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Palm Desert resident John Peters, 66, came from a confused family background—which, in anyone else, might have led to dysfunction, insecurity and/or any number of psychologically traumatic results. But this ebullient man has not only prevailed—he has triumphed.

Peters was born the youngest of four children in Intercourse, Penn. (Yes, that’s really the name.) His father died 6 months before he was born—and his mother remarried and moved, leaving behind the four kids. His two brothers were sent to an orphanage school; his sister was placed in a similar school.

“There were no social programs back then for a young mother like there are today,” Peters says gently.

Peters was too young for a placement and was adopted and raised by his great-aunt and great-uncle in an Amish community.

“The (Amish) kids were all the same (as ‘normal’ kids), just wearing different clothes,” he says. “Intercourse had a population of about 800. You couldn’t get away with anything!”

Peters’ awareness of how different his family situation was began to develop when he was around 6 years old. “I remember distinctly that a bunch of us were out playing, and this girl called me ‘adopted baby.’ I ran to tell my ‘mom,’ and she told me she wasn’t my mom, but that my ‘Aunt Ruth’ was really my mother.

“I didn’t trust anybody after that.”

Peters found out who his natural father was through a half-sister, born during his father’s previous marriage. (He didn’t connect with her until he was 48 years old. He has also reconnected with his natural sister; they became friends as adults.)

Peters’ interest in education developed when he almost flunked out of high school. “I was put in special-education classes,” he says. “My adoptive parents never went very far in school and thought high school was the top of the line. I loved history and business, but I had never learned how to study. As a senior, I think I was taking about 12 periods of shop!”

He found an outlet in martial arts. “My adopted mom had such limited exposure; she didn’t even want me to do sports,” he recalls. He learned jujitsu from a Sunday-school teacher who had military and police-work experience. Peters went on to learn Kodokan, a specific form of judo in which the competition to take down an opponent is key.

Peters left Intercourse in 1969 to move to Washington, D.C., and went to work with the FBI as a clerical employee. He completed his undergraduate degree while at the FBI, and would then go on to earn a doctorate in applied management and decision sciences, a master’s in career and technical education, an MBA in marketing and management, a master’s in public relations, a bachelor’s in criminal justice, and certificates including a teaching credential with the state of California.

Peters’ final assignment with the FBI was at the training academy at Quantico. “I left because it just wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he says.

The constant moving was also an issue, as Peters was raising his two sons as a single parent. “Mothers didn’t know what to do with me when I showed up at school functions,” he laughs.

He left the FBI to do on-the-ground police work, later becoming an expert witness and trainer for police departments across the country regarding police and correctional-institution policies. He is currently president and chief learning officer of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, Inc. and has been the senior trainer and president of Defensive Tactics Institute, Inc. He also has his own consulting company. Finally, he has produced eight books and 35 videos.

Not bad for a kid raised by people who didn’t believe in education.

Although Peters traveled most of his professional life, he settled full-time in Palm Desert last year.

“I came here on business in 1984,” he says, “to edit a film about defensive tactics with flashlights for police training. I was so impressed with this area. It’s the most beautiful place.”

He bought a condo and commuted between here and Las Vegas, and then held on to it until the market rebounded. Today, he lives with his fiancée, Marilyn, in the house they purchased last year.

They met in a Cal State class. “After we met in class, I remembered her. She stood out in the crowd,” Peters says. “The day we took our exams, we talked. Then I got an email from her months later. We met for coffee. She suggested we walk together, one of my favorite activities, and I assumed she lived near me, since she wanted to start at 6:30 a.m. I was floored when I realized she had driven over all the way from La Quinta. The rest is history.”

As if he didn’t have enough going on, Peters is the president of the Palm Springs Writers Guild and loves encouraging others to pursue their dreams.

Given the headlines about the difficulties faced by law enforcement, what does Peters think we should know?

“I look at my work with police through a lens of honesty,” he says. “When ‘rogue officers’ get in trouble, whether by use of excess force or sexual misconduct, too often they are kept on the job. Some people make mistakes and need to be held accountable.

“Although cab drivers, firefighters and other professions have higher rates of death, police face ‘excited delirium’ behaviors that can be the result of a variety of causes, from dementia to drugs to mental illness. Yes, police need to police their own, but never forget that cops are targets by virtue of their uniform. With the police, the uniform itself means that their deaths are not industrial accidents—they’re murders.”

What’s next for Peters? “Writing topics I want to write; getting involved in community organizations; and part-time teaching.”

One of Peters’ most enjoyable projects was researching how Intercourse got its name. It’s a story I’ll leave for him to tell.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Most of us live our lives within the boundaries and expectations set for us by our families and society. Some of us are lucky enough to discover our calling—like a bolt out of the blue.

I had a friend who was something of a ne’er-do-well in his youth, but late one night while standing on the deck of a ship, he had what he could only describe as a revelation: His calling was to preach the gospel. He pursued that career for the rest of his life.

I met Coachella Valley resident Kate Zenna at a Palm Springs Women in Film and Television event. She is smart, articulate, personable and enthusiastic—and like my aforementioned friend, she found her calling via what she describes as an epiphany.

Zenna was born in Montreal and lived for a time in Newfoundland before she and her younger brother (“I make him tell people he’s my big brother!”) were raised in Toronto.

