Finding Meaning

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Remembering Gean Austin

By Skip Hellewell

Today is the 35th anniversary of the passing of long-time Laguna Beach High School music teacher Gean Austin (1897-1984). Gean loved music—it was said he could play all the instruments in an orchestra—and he passed that love on to generations of Laguna students. But I remember him for a piece of wisdom he once shared about tolerance, a current national scarcity: “If you will allow a person three peculiarities, you can get along with anyone.” It’s a line worth remembering. His life story is, too.

Gean had dropped out of college because music, especially his dance band, had come before studies. He came to Los Angeles in the late ‘20s and worked in the palace theatres of the time where vaudeville, music, and silent movies competed. When the famed Pantages opened, he started as an usher and worked his way up to producer. It was a wild time and Gean embraced the vices in vogue.

He later went on a fishing trip in the Sierras with his brother, who had finished engineering school, married and started a family, was a church-goer, and had a serious job. The trip caused Gean to compare the trajectories of their lives and he resolved to put his life in order, finish college, and become a music teacher. Upon graduating from UCLA, he heard of an opening at a new high school in Laguna Beach. He came down, was interviewed, and won the position he kept until he retired. Afterwards, as he drove down Park Avenue, he took in the view of ocean, rugged coastline, scenic hills, and said to himself, “This is a beautiful place.” He got that right.

With degree and job in hand, Gean went looking for a wife. At a church service in L.A., a pretty visitor named Lillian flashed him a big smile and wave. Gean was smitten, though in truth she was waving at a friend in the next pew. After church, he offered her a ride home and she agreed, if her sister could come along. They invited him in and served what he remembered as a wonderful meal, but she later dismissed as, “just leftovers.” Afterwards, they talked the afternoon away and Lillian would later recall how comfortable she felt with Gean, but at the same time excited. Gean, for his part, fell for Lillian, “hook, line, and sinker.” Gean and Lillian married and made their home in Laguna where they reared a family and spent their entire married life in mutual devotion.

After Gean’s passing, Lillian took up poetry remembering their walks in Heisler Park:

“I miss you on our favorite walk,

On cliff tops in our seaside park,

It makes no difference if it’s day,

Or twilight, dawn, or even dark…

The birds call out, the lovers stroll,

From misty June through sunny May;

Still, the magic has gone away—

Since you left that December day.”

It’s good to remember the stories of our town. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

 

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, Sunday 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish). Saturday: 4 pm Reconciliation, 5:30 Mass.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

 

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