A love of cars drew Gary Button to the San Clemente Ocean Festival.
It’s not the most obvious reason to volunteer for an annual event devoted to all things surf, but Button, now 80, wanted to participate and offered up his hobby.
“I’m a car freak,” he said.
To his delight, organizers of the Ocean Fest had discussed adding iconic Woodies to the event and Button’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“I went down to volunteer,” he said. “They said, ‘You’re just the guy we’ve been looking for.’”
That was 20 years ago. Every year since, he and wife Arlene Button have organized the parade of Woodies that line San Clemente’s own wooden Pier for both days of the festival.
“It’s been a fantastic 20 years,” Arlene Button said.
To mark the anniversary, Ocean Festival organizers commissioned special shirts for this year’s event. The Woody Car Exhibit has become a beloved part of the festival due in no small part to the Buttons’ work, said Peggy Vance, Ocean Festival executive director.
“Gary and Arlene are priceless,” she said. “They do such a good job putting together such a variety of woody cars form those in progress to those completed.”
The nonprofit Ocean Festival thanked the couple by giving them their 2010 Dorothy Fuller award for volunteers of the year.
“It’s a great honor,” Arlene Button said.
Gary Button has restored some 25 cars on his own from a 1929 Ford Model A to a 1963 split-window Chevy Corvette, but he’s never tinkered with a Woody.
That hasn’t stopped the car enthusiast from becoming a Woody aficionado.
After 20 years of working with Woody owners for the Ocean Festival, Gary Button accumulated a vast store of knowledge about the vehicles. They were built from about 1929 to 1956. They were never really popular because the temperament of wood to the elements, he added.
And Woody owners so appreciated his work that they honored him with a lifetime membership into the Southern California Woody Club.
The effort to bring Woodies to the Pier for Ocean Fest has brought the Buttons joy though it hasn’t been without its hazards. One year, a car owner dropped her keys into the water, Arlene Button recalled.
“They made it right through the Pier boards and into the drink,” she said. “They were stuck there until the locksmith had to make a key for them to get off the Pier.”
Another time, one of the cars just fizzled out and spent the weekend in the Button’s garage instead of the Pier.
In the past, the couple, who has been married for 57 years, was driving along El Camino Real and spotted driver tootling around San Clemente without even the panels. They chased down the car and convinced the owner to bring it to the festival.
“It was a work in progress,” Gary Button said.
He and his wife said the car was a hit because visitors could see right through it and appreciate the work required to restore the cars.
“That was a highlight,” Arlene Button said.
Visitors to the Woody exhibit have also seen the best of examples, including a 1938 Rolls Royce.
“That was a beautiful car,” Gary Button said.
Arlene Button praised the owners of the cars that have become synonymous with surf.
“They’re so good; they’re so nice,” Arlene Button said. “They’re so dependable. When they say they’re coming, they’ll come.”
The couple continues to oversee the Woody exhibit, in part, because the work has helped forge friendships and become a part of the San Clemente community. They started vacationing in the city in 1972 and moved permanently in 1985.
“It’s a great group of people,” Arlene Button said. “We feel like we’re a part of the city.”
Vance said that the Buttons have also leant their time and energy to stuff goody bags for the festival and hanging posters.
“They’ve both been incredible people to work with,” the executive director said.
The Woodies add another element to the Ocean Festival that’s more than the athletic events.
“Everybody loves to look at cars,” Vance said. “It’s just another part of the family component.”