“I went to Queen’s University,” she says, “and I was always running late. At the last minute that I had to declare a major, I ran into the building next to where I was standing and ended up majoring in geography—the same degree my mom had. My parents used to say, ‘She’s going to be the one,’ meaning I was expected to go far. I thought I might become an environmental lawyer.

“I was only a semester short of graduating college when I literally had a vision. I felt as if I were in a trance: I saw an older version of me on a stage. Somebody was telling me and showing me that I was to be an actor. I had always been kind of shy and awkward, never wanting to be the center of attention. Suddenly, I was going to quit school and do this thing that I had never even considered. My parents freaked out!”

Zenna’s mom urged her to complete her bachelor’s degree. “She said, ‘It’s important to have those letters after your name, in case you need something to fall back on,’ and luckily, I listened to her.”

Zenna auditioned for a part with a local community theater—and got the job. “I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t that hard.’ I moved to Vancouver to study acting at their film school after I graduated. I had to rediscover who I was. It had all been as much of a shock to me as to my parents.”

Meanwhile, Zenna’s acting career flourished. “I was getting lots of roles. And my first paying film job, in Toronto, got me a supporting role nomination for the Canadian Screen Awards.”

A major change in Zenna’s life came when her mother became ill. “There are always situations where somebody has to step up,” says Zenna. “I’ve always been that person. I got really involved when my mom got sick. It flipped a switch in me about taking charge.

“After my mom died, I spent the next three years feeling like a shaken-up snow globe. Finally, I came to Los Angeles, and in 2004, I got my green card and got swooped up working steadily in television and film.”

Zenna has been in major studio movies as well as cable productions, and has worked on all the major television networks. “But even getting lots of jobs, I had to make a living. I know my value as a human being goes beyond just waiting for the phone to ring.

“I learned cooking from my father, and I made really good vegan meals for myself, so I decided to start my own food business. I’m willing ask for help and to accept help, and I knew I needed financing and a mentor. I went online to a website that puts people together and met this amazing CPA from Texas, David Wolfe. He came to L.A.; I gave him some of my food; and his reaction was, ‘I could eat this every day!’ He decided he would mentor me. Meanwhile, I realized that he did promotional videos, and I thought I could ‘mentor’ him to be better on camera.”

Today, Kate Zenna and David Wolfe are partners in ZennaWolfe, a company that uses working actors to train executives how to be themselves on camera. They also co-authored a book, The Responsible Artist: A Financial Guide for Conscientious Creative Souls Who Keep the Dream Alive and Have a Great Life Along the Way, to bring sensible financial awareness to people in artistic fields who too often leave decision-making to others—with potentially disastrous results.

“The book is financial, spiritual and emotional help for everybody, but particularly for artists,” says Zenna. “I’m very protective toward the younger actors who don’t realize what can happen, because the industry won’t take care of you.”

Zenna moved to the Coachella Valley last year.

“As much as I adore about Los Angeles, it got to the point where I realized I wasn’t living the kind of life I wanted. The traffic was paralyzing, and it was the reason I rarely saw friends or took advantage of the incredible cultural events. Since moving to the desert, my social life has not only been revived—but is thriving. And the one thing I noticed most when I moved here is that the people seem so happy! It’s like a small town, and everyone shares the knowledge that we are simply so darn lucky to have found our way here.

“My days are full of fun and include work, writing, creating, connecting with friends or meeting new friends, enjoying the personalities of my dogs—and, of course, cooking healthy and delicious food.

”I’ve always been supremely curious about people and why they’re the way they are. At 13, I wrote an essay about what was at the core of human essence. There are so many layers, including our genetic DNA, family influences, personal experiences and even geography. People need to get out of their own way, but they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Perhaps, like Zenna, they will be lucky enough to have an epiphany.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Can a man ever accurately create realistic, legitimate female characters? Palm Springs author David Hamlin thinks he knows the secret.

“I’m a good listener,” he says. “I’m a great admirer of women who break glass ceilings. There are barriers to be taken down and not accepted, so I write about strong women who fiercely fight for what they want. Throughout most of my adult life, my good friends (have been) women.”

Hamlin’s first two works of fiction, Winter in Chicago and Winter Gets Hot, feature a female protagonist, Emily Winter, a clever and determined reporter working for a Chicago paper at a time when women are just beginning to fight entrenched sexism and reach beyond writing about fashion and entertainment.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Bethesda, Md., Hamlin grew up in a household where there was always a daily newspaper, and where dinner conversation included the political realities of growing up close to the center of government.

“We had neighbors who were high up in the military or members of Congress or working in government agencies,” recalls Hamlin. “It was the culture all around us, and I had the good fortune to experience a superior public school system where we learned an appreciation for government and social action. That was a time of the Freedom Riders and the Congress of Racial Equality. I did participate in some demonstrations.”

That grounding led to a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer.

“I spent three years at the University of Maryland after high school and decided to take what is now called a gap year,” he says. “The VISTA program was about a year old at that point. I trained in Chicago at a time when VISTA’s focus was poor and Indian communities. When I signed up, they were focusing on urban areas so, I ended up working on poverty programs in Newark, N.J.

“That was a time when groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and activists like Tom Hayden were recognizing the needs in black communities. It became the ‘college radicals’ versus the VISTA volunteers. I trained as a community organizer and ended up in Philadelphia for about nine months.

“I gained a far-reaching appreciation for what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. We take free speech for granted. The public conversation needs to be wide open, with all ideas, and with regular citizens able to pick and choose what to listen to and what to say, without interference by government.”

