Graceful Endings and Transitions
In my last column, I wrote about the founding of the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center (DSC) in Santa Ana. Its founders were my brother Walkie and his wife Janet. A week before the official opening, City Manager Dave Ream called for advice about naming the tiny road leading into the DSC. They wanted to name it after Walkie.
The problem was the name “Walkie” is a nickname. Walkie’s given name is James Walker Ray. Our mother’s maiden name was Walker, but as a kid Walkie talked a lot, so we called him Walkie Talkie, and the name Walkie stuck.
Ream asked me what name to use. James? “No,” I said. “No one calls him James. Use the name Walkie.” “Okay,” said Ream. “Walkie Road?” “Nope,” I replied. “Walkie Street? Walkie Drive? Walkie Circle?” I kept saying nope. Ream was becoming frustrated. So I cut to the chase and told him. It should be Walkie Way. It both illiterates and rhymes with Ray. And it is cute.
So when you enter the center look for the little street sign Walkie Way. I got to name a street leading into what has become one of Orange County’s major cultural institutions. Not much of a claim to fame, but still cool.
After the DSC was open about a year, Walkie’s term as chair of its board ended. By then, DSC was an obvious success and it had $1 million cash in the bank. For a non-profit institution in its start-up phase, that result is superb. The other board nembers wanted Walkie to continue as chair.
But he did not. Prior to the completion of DSC’s construction, Walkie and then executive director Karen Johnson had attended a conference of similar in-the-making institutions. They wanted to know what things to do for success and equally important things to avoid that created failure. The number one thing leading to failure, they were told, was for the founding chair to stay on as chair after the institution is established.
A founder is a builder, a dreamer. He makes it up as he goes along and if there is an obstacle bulldogs around it. He is aggressive. He makes on-the-spot decisions. He never accepts “no.” He is singular and in-your-face obsessive. Think General Patton.
That type of person does not make a good chair of an operating institution where collegial decision-making and consensus-building are the most important qualities. In fact, a General Patton is exactly what an operating institution does not need; his singular style alienates others and discourages their participation.
So, at the height of his DSC power and fame, Walkie did the hardest thing a founder can do: he gave up his position.
The chairmanship of the DSC has since passed through a number of diverse individuals, each creating his own stamp. The center is on a $72 million expansion campaign that will be nothing short of spectacular.
You probably think the story ends here. But it does not. A few years before that, the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) was started in an excess school site in Los Alamitos with about 300 students. Then the Los Alamitos district needed the space and cancelled OCHSA’s lease. OCHSA had to leave. They had no place to go.
They were desperate. They turned to Walkie. Read the next column to find out what happened next.
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.