitors to nonprofit Catmosphere Laguna are there simply to enjoy the company of the romping or sleeping cats for an entry fee of $22 per hour. 

“Cat cafés charge up to $35 an hour, so we’re on the low side,” Gail adds. “The money goes to the care of our kitties. There’s no admission fee for eating lunch in the cat café and watching the cats through the glass window, of course.”

The nonprofit is grateful for community support

Visitors to Catmosphere Laguna, entranced by the cats’ antics in their decked-out playroom, complete with an enormous fake palm tree and wall-caves, often don’t realize how much activity goes on behind the scenes at the nonprofit – and how costly it is to run the operation. There’s microchipping to be done, spaying and neutering, regular flea treatments, veterinary bills, rent to be paid, and toys and food and litter to be bought for the 14 - 16 cats that call the place their happy home at any given time.

From cat kitten

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Catmosphere Laguna kitten considers adopting a human

“We’re so very grateful for donations and our volunteers,” Gail says. “It’s with the community’s help that we’ve been able to ensure that these rescues get to live their best life. In one year, we adopted out 58 cats, more than one a week.”

Herding cats is Gail’s specialty

“Surprisingly most of the cats get on with each other or ignore the others. Sometimes bonding happens, with an older cat snuggling with a younger cat. That happened with Arthur and Tostito, who were adopted together as a bonded pair and are now therapy cats at the Silverado Nursing Home.”

Gail feels that her background as an attorney helps in running this unusual nonprofit.

“Put it this way, I know how to herd cats – for a long time I was the managing partner at a firm of attorneys, one difference being that lawyers weren’t adopted out, though maybe I’d have liked some of them to have been…But they were similarly intelligent and strong-willed, though not as mysterious.

“So I learned important organizational and management skills, and how to build relationships. That’s been vital in making Catmosphere Laguna a success.”

True, but it’s Gail’s warm heart, passion, and devotion to all matters cat that sets her cat café/rescue apart. Just one visit to see Gail interacting with her beloved furry charges is enough to turn one’s heart to mush.

Let’s face it, Gail is simply meowvalous.

Oh, and Kimbo?

“He is still the same sweet, fearless kitty, and he doesn’t seem traumatized or scared,” Jana says. “He seems very happy and content now that he’s home.”

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“Bond King” Bill Gross reflects on life, love & retirement


Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Katie Beverley

Two and a half years ago, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, Bill Gross paid Amy Schwartz a call. Bill was newly divorced and living in Laguna Beach. Amy, a former tennis pro, lived in Santa Monica. The two exchanged emails and Bill suggested that if Amy were ever in Newport, they should have a drink. A few days passed before Amy wrote Bill a “nice little note” saying, “Thanks for the invitation. But if you’re ever in Santa Monica, let’s have that drink.” 

Bill had met his match. He drove to Santa Monica the next day. And the day after that. He was hooked.

Bond King couple KB

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Photo by Katie Beverley 

Bill Gross and Amy Schwartz at Amy’s 50th birthday soiree last month

Bill Gross is not a new name in town, but his life looks remarkably different than it did a few years ago. At one point, the co-founder, former chief investment officer, and managing director of Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) controlled nearly $2 trillion primarily in debt dollars – more fixed income securities than anyone else in the world. Morningstar reported in 2010, “No other fund manager made more money for people than Bill Gross.” 

Well known in the financial world as the “Bond King,” Bill is also one of Orange County’s most notable philanthropists, having donated more than $800 million to various charities over the years. And as a renowned philatelist, he’s slowly been parting with the largest privately held collection of U.S. stamps in the world. Proceeds from auctions of his collection exceed $40 million from 2007 to date and go straight to charity or his charitable foundation.

For a man who never stopped working, Bill is embracing retirement remarkably well. He retired from Janus Henderson Investors in March of this year. Today, the Bond King is responsible solely for his own assets, which Forbes pegs at $1.5 billion. 

But alongside all these mind-bending numbers and impressive statistics is perhaps the less recognized – though no less significant – nuanced private life he leads, and the woman with whom he shares it. 

Finding common ground in their quest for fame

Despite different childhood experiences, Bill and Amy share a few fundamentals – a passion for music (they’ve constructed a three-and-a-half-hour favorite playlist, consisting mostly of 80s music); an addiction to golf (they spend at least three hours, and upwards of six, on the greens each day); and an unquenchable thirst for fame. 

Bond King Bora Bora MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Amy and Bill pose before a painting of their vacation in Bora Bora

For Amy, the desire for notoriety began at age eight, when she set her sights on professional tennis. One of the first resident players in Nick Bollettieri’s legendary clinic (alongside Andre Agassi), Nick promised her stardom and he delivered. Amy played professional tennis for nearly 10 years, dominating over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the 1986 Brazilian Open. She also made it to the second round in women’s singles in the 1988 Australian Open. Later she served as tennis consultant for the movie Bridesmaids and taught the game for many years. 

Bill didn’t articulate his desire for fame until his 20s. After receiving his MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and beginning his career at Pacific Mutual, he announced his intentions. “I’m going to be the best bond manager in the world,” he told his parents. If only his parents had understood what being a bond manager meant.

“Not to get all Freudian on you, but the need to be famous is the need to be loved,” Bill says. “Amy and I are both fame-driven. And it’s really about a desire to be loved.”

Inside the King’s mind

For four decades, Bill Gross penned some of the wittiest, wisest, and most insightful monthly forecasts to investors. Known as his “Investment Outlooks,” they were stunningly accurate predictors of global markets. But they also offered insights into life itself. Bill often reflected on human nature, our rapid submission to technology, our innate pull towards tribalism and warfare, and the universal fear of death. He wrote about foxes and hedgehogs and Easter egg hunts. The commentaries were resonant, reflective, and philosophical. Warren Buffet said of them, “The prose is lively, the logic flawless, and his insights valuable.” Not what one might expect from a man so seemingly single-minded and focused on economic success. 

“My best ones, in my opinion, were mentally framed during quiet moments in a shower or after a hard workout at the gym when endorphins open the brain to subconscious thoughts and feelings,” he says. “They are as much of an autobiography as I could have written, but framed in a monthly series of essays, compiled over four decades that show a maturation or perhaps a molting of my life’s philosophy. They represent who I was, who I am, and who I expect to become.” 

Bond King close up MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill Gross at home in Rockledge by the Sea

There is something humane about his writing that belies the purely methodical and disciplined image of him often portrayed in the press. Now, seven months into retirement and once again smitten by love, it might appear that a more gentle Bill Gross has emerged. He’s shed his signature Hermes ties in favor of snazzy socks. He spends his afternoons at the driving range instead of behind his Bloomberg terminal, which he donated to the Smithsonian in 2015. He prefers the comforts of home to the rigors of an office.

Maybe Amy softened his heart. Maybe retirement has afforded a degree of time and freedom for some lighthearted fun. But a look back across those decades of perceptive missives suggests that introspection was there all along, standing backstage in the shadows of the bright lights that often accompany wealth, fame, and success.

How to become a billionaire

Born in Ohio’s poverty-stricken rust belt, Bill describes his hometown of Middletown (memorialized in J.D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy as “Middletucky”) as backwater and hick. “I grew up going to a four-room brick elementary school. By the look of the class pictures, we dressed like Middletucky, not Newport Beach.” He credits his subsequent success to his parents’ decision to move the family to California when he was 10.