After graduating cum laude in English and government from Nasson College in Maine, Hamlin ultimately got involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the executive director in New Hampshire. He was recruited to Chicago—and the infamous Skokie case happened when he had been there only 18 months.

“From the day I arrived until I left Chicago, one of my driving desires was to use that platform to help people understand more of what the Constitution says,” Hamlin says. “The Skokie ordeal was when the ACLU supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a community with a lot of (Holocaust survivors). It lasted through 19 months of extreme stress and tension. I did most of the media contact and public speaking, and I finally left soon after, largely out of exhaustion.”

How did the writing career come about?

“I had done some writing for an independent newspaper while I was working with the ACLU, but the big project came when I was asked to write a book about the Skokie case,” says Hamlin. “That led to The Nazi/Skokie Conflict, published in 1980, a first-hand account of one of the most controversial free speech cases in the 20th century.

It was the first time I thought of writing as a profession. My dad had been a publisher and editor and an international reporter for The New York Times. My older brother was an editor. We always had books in the house, and I learned to enjoy reading very early. I discovered mysteries while I was in college.”

Hamlin and his wife, Sydney Weisman, began a public relations firm when they moved to California. “We met when I was with the ACLU in Chicago. I sponsored a conference for lawyers and I needed to get a good publicist. She walked in the door, and we’ve been together now for 41 years.”

What brought them to Palm Springs three years ago?

“We lived in Los Angeles, running our own business, so extended vacations were never an option,” Hamlin says. “We spent time in Palm Springs whenever we could, so it seemed like a natural choice.

“I had written for clients, including a book about the 75th anniversary of the (landmark Los Angeles) Farmers Market. I’d written opinion pieces and even a political satire column. But I wanted to take a run at fiction. You need focus and energy to do it well, so we decided to retire.

“When it comes to writing, you just have to start. That’s the only way to learn how to do it—and read good writers. For me, it was authors like Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh, and Canadian Louise Penny. There are so many, but I never read them while I’m writing—I don’t want to even inadvertently steal something.”

The striving reporter featured in Hamlin’s first two books is being retired for the time being.

“I want to spread my wings a little,” says Hamlin. “I’m in the early stage of writing another book right now.

“The arc of feminism that I experienced made me a great admirer of women. Their voices are different, and their approach to everything from personal relationships to the culture around them is different. At the ACLU, I began when women were banging on the doors of society. I always interacted with strong women demanding equality.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned in writing a female character came from my wife. She goes ballistic at the idea that men always write about the kind of women who are in jeopardy and running for their lives. She says, ‘Why in God’s name would a woman be stupid enough to wear high heels in the jungle?’”

David Hamlin doesn’t make those kind of mistakes.

Hamlin will appear at Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, on Saturday, March 10, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

When you meet Marc Saxe, your first impression will be that he’s calm—and always ready with a smile. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who sells timeshare properties—and perhaps that’s because his background is also not what you would expect.

Saxe is 70 (“Telling you that is like being shot in the head—it’s a big number!” he says) and a Palm Desert resident; he was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Dallas. He spent a large chunk of his life shuttling back and forth between Texas and Colorado before finally settling in Southern California.

Saxe and his older sister were born into a family of Lower East Side New York Jews. His parents had been high school sweethearts, yet subsequent marriages combined two families so that, as Saxe claims, “My aunt is also my cousin!”

Saxe’s father was in the fur business when the family moved to Dallas, and later became a representative for several clothing lines before opening his own business.

“My dad got ill in 1963,” recalls Saxe, “and he was treated for an aortic aneurism by none other than the famous Houston surgeons, Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley. That was a big deal!”

Saxe recalls browsing in an old book store and finding a Yale University album with the name of his grandfather—one of the first Jews to get a law degree from that school. “I remember the name had been scratched through and a Jewish star drawn next to it. You don’t forget things like that.”

Growing up in North Dallas, Saxe and his family lived in a largely Jewish area of the city, and he was unaware of discrimination in that setting. “While in high school, I remember spending many nights a week attending open houses for Jewish kids in a very supportive environment.”

He attended college at the University of Houston, majoring in political science with a minor in computer science and math. “I actually dropped out after one semester, because I wanted to see if I would get drafted, but then I went back,” he says. “I actually thought I might become a lawyer, like Perry Mason. But then the 1960s came along. My brother-in-law was in Vietnam, and I felt pressured by the threat of the draft. The people in student government were making sense to me, so I got involved in the free speech environment at UH. In the late 1960s, the counter culture was really happening.”

It’s not surprising Saxe gravitated toward jobs in sales, given his father’s background. “My first job was when my dad was working at the Merchandise Mart in Dallas. His friend gave me some stuff they had leftover and told me to go sell it. I knocked on doors, and I did sell it all—even things like mustache wax, for heaven’s sake. I also worked selling ice cream.”

Through all those years, Saxe was also interested in music. He began playing the guitar at age 14.

“I played around with friends and at the occasional restaurant. Some of my friends had moved to Austin, where the music environment was really happening in Texas,” he says.

Saxe moved to Denver and got a job teaching music. He also went into a graduate program in architecture for a year. “I eventually went back to Austin to hang with my old friends. Then I (went) back to Boulder, doing landscape design and working with developers.

