Friday, January 31, 2020

Yes, I'm still a 12-year-old at heart

I was doing some property research this morning and stumbled across this in the Aug. 8, 1955 Pomona Progress Bulletin:
Jolly Neighbors Set Beach Outing
A wiener roast is planned by the Jolly Neighbors Club for Wednesday, at 11 a.m. at the home of Mrs. Esther Schmekel, 735 Main St., Huntington Beach. Members are to provide their own wieners and buns. Further information may be obtained from Mrs. Henry Keister, Ly. 2-5319.
Wait. Let me get this straight... 

Schmekels and Keisters need members to bring weiners and buns

I initially thought this must be a joke played on the newspaper editor. But no. Huntington Beach mayor Marcus M. McCallen sold the house at that address to Charles and Esther Schmekel on Dec. 13, 1943. And a quick check shows that Henry and Hertha Keister were well-known residents of Pomona. As Brigandi used to say, "I never make this stuff up, because I don't have to."

Ken Leavens (1933-2019)

Ken Leavens at the Old Orange County Courthouse (Photo by author)
I’ve just learned of the passing of Ken Leavens on May 12, 2019. It appears there was no obituary in the newspapers, nor an announcment of a service. But make no mistake,... Kenneth Sidney Leavens impacted many lives, including his countless students, his friends, and the whole Orange County historical community.

Ken Leavens was born January 26, 1933 in Ventura County. “Ken’s education started in a small rural school house (one or two rooms?) along Highway 126 in Santa Paula," writes Ken's friend, John Sorenson. "The red painted school house was still standing as a historical site when I visited Santa Paula in 2013.”

During World War II, Ken lived with his grandparents in Missouri. He later returned to California and graduated from Valencia High School in 1951.

“Ken had two sisters and a brother," said Sorenson. "His mother, Aurelia, was about twenty at the time of Ken’s birth. Aurelia lived into her late 90s in a care facility in Long Beach. His brother also resided in Long Beach. One sister lived in Santa Paula, the other in Placentia."

Interested in music from an early age, Ken graduated from Orange County State College (which later became Cal State Fullerton) with a B.A. in music in 1961. He worked his way through school,  employed at an auto parts manufacturing facility in the Fullerton area. Soon after graduating, he began his long career teaching music at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

"One of his duties was the marching band," said Sorenson, "a task he had for about twenty years. Taking additional classes, he qualified to be a history teacher for his last fifteen years. Whether he taught any music classes during this time, I just don’t know."

“Mr. Leavens was the director of the Willard Intermediate Boys' Choir,” writes Santa Ana historian Rob Richardson, who praised Ken's leadership. “He led us through some especially challenging pieces such as the choral Missa Brevis in D by Benjamin Britten.  I still have the record our choir made in 1973-74. I was a member of the choir from 1973 to 1975. [Mr. Leavens] built on the strong foundation of performing arts in the Santa Ana Unified School District for many generations.”
Ken as an Orange County State College graduate, 1961.
Ken never seemed excited to be in the limelight, but he sometimes appeared with the Willard choir in local televised performances. He also occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the Calendar or Arts section of the Los Angeles Times, sharing his insights on music. In one such letter, published Sunday, Nov. 11, 1984, Ken responded to a recent article by the Times' classical music critic Daniel Cariaga:
"Bravo!! Jeffrey Kahane [of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra] has dared to play a piano concerto that is not on the approved repertoire list of Daniel Cariaga. If you remember your 1950 freshman music history class 1-A, you know what the approved list is: the German-speaking composers, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahams. Tolerated: Schumann. All other Romantic period composers who composed for the piano have no substance. Unfortunately, 'no substance' seems to be code words for 'not chic.' Certainly, Daniel Cariaga's dismissal of Saint Saens Forth Piano Concerto as a 'mayonnaise sandwich' can hardly be taken as a scholarly analysis of a work that Paderewski and Cortot championed."
Ken retired in 1995 after more than 34 years at Willard, (although he occasionally returned as a substitute teacher). The school’s loss was the historical community’s gain. Ken becane very active in numerous historical organizations and had leadership roles in several, including the Orange County Historical Society where he served as a board member and society historian and made numerous friends.

“I met Ken while serving on the board of the Orange County Historical Society about 1995,” writes Sorenson. “Later we served on the Old Courthouse Museum Society and as members of the Santa Ana Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. … Ken and I really got to know each other as we assembled the newsletter for the Old Courthouse Society. Three times a year, we talked on many subjects.