The start of that success lies in a most unlikely place. During Bill’s senior year at Duke University, he was involved in a horrific car accident. His Nash Rambler skidded on an icy road and sent the 22-year-old through the windshield. “I was essentially scalped,” Bill says. He spent months in and out of the hospital, enduring multiple skin grafts and recovering from a collapsed lung. But he also discovered Edward O. Thorp’s Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. Bill applied his idle hours and mathematical mind to the art of counting cards. “I had all the time in the world, sitting in bed,” Bill says. “I went through thousands of hands of cards and realized, this thing works!”

Once he recovered, Bill had a seamstress sew a surreptitious pocket into his pants. There he hid the entirety of his life savings – $200. “I jumped trains from Durham to Charlotte to Atlanta to Vegas,” he recalls. “A freight train dumped me at the Golden Nugget downtown and I still had my $200. I’d scrounged for food at various stops.” Scrounge, he added, was a nice word for it. Bill checked into the Apache Motel for $6/day and, four months later, had made $10,000 at the blackjack tables. After serving three years in the Navy in Vietnam – a time he describes only as a “disaster” – Bill used his winnings to finance his MBA at UCLA. He also applied Thorp’s gambling principles to the bond market, determining when to spread risk and how to calculate odds in his investment decisions.

It was Bill’s mother, he says, who was responsible for finding him that first job after graduate school. “I was not a gregarious, handshaking person. I didn’t like parties or networking,” he says. More comfortable spending time with numbers than people, Bill began sending resumes. “There were no Xerox machines or computers. I used carbon copies and a typewriter. I sent to everyone. Nothing, nothing, no job.” Bill’s mother came down to visit him in Mission Viejo, when Bill and his first wife welcomed their daughter Jennifer. “The LA Times was sitting there on the coffee table and the Want Ads were laying out.” Bill’s mother noticed a job listing for a security analyst for Pacific Mutual. “Bill, here’s one,” she said. “Don’t you like bonds?” 

It didn’t take long for Bill to rise to Second Vice President of Pacific Mutual. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs in my car, driving home to Mission Viejo. I was making $15,000 a year. I couldn’t believe it.” 

In 1971, Bill became the co-founder of PIMCO (alongside friends Jim Muzzy and Bill Podlich), launching with $12 million in assets. At its peak, PIMCO controlled nearly $2 trillion – more money than Bank of America, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs – and remains close to that figure today. He was on a walk one day when that realization struck him. “I just thought, what?!

It was Bill Gross who U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner called during the 2008 financial crisis. “We were trying to provide solutions to the great recession,” Bill says. “That’s something I’ll always remember – a lot of sleepless nights, but the exhilaration of being at the front of the decision making for the country.” 

The king of charity

Today Bill stays busy managing The William, Jeff, and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation, which holds almost $400 million in assets and makes annual grants totaling $21.5 million. Bill and his two children fund a broad spectrum of causes, but focus their efforts primarily on humanitarian causes, health care, and education. Bill also anonymously donates to others in need.

So deep is his belief in charitable giving that during his time at PIMCO, Bill insisted that every one of his fund managers give back as a condition of their bonus. This practice is now a tradition at PIMCO.

Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, focuses her giving on humanitarian efforts. She funds the Africa Mercy, one of several hospital ships run by Mercy Ships that sails up and down the African coast, delivering medical care to people in need. Jeff has honed in on education, including honoring Teachers of the Year. 

The results are rewarding. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to thank me for their medical care and the treatment they received at Hoag. I remind them I just wrote a check. I didn’t deliver their babies. But it’s nice to get that feedback.”

Celebrate Me Home

Apart from managing his foundation, retirement is offering Bill far more time and space to lead the quiet life he desires. Amy and Bill recently moved into Amy’s dream home at Rockledge by the Sea (a name given to the property by its prior owners), which Bill purchased for her as a surprise. Their home is an architectural reflection of their relationship. And for two people who prefer quiet evenings at home to Orange County’s glitz and glamor, it’s the prefect refuge.

Bond King Rock Ledge MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Rockledge by the Sea, appearing behind Villa Rockledge on the right

“We were looking at it for a year, but Bill wanted a place closer to the golf course,” says Amy. “We were on a plane to Europe when he told me he did something. It sounded like he’d done something bad, so I waited. When he said he’d bought Rockledge, I almost jumped out of the plane.” 

For months, Bill snuck around the property before dawn to peer over the fence. “He was caught on camera,” says Amy. “The homeowners finally asked the broker what they should do. He told them, ‘Just leave Bill alone.’” 

Bond King gold heart MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Amy commissioned contemporary artists to decorate Rockledge as a love letter to Bill

If Rockledge was Bill’s love letter to Amy, the contemporary art inside is her reply. And there’s no mistaking the message. From the “Love Shack” entry mat to the gleaming golden heart behind the gate, from a Robert Indiana iconic LOVE statue to the many contemporary artistic hearts inside (including the decorative pillows on their bed), the meaning is clear – love wins. 

Bond King LOVE MH

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill and Amy with Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture

Amy turned 50 last month, and Bill threw her the party of her life. They invited one of their favorite singers, Kenny Loggins, to perform. With Kenny’s help, Bill took to the stage to serenade his sweetheart. For a soft-spoken man, the song was perfect. “Celebrate Me Home,” he sang to Amy. “Whenever I find myself too all alone, I can sing me home.” 

Indeed he can.

Bond King with Loggins KB

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Photo by Katie Beverley 

Amy and Bill with Kenny Loggins

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Paula Olson, outreach director for Laguna Canyon Foundation: Educator, explorer and environmentalist


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Paula Olson, outreach director of the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF), was unfazed when a second grader asked recently whether the group would see “bears and giraffes” when they headed out on the trails as part of an educational outing.

“So many of the kids on these field trips have had virtually no exposure to anything other than an urban landscape,” Paula says. “A question like that is a great opportunity to tell them about the animals that do call our wilderness parks home. 

“We can’t guarantee that we’ll see deer or bobcat or coyotes, so we tell them that the next best thing is to look for evidence of wildlife. This of course includes scat, which we call poo to begin with, which makes them giggle. Then they turn serious about tracking. They often tell me this was their best day ever.”

Paula the Educator

The kids’ program is Paula’s favorite among the many outreach and volunteer programs under her direction. During the course of a year, approximately 4,000 second to fifth grade students explore the park during field trips, learning about flora and fauna and the importance of preserving their natural surroundings. 

paula olson dogs

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Paula, with her dogs Miro and Reggae, points out that some trails allow dogs, and some don’t – look for the dog icon – Meadows trail is a no, Aswut is a yes

Prior to her LCF job, Paula was Vice President of Marketing for Western Growers. One of her responsibilities was managing Western Growers Foundation, created by the organization’s members with the goal of putting “an edible garden in every willing school.” She played a major role in starting approximately 1,000 edible school gardens in California and Arizona. 

“The makeup of those schools mirrored in many ways the makeup of the schools and students we work with at LCF. Many immigrants; many ESL learners,” Paula notes. “As the grandchild of immigrants, I am invested in ensuring those kids, like I did, have opportunity: nutritious food, a hike in a wilderness park. We want the children in our LCF education program to know they belong in the wilderness parks too…that they can come on a hike with their families any time, and it’s their land to protect.”

Paula loves the fact that the adult volunteer count for Laguna Canyon Foundation stands at exactly 133, just like the state route. “The perfect number,” she says, “though of course we’d welcome volunteer number 134.

“Our volunteers are a delight – curious, friendly, happy, and dedicated,” she adds. “I love being with them.”

Those are qualities that she herself exhibits every day at work and in life, according to her colleagues at LCF – not to mention that Paula is also creative and accomplished. 