“I was constantly going back and forth between Texas and Colorado, but I realized I was in my mid-20s and needed to get serious about guitar and music if I was ever going to. I originally came to Southern California to go to the famed Dick Grove School of Music in L.A. I had to choose between performance art and composing/arranging. I chose the latter.

“I went back to Colorado in the early 1980s and focused on the production side of music. I’m still writing. I like to write songs that tell a story. I’m working on putting in a home-recording studio, and I wouldn’t mind being a ‘one hit wonder’ and hearing one of my songs on the radio.”

When Saxe answered an ad to sell timeshares, he got hooked, and is still in that business today.

“In the old days,” he says, “there were a lot of con artists. I used to say half were idiots, but a quarter knew what they were doing. I didn’t want to teach anymore, so I learned how to do it, and found it was fun. I was talking to real people, and it was like sitting around just talking with friends. I don’t know any other job that lets you put aside everything about your own situation and just focus on the fun and economics and emotions associated with what you can offer to others.

“Selling is a lot like acting. You have to have a different persona so you can effectively respond to different people and their needs. The timeshare business is perfect for someone like me.”

Saxe met Cathy, his wife of 32 years, in 1985 at Antone’s, an iconic site near the University of Texas campus in Austin. “It was April Fool’s Day, her birthday, and I was hanging with some friends. She and some of her girlfriends came in, and I asked her to dance. She said it was her birthday, so I gave her a kiss. Then I got her phone number. We were married less than a year later. I have to say, Cathy stabilized me. She’s the keel to the boat.”

Saxe’s philosophy of life: “A tai chi master once said to me, ‘You don’t dig a lot of holes; you want to dig one deeply.’ That never made sense to me. I admit I’m something of a dilettante, and I wanted to dig lots of holes—not get stuck doing the same thing all the time. I guess I’m totally schizophrenic: Each thing I do fills some part of my personality. I don’t see how someone can walk through life and be blind to everything other than what they do.

”There’s a median in life. I like being in the middle of everything. If you look around, there’s always somebody better off and somebody worse off. My feeling is that you need to be happy with where you are.”

If you know Marc Saxe, you can see that he is.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

He’s a champion wrestler, a medal-winning runner and a concert pianist.

One other thing about Mike Zorick: He’s blind.

Zorick, 70, has been an Indio resident since 1980, and has overcome obstacles that would surely have stopped others. Shortly after his premature birth, in Hartford, Conn., a medical technique used at that time led to an overdose of oxygen and left him blind.

Zorick’s parents, wanting him to escape discrimination, sacrificed and saved to afford him the best possible opportunities to overcome his disability.

“People would look at my eyes and see nothing else,” he recalls.

He was educated at Oak Hill School for the Blind through high school. In the fifth-grade, Mike began wrestling.

“I was kind of forced into it by the recreation coach,” Zorick says. “He said, ‘If you don’t wrestle, you can’t come to PE anymore.’ I ended up beating an undefeated champ and won the tournament!”

Zorick remembers his parents teaching him that, in spite of being small, he should never start a fight—and if he still got into a fight, he should never let the other guy finish it.

“I knew I had to work harder than anyone else,” he says.

Those efforts certainly paid off. Zorick has won numerous competitions around the United States, and his Indio home’s walls are covered with medals and certificates.

“I moved to California after high school and was three-time California state champion in Greco-Roman wrestling,” Zorick proudly beams. He has received numerous awards in several weight categories, as well as for judo and weightlifting.

While still in high school, Zorick also began running.

“My coach said it would build me up for wrestling. I was on the high school track team in 1963,” he says. “I was running a two-mile event and started to really like long-distance running.” Once again, medals followed.

“I ran with a partner for a while,” says Zorick, “but my uncle made me a special device with an extension that could hug the rail, so I could run on my own around the track.”

Zorick says he was a good athlete but not a good student, yet he continued his education, getting an associate’s degree in music and physical education at Los Angeles City College before transferring to UCLA for his bachelor’s degree. He also received a teaching credential in Florida, has taught classes at California State College, Los Angeles, and served as an assistant coach at La Quinta High School.

“I had to sue to get the teaching credential in Florida,” he says. “My biggest challenge has always been that I knew I would be rejected by the sighted world, no matter what I did. I just always do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may.”

Overcoming yet another hurdle for someone without sight, Zorick began playing the piano in fourth-grade.

“I was in a music class for blind kids,” he says, “and I started with Braille music. Now, I just learn one hand at a time. For concerts, I have to memorize about 120 pages of music.”

Zorick focuses on classics by composers like Chopin and Brahms. “I like music with harmony and melody,” he says. “One piece I still need to learn is Brahms’ Rhapsody No. 4.” He has played more than 20 solo piano concerts at venues including Foursquare Church and the Family YMCA of the Desert.

Zorick’s lifetime partner is Nancy Noble, a former movie actress and artist originally from Chicago, who has devoted herself to supporting Mike and his varied endeavors. One needs to be around them for only a few minutes before their genuine love and support for each other becomes apparent.

“I made a list of 10 things that I knew I needed in a partner,” Zorick laughs. The list included being a team player; an honest person with good morals and a love of truth; willing to not live with animals or children; a good helpmate; a non-drinker and non-smoker; a runner or bike rider; and able to drive.

Zorick and Noble met in Los Angeles when she became a reader for him.

“I thought it would help my acting,” she says. “Mike needed someone to take him running, so I rode a bike he had. We were friends for two years before we decided to commit to each other. My father told me not to marry him, but my mother said she knew we would be together forever and told my dad to get over it.

