CVIndependent

Mon08192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

Photographer Arthur Coleman has lived in the Coachella Valley for more than 50 years, and his stunning work is known throughout the area and the world. He’s also known for helping develop the tantalizing dining section of Palm Springs Life.

“This is the place with the best light in the world,” he says. “I call it ‘sweet light.’”

Born in Seattle, Coleman—he prefers not to disclose his age (“The number is too big now!” he says)—had what he calls “an interesting childhood,” albeit a good one. Coleman’s father ran a hotel, while his mother was “a true housewife.”

“She was involved in Scouts, coaching, everything I did,” he recalls. “She was charismatic and knockdown beautiful—kind of Betty Boop beautiful. My dad worked nights, so (my younger brother and I) got him during the day.

“You know, I’ve had all these people in my life with horrendous childhoods. Not me. If I’ve had problems, they’re my own,” Coleman says. “My mom taught me what it’s like to grow up knowing you come first with someone. My dad always backed me, whatever the situation was. They raised me to know I could do anything I wanted. There were just a few rules: no guns, no motorcycles, no bartending and not a bellman—nothing requiring tips.”

The motorcycle rule was broken when Steve McQueen became Coleman’s next-door neighbor after the family moved to Los Angeles.

“I wanted a motorcycle, and my mom was willing to compromise for a Vespa scooter,” Coleman says. “McQueen came over and told my mom, ‘The Vespa has such little wheels. It’s dangerous. I’ll pick him out a motorcycle.’ She said, ‘Well, I guess it’s OK.’ I think she was blushing. Hey, it was Steve McQueen! She even cooked him some breakfast.

“He taught me how to ride the bike out in the desert, and he was also the one who got me into ‘guy’ stuff, like pumping iron to get some muscles.”

Coleman got started in photography when he was about 8 years old. “My mom was a gambler. She’d go to a country club where once a month, they’d bring in machines, and they could gamble. She won a camera and gave it to me. Also, my dad’s hobby was photography, so it was an easy fit.”

Coleman’s one marriage produced a daughter who is also a photographer.

“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he says. “I’ve worked with world-class photographers, and I’ve picked up things like a sponge.

“I’ve always worked. I started at about 11 or 12 with a little business going door-to-door selling Cub Scout stuff. I sold handmade Christmas gifts, wooden address signs, and even did asphalt on driveways. The city once came to find out who was running this company doing asphalt work, and I showed them my two buckets and three brooms.”

Coleman found himself in Las Vegas in his late teens working for Red Skelton. “My mom had met him once, and I got a job as his assistant entertainment director. It was amazing,” he says. “My dad had hit some hard times earlier on and had to sell an expensive camera, so when I got the job in Las Vegas, I bought him a really good camera. When I graduated from high school, he bought me the same Rolleiflex.”

The work with Skelton wasn’t all fun.

“I was only 18 when I found his ex-wife after she killed herself,” says Coleman. “It was so traumatic. But, hey, I’ve been in the Enquirer four times!”

Yes, Coleman has a wicked sense of humor.

Coleman attended the University of Washington and also took classes at College of the Desert, but says he was bored. “I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I studied architecture and a little law. But my whole thing was to be working,” he says.

By 21, Coleman knew he wanted to start working for himself. “I had been hanging out at CBS, and people asked me to do some photos, so I just started playing around with it.”

Coleman came to the desert from Los Angeles, rented a building and began using the small amount of equipment he had.

“I was dating a gal who worked for the brand-new convention and visitors’ bureau, the first one we had down here,” he says. “I suggested that they could pay for part of my studio and use my darkroom; in return, I started shooting for them, and some of my pictures went international. I’ve been really lucky.”

Coleman is realistic about the profession he loves.

“Still photography is dying,” he says. “Everyone can take pictures on their phones and make their own movies and send them around. I’m working now on time-lapse and using drones. The main thing is that I can do anything—architecture, landscapes, fashion, food, still-life, portraits. I’ve developed techniques for all of them. I’ve even been working on a musical film. I don’t ever want to be pigeonholed.”

Coleman’s home studio in Palm Desert is quite impressive. Tall cabinets contain carefully curated images, and everything is laid out with a distinct space for each piece of equipment, no matter how small.

“Everything has to be in its own place, and I don’t like extension cords or messy wires,” says Coleman. “I’m kind of ADD, but I’ve learned to work with whatever is there when I get there. When I started, I’d stop a project if everything wasn’t just the way I wanted it. I once drove all the way back to L.A., because when I looked at the prints, I realized I had punched a pillow, but hadn’t creased it to get just the right angles. Now, I feel accomplished with making it work, whatever the situation.