Paula the Explorer

Paula recalls her passion for exploring when she was a child. Unfettered by the restrictions placed on kids these days, she loved to roam the cliffs of San Pedro and find her way down to the ocean, preferably by herself.

“Part of the fascination for me has always been imagining the early history of Southern California, how Native Americans lived off this land 200, 300 years ago,” she adds.

paula olson portrait

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Paula is happiest outdoors, whether on the land or the ocean

Serendipity, she says, led to her hiring by LCF. She’d lived in Laguna Beach for twelve years when she attended a presentation on fuel modification at Moulton Meadows. That’s where she met Hallie Jones, executive director, and Alan Kaufmann, restoration program director. Later she joined them to do trail maintenance. The three of them got along swimmingly. 

Hallie, Paula found out later, was interested from the moment they met to hire her in some capacity, though it took months for the time to be right.

“I am so impressed with Hallie,” Paula says. “She’s done so much to build this organization. I’m grateful for the team she’s built around her.”

The admiration is mutual. “One of the real joys of working in a nonprofit, mission-based organization is that we get to work with people who are passionate about the very things we believe in,” Hallie says. “Paula embodies that. Her work at LCF is more than just a job – it’s a calling. She brings that enthusiasm and joy to everything she does.”

Interestingly, for such a passionate lover of nature, Paula is not a fan of camping. She struggles to find a good reason – discomfort and lack of indoor plumbing don’t bother her, so it’s not that. As we hike the steep Valido Trail (I’m puffing, she’s leaping up the trail like a mountain goat), we hit upon the solution: not only are there just “too many people at campsites,” but camping is too static an activity. Like a shark, Paula needs to keep moving. 

And keep moving she does. It’s the explorer in her.

“When Hallie hired me, she told me she wanted me out on the trails at least 50 percent of the time, checking on conditions, overseeing volunteer activity, working with OC Parks staff, interacting with hikers and bikers. That sold me. The last thing I wanted at this stage of my life was a nine to five office job,” says the former marketing executive. 

Paula the Environmentalist

Paula’s favorite trail is Mentally Sensitive, and not just because of the great name, which was created when someone removed letters from a sign noting that this was an “environmentally sensitive” area.

“Going down the canyon, there are beautiful views,” she says. “I’ve seen birds at eye level. It’s challenging but fun.” 

paula olson sign

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The wilderness parks primarily protect the habitat, and secondarily provide opportunities for recreation

Paula is as much at home in the ocean as on the land. “The best gift I ever received came from my husband, Brian – a set of scuba diving lessons,” Paula notes. 

Their first dog together, Eiffel – which Brian was training as a seeing eye dog – was in their wedding in Dana Point.

She and Brian also play tennis, hike, ski, snowboard, and ride bikes. For their 25th anniversary, they visited Barcelona, which they loved.

They also share a passion for dogs, particularly their own, naturally: Miro, a German Shepherd mix named after Spanish artist Joan Miro, and Reggae, a black lab reflecting Brian’s and Paula’s love of that music.

“Paula and I immediately bonded over our love of dogs, but more specifically German Shepherds,” Cameron Davis, LCF’s outreach manager, says. “We have so much more in common than just being crazy dog moms. Turns out we are both wildly passionate about the wilderness. Paula is a true steward of the land. I mean in addition to the woman who does regular trail work, she recently took up mountain biking and volunteers for Crystal Cove also. She’s basically a superhero.” 

I asked Paula the greatest misconception people have about the wilderness parks. 

paula olson trails

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As Outreach Director, Paula spends 50 percent of her time on the trails

“Some people think the parks are for recreation first, and wilderness second, but it’s the other way around. Our goal is preservation of the habitat,” she says. “That’s why we don’t allow dogs on most trails – because their presence disrupts the wildlife. It can also be dangerous out there for the dogs, given the heat, rattlesnakes, and coyotes.”

Coyotes happen to be Paula’s favorite animal, which may surprise some residents. “They’re durable, smart, adaptable, and family-oriented, raising pups together,” she says. “They’re also misunderstood.”

Above all, Paula is an educator who wants visitors to understand the natural glories that surround them and the reasons why it is so important to preserve our wilderness parks – and she’s an explorer who can’t get enough of the wilderness during its changing seasons. 

“To quote our volunteers,” Paula says, “I keep hiking so I can keep hiking.” 

So it’s just as well for Laguna Canyon Foundation that there are more than 22,000 acres locally to keep her interested and on the move, as she works with the LCF team to preserve a wilderness where indigenous plants and animals can thrive while at the same time provide pleasure for nature-loving visitors, hikers, and bikers.

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El Morro Elementary Principal Christopher Duddy captains a winning team


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It cannot be coincidence that each school Christopher Duddy serves is soon anointed academic recognition by the State of California. Since his arrival at El Morro Elementary in 2004, the school has enjoyed a string of successes. It received the Distinguished School Award in 2008 and again in 2014, and was granted California’s coveted Gold Ribbon Award in 2016. It’s up for national Blue Ribbon recognition this year. 

El Morro isn’t the only school Chris has gifted with his golden touch. Thurston Middle School, where Chris served as both Assistant Principal (from 1998 to 2001) and Principal (from 2001 through 2004), was designated a Distinguished School in 2003.

Chris is a team player, and he’s the first to acknowledge that institutional success requires a great deal of teamwork and collaboration. But he’s also the team’s steadfast captain, and his example sets the course. It doesn’t take long in Chris’s company to understand why his approach works so well. “We have all the ingredients to have a high performing school,” he says. “Wonderful resources, excellent teachers, eager students, and active parent involvement. Plus, the surroundings are beautiful.” Still, what is that elusive mix of personality traits that makes a successful captain?

El Morro awards

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Principal Christopher Duddy holding the many awards bestowed on El Morro Elementary by the State of California. Note the California Gold Ribbon Schools Award was created to honor schools in place of the California Distinguished Schools Program, which remains on hiatus while the state implements its new assessment and accountability systems.

Life lessons learned on the basketball courts

Chris will tell you he wasn’t always an eager student. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really like school. I was a decent student, but studying wasn’t my favorite thing as a kid.” Basketball, however, was his favorite thing and he was fortunate to have a high school coach who taught him the importance of hard work and the benefits of focusing on his studies. “My high school basketball coach had a huge impact on my life,” Chris says. “He was really dedicated and provided structure. Eventually, I decided I wanted to help kids the way he helped me.”

Chris played basketball throughout high school and into college, both at Fullerton College and then at Cal State Fullerton. He continued playing well into his 40s, on a recreational league and also with his son. “Now,” he laughs, “I don’t want to get hurt.” But the practice taught Chris a lot about teamwork, hard work, practice, and dedication. 

“Show up to every practice as though you’re playing in a game,” he says. “If you’re really specific and intentional about your practice and bring the same intensity you’d bring to the game, you’ll perform.” The same is true for everything else, he’s learned. “If students do their homework as though they’re taking the final test, they won’t need to step up or try harder on exam days. They’ll be prepared. The test is the game.” 

Chris combines that mixture of focus and dedication with a calm and empathetic personality. “I don’t get too riled up,” he says. “I rarely ever yell. I try to look at both sides of whatever the issue is – from a parent’s, teacher’s or child’s perspective – and figure out the best course of action for the kid.” And students clearly appreciate that quiet foundation. When Chris steps out onto the playground, children flock around him. Whatever the barriers one often expects between adults and children, principals and students, they don’t seem to exist with Chris.