“With Mike, to meet his conditions, I even got rid of my cat,” she laughs.

Zorick’s life has led to many lessons—of value to those both with and without sight. He has written a book, Making Weightand has a website that includes a 17-minute video of him talking about his life. He and Noble have spoken to thousands of students about his athletics, his music and the challenges of being blind.

“Students ask lots of questions,” says Zorick, “but the one that always comes up is, ‘What is it like to be blind?’ I always answer, ‘It’s normal.’ I can feel what things look like. Even though I can’t see faces, I remember voices, so it’s frustrating if people don’t identify themselves when we meet. And I hate it when waiters ask Nancy what I want, as if I can’t answer for myself.

“Whenever people said I couldn’t do something because I’m blind, my attitude was always, ‘I’ll show you!’ I’ve always taken discouraging people and used them to my advantage. I had to find out for myself whether I could do something.”

What would Zorick want to see first if he could somehow gain his sight?

“Of course, I’d want to see Nancy.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Cathedral City’s Lynne O’Neill has been in the Coachella Valley for only a year and a half—but in that small amount of time, she has already made a large difference.

Born in New York, the middle child in a family with four brothers, O’Neill moved here from New Jersey, where she practiced family law. A graduate of Springfield College in rehabilitative counseling, she also had a stint with an all-girl band, Lilith.

O’Neill, 63, came out as gay two years after the Stonewall riots in 1969.

“I spent the 1970s driving around talking about politics,” she says. “Then I was in an auto accident and broke my back. I knew I would never be a rock star. My dad was a lawyer, and he wanted me to go into law. I was third in my class in my first year and became editor of the law review. I was lucky enough to get a clerkship with the appellate division and spent my time writing appellate briefs.”

An associate of her father got her into family law, working on properties and licenses. “In my 30s, I thought maybe I wanted to try cases,” she says. “When the AIDS epidemic hit, I was no longer interested in who gets the refrigerator when couples split. I shifted my focus to doing pro bono disability advice and guardianship issues. I focused a lot on women with AIDS and issues regarding their children, and what would happen after their death.

“People forget that around that time, there were real concerns about things like housing, burial rights and even getting served in a restaurant. I was involved with legal groups working to help with everything relating to those with AIDS. Professionally and personally, in the mosaic of activism, it’s great to march in the street—but how do you really make a difference?”

What brought O’Neill to the desert?

“It was winter, and I had slipped and was lying in the snow with broken ribs,” she says. “I thought about my friend Joy Silver and the life she was living here. I just thought, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I came here to retire, play canasta and go swimming. But after this last election, with all the hate rhetoric against the Latino community, I remembered why I became a lawyer. I wanted to take my skills and training and translate them into doing something with meaning.”

It was in the post-election malaise that Courageous Resistance: Palm Springs and Other Desert Cities was born. The group initially focused on why it is important for each city in the valley to declare itself as a sanctuary city.

“The whole idea of sanctuary cities is so misunderstood,” says O’Neill. “It’s based on something the late Justice Scalia said: You cannot commandeer local law enforcement to enforce a federal mandate. Background checks regarding immigration status is a federal mandate.

“Government and empowerment work from the ground up, so we began Courageous Resistance to provide a jurisdictional blueprint of what the powers of the federal government are, and how state and local law enforcement should relate to those powers. We started with 17 people, and we now have over 1,700.”

The group mobilizes local activists to meet with politicians, in person, to make a difference in local policy.

“One victory builds upon the next,” says O’Neill. “We need to shake up these local fiefdoms. We need to mentor new activists on how to get things done and what questions to ask of elected officials. We can influence local ordinances that make a difference in real people’s lives.”

O’Neill and the group are initially focusing on immigration issues and the goal of universal health care.

“Our goal is to get people involved and empowered,” says O’Neill, who is now working on her friend Joy Silver’s political campaign for the District 28 state Senate seat.

Her advice to others? “Do something!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Why is a standup comedian pawing through boxes of old family letters—and being so serious as he does it? Why does his wife say she’s the funny one in the family? And how do two Los Angelenos adjust to living in the desert full time?

Meet Tom and Casi Parks.

Tom Parks, 67, was born in Washington, D.C. The eldest of three kids, he went to grade school in South Carolina and high school in New York before spending time in Texas, and ending up in Los Angeles. He studied journalism at the University of Florida—and before long was hosting Not Necessarily the News on HBO.

“To my mom,” he laughs, “doing comedy about the news was doing the news, so I hadn’t totally wasted my education.”

How did Tom end up with a career in comedy? “My mom loved broad slapstick. She roared when my brother hit me in the head with a ball,” he says.

“My dad had a quiet, reserved sense of humor. Dad had served as a bomber pilot in World War II, flying out of England, but was shot down in 1943, a month short of turning 22. He was in a (prisoner of war) camp for 18 months. When I was 14, Hogan’s Heroes ran on TV, and I was worried for my dad. But he started laughing, with tears in his eyes, and said, ‘I don’t remember it being this funny.’

“My mom also served, and she got one more battle decoration than my dad. They always argued about who was the toughest.

