Tom and Patti Klingenmeier and their two young sons, Michael and J.D., left behind their bustling Chicago life as owners of three small businesses all due to a 6-year-old’s question. “Dad how come you never take me fishing?” Michael plaintively asked.
“Suddenly a light went on. We sold everything, bought a van and visited places while working along the way,” recalled Klingenmeier, who eventually settled in Laguna Beach in the early 1980s and for 37 years worked primarily in varying jobs at the Sawdust Art Festival. Now, decades later he is making another life altering change.
Close to 150 people, Sawdust exhibitors, city officials, friends and family recently stopped in the Marine Room to say adieu to Klingenmeier. He’s retiring after helping shepherd the 51-year-old festival from a free-for-all haven for hippie artists to an established arts venue whose assets were valued at $1.5 million in 2015, according to the latest figures available on guidestar.org, a data base on nonprofits.
The Dupp Brothers band, aided by champagne and wine toasts, set the mood as Klingenmeier’s community service received accolades from county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett’s representative Sergio Prince.
For Klingenmeier, the praise is well-earned as community involvement shaped the trajectory of his California career.
When the family initially arrived here, they rented a home on Alta Laguna, enrolled the boys at Top of the World Elementary and Patti became involved with the PTA.
Having earned degrees in journalism and English from Southern Illinois University, Klingenmeier helped out by writing releases for school events. “I always had a knack for writing. I learned what to write, how to be succinct and get on with a story,” he recalled.
Press releases led to him covering the school board and city events for what was then the “Tides and Times” newspaper and teaching journalism at Laguna Beach High School. Also, having played college football and baseball, he was also hired to coach those and other sports at the high school. He coached baseball along with the legendary Skipper Carrillo.
He also recalls meeting the marine mammal artist Wyland and writing about the proposed installation of his iconic whale mural overlooking the Hotel Laguna parking lot. “There was some community resistance, but I thought it was a great idea,” he recalled. “Wyland and I remained friends since then.”
Like many teachers, aides and coaches, Klingenmeier needed a summer job. At the suggestion of the LBHS head football coach, he joined the Sawdust’s security staff.
“My first impression was of a lot of hippies without a lot of formal training, making sand candles and calling it art,” he recalled. Meanwhile Patti, known for her colorful ceramic figurines known as “Patti’s People,” established a booth, but when she joined the Sawdust’s board, her husband had to stop working there. “I was without a summer job for a couple of years, but kept visiting Patti’s booth,” he said.
One night, a group of bikers did not want to leave at closing time. Sidestepping the challenge, the director of security quit on the spot. Klingenmeier, a decorated Vietnam veteran, got them out and was awarded the job.
The two years he spent in Vietnam left him physically and emotionally drained. Disillusioned with the way the war ended and a military hierarchy that did not necessarily reward competence, he said he sent his medals back to then President Gerald Ford in 1975. What he retained was a sense of leadership.
Longtime Sawdust exhibitor Olivia Batchelder recalls an opening party 10 years ago when a new fire marshal mandated an admission system that irritated a visitor.
“There was a guy who had gone out for a smoke and he could not get back in until someone else left. He forced his way in and started yelling and swinging. In minutes, Tom had him flat on his back and off in a taxi, telling him to never come back. At the Sawdust, we solved our own problems, no cops,” she recounted.
While jeweler David Nelson, a 48-year Sawdust exhibitor, describes himself as a hippie at heart, he recognizes the art festival has evolved into a business that must abide by rules and regulations. “It’s success and growth is due to Tom’s leadership and a lot of people having better business sense now,” Nelson said.
Klingenmeier said the job consumed him, from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. “We started new educational classes, did some remodeling and took care of things overlooked and juggled factions. I spent a lot of time talking to artists,” he said. “Artists used to say we are not a corporation, but it is. There are accounts to keep, tax forms to file, safety rules to follow.
“What I am most proud of is leaving behind a staff to show what art shows are really all about.”
Local Natalie Haug succeeded Klingenmeier as general manager. “It’s been a two-year transition. We share the same business ideals, views about human resources and the artists. We both believe that no one is bigger than this show,” he said.
Klingenmeier retired to spend more time with his family, including 18-year-old grandson, Turner, a fledgling journalist specializing in sports broadcasting and Colton, now 17, who at age 7 challenged him to grow the Yosemite Sam-inspired mustache he is known for.
Even so, Klingenmeier has not severed all ties to his former employer. He will head security at this year’s Winter Fantasy festival, help write grant proposals, and continue to advocate for including younger artists. “This show will dry up and blow away if we don’t have young artists in the community. We used to have waiting lists of 30 to 40 people trying to get in every season. We don’t have those waiting lists any longer,” he said.