"Ken was very devoted to music and made many visits to the Hollywood Bowl and the Segerstrom Music Hall. On one trip to the Hollywood Bowl around 2005, he broke his hip. For many weeks he was in a hospital in Hollywood. Out of respect and compassion for a friend, I made trips from Irvine to Hollywood on every Saturday to visit him in his bed. The recovery period was long and hard. Ken emerged with one leg slightly shorter than the other. He wore special shoes for the balance of his life.”  
Ken Leavens conducts 1968 Willard boys choir. (Courtesy Fred Dolan)
For years, the highlight of the Orange County Historical Society's board meetings was Ken reading his responses to historical queries from the public. He was a natural at historical research and worked hard to answer each question – even if it meant spending days driving around from institution to institution, digging through old newspapers and microfilm and paying for parking and gas on his own nickel. His dedication to getting the facts straight and helping total strangers was remarkable.

“He was still on the OCHS board when I joined it and I enjoyed speaking with him immensely,” said Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board Chair Kathie Schey. “I was saddened when he decided to hang up his hat with regard to public queries. There was much discussion about how this work he contributed could be replaced and I remember the consensus being that it simply could not. His passing is another real loss to the history community.”

As a board member, Ken was always even-tempered, friendly, intelligent, and a voice of reason. It was impossible not to like the man. Health problems mostly kept him at home in the last few years and his presence has already been greatly missed. Now, unfortunately, we’ll be missing him in perpetuity.

Ken passed away in the same Fullerton home he’d lived in since 1956. “Ken was a very private person and his death was a sudden event even to his siblings,” writes Sorenson.  

Farewell and thank you for all you've done, Ken.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Shooby dooby down to Ruby's

Ruby's high school senior yearbook photo, 1940.
Ruby Cavanaugh of North Tustin was the inspiration, namesake and mascot for her son’s chain of Ruby’s Diner restaurants.

Ruby Fern Michael was born July 29, 1922, in Jefferson City, Missouri to Edwin and Victoria Michael. In 1936, the Michaels moved to Southern California. Ruby attended John C. Freemont High School in South Los Angeles.

“At 18, she met Douglas Clide Cavanaugh, a U.S. Navy veteran, who shared her love of swing music and dancing,” wrote Paul Hodgins in the Orange County Register. “Ruby and Doug married in 1944 and had two children, Doug Jr. and Jane.” Later, the family moved to a two-story tract house on a cul-de-sac (13571 Whembly Dr.) in North Tustin. Ruby would live there for nearly fifty years.
A family photo, with Ruby on the right.
Doug Jr. and his business partner and fellow Foothill High School grad Ralph Kosmides started Ruby’s Diner in 1982 on the Balboa Pier. Doug was jogging past an empty run-down bait shop on the end of the pier one day when the idea occurred to him to open a 1940s-style diner. He asked his mom if he could name the place after her, and she immediately said no. He ignored her and Ruby was more than a little surprised when she came to the grand opening and saw her name lit up in neon. The restaurant’s logo, drawn by a Balboa artist, is based on Ruby’s high school cheerleading photo.
A later photo of Ruby holding a photo of her younger self.
On the first day of business -- December 7, 1982 – Doug and Ralph worked the grill and cash register and made $63. The place grew in popularity, and in 1987 they opened a second Ruby’s at the end of the Seal Beach Pier. Ruby’s became the next in a long tradition of Orange County restaurants that grew into large and successful chains. By Spring 2019, Ruby's Diner had 32 locations, including 26 in Southern California.
Ruby died in Orange County on December 27, 2015. An estate sale soon followed, and a number of items were purchased by Lisa Baldwin of A & P Antiques in Downtown Orange. I purchased a few of these items (show in the photo above) from Lisa’s shop simply for their attachment to Ruby Cavanaugh. I picked out a plate and cookbook for their association with food, and a bright and colorful scarf which seemed to say something about her personality. I donated these items and added a current menu from the Ruby's Diner chain to the Orange County Historical Society at their annual Show & Tell program in December.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Phil Brigandi: Orange County Archivist

In the wake of Phil Brigandi's death, the Orange County Historical Society presented a tribute to him on Jan. 9, 2020, focusing on his Orange County historical work. At least 300 people attended. Each of the five speakers that night (Mark Hall-Patton, Art Hansen, myself, Stephanie George and Eric Plunkett) focused on a different segement of Phil's life and work, combined with other favorite memories. This was my contribution -- focusing primarily on Phil's time as County Archivist. My more comprehensive tribute to Phil and his life is posted here.