”When I graduated college, I was in Atlanta, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I was managing an apartment community, and I met a girl on the stairs. I asked her out (and was) totally shocked when she said yes. We went to see Harry Chapin at the Great Southeast Music Hall. Between his songs, he would tell stories and talk to the audience. I realized that was what I did at parties with friends, and I made them laugh. Friends encouraged me, and two weeks later, I got up onstage in that same club to impress that girl—but I wouldn’t have done it as a career if I hadn’t gotten laughs that night, from strangers. It was a revelation to me, and I’ve never thought of doing anything else.”

Tom’s career started with small college appearances that he booked himself. “(Colleges would) book anything for $100, and to me, that was huge money,” he said. “Once I did a few colleges, I had credits to my name. From 1976 to 1983, I had 700 college dates and was named Campus Entertainer of the Year and Top Comedian.”

Tom’s career includes a first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1987, hosting Not Necessarily the News on HBO in 1989, movies, television, Comic Relief, cruise-ship appearances, a game-show hosting gig, and writing.

In the mid-’80s, Tom was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “I knew it was a possibility, since my dad had it as well, but when I passed age 35, I thought I had missed it.” Tom acted in a humorous film about diabetes which raised about $500,000 for the American Diabetes Association.

Tom’s current passion is old family letters, going back to the 1800s, including correspondence between his dad and grandmother while his dad was at war. Tom writes a blog at www.aboxofoldletters.com to share what he’s found.


Casi Finefrock Parks, 55, was born in Oklahoma City. She has a brother and is the youngest of three sisters. Casi comes from an artistic family: Her parents started a theater, and her two sisters are both painters. She was a dance major at the University of Oklahoma.

“I didn’t finish,” she says. “I got married, and when that was over, I came to Los Angeles, since my brother was in L.A. studying acting. My reaction was, ‘It’s California!’ and I never left.”

Casi went back to school for an accounting degree at California State University, Los Angeles. “I once worked for two gals who were with Prince and the Revolution, running errands for them while I finished school. I never met Prince, but,” she laughs, “I learned that having a backstage pass just means you don’t get to see the show.

“I started doing securities accounting during the online boom. I almost went to work with the FBI, but they said I had to carry a gun—an accountant in bank vaults! I’m very opposed to guns, so I backed out.

“I’ve finally decided to retire because I’m ready for a change, especially following Tom’s heart attack last year, although I may still look for consulting projects.

“I’ve always loved it here in the desert. I’m a big architectural buff, so I do the modernism tours, and there’s so much to explore. Plus, I can run to the store without it taking forever.”

Tom and Casi met online.

“I had never done it before,” she says about online dating. “I was career-oriented and almost 40, so I decided to do a two-week free trial. When I met Tom, I knew immediately.”

They lived together for eight years and married in 2009. “He got on his knee on New Year’s Eve and gave me a box of engraved stationery with both our initials on it. Besides,” she laughs, “I think he was tired of trying to find the right word for me. ‘Girlfriend’ didn’t feel right, and ‘partner’ could have meant a business associate.”

Despite Tom’s career, Casi says she’s the funny one in the family. “Tom is hilarious on stage, but quiet and reserved in real life, while I laugh too much! I talk to everyone, where he hangs back. But he’s the one who is organized at home, even though I’m the accountant.”

What are the challenges of retirement and moving to the desert full-time?

“You don’t end up doing the things you thought you’d do,” says Casi. “We’re remodeling the house, so we have to move out while the work is being done, and we have to build a social life and new friends to hang out with.”

As for Tom: “It didn’t feel like a big move, but it is a big difference,” he says. “I loved L.A., but I’m ready for life to be calmer and quieter.”

Adds Casi: “Life’s easier here, but you do have to keep an eye out for eating too much!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Ron Celona got bitten by the acting bug in the first grade.

“I played a spider in Little Miss Muffet … and refused to take off my costume afterward,” he says. “I walked all the way home from school in my spider costume, and have been on the stage ever since.”

Celona, 59, the founding artistic director of the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, is a Rancho Mirage resident, along with his husband and partner of 32 years. Celona was born and raised in Philadelphia. He and his older sister lost their mom when Ron was just 7.

“My father was a tenor-sax player,” he recalls, “and although he gave up his career to have a family, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

Celona’s professional career began when he was in the sixth-grade, after he had already performed in many theater projects at school and at his local playground.

“I continued my education after high school in New York,” he says, “at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I graduated high school in June and moved that same September. After a few years working on East Coast stages, I moved to Los Angeles and continued theater studies at Cal State Los Angeles. While doing theater, I added television and film to my credits.

“But it wasn’t until I moved to the Coachella Valley in 1999 that I began my career as a producer and director. I produced the Joslyn Players in Palm Desert, and that turned into a successful community theater that thrived for nine years.”

How did CV Rep come about? In 2008, the stars were apparently in alignment.

“Frankly,” says Celona, “I was waiting for the right time in the valley’s growth. I modeled it after other companies, like South Coast Rep and Seattle Rep—companies that started out small and grew to be respected institutions in their communities. The board planned strategically so that we could grow slowly and successfully. The big goal was always to own our own theater building. … In the coming year, this dream is coming true, and we will be taking the next step toward creating a nationally recognized and respected theater company, for our communities’ residents and visitors alike.”

I love theater, and have been pleased to see the growth of several local theaters—each presenting a different experience that goes well beyond the old standard retreads. However, I became increasingly interested in CV Rep specifically because of its Youth Outreach Production program. Each year, CV Rep presents a play with a subject that is of particular interest to young people, and makes it available to students through the Coachella Valley—some of whom might otherwise never be exposed to live theater.