“My driving principle is that I finish things: If I start it, I finish it.”

Arthur Coleman can drop names with the best of them, from McQueen and Skelton to Sinatra, but it’s his craft that most delights Coleman.

“What I see is 180 degrees of whatever the view is. When I’m looking at something, I’m seeing the whole thing ‘eye to eye,’ peripherally, not just the middle,” he says.

Coleman, however, has diverse interests beyond photography. He is currently learning about prickly pears and organic tequila. He serves on the board at Sandpiper, a classic Palm Desert development, and is developing low-water xerography. He reads, but not for escape or relaxation: “I read to learn things, for information.”

Coleman is somewhat philosophical after several health scares within the past few years.

“Life itself makes me happy now. I get up, make some coffee, and get ready for the day,” he says. “I just want to be alive, breathing, eating fine food, seeing friends and doing my work. Most of all, I want to be thankful.

“I don’t consider myself highly intelligent. What I do comes from my gut. I love to create. However short the time I may have left is, I want to do my work every day with passion.”

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

Rose Mallett is known for her singular voice, her striking appearance, and her frequent appearances in local clubs and theaters. The Moreno Valley resident has entertained throughout Southern California, in Las Vegas, and onscreen, and she can be seen locally at both Woody’s and the Purple Room in Palm Springs, and will be at Vicky’s of Santa Fe in Indian Wells once season begins again.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mallett, 70, knew from a very young age that she could sing—although there was concern that she would make it at all, after she was born two months premature. She weighed just 2 pounds, 7 ounces.

Her parents owned a tavern in Chicago, so Mallett grew up around music.

“Music just filtered in,” she says. “I first got interested in the stage from watching puppet shows when I was young. I started singing in the fourth-grade in the school chorus, and sang all through high school. Plus, I always sang in my church and was president of the young people’s chorus for several years.”

In junior high school, Mallett started singing as part of a rhythm and blues girl group.

“We were ‘discovered’ by (soul/R&B duo) Sam and Dave,” she recalls. “It gave us the opportunity to do a demo at Capitol Records, during the era of Lou Rawls and Martha Reeves. They offered us a contract! The three other girls in the group were all sisters, and their parents approved. But my mom said, ‘You have to decide whether to sing for the Lord or the devil.’

“That ended my career. I recognized that I was so young, and the church was a safer place to be. I thought giving up (the contract) would mean I was spiritually dedicated, so I chose the Lord. Unfortunately for the other girls, I was the lead voice, so there went the contract.”

The irony is that Mallett was molested by the pastor in that very same church.

“That took me away from the theology of the church for many years,” she says. “My mother’s resolve helped me to realize you have to love and believe in yourself.”

Mallett talks about her mother in reverent terms.

“My mom was one of 13 children in the South,” she said. “She married at 14 and worked in the fields. When they moved to Chicago, my mom ran her own kind of underground railroad, making sure the family all made it to Chicago. Then, when she moved us to California in 1960, she was again the one who paved the way for the rest of the family. She was the matriarch of the family, for sure. I learned fortitude from my mom. She was very methodical about getting things done, and she had a strong sense of survival.”

Once in Los Angeles, Mallett studied at the famous Dick Grove School of Music. “I got vocal training from Roger Love, and learned performance from Phil Moore who also taught Dorothy Dandridge and Dianne Reeves. Talk about being in good company!”

Mallett’s vocal influences were Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. “Sarah’s range and her phrasing were so amazing.”

As her life changed, Mallett didn’t sing for years. In the mid-1980s, she found herself in a situation involving domestic abuse, and was looking for an out, so she joined a community theater, the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

“My daughter was in a dance class, and there was an acting class upstairs,” she said. “One day, the director asked me if I could sing, and I ended up with my first role in a show called Earthquake.”

Mallett’s career has included shows at nightclubs and venues around the country. She has performed in Las Vegas, opening for Ben Vereen and backing up Susan Anton. She sang “I Never Think of You” in New Line Cinema’s Now and Then, and she has appeared in other films as well.

Mallett’s daughter, Monifa Burgess, is now a teacher; she also sang for a while. “She was on Soul Train!” boasts Mallett.

Mallett has been single since 2009. “I just met someone a few months ago,” she says. “I was told to try online dating. I tried for six months and hated it.

“Ironically, one of my supporters brought in a guy. He’s younger,” she laughs, coyly.

I had to ask: Do you need to have experienced the blues to sing the blues?

“So many blues songs are about loss of a lover, but I don’t think the blues is just about that,” says Mallett. “You can have that feeling from any kind of struggle. Everybody has had some kind of struggle. You don’t go through this life without some event or bad situation. … Sometimes, your life will be blue.

“It’s all about attitude. I’m a firm believer in meditation. I believe in awareness of life and in finding what I can do to overcome. It’s very important to learn how to love yourself. Looking for approval outside, you will fall … and sing the blues.

“I also listen to Cuban jazz; if I’m feeling down, it lifts me right up!”

Rose Mallett is one of the most uplifting and positive people I’ve met. Her motto is: “Ask, believe, receive. When you master believing, you have mastered your life.”

And then there’s that fabulous, uplifting voice.

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 Palm Springs resident Dan Waddell, you immediately get the impression of someone who is gentle, affable, pleasant and relaxed—but the quintessential pianist will definitely confront you if necessary.

I met Waddell when I was producing Palm Springs Confidential, a comedy/musical revue, in the early 1990s. He came on board as musical director on the recommendation of Bill Marx, the noted local pianist and composer who had written the show’s music.

As the producer of the show, I had to keep the peace when Marx was at odds with Waddell over how some piece of music should work. There is an expression that comes over Waddell’s face when he doesn’t get his way—yet he is a consummate professional, and things always end with a harmonious result, “as long as the result is the best it can be.”

Waddell, 75, was born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., as the eldest of three. His mother played piano in the church, so Waddell studied piano as a kid, playing recitals that put him in front of audiences. He learned the organ as well, and played in church while he was in high school; he also worked gigs around town. However, Waddell did not feel compelled to make the piano part of his professional life—and is as surprised as anyone that it turned out that way.

“I had no idea I was going to do this for my whole life,” he says. “I probably assumed I’d go into a building trade. My dad was a utility engineer who did woodworking, which taught me how you can screw things up if you’re not precise.

“I got a music scholarship to college, and thought it was better than going to Vietnam. I had to play an audition for the scholarship, and they told me I should go into music education. I did what I could do best. If I had any real musical influence, it was my teacher, Leonard Jacobson. He made me want to do the work.”

Waddell furthered his musical education with post-graduate studies with the likes of Arthur Loesser, Constance Keene, Abram Chasins and Richard Faith.

Waddell became a member of the musicians’ union while still in high school and worked clubs while in college. He met his wife of 51 years, Robin, while they were students at the University of Puget Sound.

“I met her at a going-away party for her music teacher,” he says. “Robin also sang and played piano. We had just gotten married when I enlisted in the Army with a guaranteed assignment for two years—I actually enlisted for three—to go to their music school. It was once again the best way to stay out of Vietnam. The Army sent me to Arizona, and after my time was up, and my son was born, I became a lecturer in music at the University of Arizona in Tucson.”

Prior to settling in the Coachella Valley 27 years ago, Dan and Robin, along with their son, lived in lots of different places. Waddell worked cruise ships for seven years, “and I think the only place I haven’t yet been is Australia and New Zealand. I kind of fell into (playing cruise ships). I was playing at a club in Seattle, but (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) had put up such a fuss about people drinking and driving that people stopped coming downtown, so the club went downhill. I auditioned for a booker for Sitmar (Cruises), so Robin and I moved to Cuernavaca (Mexico), because it was a lot easier to pick up a ship in Acapulco, which wasn’t that far away.”

Over his long career, Waddell has played with such notables as Cab Calloway, Tony Sandler (of Sandler and Young) and Frank Stallone. He has been a featured concert pianist, music director, vocalist accompanist, organ designer, and judge for the local Virginia Waring International Piano Competition. He has also played organ and piano locally at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in La Quinta, and Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs, among other places.

“I’m a professional musician,” says Waddell. “I don’t play from some burning desire to create music. I play because people pay me to play. I’ve worked with many, many talented local people, and with the Desert Symphony at the McCallum Theatre.”

Waddell has been teaching others for more than 25 years at College of the Desert, leading students in basic and applied piano, fundamentals of music, and the music theater workshop. His advice for young musicians? “Learn as much as you can about music, taking into consideration that we all have limitations. You have to learn how to work around your limitations.

“I’d also have to say it’s important to move to a big city for exposure, and to meet people and network. I should have gone to Los Angeles and the Dick Grove School of Music, where I would have spent my time writing charts and working with really good musicians, but I got married and went into the Army. I would advise anyone serious about a music career to put themselves in an environment where they can hang out and get paid for it. That’s how you learn and sharpen your skills.

“It’s a given in any endeavor, particularly the entertainment business, that you have to do what you do well. You have to get out there. It’s all about diversity and opportunity.”

Bill Marx likes to introduce Waddell as “the best piano player nobody has ever heard of.” Waddell responds: “I hate that,” adding with a wry smile, “but he’s absolutely right!”