I first met Phil Brigandi in 2003, when he was the newly minted Orange County Archivist. I’d been trying to get into the Archives for years to do research, but it had closed in the wake of the County bankruptcy. The County Library handed the Archives over to the County Clerk-Recorder's Office, which didn't immediately reopen the place either. But in Spring 2003, Tom Daly was elected the new Clerk-Recorder and he made re-staffing the Archives and providing access to these publically-owned records one of his first priorities. During the search for a new archivist, Jim Sleeper told Tom that Phil was more than ready to return from his 13-years of exile in Hemet.

Phil had done some work at UCI’s Special Collections and had some training in the technical/library science end of archival practice, which added to his already vast understanding of Orange County history and how the records could be best utilized. He was the perfect man for the job.

I visited the Archives the first week it was reopened and met Phil when he was just figuring out what he had. The library folks had left no finding aids or clues – Just room after room of often cryptically-marked boxes. Within minutes of meeting me, Phil took me on a tour through the stacks. We peered into boxes, trying to figure out what was where – a process we would repeat for years until we got most of it reasonably organized and labeled. We probably talked for an hour or so, and then I sat down with some files he’d pulled for me on Googie architecture and early Santa Ana attorneys.  It was a good day and I enjoyed talking history with Phil, but figured that was it until the next time I had research to do.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from him saying, “This is not a one-person job, and it isn’t working to have random county employees assigned as my assistant. I need someone who cares about this stuff and who wants to learn. How’d you like to come work for me?” 

I didn’t ask what it paid or what the hours were. I just said yes. And I’ve been there ever since. I’d been doing local history projects since high school but never imagined that a paying gig might exist. 

The five years I worked for Phil were the best education I could have received anywhere. And I’m not talking about the basic archival practice stuff, although I learned that too. This was not a file clerk job, and as Phil often told me, “You’re doing the exact same job as me – just playing the tune in a different key.” Phil taught me how everything fit together. He taught historical context. He taught me how to see the physical environment around us with the eyes of a historian and to look for details others would miss. He taught me not just how to be a historian but also why. 

He showed me how to process collections, create finding aids, handle materials, encapsulate documents, read topo maps and conduct reference interviews. He taught me to keep my ear to the ground for historical materials that needed to be saved. He taught me that thoughtful accuracy was always infinitely more important than meeting an arbitrary deadline. And he taught me that sharing materials and knowledge was the only way to fly – as opposed to hoarding it or putting up barriers to public access. More than once he told me, “Treating something like a precious treasure and making it inaccessible isn’t much better than treating it like trash.” 

He also taught me that the individual historians, the old families, the historical institutions like the Archives, and the historical societies like OCHS were all intertwined and interdependent on one another as part of a larger historical community. They might somehow survive independent of one another, but none would ever really succeed or be relevant without the others. “Local history,” he often said, “is a small pond.” And the bigger the pond, the more patrons, the more people helping each other, the more forward momentum for everyone, and the more visibility for the kind of historical endeavors that make Archives worth having in the first place.

Phil approached history as a calling, not just a job or even a career. Getting paid for the work was, at most, an afterthought. Phil realized he had a gift and he used that gift to preserve history for future generations, spread the gospel of community, and help others. Like most of us, he was happiest doing what he did best.
Phil was not just a great mentor, but also the best boss you could ever hope to have. Too many government employees operate primarily from a place of fear and over-reverence for the fickle whims of elected officials. Phil, on the other hand, had a healthy disregard for such nonsense and ran the Archives for the betterment of the County, the public, and local history.

Our desks were about five feet apart and we more or less had a running conversation at all times, no matter what we were working on. Every day was interesting – in a good way. Having worked in the gulag-like veal fattening pens of corporate Irvine, this was so refreshing. It was a delight to come to work every day and our patrons were the main beneficiaries of our positive attitudes.

Phil brought in about 40 collections to the Archives, including such gems at the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection, a century-worth of naturalization records, the County’s bankruptcy records, the records of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station reuse battle, and the papers of historian and court reporter Lecil Slayback and industrialist Adolph Schope.

As Archivist, Phil was a jack of all trades and master of most. Whatever the task at hand, Phil dove right in – From sorting records to installing map cases to helping patrons make sense of arcane records that somehow held the answers to their questions.

And he made everything fun. As he liked to say, “Too many people mistake being serious for being solemn.” He was deadly serious about his work, but he was hardly ever solemn. The Orange County Archives was a fun place to be, good work was being done, stress levels were near zero, Phil was sharing his brilliance with anyone who needed a hand, and researchers always told us how much they looked forward to their visits. It was truly a golden age, and I was so lucky to have been part of it.

An 2004 L.A. Times article hinted at the flavor of things, describing how Phil approached his work “with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning,” and how “with smiles, the archivist and his assistant, Chris Jepsen, interrupt each other as they tell of a recent visit from [a patron] in search of clues about her grandparents.”

