Raising ‘L’ Keeper Revealed

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Gene Herndon, left, and Francis Pillsbury, right, swab the letter “L” overlooking Laguna Beach High School with a fresh coat of white paint last Saturday. Photo by Mitch Ridder
Gene Herndon, left, and Francis Pillsbury, right, swab the letter “L” overlooking Laguna Beach High School with a fresh coat of white paint last Saturday. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Dennis Taylor was in eighth grade in 1937. Bushwhacking up a steep hill across from Laguna Beach High School with some buddies on a Saturday morning seemed like a good idea and a small price to pay, despite the bruises, bloody scrapes and the frequent encounter with a ferocious prickly pear or needle-nosed yucca leaf.

It wasn’t so much for the glory of climbing the hill and laying some hefty rocks in the shape of a huge “L” for the whole town of 4,500 to regale itself. It was the anticipation, says Taylor, now 90, of taking his favorite girl to the movie theater that afternoon with free tickets, the reward for raising the “L” and keeping it in good shape.

Taylor and his friends would climb the hill only on sunny, warm days, much like last Saturday. Fifteen volunteers, mostly Laguna natives, joined Taylor at the view park on Pacific Street to trek uphill and give the “L” some TLC. “There were no houses around here,” Taylor recalled of those early years as he adroitly made his way down the hill, looking dapper in his straw hat, gloves and paint roller at the ready.

Over the years, only a small number of residents have kept the “L” up. Saturday’s group, who keep their eye on the Facebook page “You’re a Laguna native if…”, responded to a posted appeal to give the “L” a literal white-washing.

The brainchild behind using social media to get the attention of locals came from Lisa Black, Taylor’s daughter. She hopes that keeping up the “L” will become a town tradition. The task at hand was to cover over black stripes recently painted by vandals that had streaked into a spin-art mess from the recent rain.

Taylor doesn’t remember whose idea it was to raise the “L” in the first place,

Dennis Taylor on the march to repair the local landmark. Photo by Carrie Reynolds
Dennis Taylor on the march to repair the local landmark. Photo by Carrie Reynolds

kids never do. He does remember that one of the guys, Bob Vincent, had a brother who managed the movie theater across from Main Beach on the two-lane Coast Highway and gave them the tickets. “We didn’t have a dime to spend back then,” he said.

The “L” on the hill has seen its share of indignities, said Taylor. It was nearly destroyed two years ago when he found the canvas shredded and splattered with paint. There have been friendlier pranks, he said, when rival schools used to change the “L” to letters like “T” for Tustin or “B” for Brea.

As an end-of-year prank, seniors often moved the rocks around, rearranging them to the year of their graduating class. “We changed it for the Class of ’85,” Michael Sadler safely admitted now, watching his son Enzo, 13, roll on some paint.

Enzo was one of three boys there who are part of the 10 Boys Who Care community service group from Thurston Middle School. “It’s a good opportunity to give back to the community,” said Enzo. “How often do you get a chance to do something like this?” added Francis Pillsbury, 13, painting alongside Noah Linder, 13, and Sam Reynolds, 14.

The boys, said Carrie Reynolds, Sam’s mom, are taking on the “L” as a community service project until they’re through high school.

As to why there’s only an “L” and not an “LB”, Taylor said making one letter with small boulders was difficult enough. “Trying to make a “B” or anything else,” he said, was more grit than they wanted to handle.

To get to the “L”, volunteers took the path to the view park at the end of Pacific Street, then traversed down the rocky hill, prickly pear still looming, to the local icon. Black recruited her son, Daniel, to help.

“I do it to help out my grandpa,” said Daniel, now 16. Daniel was 10 the first time he encountered the “L”.

Taylor figured he’s helped repair and refurbish the “L” at least 50 times over the last 75-plus years, including a new canvas six months ago.

Taylor moved to Laguna Beach from Canada with his mother when he was 6. She was a waitress and her husband a merchant marine, who wasn’t around much, Taylor said.

When Taylor graduated from high school, his mother gave him a suitcase as a gift with a message. He packed the suitcase and moved to San Francisco, where his sister lived. “My mother didn’t want me to stay in Laguna and become a beach bum,” he said. He joined the Army for two years but returned to Laguna to do just that. He lived on a government stipend for returning soldiers of $10 a week for 52 weeks, he said, adding that $10 post-WWII went a long way.

Despite his mother’s admonition, he spent a lot of time on the beach with his friends, but eventually worked for an airline cargo company and an insurer and exhibiting animal photography at the Sawdust Festival. The pet portraits morphed into a greeting card maker, Inkadink Inc., which he closed when it wasn’t fun anymore. He still has boxes of greeting cards stored in his garage.

 

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