El Morro fist pump

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El Morro students naturally gravitate toward Chris Duddy’s accessible and empathetic style

Some of his philosophies may come from another basketball idol – Coach John Wooden. Chris’s office library is peppered with Wooden’s books. He pulls a copy of Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success from his shelf. “I love John Wooden,” he says. Wooden’s motivational quotes are so inspiring, they became known as “Woodenisms” and have become guiding principles for educators and coaches alike. “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” asks Wooden. A few more notable ones – “Make each day your masterpiece,” “The best competition I have is against myself to become better,” and “Young people need models, not critics.” 

Chris puts these aphorisms into action on El Morro’s campus, inspiring students to be kind over competitive, and bring their A-game every day. Mistakes, he says, are opportunities for growth. They’re not to be feared or avoided.

Perspectives about education across time

Much of this gentle guidance may also stem from mere longevity in the field, and the quiet confidence that grows with perspective. Chris has been in education since the 1980s, beginning as an English teacher at Brea Olinda High, where he himself had attended school. After five years of teaching, Chris worked as a guidance specialist in Brea Junior High. He came to the Laguna Beach Unified School District in 1998 as an Assistant Principal at Thurston, quickly advancing to his position as Principal in 2001, and has served as El Morro’s Principal since 2004.

“Each position has given me a new perspective on the bigger picture,” says Chris. “Having children of my own drastically shifted my perspective again. I realized anew the importance of school and education, of entrusting the school with my most loved asset. It’s a different perspective, growing from being a teacher to an administrator, and that other perspective as a parent.”

Though his two children are now grown, Chris still carries that visceral parental feeling with him every day and respects the responsibility with which he’s been entrusted. 

Teaching through turmoil

Chris also arrived at each new position in a time of external turmoil. Laguna was still recovering from the devastating 1993 fire and subsequent floods when Chris came to Thurston. Part of the school itself had burned. The loss of so many homes also impacted the school’s budget, which didn’t have as much property tax revenue to draw from and impacted the bottom line. 

“It was a hard time for Laguna Beach,” Chris says. “But after so much hard work, after the community pulled together and rebuilt, look at the schools now. We rebuilt bigger, better, and stronger than we were before.” 

El Morro door

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El Morro’s campus, like other Laguna Beach Schools, is warm and welcoming

And he will never forget where he was on September 11th, having just begun his role as Thurston’s new principal the prior week. “It was a strange feeling,” he recalls. “We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but we had a lot of follow-up discussions with kids in their classrooms. We made them understand they were safe, that we would carry on with our lives, and that we had to move forward together.” 

Once Thurston’s remodel was complete in 2004 – with a new gym and black box theater – Chris didn’t remain to enjoy the fruits of all that labor. He accepted a position at El Morro, where he has remained ever since.

Enjoying the journey

But even without catastrophic outside events, a lot has changed since 2004, both in education and the world in general. Chris recalls teaching in a time without cell phones. “Students talked to their teachers a lot more,” he says. “We had to have conversations because kids couldn’t simply look things up on their phones or text each other assignments.” This has led, he believes, to a need for instant gratification. “I try telling students the journey is the cool part. Not the destination. What did you learn? How did you build up to something more long-term and satisfying? That’s the key to life. Enjoy the journey.”

To that end, the school has started the Wait-Until-8 campaign for cell phones (“eight” means 8th grade, not 8 years old). “Kids don’t need cell phones in elementary school,” he says. “Be a kid. Not having a cell phone allows kids to enjoy that time.” 

El Morro closeup

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Principal Chris Duddy in his second home at El Morro Elementary

His other advice for enjoying the journey: reading. “I recommend for parents of elementary kids – find a book they like, any book, and read to their kids. This is especially important in the primary grades. Books about going to school, or the playground bully, they like reading about things relevant to their lives. It’s important to find the kids’ interests and what they want to learn about.”

Understanding the need for downtime

Chris himself enjoys the journey by unplugging on Saturday mornings and hitting the surf. “There’s no better feeling than paddling off and leaving your troubles on land,” he says. “The water cleanses you. If you catch a great wave, all the better, but just being out there is a release from everyday pressures. No one can call or email you. There’s no cell phones in the ocean.” The ritual centers and calms him at the beginning of the weekend so he can enjoy his days off.

Chris acknowledges the importance of that time off, with the increase in anxiety and stress among students and adults alike. El Morro has woven social-emotional learning into their curriculum to teach students how to handle stress. “School has changed a lot in that regard,” he says. “There used to not be much instruction on the social-emotional part. Now it’s embedded into the curriculum.” He’s become a good role model for students and faculty on the importance of unplugging and self-care.

Family man

If it’s true for children that success begins at home, that may also account for Chris’s calm and steady nature at work. His parents, ages 84 and 82, celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, and live in nearby Laguna Woods. Chris and his wife, Teri, celebrated 30 years of marriage this August. And they’re both very close with their two adult children, Taylor and Paige, who also live in Orange County. The family enjoys summer fishing trips and close connections. “It doesn’t hurt that Dad pays for the trips,” Chris laughs. “But we’re a tight family unit.” 

A success salad

To keep all these ingredients for success in mind, Chris often references the “success salad.” “So many things go into creating a successful school,” he says. It starts with a supportive and actively involved community who willingly provide resources – time, talent, and financial support. It requires dedicated and enthusiastic teachers. It benefits from an eager and curious student body. And it’s all guided by strong and steady leadership.

The El Morro administration puts this metaphor into practice by frequently collaborating and building the “friendship salad” together. “I bring the lettuce. Someone brings chicken or avocados or whatever. We toss it all in a bowl and no matter what people have brought, it tastes really good.” 

Metaphors aside, Chris’s leadership style has a proven track record. The proof is in not only the students’ success and their kindness towards one another, but in the endless stream of smiles across campus. It’s a place where you can’t help but feel welcome and happy and safe.

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Judie Mancuso gets the word out for creatures who have no choice, no voice, no vote


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Getting the word out for animals” is Laguna resident Judie Mancuso’s passionate mission, and she accomplishes it in a groundbreaking way – by fighting to create legislation that protects and saves the lives of animals. She has long been recognized as a leading advocate in California’s battle for animal protection laws. 

In the 12 years since founder, CEO, and president Mancuso started Social Compassion in Legislation (SCIL), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, 16 bills (including the one that was just passed last week) have been put into law in California that have significantly changed the lives of animals long term. Her organization sponsors and supports landmark legislation that promotes the care, rights, and protection of animals. 

Mancuso has been featured multiple times in the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, and has been interviewed on CNN, HLN, Fox News, BBC, NPR, NY Times, NY Post, SF Gate, Sacramento Bee, and many other periodicals, radio shows, online news publications, and all local major network stations. 

Just this past Sunday, Mancuso was on a news conference with NBC’s Conan Nolan to discuss the passing of Wildlife Protection Act of 2019 into law: “People are coming of age on these issues, and the public opinion is shifting.” 

To view the interview, click here.

Mancuso and her organization have had much to do with this change.

Results driven campaigns

One of SCIL’s most well-known successes was the passing of Bill AB 485, in October of 2018, which made California the first state to ban the sale of puppy mill dogs in pet stores. The bill, which also covers cats and rabbits, requires that pet stores only sell shelter/rescue animals.

Mancuso was instrumental in passing the Dining With Dogs law that makes it legal for restaurants in California and New York to offer areas for people to dine with their companion canines. More states are expected to follow suit.

Additionally, she founded the Pet Lover’s License Plate, a California specialty license plate available through the Department of Motor Vehicles, which was created to raise awareness regarding pet overpopulation and fund free and low-cost spay and neuter programs throughout the state. To date the plate has brought in more than 1.6 million dollars for free spay and neuter surgeries. 