Thanks to his sense of humor, even the most mindless of tasks – like a full day of reordering jumbled records to match old indices – could end up being fun. We did just that one day, and made a game of reading off funny names as we came to them. Once one of us read the name, the other had to briefly describe the person who should have such a name. By the end of an entire day we were nearly done with the project, having organized many boxes of documents, but we were really tired and acting accordingly punchy.  One of the last names I came to was “Fanny Sparks,” which I almost couldn’t say out loud because I was already laughing. But Phil made out what I’d said and immediately announced that Fanny Sparks was “one of the side effects listed on the warning labels of Olestra potato chips.” We both laughed until we were actually in pain. We had to go to separate rooms out of earshot of each other so we wouldn’t keep egging each other on. It probably took a good twenty minutes to stop laughing over that stupid joke and maybe the whole evening to recover. But we’d whipped through another large project – accurately and in a short period of time – and we’d had a hell of a time doing it. Things were like that with Phil.

Phil never lost track of the underlying reasons the Archives existed and he made pragmatic decisions based on a great deal of knowledge, intelligence and not-so-common sense. He threw himself into his work wholeheartedly and was exceptionally good at his job. He was there for all the right reasons.

The Archives were also scrupulously tidy and well-organized on his watch. We always knew where everything was, and – except for the place we called “The Evil Closet” – any corner of the stacks was presentable for tours at any moment. His own apartment was similarly organized to the n-th degree. Again, he was the perfect guy to hire as Archivist.
Although he had his reasons, I never quite forgave Phil for leaving the Archives when he did. But Phil was – as his scouting friends like to point out – extremely stubborn. I spent about six months trying to talk him out of quitting. I pointed out that he had near total autonomy in how he ran the Archives and that the job gave him not only pay and medical benefits but also great visibility and a bully pulpit for local history. But once Phil made up his mind about something it was a done deal. Ultimately, he did the one thing he’d always told ME never to do: He jumped before he had a place to land.

Not a week goes by that I don’t wish Phil had stayed.  Every one of our longtime patrons felt the same. They were heartbroken and so was I. I can only imagine what the County Archives could have accomplished with him still on the team.

Happily, Phil and I remained close friends after he left. We went to the Postcard and Paper Shows together and stopped at a different classic L.A. restaurant for dinner each time. I helped him find homes for Jim Sleeper’s historical materials after Jim’s death. In some ways, he was the older brother I never had. He stopped by often for lunch and I called him often for advice. I probably saw him about once a week in addition to phone calls and emails. Sometimes more. And yet, I deeply regret not spending more time with him in the last few years. With personal matters absorbing much of my time recently, our late night Del Taco brainstorming sessions and weekend expeditions to historic sites or postcard shows were effectively on hiatus. I thought they’d resume when my life calmed down a bit.

Instead, not only am I – like all of us – left grieving – But I’m also left with the shocking realization that the entire map of Orange County historical work has changed completely. No major research project was complete without touching base with Phil to see what he had in the file. He was the one I sent people to with so many questions on so many topics where there simply was no point in turning to any other source. And in the back of my mind, while doing my own writing, I always considered – would this pass muster with Phil? I will always try to hold myself to that standard – but I will never again know if I’ve met it.

Phil conspired with so many of us on so many projects. It’s hard to imagine who else will share our enthusiasm so thoroughly, engage us so thoughtfully, or inspire us to do our best work. Even as we did our own work, he remained our litmus test, gold standard, map, sounding board and ready volunteer.

When I met Phil, there was still a whole pantheon of great local historians we could look up to, from Esther Cramer and Jim Sleeper to Doris Walker and Barbara Milkovich. I was proud to help with whatever meager additions I could bring to table, but I hardly felt essential. But the ranks of those giants dwindled rapidly, and at a relatively young age Phil found himself in the unlikely position of elder statesman. Of course, he was up to the job.

But now, a few of us who are even younger than Phil now face the unthinkable: WE are the ones left holding the torch Phil was handed by Don Meadows and Jim Sleeper and which Terry Stephenson in turn once passed to them. We cannot replace these giants. There will never be another Phil Brigandi. But because we share his mission and because we love him, we will do all we can to keep the flame burning and eventually pass it to yet another generation. In the meanwhile, we have work to do: The work of local history -- The research, the writing, the publishing, the speaking and the sharing. Phil Brigandi isn’t going to do it for us, and neither is anyone else. It is good and rewarding work, but it is hard work nonetheless, and now more than ever we must support each other and our mission.
Photo taken at OCHS' tribute to Phil Brigandi, Jan. 9, 2020.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year!

A century ago: Mission San Juan Capistrano, Jan. 1920