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 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is a program offered at both the Cal State San Bernardino and the University of California-Riverside campuses in Palm Desert. Osher offers noncredit courses targeting the 50-plus population “interested in learning for the pure joy of it” at more than 100 universities in all 50 states.

Osher instructors include college professors and experienced professionals, and subjects cover a wide range of subjects, from movie-making to blogging to financial planning to philosophy. But not just anyone can join the Osher faculty; some prospective teachers “audition” with a one-day presentation, to determine whether a proposed course will meet Osher’s standards.

That is how I met Vinny Stoppia.

Vinny is the author of The Austrian Woman, aka Marie Antoinette, Queen of Versailles. Most of us know little about the infamous French queen beyond, “Let them eat cake!” Stoppia has culminated a lifetime obsession with this fascinating woman in his well-researched and enjoyably readable book. He had a tryout with Osher in front of a packed house.

How does a guy born and raised in Queens, N.Y., end up obsessed with Marie Antoinette?

“My parents weren’t readers, but when I was 8, I got a library card,” he said. “I read every book in the children’s section, and at 10, they let me browse through the adult section. I became focused on history and got interested in George Washington and the American Revolution. I found lots of references to a ‘Citizen Genet,’ the brother of the French queen’s lady-in-waiting, who came to the U.S. to try to influence America’s policy toward France. I wanted to know more about him, and no matter what I read, particularly about the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s name kept surfacing.

“I became an admirer of her,” said Stoppia, “when I read that when the odds were stacked against her, her response was, ‘I’m going to go forward.’ I found that so inspiring. I made a vow at 19 that I would one day write a book about her that would alter people’s perceptions of her.

“Everyone thinks of her as the pre-incarnation of the infamous Leona Helmsley of New York—self-absorbed, insular, thinking only about herself. But when she had to, she stepped up to the plate.”

Stoppia majored in French literature at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, because he had decided he wanted to read Marie Antoinette’s letters in their original French.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher, and I received two fellowships which would have taken me toward a Ph.D., but I was No. 30 in the draft lottery (during the Vietnam War),” he said. “I decided to apply for conscientious-objector status. I knew French really well, so I thought of going to Canada, but I made it past the draft board and then had to do two years of service in lieu of going into the military. Just as I was about to be assigned to a mental hospital, the United Nations took me instead.”

Stoppia wound up spending 23 years with the UN, specializing in meeting services and in keeping delegates happy. “I met all of the big world political figures from the 1970s to the 1990s,” he said.

While in New York, Stoppia worked as a volunteer with HIV/AIDS patients. “They didn’t even call it AIDS then,” he remembers. “It was a terrible experience to watch men die. People were so afraid to go near them. They even wanted us to suit up like astronauts before we went into someone’s room. I remember Easter of 1985, and one man who knew he was close to death, crying out, ‘Please, help me.’ I had to clean him up, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a privilege, a parting gift I can give to him.’ I’ve learned that not living with blinders on makes life much more interesting. There are so many stories.”

Stoppia came out to his own family at 28. “I knew it was going to be difficult. When they found out, they wanted to sell the house and move. They never got to 100 percent acceptance.

“My mom taught me about service and knowing how to get what you need, how to survive. My relationship with my dad was rocky; he always wanted to ‘toughen me up.’ I never cried as a kid; I had to ‘be a man.’ But I once had a flashback to when he was giving me a bath at about age 4, and he caressed me; I had forgotten he could be nurturing. One of my regrets in life is that I wasn’t present enough to speak with my father about his impending death, to help him on his final journey.”

Stoppia came to Palm Springs in 1993, and loves it. He has volunteered as a docent at the Palm Springs Art Museum for 17 years, teaches Spanish classes, and has given time to a local hospice.

“I got sick with AIDS after I got here, and decided, ‘This isn’t going to kill me. There’s still something important that I have to do,’” he said.

After attempting to write about Marie Antoinette during every decade of his life, Stoppia finally hit his stride and completed the book in three years. The amount of research he has done is evident—not only via the gossipy insider stories from behind palace walls that he can tell, but also via amazing photographs illustrating his presentation.

I thought Stoppia might have been a frustrated standup comic based on his flamboyant sense of humor and his ability to connect with those crowded into the auditorium, but he said he perfected his audience-friendly style in his many years of leading museum tours. “It was when I realized that those skills are what I should be bringing to my writing that the book finally just rolled out.” His take-away message: “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.”

Stoppia’s “audition” to teach the Osher course about Marie Antoinette was successful, and he is on their schedule for the upcoming season. He will show that the French queen is about much more than eating cake.

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