Judie Mancuso and dog

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Judie Mancuso with Dinky Pooh

This is a particularly significant week for SCIL. On September 5, the AB 273 (Gonzalez) Wildlife Protection Act of 2019 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. It prohibits commercial or recreational trapping on both public and private lands, making California the first state to outlaw a centuries-old practice of commercial trapping of native species, including gray foxes, coyotes, badgers, beavers, and mink, whose pelts are often sold in foreign fur markets.

Mancuso says, “The signing of this bill into law is the result of compelling data and a change of heart in public opinion regarding animal cruelty.”

Deadline to sign or veto bills

Governor Newsom has until October 13 to sign or veto all bills that come to his desk. Right now, Mancuso has two others awaiting signature and three more one step away – SB 202 Blood Banks (would allow for animals that live with their owners to give blood at commercial blood banks), SB64 Pet Microchipping (currently on the Governor’s desk, passed full Assembly vote 76-0 on September 2), AB 733 Aquatic Toxicity (hazardous waste must be disposed of properly), SB 313 Animals: prohibition on use in circuses (ban on statewide traveling wild-animal exhibitions, passed State Senate), and AB 1260 Endangered Species (also currently on the Governor’s desk). This bill would ban the importation and sale of skin and other body parts from lizards, hippopotamuses, and caimans. 

Mancuso says, “If Governor Newsom signs them all, it will be the first time in history that this number of animal protection bills have been passed and signed into law at the same time.”

Advocating for animals even before SCIL 

Even before founding SCIL, Mancuso had long been an advocate for animal rights.

Although she was born in St. Louis, Mo., and came to Calif. when she was nine months old, the family only stayed a short time and moved back to St. Louis because her mother was homesick. Not surprisingly, Mancuso loved animals as a child and wanted to be a veterinarian. Eventually, 25 years later, she came back out west – to Los Angeles. 

She was appointed as a public member to the California Veterinary Medical Board in July of 2010, where she served the maximum of eight years, two four-year terms. Following a successful 20-year career in the information technology industry, she began using her skills and expertise for advocacy, legislation, humane education, and other pro-animal program development. 

Judie Mancuso three dogs

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With Twiggy, Petula, and Dinky Pooh at Alta Laguna Park. Mancuso also has five cats at home.

In 1995, Mancuso moved to Laguna, selecting this location, “Because of the beauty and its proximity to everything, and the open space and wildlife.” 

How SCIL was born

During her time in L.A., Mancuso says, “I was protesting and saving animal lives one at a time while doing rescue work in Los Angeles. I realized we needed something that would really make change and affect animals on a larger scale, and what we were doing wasn’t moving the needle large scale. So I decided to go big with something sweeping like legislation. My background in information technology gave me the foundation to create solutions and find a path to success. We are results driven.”

When she says “we,” she’s including her 10-person board which consists of: Simone Reyes, VP Communications, Leah Sturgis, VP Wildlife, Nickolaus Sackett, Director of Legislative Affairs, Margaret Perenchio, celebrity superstars Diane Keaton and Maggie Q, Haze Lynn, Katie Cleary, and Dr. Karen Halligan. 

A SCIL event Mancuso hosted in July to welcome Keaton and Maggie Q to the board raised $164,000.

Sponsoring legislation is expensive

Since she founded SCIL, Mancuso says, “many people and groups are coming to me saying, ‘We’d like to do a bill on this or that...but I have to say, ‘not without funding.’ Sponsoring legislation is an expensive task.” 

Mancuso currently has six contract lobbyists working for her nonprofit, both state and federal. Her organization also partners with some big groups to utilize their expertise and hundreds of thousands of supporters around the state. They include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). 

She says, “We only have so much expertise – they have doctors, scientists, an army of attorneys and other experts. My group is teeny tiny compared to them, but we have the political strength and know how to get things done.” 

A long path to the governor’s desk

Evidently, it’s not an easy process to get a bill on the governor’s desk for signature. It’s an arduous course of action. Mancuso explains that it requires the navigation of necessary governmental paths, which involves lobbyists, public relations, the Assembly, and the Senate. 

The ideas for bills come from a variety of sources – board members, donors, supporters, elected officials, and Mancuso herself. The SCIL board then votes on the bills to determine which they’ll sponsor. Based on what they decide, other groups and individual supporters provide funding. 

Judie Mancuso kissing

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Dinky Pooh

Mancuso says, “We pitch the bill to an assemblymember/senator and ask if they want to carry it for us. Sometimes a member of their staff is excited about the bill and that helps the process.”

However, she’s immersed on a local level as well. 

Last year, Mancuso ran for a seat on the Laguna Beach City Council.

Recently, she was appointed to the Laguna Beach Environmental Sustainability Committee for a two-year term. Mancuso says, “We are considering a couple of important issues – banning of plastics and pesticides.” 

Advocating for animals here in the wilderness, she fought the City Council’s decision to allow the trapping and killing of coyotes in the city. Her outcry and grassroots support led to the reversal of the decision.

California is an influencer

​ Mancuso made headlines as the organizing force behind the fight to spare the life of local mountain lion P-45 after the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued of a 10-day permit allowing ranchers in Malibu to shoot and kill him after four alpacas were found dead on a farm. The permit was ultimately revoked, and the permit holder instead decided to work with Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, and the Mountain Lion Foundation on better ways to humanely protect their animals from mountain lions. Mancuso was instrumental in that outcome.

Based on her actions, this was a significant step in helping animal welfare organizations in their desire to ultimately pass new legislation to make it tougher to obtain kill permits.

​“California is a significant influencer on the nation,” Mancuso says, “It is the fifth largest economy in the world, as we go, so goes the nation.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mancuso – and her organization SCIL – is a significant influencer in the welfare of many creatures. She has given them a voice and a vote, and all animal lovers applaud her.

For more information on SCIL, go to

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Vladimir Kush: In a world of pure imagination


Photos by Mary Hurlbut 

At first, the paintings of artist Vladimir Kush beckon the viewer in, then a glance turns into a second look, and soon, mesmerized, the observer is seduced, unable to look away. Kush says that patrons often admit, “I’ve seen this in a dream, but it’s nebulous, just out of reach.”

“Collectors become addicted to that, the extraordinary angle of looking at things,” says Kush Fine Arts Gallery Manager Brian Stewart. “He has 45,000 collectors worldwide.”

Masterfully and mysteriously, Kush bridges the gap between imagination and reality in all of his creations – paintings, watercolors, sculptures, books, and jewelry. Kush Fine Art in downtown Laguna features only his work, so everywhere the eye falls is another magnificent example of what he says is his goal – to reflect the world in the mirror of metaphor. 

Metaphorical Realism 

In representing the universality of nature, Kush often uses moons, suns, clouds, flowers, animals, insects, and water, however, not in the tradition and expected way. In his works, a surfer rides the waves of a tree trunk, an elephant has a trumpet for a trunk, and humans climb a golden spiderweb overseen by a giant spider.

The connection between artist and viewer is on a microscopic level, invisible to the eye in the conventional sense – images aren’t static but have a jiggly dreamlike quality as if in a cosmic dance – out of focus, yet almost known.

Vladimir Kush outside

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Vladimir Kush in front of his gallery

Kush is the epitome of the American Dream. Born in Moscow, Russia during a time when imagination was suppressed, he flourished in Laguna, where creativity is revered, and opened his first gallery in 2005. Kush now owns two additional galleries – in Maui and Las Vegas (in Caesar’s Palace). 

On August 22, he returned to Kush Fine Arts downtown for a few days to unveil the 7th Human Compilation, in a series. Over that weekend, 240 people attended the unveiling and presentation event. Additionally, in an unprecedented occurrence, the transaction of the sale of one of his paintings was finalized in public. Human Way, an original oil on canvas, was sold to the Founder of Blockchain, Andrew Keys.

As Diana Pinck says in her article “Metaphorical Realism, The Art of Vladimir Kush” in Artist PROOF Magazine, “Kush’s paintings use metaphor to describe the joy of the world, the interconnectedness and dichotomy of all the powerful and driving forces of nature and the universe.” She adds that he was the first artist to use metaphor as his method. 

For Kush, the idea of metaphor as mirror of the world began a long time ago in Moscow. Although Kush’s father Oleg had artistic inclinations, he studied mathematics and physics and taught his son that the “visual metaphor” or idea should be transparent as a formula or equation. 

Kush says, “A ‘good metaphor’ is essentially a formula because it connects seemingly distant notions.” 

Vladimir Kush painting

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“Infinity Trail” painting and “Rose Awaiting” sculpture

Creativity blossoms at a young age

“At the time of my childhood, Russia was still behind an Iron Curtain, and the only way to see exotic and unusual places was by traveling in my own imagination.”

He was already sketching at the age of three and began attending art school at seven. “I was very lucky that my first art teacher did not suppress imagination and allowed certain freedom in the student’s creative flow.” At 12, he went to see an exhibit of 20 avant-garde artists, and his father encouraged him to start experimenting with surrealistic ideas. 

However, he is not a surrealist artist, but a metaphorical realist, and he explains the difference, “The possibility of truthful depiction of the material world combines with my own vision of cultural world tradition and mythology.”

After 10 years at the art school, Kush entered the Moscow School of Art and Design, but within a year, he was conscripted into the Russian Army and served a two-year term. For the most part during that time, he was assigned to produce large paintings for various purposes. 

Kush readily admits that attending art school in Moscow was not without criticism, pressure, and rigorous training, which he believes is lacking in some art classes in the U.S. “There is no progress without it,” he says. 

He also believes art has been replaced by a more digitalized industry, and as a result, the quality is changing. “It’s a skill and few want to take the time.”

Vladimir Kush outside

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Kush with “Route 66” sculpture

How his career began in Laguna

In the early 1990s, the Iron Curtain dropped, and Kush was able to emigrate. In 1991, he came to Los Angeles and soon after visited Laguna where he decided to stay. “I had a sublime connection to the town. I couldn’t let it go, I had to conquer it. I remember walking around taking photos and thinking it would be such a dream to exhibit here.” 

And he did – as an exhibitor at the Festival of Arts. In 2005, the first Kush Fine Arts Gallery opened on Coast Highway next to C’est La Vie restaurant, then it moved to 265 Forest in August of 2009, and in 2015, relocated to the current space at 210 Forest Ave. 

Prolific artist

“The American Dream is not an overnight success or a fairytale, it’s not achieved without effort,” Kush admits. “I don’t fit into any traditional category or belong to any art establishment or commercial art galleries. I have no public relations. I’ve had no outside investors. It’s been achieved by appeal. It’s all from the love of art work.”

Currently, Kush spends most of his time in Maui with his wife Oxana and two daughters, Veronica, who is seven months old, and Victoria, who is three.

Vladimir Kush books

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Kush’s books 

Stewart says, “I would say he is the most prolific artist of our time without a doubt. I’ve been in this business for 13 years and have never encountered an artist with his ability to create as much as he does.”

Adding to his already vast repertoire, Kush began producing sculptures 20 years ago, and has been designing jewelry for the last 10 years. 

Multi-faceted is an understatement when it comes to describing the diversity of his accomplishments. He has since added another endeavor – books. 

Kush’s watercolor of the sheep covered in seashells prompted his father Oleg to write the award-winning children’s book Aries and the Sheep and an Apple iPhone application in which kids can color the illustrations (more apps are in the works). Recently, Kush published Metaphorical Journey, a poetic catalogue of his major paintings and drawings through 2002. He also produces magazines and animated pieces.

7th Human Compilation

Kush explains how the Human Compilation series began. “It was a period beginning in 2000. I was trying to define the notion that all people have in common love, time, and sensation of space, and it was important to compare these things other than in metaphor. Basically, the Human Compilation series serves as a timeline that I considered a script – dividing time by each episode and by doing so – to communicate to all people the legacy of human spirit.”

Vladimir Kush jewelry

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Jewelry designed by Kush 

Now when he releases the sketches, even before the series piece is finished, collectors will quickly buy them up to add to their other series acquisitions. 

“I’m a classic painter,” Kush says when asked about his process. “I start with black and white drawings, or watercolors, and do multiple drawings with pencil and/or ink. It takes skill, there are no tricks. The concept is transparent, and I work to cleanse it. As written by William Blake, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.’ It’s intellectual. Sometimes the conception is unknown to the artist himself.”

Nature is a temple

Kush quotes Charles Baudelaire: “Nature is a temple in which living columns sometimes emit confused works.”

It seems a fitting reference, since Kush’s imaginative works decode that confusion, making the invisible visible in a mystical way that bridges the gap connecting us all. Then he entices the observer to discover that relationship: “You only have to start noticing, and that miracle of connection is everywhere.” 

In his works of art, there is no choice but to notice.

For more information about Vladimir Kush, go to

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Laguna Dance Festival founder Jodie Gates shares the rigor underlying her fairytale life


If Jodie Gates were to write her life’s story, it might sound a lot like a modern-day fairytale. A little girl, born in Sacramento in the 1960s, dreams of one day becoming a professional ballerina. While performing onstage at age 15, the iconic choreographer Robert Joffrey sits silent in the audience, assessing the young dancer. When the curtain falls, Joffrey offers the girl the opportunity to come to New York and stud – on scholarship – with The Joffrey Ballet. But she is too young. Her mother won’t allow it. 

Joffrey returns the following year and, once again, encourages the girl to come to New York, an offer she cannot now refuse. She advances from student to apprentice in a mere three weeks and begins her professional dance career at age 16.

The story is sweet, the ending happy. The young girl dances all over the world – on nearly every continent – for over 25 years. When at last she retires her slippers, she continues doing what she loves – choreographing, directing, and teaching. Her opportunities broaden. Her successes pile up.

But behind every real life fairytale lies a path paved with incredible determination and unimaginable discipline. There are no short cuts. That’s the true story.

Laguna Dance closeup

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie Gates – Founder of the Laguna Beach Dance Festival, Professor at USC, Choreographer, Director, and former principal ballerina for the Joffrey Ballet

In the beginning

Jodie’s story began the way most little girls’ stories begin – a distant dream of one day becoming a prima ballerina. “Genders were less blurred in those days,” Jodie says. “Young girls dreamed about being ballerinas, as young boys thought about becoming firemen. Now it’s okay for a woman to think she might someday be a CEO, and I love that.”

For Jodie, ballet began at the age of 7. “It was about falling in love with what it meant to move to music,” Jodie says. Her sister, 11 years her senior, also studied ballet and became a role model. Her mother and grandfather supported her, taking Jodie to countless classes and watching her thrive. “It was wonderful for my whole family,” she says. “My mother supported me without even really knowing what it meant.” 

Jodie’s mother passed away in June, and it’s given Jodie time to look back on what her unwavering support and dedication meant to Jodie’s career. “I’ve been able to reflect upon all those moments – all the successes and challenges – and what that meant to my mother and myself. I’m very grateful for what she gave me.”

Her mother even moved with Jodie, in part to watch over her during those early years, and in part to fall in love with an art of her own and become active in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. 