“This year, for the first time, we didn’t just bring students into the theater,” says Celona. “We were able to take the show on the road to local schools and reach over 3,000 students.”

This year’s show was Bully, a one-man show written and performed by actor, writer and producer Lee J. Kaplan, who explores his own struggle with bullying. Kaplan discovered his sixth-grade journal among some old boxes, and recalled the verbal, physical and emotional abuse he endured. His play includes him as several characters—his teacher, classmates, bullies, and himself—and examines how bullying can affect someone even well into adulthood.

The audiences are always able to talk with the cast and ask questions after the performances. Often, these questions don’t only explore the message of the play; many audience members share their own experiences.

The show I attended was not for students; it was an evening performance for the public. I was struck by those who shared their own memories and feelings.

Kaplan made it clear that bullying goes way beyond hurting someone’s feelings. It is the activity of repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt or gain power over another. It is emotional, verbal and social abuse, and those bullied don’t know how to make it stop.

Kaplan’s lessons on how to defeat a bully: Stop caring about him. Tell somebody; don’t be ashamed, and don’t back down. Stop blaming yourself—it’s not your fault.

The one question Kaplan had to pause and think about was why bullying happens to one person and not another, even within the same family. He finally said, “I’ve known some people who seemed so sure of who they were, they seemed to walk straight forward through it all toward their own future. Somehow, bullying never affected them.”

Ron Celona, who clearly knew who he was and how to walk straight forward into his own future, had some influential mentors along the way. He first names the renowned Gordon Davidson, of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles: “His wisdom and advice gave me the confidence in myself that I needed.” Then he acknowledges Sheldon Epps, of the Pasadena Playhouse: “He is always there for me when I have a question or need advice on our growing pains. I’m very grateful for his friendship and support.”

The Coachella Valley should be grateful for Ron Celona’s vision and dedication to our burgeoning theater community—and particularly for his commitment to its students.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Coachella Valley is a place where retired celebrities, in some ways, are taken for granted. Among us are retired movie and television stars, business tycoons, writers, NASA scientists and sports professionals—including Shirley Spork, one of the 13 original founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and a renowned sports-education professional.

Spork, 90, is a long-time resident of Palm Desert. The red-haired girl from a working-class family would go on to, through personal determination, break ground and help make a lasting contribution for women in a sport that had never been friendly to females.

Spork was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who did not play golf. At one point in her early childhood, the family lived next to a golf course.

“There was nothing much to do in the neighborhood,” she says. “I saw the boys caddying, but I wanted to play the game.”

Spork’s first club was a putter she bought for a dollar she had earned by selling, back to golfers, the golf balls that had gone into the water between her home and the course.

“I was about 11 when I was constantly going onto the course, and the ranger kept chasing me off,” recalls Spork. “I sold the used balls to some of the golfers, and they got to know me. Their ticket to play was supposed to get punched after the first nine holes, but sometimes it wasn’t, and they’d give me their ticket so I could play as if I had paid.

“I read about people like Babe (Didrikson) and Patty (Berg) and thought, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do that,’” Spork says about the female golf pioneers. “I bought that putter because it looked good among the other clubs in the $1 bin. The guys all laughed at me.”

Spork actually built a small green so she could practice: “I cleared a space, dug a hole, stuck a flag in it and played by myself!” She later got some used irons from the friendly golf pro, and her uncle found a golf bag someone had thrown away.

“I wanted to compete in junior golf, and the Detroit Free Press said the PGA was giving free lessons. Whoever showed the most improvement got a $10 gift certificate. I won, and that got me my first distance club, a Louise Suggs driver. I was 12.

“Lots of girls came from families that belonged to country clubs, and they would compete in the city championships. I wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (an LPGA precursor), which was the only game in town at that time, but I was still in high school. The WPGA only lasted about three years, and then it ran out of money. There were no pro tournaments for women back then.

“Women now compete much as the men do, even if they don’t make as much money, but back then, women made their way as trainers and testers, and a lot of time was spent trying to find companies that would sponsor tournaments.”

Spork has documented her story in a book, From Green to Tee, released earlier this year.

“I call it that, because I actually started on the green, with that putter, but I made it to the tee,” she says.

The book includes stories about Spork’s rise to prominence in the game, and it also sets out the history of women’s golf and the challenges faced by the women who were trailblazers.

Spork graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where she received a teaching degree.

“We had moved back into the city when I was in high school, and the lady upstairs had a daughter in teacher’s college,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a golf pro. But I went, and I studied physical education.”

She also competed in and won tournaments, and was honored not by her school’s women’s physical education department, but by the men’s.

“When I finished school, I started teaching, because my parents had sacrificed to send me to college, but my heart wasn’t really in it,” Spork says. “My mom said, ‘You should be doing what you want to do, not what we want you to do.’ I spent many years teaching part of the year and golfing whenever I could.”

Spork’s educational background served her well in establishing the LPGA Teaching Division, dedicated to working with young people, and educating golf pros about how to teach effectively.

“People may not realize that just because they play well, that doesn’t mean they can teach others,” Spork says. “When it comes to women golfers, we have to educate about smaller hands, less height, less body strength, club length—things like that. And you have to teach people how to teach; it takes five years to become a Class A teacher.”

From the time when she was young and wheedling her way onto golf courses, Spork has met many golfers who helped her find opportunities to get more time on the links—and to find her way into tournaments and jobs.

