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Know Your Neighbors

19 Feb 2020
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Lanny Swerdlow, tongue firmly in cheek, introduced himself thusly: “I’m gay, Jewish, an atheist, a liberal, in a mixed marriage to a Native American, left-handed and a tree-hugger.” What else is there to know about this 73-year-old registered nurse? Quite a lot! Swerdlow was born and raised in Los Angeles, the younger of two brothers. His father died at 32 when Swerdlow was only 2 years old. “My ‘real’ dad was my mom’s second husband,” he says. “He was an accountant, somewhat distant, but a good dad and provider for our family. My mom lived a life of quiet desperation, pretty ignorant of the real world—but you have to remember that women in those days didn’t go very far. There were a lot of things she could and should have done that she never did. One of the lessons I got from that is: If I want to do something,…
05 Feb 2020
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You may have encountered Brian Hess before—back when he was a child actor who told Mr. Whipple: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin!” Hess, now 46, began acting in commercials when he was 5 or 6; his cousin was doing the same, and Hess thought it looked easy. He became an extra in several shows and worked with NBC; the acting helped pay for his education. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the Florida Keys, Hess and his family moved to California when he was 16. “I was an athlete in high school who realized I wouldn’t make pro,” says Hess, “so I opted to join the Air Force. My father had been in the military, with stints in the FBI and CIA. He instilled in us that caring for people has meaning and is important. He said to work hard and not look for glory or seek recognition. “My mom…
22 Jan 2020
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She left her native Missouri/Kansas at the age of 25 for San Francisco in 1970. She describes her artwork as “abstract impressionist,” and creates sculpture with a slightly sexual bent. She has lived in a sprawling home in Thousand Palms, which she hopes one day will be a museum, for more than 30 years. Oh, and did I mention the peacocks? Ramona Rowley, a vibrant 75 years old, envelops you with a warmth and openness that is both refreshing and unusual. She and her brother were born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Kansas. “My dad was in the Navy and didn’t even see me until I was a year old. He had been raised on a farm in Kansas, got his education in agriculture, and ended up as dairy commissioner,” Rowley said. “My mom was also raised on a farm and became a teacher, but she had always…
08 Jan 2020
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When I met Molly Thorpe, my first impression was of a coiled spring—ready to unleash energy and a positive attitude. Thorpe, 65, born and raised in Los Angeles, has been a Coachella Valley resident for more than 40 years, and is currently a 16-year resident of Rancho Mirage. One of two children, she describes her mother, a catalog-layout specialist, as an excellent role model who never had a bad word to say about anyone. “My mom was not judgmental and loved people for who they were,” Thorpe says. Her father, who did advertising for May Co. and City of Hope, was a collector of books and records. (“He has about 7,000 LPs!”) Thorpe would go with him every weekend to check out what he referred to as “junk stores” looking for collectibles. “When we were on our way home, he’d always stop for jelly donuts so mom wouldn’t be mad,”…
18 Dec 2019
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Conventional wisdom says that it takes at least four years to assess whether a startup business is viable, and seven to 10 years to make a business the success you had in mind when you began. By those standards, Jenny and Oscar Babb have beaten the odds. The Babbs own four restaurants, three in the Coachella Valley, with the oldest being more than eight years old—and doing well. Oscar Babb, 41, was born in Barcelona and describes himself as a “culinarian” (otherwise known as a chef) who cooked his way around the world—including working with Starwood Hotels in various countries—after leaving his native Spain in 2004. He cooked in the United States, originally in Seattle and then San Diego, before coming to the Coachella Valley six years ago. “The Coachella Valley is the complete opposite of Barcelona,” says Oscar. “It has a special charm of its own, which is the…
11 Dec 2019
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Susan Moeller describes herself as someone who was never an expert. “So I just asked a lot of questions—and got things done.” Moeller, now 75, first came to the desert in 1993 as redevelopment director for Cathedral City. Born in Superior, Wis., she arrived in Southern California at the age of 8. “We lived in Long Beach and could see the racetrack at Los Alamitos from our backyard,” she says. During World War II, Moeller’s father was rescued in France by Gen. George Patton. “My mother didn’t know if (my father) was alive when I was delivered by the nuns,” Moeller says. “My mom worked for BFGoodrich doing special-project work, but she never really knew how smart she was.” Moeller’s dad was a truck driver, and was the first in his family to attend college. “He was the youngest of eight kids, always known to everybody as ‘Uncle Buck,’” Moeller…
13 Nov 2019
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Julie Hirsh says she doesn’t understand why people would want to know her life story—but she’s underselling herself: From a career as a fitness trainer to her current work for Jewish Family Services of the Desert, the Indio resident has taken a fascinating route to where she is now. “I was born in Berkeley, and my parents owned a toy store,” says Hirsh, now 55. “It was fun and unique—no plastic, all hand-made toys from around the world. They sold it when I was 10, and we moved to upstate New York, where they were from, into an old Victorian house on 200 acres. My folks fixed it up. … My uncle lived up there, and although we had visited him in the summertime, my folks had forgotten how cold it was in the winter.” The family moved back to Northern California, specifically Sonoma County. “My dad was an entrepreneur,…
30 Oct 2019
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If you’ve ever wanted to see the world, you should be envious of Rolf Hoehn. Hoehn, a Palm Desert resident, is currently director of business development and sponsorships for Desert Champions, LLC, managers of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament. However, his story begins in Cologne, Germany, as the only child of an Austrian-Romanian stay-at-home mother, and a father who opened travel to South America for Lufthansa Airlines. “My mother was always open to new experiences,” says Hoehn, “and through her, I learned to appreciate exposure to different cultures. My dad taught me about what it means to have a strong work ethic. “When I was 15, we moved from Germany to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I learned Portuguese as a second language and enrolled in the American school. … About 80 percent of the children (were) of American families from, for example, the diplomatic corps in Rio. Most of…
16 Oct 2019
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She is an accomplished actress, teacher, wife and mother—a woman who makes a difference in the community. Jane Fessier, 68, was born and raised in San Rafael in Northern California. “I’m a perfect combination of my parents,” she says. “My mother was witty and an observer of life. She was the one person I could go to, always so loving and patient.” Fessier’s father was the ultimate salesman—a real estate broker and storyteller with an aggressive nature. “He could always fill up a room; everybody wanted to be around him,” Fessier says. “But he was somewhat impatient. I work on that constantly.” Her parents moved to the Coachella Valley when her father got involved in the mobile-home business—and he encouraged her to follow. “I was in my mid-20s and had been doing shows in the San Francisco area, but I wasn’t making much money,” Fessier says. “I had worked with…
02 Oct 2019
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Meeting Sandy Skinner was like getting together with an old friend: She is warm, open, candid, personable and vivacious. Skinner, 65, has been in Palm Desert for about three years. “When I retired,” she says, “I realized San Diego was unaffordable. I had a lot of friends here in the desert, and it’s a really nice place to live. I believe everything works out for a reason.” Skinner’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who later worked for the Lutheran Church. “She was very spiritual, but also fun-loving,” remembers Skinner. “She always made time for me. Unfortunately, we lost her last year to Alzheimer’s. “My dad owned a construction company dealing in heavy equipment. My younger sister, Paula, and I learned how to take out spark plugs and change tires. Dad would have parts laid out when we got home from school so we could learn how to do everything. He…

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