The elusive role of Juliet

That fateful day on the Sacramento stage sealed Jodie’s successful future. Her career with The Joffrey Ballet would span 15 years and cross several continents. In 1995, she would become the principal dancer for The Pennsylvania Ballet and, in 1999, she would move to Frankfurt where she taught, staged, and produced ballets around the world for William Forsythe’s Ballet. But before all that, before the wide acclaim and rock star status, there was still a young woman uncertain about the future.

Laguna Dance master class

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Courtesy of USC Kaufman School of Dance

Jodie teaching class at USC Kaufman School of Dance

Alongside Jodie’s childhood dream of becoming a prima ballerina ran her desire to dance the role of Juliet in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. “It’s such a lovely story,” Jodie says. “The score is stunning and incredibly complicated.” Aside from this, the role simply spoke to her. “Every young woman wants to fall in love,” she says.

Jodie was so enchanted by the piece that, at 10 years old, she performed the entire three-act ballet for her mother in their living room, playing all the parts. “The score is long,” Jodie says. “So you can imagine the patience on my mother’s part.” 

Fast-forward 15 years and Jodie is now dancing in The Joffrey Ballet when the Prokofiev score comes into the repertoire. Jodie sees an opportunity for her dream to be realized. There are three casts, meaning three Romeos and three Juliets, enabling the ballet to be performed night-after-night, as well as on tour. Alas, Jodie is not called to learn the part and is, instead, given a much smaller role. 

Knowing there was no chance of seeing the stage as Juliet, Jodie nonetheless persevered. The dance itself meant more than the performance. “I asked the director of the Joffrey if I could understudy the role of Juliet,” Jodie recalls. “I promised I wouldn’t get in the way.” Jodie danced silent and alone in the backdrop, content enough in her private role as Juliet.

Two months before opening night, a director flew in from Europe to determine who, among the three couples, would dance the part on opening night. As he studied the couples, he noticed Jodie rehearsing alone in the background. He called her forward. He wanted to see her dance, after lunch, with a partner she hadn’t practiced with before. Her passion and dedication to the role surpassed every other obstacle, and Jodie came to be chosen to dance the part of Juliet at Lincoln Center on opening night. 

“I share that story with my students in an effort to tell them I’ve been there,” Jodie says. “I made that happen out of sheer will. I just wanted it so much, and I caught this man’s eye. That role was very meaningful. If something means that much to you, even if you’re not cast, even if you’re the understudy, learning a part in the back you don’t think you’re ever going to perform – do it. Learn it.”

How the President’s son became her prince

Shortly after Jodie’s arrival at The Joffrey, she was paired with a partner who set a high bar for fame and recognition. Ronald Prescott Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, became Jodie’s Romeo. “He was a beautiful dancer and a wonderful partner,” she says. “Kind, articulate, and smart.” They performed the duet on tour in Hong Kong, followed by an entourage of secret service agents and bodyguards. “We were treated like kings and queens,” Jodie says. “I just assumed that’s how all travel was.” The Reagans weren’t the only first couple who saw her perform. Jodie also danced for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

The Joffrey Ballet was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, and its dancers held rock star status. Opportunities began to pile up at Jodie’s door. She met Gene Kelly, Michael Douglas, and worked with Prince. Throughout her career, she performed across North and South America, Russia, Asia, Australia, and Europe. 

Laguna Dance Mikhail

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Courtesy of USC Kaufman School of Dance

Jodie with Mikhail Baryshnikov (on left) and choreographer William Forsythe 

Jodie’s second act

When Jodie retired her slippers at the age of 40, a new life awaited. Her second career was as impressive as her first. Since 2005, Jodie has choreographed over 60 ballets created for Germany’s Staatsballett Berlin, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, American Ballet Theater II, Washington Ballet, and The Juilliard School, just to name a few. Her work has been performed around the world, including the Kennedy Center, Princeton University, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, the Vail International Dance Festival, and many other venues. 

Jodie also taught, staged, and produced a number of ballets for William Forsythe, including productions at Prague National Theater, Zurich Opera Ballet, Teatro La Scala, Paris Opera Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Houston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet.

In 2006, Jodie took these skills and talents to teach as a tenured professor at University of California, Irvine and, in 2013, was chosen to lead the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. “The opportunity to launch a new school at USC – the first school to be endowed in over 40 years – was the chance of a lifetime. I wasn’t looking to leave UCI. I was recruited to do something that very few people would ever have the good fortune to do – to create a curriculum from the ground up, to build a staff and faculty, and to recruit students. I am able to show them the value of a fine arts degree in dance.” 

Laguna Dance Glorya

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie with philanthropist and founder of USC’s dance school Glorya Kaufman and famed choreographer William Forsythe

How do all these talents and skills across various roles – as dancer, professor, choreographer, and director – coalesce? “It’s all coming from me. I find as I develop as a person, I dance less because it’s not what I do anymore, but it’s who I am. It’s all a part of who I am. When I create a piece, it’s part of my publishing. Instead of writing books, I make dances. My research feeds who I am as a professor. Leaving my desk and having that one-on-one contact with my students uses a different side of the brain. I love to stimulate and educate myself.  I discover new leadership skills I didn’t know I had.” 

Even as a young girl, Jodie recognized the skills she was learning were transferrable and would serve her in every capacity of life. “Now that I’m a leader in the field – an educator and director – I value the amount of dedication and perseverance it takes to be a professional ballet dancer,” she says. “What is a fairytale story is also an incredibly rigorous discipline. I wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart.”

Founding the Laguna Dance Festival

To the residents of Laguna Beach, Jodie’s most recognizable contribution might be the founding of the Laguna Dance Festival in 2005. “I always look for the needs and voids in any community, and how can I help facilitate filling those voids,” she says. “As an established artists’ colony, Laguna is primed to expand into the performing arts and be a leader. We should be that west coast presence that’s known for hosting an annual dance festival. That’s the Laguna Beach I believe in and want to live in.”

The Laguna Dance Festival’s repertoire spans modern, contemporary, classic ballet, and full-length ballet. “I don’t have favorites,” Jodie says. “I know what I’ve gotten out of experiencing dance, not just as the performer, but as the viewer. The word experience is what we all want as human beings. We want to experience an emotion or feeling. Dance is such a visceral art form and it was a void in our community. I advocate for the art form because it’s gotten lost. Most people don’t know the joy it can bring. It’s ephemeral. It feeds your soul.” 

Laguna Dance versa style

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie with Versa-Style Dance Company founders Leigh Foaad (on left) and Jackie Lopez

Teaching in the 21st Century

“Ballet is a field unique unto itself, and one that’s shared from teacher to teacher,” Jodie says. “It’s an art form that can’t be learned by watching video. It’s an oral tradition, passed down through the generations.”

Despite its deep and established roots, Jodie also believes dance must speak to the current culture and reflect the present time in which it’s performed. “Ballet is a preservation of our history,” she says. “To see classical, traditional ballet is sublime. But it’s imperative that it reflect the culture in which we live.” Jodie likes to see ballet dancers who have different body shapes, different skin tones, who have different styles and ways of moving. “That belongs in ballet as well. That’s the contemporary world we live in, and I advocate for that quite a bit.”

Jodie encourages women to create their own dances and cultivate their own style. “Women should not simply exist as the muse for the director. I tell dancers, ‘You can be the director.’ It’s important to break the hierarchy set up in ballet 300 years ago, see who we are today, and respond.” 

For the little girl who once danced alone in her mother’s living room, striving for the stage to one day perform her Juliet, Jodie’s quest for perfection never ends. She continues falling in love with ballet in all its iterations. More important, she persistently shares that passion with audiences young and old, near and far.

This year’s Laguna Dance Festival, featuring world-class dance performances by Parsons Dance Company, RUBBERBAND, and Ballet West takes place on Friday, Sept 27 – Sunday, Sept 29, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Laguna Dance Festival website at

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Linda Schmidt: Making a stand to save the rhino


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Linda Schmidt left South Africa to pursue a postgraduate degree in America, her plan was to stay for two years and then return home to her family. Despite her intentions, Schmidt and her husband never made it back to South Africa, at least not permanently. 

A two-year stay turn into 20 plus years

They found Laguna Beach when relocating from Denver. At the time there was a local store featuring South African goods. The couple heard about it, came to check it out, and decided to give the town it resided in a try. 

“We just fell into the rhythm of Laguna,” recalls Schmidt. “We just became involved in things: Mom’s Club, SchoolPower – it just progressed from there.” The roots got stronger. “A lot of people are from somewhere else,” explains Schmidt. “So we became each other’s family.”

The urgency to save a species from extinction

 Despite Laguna becoming home, Schmidt retains strong ties to her homeland. It is those ties, as well as a profound sense of “if not me then who?,” that prompted her to embark on an ambitious labor of love: to help save rhinos from extinction.

Linda Schmidt close up

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Linda Schmidt, founder of Cause Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to saving rhinos from extinction

“Conservation has been a really big part of my history,” explains Schmidt. “My mom has been involved as long as I can remember. Our family traveled a lot to remote African countries.” Her parents’ enthusiasm trickled down to her, although she may not have been aware of it at the time.

The family camped all over Africa. They explored sites where elephants traipsed through their camp. “There is a beauty and a grandeur about nature,” says Schmidt. “I think nature is the teacher. There is an innate wisdom to be found there.”

Learning about poaching and its depressing efficiency

Schmidt’s call to action came ten years ago while she was in South Africa. A park ranger spoke to her group about the poaching crisis plaguing, not only rhinos, but elephants, pangolins, and so many other animals. “It wasn’t on anyone’s map at this time,” says Schmidt. “This was something very few people knew anything about.” 

Appalled and motivated to spread the word, Schmidt organized a trip for a Laguna Beach group to visit South Africa and learn about the crisis for themselves. Because her goal was creating awareness, she had to first educate herself.

Educating herself so she can educate others

“I met some key people in South Africa in that process. There are only a few,” she says. A somewhat discouraging finding was that a lot of the groups raising money to combat the problem of these keystone species’ potential extinction were not particularly effective. “A lot of the NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) were not hitting at the grassroots level. I realized that if we empower the community, we empower nature,” she says. 

Forty people from Laguna went on this first trip. It prompted her to want to do more. “How could we open the window in South Africa to our world?” she wondered. “How do I make a real difference?” 

Linda Schmidt nature

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Born in South Africa, Linda Schmidt’s parents passed along their love of the natural world to their daughter

She views herself as occupying a rather unique position. “I’m a South African girl who is an American, too.” And she realized getting people in the U.S. concerned about the destruction of these majestic creatures would be critical to their survival. She formed the no-profit Cause Conservation, a “true labor of love,” to formalize her mission.

30 percent of rhino population lost in the last 10 years

The more she learned the more urgent her mission became. Thirty percent of the rhino population has been lost in the last 10 years. In 2017, 1,028 rhinos were poached. In 2018, that number dropped, however, it was still a terrifying 769. There are only 24,000 rhinos (black and white) left. At that rate, it does not require advanced math to realize the species is facing extinction in the mere blink of an eye. This is not something that can be debated and mulled over for years to come. Decisive, effective action must be taken now if we are to prevent these animals from becoming a mere memory.

Effective programs are in place, but they’re expensive

The good news is, according to Schmidt, a three-pronged approach to this crisis has proven successful. The bad news is none of the steps are easy. De-horning the rhinos is one essential component. It is a very effective way to keep them alive because they are poached for the perceived medicinal value of their horns. If they don’t have horns, there is no reason to kill them. Additionally, removing rhino horns is not debilitating to the animal and they grow back, unlike with elephants. 

The second necessary component is the Anti-Poaching Units or APUs. Protecting rhinos from poachers is a very dangerous job. The poachers are well-equipped and ruthless. Training and equipping rangers to protect the rhinos on the ground is essential to their survival.

Linda Schmidt students

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At Schmidt’s home, LBHS Remember and Give Club members make decorative hearts that were delivered to the Nkomo School in South Africa

The third thing needed is education. Schmidt describes a program that sends people into hospitals in Asia to speak directly to new mothers to try and convince them that rhino horn will not help them with lactation. Such a painstaking, singular approach has proven successful, but it is but a ripple in a situation where a tsunami is required. 

Raising awareness is key to raising money

 As Schmidt pondered the best way she could make a difference, one thing became clear: money was needed. “What shocked me is how expensive it is (to keep these animals safe),” exclaims Schmidt. “To dehorn a rhino is $3,500. Tracking equipment is $3,200, and it costs $5,000-10,000 for one APU ranger.” Additionally, to relocate a rhino is $50,000. 

Rhino Awareness Week is coming to Laguna

In order to raise money, she realized she must first raise awareness. To that end, she and her team of volunteers (the Laguna Beach APUs, as they have nicknamed themselves) have created Rhino Awareness Week. The event kicks off on Sunday, September 15 with a screening of the documentary Breaking Their Silence. The director Kerry David will be in attendance to answer questions at Laguna Beach High School Artists Theater. Schmidt says when she first saw the film at the Newport Beach Film Festival, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It speaks to the crisis in a very honest way.” 

There is something for everyone during the event

From there, the event will offer a reggae night at Mozambique, a lecture by award-winning conservationist Simon Naylor, a spin class at Rhythm Ride with a live DJ to benefit the rhinos, a surf contest put on by Mo Van de Wall, a Laguna Beach surfer and instructor who used to work as an African ranger and, lastly, an African-themed private fundraising event. It is a full week of wide-ranging activities all in the name of raising awareness and funds to help save rhinos. 

There is something for everyone during the week-long event. For more information on the Rhino Awareness Week, visit Cause Conservation’s website ( The group’s website is very informative, providing a lot of information on the plight of the rhinos and other animals, in addition to the group’s upcoming event.

Linda Schmidt teachers

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Linda Schmidt with the principal and a teacher of the Nkomo School, two “extraordinary women,” whose work in educating local students helps decrease poaching

Laguna students help South African schools

An example of work Schmidt has already been involved with is the cross-cultural collaboration with the African Foundation, one of the beneficiaries of Rhino Awareness Week. A group of Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School students, who are part of the Remember and Give Club at both schools, visited the Nkomo School in the Mnqoboqazi community in South Africa. The school is run by two “extraordinary women,” according to Schmidt, whose efforts “are making a significant difference to education and conservation education in their village. The result is lower poaching.”

It is up to us to act

If this group of volunteers from Laguna Beach led by Schmidt is already making a difference, it stands to reason that with the help of more people, they can make even more of a difference. “Wildlife can’t survive without partners in every country. The rhino is just one key example,” says Schmidt. “I have a responsibility. I can’t stand back.” And she isn’t. However, if we are to save the rhinos from extinction, she and her fellow Laguna APUs need our help. As Schmidt likes to say, “The greatest threat to our wildlife is the belief that someone else will save it.”

Members of the Laguna APU are: Krista Shaw, Sarah Murphy, Cindy Newman-Jacobs, Kirsten Warner, Diane Fisher, LaRae Martin, Debbie Naude, Denise Campanelli, Nathalie Assen, Kim Duensing, and Emily Van De Wall.

For more information, visit

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