“Golfers I met could see that I was going to be a golfer,” she says. “Some of them helped me get privileges at country clubs so I could qualify for city and state tournaments. Sometimes I had to go in the back door. I did whatever I could to be able to play.”

Spork’s career includes tournaments around the world, corporate sponsorships, helping design golf courses, being a golf pro at country clubs, and teaching generations of golfers.

The second annual Shirley Spork Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held at Palm Valley Country Club this past April, with the proceeds supporting The First Tee, a youth-development organization introducing golf and its values to young people through in-school and afterschool programs.

“I was never a great player,” Spork says, with charming modesty. “When I started, there were so few women who stood up for themselves.”

However, Shirley Spork did stand up for herself—and it paid off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Dana Saks was born in Palm Springs, and raised in Cathedral City, where she graduated high school.

“I’ve always loved the desert,” says Dana, now 37, and always upbeat and vivacious. “There’s something about it. It’s quiet here. My soul is at peace here, in a way that it isn’t anywhere else.”

I first met her at a pro-choice rally when she was 14. She wanted to make a difference, even at that young age.

“Politics and activism were always discussed in my house,” she recalls. “My cousin, Anita Richmond, was very active in local politics, serving on the Rancho Mirage City Council. My mom was pretty liberal in her attitudes, my dad less so, so we used to have lively discussions whenever the family got together.

“I guess I had an innate sense of justice, and I didn’t like it when things were unjust. My first letter to the editor was published when I was 13!”

Dana grew up going to gay-pride parades.

“My mom had friends in New York who were closeted gay, and she couldn’t stand it that they couldn’t be who they wanted to be. After I wrote the letter to the editor, about an anti-gay letter someone else had written, my family asked if I was gay. I was pretty much in denial then, although I always knew I was different. Even in kindergarten, I liked girls.”

Dana’s sister, Victoria, is 4 1/2 years younger.

“We fought like crazy,” she says. “People in the family always said we would never be close. I had always wanted a baby sister, but then she could walk and talk, and started following me around and copying everything I did. My dad finally gave me a room of my own at 11 to separate us. We once had a fight, and somebody was stabbed with a fork. We both claim, even to this day, that it was the other who did it! We’re close now.”

Dana decided to leave the Coachella Valley after high school.

“I thought if I stayed here, I’d be stuck here forever—an 18-year-old mind at work,” she says. “I was accepted to Mills College in Oakland, and I liked the idea that the students were all female. I wanted the experience of a liberal environment.

“I came out as gay after my sister came out. I had the feeling she might also be gay, but I didn’t want to come out first and then have her be accused of copying me again. Plus, in high school, I had seen the way some of my friends’ families had reacted when someone came out, and I didn’t want to chance that my own family might react that way. My mom had already suspected. My dad had a harder time, but only because he was worried for us.”

After more than two years at Mills, Dana decided she wanted a break.

“I had reached the point where I was cutting classes more than I attended, and I was bored to death,” she says. “Everything I was studying was theory-based, and I wanted practice and action. Besides, I was receiving financial aid that could have gone to somebody else. I liked the Bay Area, but I had to figure out how to stay there without being in school.”

After a stint working at Starbucks, Dana’s political activism and her volunteer work on political campaigns made her a valuable addition to work with Medical Students for Choice, a nonprofit that taught abortion surgical techniques to medical students.

“Can you believe they were getting no training, based on the political climate, even though it was necessary that they know what to do if a patient had a miscarriage and needed similar procedures?” she says. “After about five years, I had been promoted to program manager.

“My boss was constantly encouraging me to return to school, and I was finally ready to go back. My first stop was at San Francisco State, where I noticed that the women in class, when they would deign to raise their hand and be called on, would always start by saying, ‘This may sound stupid, but … .’ The men never did that; instead, they would ask questions that were legitimately stupid! It was so different from what I had gotten used to, so I went back to Mills and completed a degree in sociology.”

Dana spent a month in Oaxaca, Mexico, learning Spanish, and then returned north to work with the California Wilderness Coalition. Her next vocational experience came after volunteering at Sankofa Academy, a public school in Oakland: “Sankofa is a Ghanian term for the concept of knowing where you come from so you can know where you’re going.” Dana spent six years there, becoming an after-school program coordinator.

Dana recently decided to return home to the Coachella Valley.

“In the Bay Area, there’s so much happening; it’s harder to find community,” she says. “My grandmother died, and I felt called to come home. I wanted to be closer to my family. My soul is at peace here in a way that it isn’t anywhere else. I intend to spend the rest of my life here. Now I just have to find a job.”

Dana’s latest passion—in addition to her abstract, emotion-filled painting—is the Palm Springs drag community.

“I found Toucans and was blown away by the art of it,” Dana says. “I always found drag to be impressive, but it never resonated with me the way it does here.”

Her advice for local young people: “It’s good to get away and experience somewhere else, but be open to the idea that you don’t really know what you want to do. Goals are nice to have, but you don’t have to plan your life out. Just remember that it’s OK to change your mind.

“I never wanted to be in an office in a suit. I knew you had to have money to survive, but from the experience of my own life, I know money doesn’t mean you’ll have a great life outcome. It may mean the ability to have a different lifestyle, but it doesn’t lead directly to happiness or longevity. I believe it’s possible here to earn a living and have a life.

“I’m not into the spotlight. I like to be behind the scenes. I just want to make a difference.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors