Manhattan Beach: Lives well lived, 2022

Michael McNulty celebrating his 87th birthday this year. Photo courtesy Jaren Barredo

Michael McNulty, the mayor of Uncle Bill’s

Every town has elements that define it. Manhattan Beach has the sun, the sand, the pier, and until last February, a boisterously bearded, and cheerful man named Michael McNulty who could be found every day for the last 50 years at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House from early afternoon till closing time at 3 p.m. 

McNulty passed away on February 23 from complications following a fall. He was 87. 

He spent his earliest years in Los Angeles and became a local resident in the early 1950s. He worked variously as a pipefitter, pool cleaner,  within the aviation industry during the era spanning the NASA Apollo mission. But for the last decades of his life, McNulty mainly honed the fine art of living perfect days in Manhattan Beach. 

“His routine was to wake up close to noon, get to Uncle Bill’s and close the place, then he would buy some juices from the juice store [across the street], drive to the bottom, north side parking lot at the MB pier, people watch and check the waves, then drive back home and meditate till sunset,” said Jaren Barredo, who was McNulty’s housemate and caretaker the last years of his life. 

McNulty began going to Uncle Bill’s as a teenager in 1951 and never stopped. For the middle 30 years of his tenure as a regular, he was accompanied by his wife, Diane, who passed in 2004. McNulty ordered the same meal every day —  blueberry waffles with avocado on the side and poached eggs —  except on rare occasions when one of his favorite waitresses, Gloria, would talk him into something else. 

“He was there literally every day….A lot of the locals called him the unofficial mayor of Manhattan Beach,” said his friend and fellow regular Scott Chambers. “He had a love for everybody, and such a rich, unique outlook on life.” 

“He was larger than life,” said Matt Van Amburgh, the owner of Uncle Bill’s. “He was the James Stewart and the Mickey Rooney of Manhattan Beach.” 

“Mikey,” Barredo said, “was a legend.” 

Micheal Morrisette was a managing partner of The Strand House.Photo courtesy the Zislis Group

Michael Morrisete, the “King of Hospitality” 

A very few people have the gift of imparting gracefulness in all that they do.  Michael Morrisette was best known in Manhattan Beach as the managing partner at the Strand House restaurant, but among those who knew him it wasn’t so much the job itself but the way he did it that was striking. For Morrisette, hospitality was not so much a profession but a way of living life with care at the forefront. 

“Every person who walked through the door, every employee, every dishwasher —  every person was treated like family and royalty,”  said Jenna Record, a colleague. “Michael made every experience special….Even in the way he treated hospital staff the last six months of his life.”

“He was just such a master of the craft,” Record said. “Everything he did, from his napkin folds to his table settings to how he graced the presence of the dining room, it was just incredible watching. Everything he did was through the heart and soul. He will  just be extremely, extremely missed.” 

Morrisette passed away in February of complications related to COVID-19. He was 61. 

Strand House owner Michael Zislis sought out Morrisette to write a report on his restaurant not long after it opened a decade ago. Morrisette had worked at Savore, La Cachette, Citrin, and helped open famed four-star restaurant Mélisse in Los Angeles. He came to Strand, ate, observed, and wrote a report about “the soul and hospitality” of the restaurant. Zislis was so moved by what he wrote he not only hired Morrisette, but made him a partner. Zislis credited Morrisette for taking Strand “to the next level,” but that isn’t what he said he’d remember most about his managing partner. 

“He was the kindest person you could ever meet,” Zislis said. 

Morrissette began working in his family’s restaurant in Springfield, Oregon at the age of six, and grew up as a talented baseball, and basketball player, and musician. As husband to Prissi Cohen and the father of their daughter, Tillie, Morrisette may have found his ultimate calling. 

“He made my life beautiful with the way he attended to me every day for the last 28 years,” Cohen said. “How he was able to give so much and still have so much left inside I’ll never know. He was a beautiful man, strong and courageous while gentle and vulnerable. How rare and precious.” 

Kim Komick somewhere in Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Komick family

Kim Komick, Matriarch of the Beach

Redondo Beach mayor Bill Brand called Kim Komick a “Matriarch of the Beach.” Surf buddy Patti Nernberg said of Komick, “She fueled the flame that drove us to be better versions of ourselves.”

South Bay Boardriders Club president Tom Horton recalled Komick, a SBBC founding member, as one of the few female surfers who charged big waves. She surfed before work at Marine Street, almost daily, Nernberg said. The building trade knew her as an uncommon female developer whose KKC Fine Homes built over 200 homes in the Beach Cities.

“Kim was a smart, seasoned developer. No one knew more about building at the beach. And she was a fun friend,” said Manhattan Beach architect Mike Lee, who worked on half a dozen projects with her.

KKC Fine Homes were known for their appearance of stark simplicity, a quality Komick worked hard to achieve.

“There is nothing simple about simplicity,” she told South Bay Home magazine in a 2017 interview. “To make a contemporary home look simple and clean, takes hours of precision detailing, and planning to offset the imperfect nature of constructing a home with lumber and concrete.”

Her buildings could also be subtly playful.

Her three story Hammit building at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway, and 21st Street, in Hermosa Beach, is stark white, except for a blistering band of green that magically spins to gold at sunset.

Komick passed away on February 16, on her 61st birthday, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Bill “Missile” Austin and his dog Stogie aboard their 44-foot catamaran, “The Kat,” after a night of sailing on the Baja Ha-Ha Rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. (Photo by Ray Hanan)

Bill “Missile” Austin earned his nickname

Bill “Missile” Austin earned his nickname for his headfirst approach to the hoops at Live Oak Park, and to everything else he undertook, including sailing

“He absolutely loved that nickname,” his daughter Mackenzie Austin said. 

“He really cared about people, about his friends and neighbors, even about people he didn’t know personally, but had heard needed help,” said Chris “C-Pal” Palisan, the boys varsity basketball Head Coach at Oxford Academy in Cypress, and a long-time Live Oak regular. “It made him happy to share his good fortune, to share his love of life.”

Over the 30 years that he lived in Hermosa Beach, Austin ran a very successful export-import business, a bike parts business, and most recently a boat charter business. In his spare time he did real estate, and helped coach his daughter’s basketball teams.

That’s why it was such a shock to so many people throughout the Beach Cities when the news started spreading back in mid-March: Missile is missing.

Bill’s boat had washed up on the shore of Loreto Bay near Nopolo on March 12 with his dog Stogie still aboard, but there was no sign of Bill.

His two daughters, Mackenzie, a student at Stanford Law School, and Shailyn, a forestry student at Yale, quickly organized a search party and headed for Mexico.

Nine days later Austin’s body was found by Mexican Marines off the coast of an island called Isla de Carmen – six miles from Loreto. 

“It turned out to be a scuba diving accident,” Mackenzie Austin said. “It looks like he was working under the boat and something went wrong. We think he died instantly.”

William Walter Austin was an Army brat, born in Colorado and raised in Brentwood, Tennessee. A few years after he graduated from the University of Tennessee, he visited some friends living in Hermosa Beach. 

He moved here in 1992.

“He told me he fell in love with the beach cities the minute he saw the ocean,” Hanan said. “He knew he wanted to live here the rest of his life.”

He died at age 60.

“He was such a free spirit, much freer than any of the rest of us,” fellow Live Oak Baller Ray Hanan said. “But instead of us living vicariously through him, he took us along for the ride.”

Neighbor Sean Mulvihill recalled one day he mentioned to Austin he was going to play with his band in Indio. Austin’s response revealed a lot about his philosophy on life — and death.

“Bill said, great, I’ll fly you guys out there, cause he had a single-engine Cessna,” he said. “I asked him why he was always going all over the world in his boat and his plane. He looked at me, and said ‘Don’t die with your boat in the driveway.” 

Jay LaPlante mountain biking in Del Cerro Park in Palos Verdes. Photo by Chris Down

Jay LaPlante, sailor, cyclist, superfriend

Jay LaPlante lived several lives within the one he was given. He was a world-class sailor, an accomplished cyclist, a community fixture in Manhattan Beach, a rising star in a later-in-life career in the auto service industry, a blessedly happy man in love with Janelle “Little Red” Arnold, and an over-the-moon soon-to-be father of a baby girl. 

But perhaps the thing LaPlante was most beloved for was his capacity for friendship. This fact came startlingly into focus on March 21 for one of his many close friends, Chris Gregory, when she received a phone call from Arnold and learned that Laplante had been killed when a car took a sharp left turn into his motorcycle on Vista Del Mar. 

“I’ve known Jay for over 10 years,” she said. “We were very, very, very close. When I got the initial call from Jenelle, I went outside and just started driving. I was screaming and cursing and I had to pull over and I fell to the ground, screaming, ‘I’ve lost my best friend, my best friend, my best friend.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, I have to call Aaron Wimberly, because that’s Jay’s work best friend. And then I have to call Dave, his sailing best friend. I have to call Chris Down, his cycling best friend. Oh my god, I have to call all these people, because he is all of their best friend.” 

The list went on. By Monday night, hundreds of people were mourning in the South Bay. Jay LaPlante was an elite athlete —  he’d been an Olympic alternate sailor in his late teens, and later became a professional sailor. He was also a force to be reckoned with in the road and mountain biking worlds. He was not a large man. Yet the feeling that wracked his large circle of friends and acquaintances was that a giant had fallen. 

Chris Down met LaPlante on a cycle in a race, and knew immediately he’d met a friend. 

“He had a unique ability to impact other people in a way that felt more special to probably the people that he impacted than he realized,” Down said. “I mean, he just had that kind of gift. He and I used to talk about it. I’m like, ‘Jay, man, there’s just something about you.’ ’Don’t be a jackass,’ he’d say. ‘That’s not true.’ But it’s completely true. I’ve been with him in situations, in places where we probably shouldn’t be, and he just attracted all types of people. He is one of these shapeshifters, he’s able to appeal to a lot of different people. He truly had this kind of magnetic gift, and it just was inside of him, without trying. A lot of people try. Jay was one of the people who did…he just naturally was a magnet.” 

Arnold wrote on Facebook that Jay had left behind a great gift —  all his friends, who were determined to help her as she became a mother without him. 

“I am comforted knowing we will not be alone, and that I now have many many people to stand with me in this next chapter,” she wrote. “I truly appreciate and love every single one of you.” 

“Jay, I love you…I will make you proud. I promise.” 

Cotton Cargo owner Rose Jacobson at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where their family celebrated New Year’s Eve for over 55 years. Photo courtesy of the Jacobson Family

Rosemarie Jacobson, the Rose of Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach lost one of its most beloved, and longest working downtown business owners with the passing of Cotton Cargo’s Rosemarie Jacobson over Memorial Day Weekend. She was 94.

Jacobson opened Cotton Cargo on Manhattan Avenue in 1979, and walked to work from her Marine Avenue home almost daily, into her 80s. She was the buyer for her aptly named store, which carried cheerful, summer fashions year round, all made in the U.S. with natural fibers. Her modest prices offered a common sense alternative to downtown stores whose high-end prices were based on brand labels, rather than quality. Her ‘bro deals’ were standard before ‘bro deal’ was a term. Customers, new and old, were treated as friends by Jacobson and her longtime employees Melissa Jones, who owned a downtown nail salon before becoming Cotton Cargo’s manager, and Sylvia Simmons, a retired Hawthorne police officer.

“What I really care about is having a sense of family. I depend on locals. Being on the end of the block means they can usually find parking,” Jacobson said in a 2016 Easy Reader interview, during which she expressed concern about the downtown’s loss of community.  

“Too many services are gone – the hardware, the pharmacy, notions, the shoe repair, and Mr. Johnny’s Manhattan Toy and Variety. You need to get in a car and drive out of town to buy anything,” she said.

“I’d hate to see a city master plan that shuts down small businesses like mine and Manhattan Shoe Repair, which have been here forever and give the town its feel.”

“I’m not going to retire. I’ll be here ‘til I die,” she promised.

Jacobson made good on her promise. She worked as a buyer and salesperson in her store until the start of COVID in early 2020, when she was 93.

Chiropractor and amateur boxer Jon Schwartz (in sunglasses) in front of Boxing Works in 2000, with original Boxing Works owner Scott McColgan, his son Logan, and trainer Charlie Gergen. Easy Reader file photo

Jon Schwartz, the boxing chiropractor

Dr. Jon Schwartz had a chiropractic office in Manhattan Beach for approximately three decades, and treated thousands of patients over the years. Few of them knew that for much of that time he was also living another life. In that one, he was a skilled gym boxer who sparred with countless opponents, including professional boxers.

Schwartz took his own life this past Mother’s Day at age 62. His former partner in that office, Dr. Chris Ullman, believes he suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephaly), a degenerative brain disease that’s afflicted so many athletes in contact sports, including the great San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest 10 years ago. 

After studying Seau’s brain tissue, doctors confirmed the disease. Diagnosis can only be made after a person’s death. Schwartz, who also died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, reportedly was cremated without an autopsy. Acquaintances said his mental health had appeared to be slipping for some time.

“We can only speculate on why he took his own life,” said longtime friend Robert Iannucci. “But the illness was secondary. We need to celebrate his life. He was a damn good person.” 

Nick Christensen still throwing buckets during a 2012 South Bay Boardriders contest in El Porto. Photo by Mike Balzer

Christensen was a power surfer, gentle man

Nick Christensen was known as a power surfer on the pro surfing tour, and as a powerful and respected Realtor when he joined CBRE. Last April, he was inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame.

Christensen started surfing at 11 when he lived in Westchester and his friend Mike Muni took him out at Playa Del Rey. His parents were not thrilled. They told him he had to get Bs or better on his report card to surf. He got 13 A’s on his next report card.

“After graduating from Westchester High in 1979, I was off to Bali. I stayed five months, and came home a much better surfer,” Christensen told Easy Reader surf writer Mike Purpus.

In 1984, he joined the WCT (World Championship Tour) and was ranked a respectable 44th. But he decided to go back to school. 

“The writing was on the wall. I knew I could only get so far on the pro tour, and it wouldn’t be far enough to make a living,” he said.

He enrolled at UCLA, where he earned a bachelor degree in history

His best friend at UCLA was fellow surfer Sean Collins, whom Christensen helped found SurfLine. Upon graduating from college in 1986, he joined CBRE but he remained with Surfline as a consultant and investor. 

Two years ago Christensen went in for a physical exam because of joint pain. The doctors discovered lung cancer. 

“It has been a rough, and scary journey. I want to thank all the wonderful friends and my family for their prayers,” he said at his Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame induction.

He passed away in September, in September, at age 61. ER


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