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By Jim Kempton
I first encountered this little “Spanish Village by the Sea” more than 30 years ago, looking for a place to live closer to my new job at SURFER Magazine. The deeply embedded sense of community was immediately obvious. My wife Jann and I spent our first months here driving around the town watching softball games on the local fields, eating at Sonny’s brand-new pizza place and walking on the beach and Pier. We were young, over-confident and hoping to be upwardly mobile—the kind of couple who back then was more likely to move to a hipper Laguna Beach.
But we loved the down-home neighborliness here, the red-tile roofed buildings, clean beaches and welcoming locals. We made friends fast. Back in the late-1970s this was an even smaller local place where you found the same regulars at the Red Fox Lounge on Saturday night and St. Clement’s by-the-sea Episcopal Church on Sunday morning. We liked places like the San Clemente Cafe where the family made authentic American breakfast.
One of our first friends, Doug Smith, knew where the perfect little real estate deal was hidden. As we bought our first home in 1978 (a $70,000 Ole Hanson bungalow near T-Street) we met Kathryn Stovall-Dennis, the local artist, and Kenny Nielsen, the local fisherman.
The surf community I worked in was tiny. The Casino (now gloriously reopened) could squeeze in the entire surf industry for the SURFER Poll Party—all 300 of us. Terry Senate or Tom Whitaker would shape your board, Rich Chew was on lifeguard duty and Jeff Bartlett could repair dings like the Renoir of resin. Steve Pezman, my visionary boss at SURFER Magazine became a mentor and friend.
As we raised our children we met the Indian Guides dads and the Girl Scout den mothers, the AYSO coaches and the elementary school teachers. Our entrenchment in the community verified our first impression that this was the kind of place where friends like Jeanie Stavron and Michael Tracy work at the local market and you catch up on the kid’s and the business and recent vacation. We are still friends with Billy Stewart who was just starting his surfboard shop and neighborhood kids like Bernie Wohlfarth, who grew up to become our own brood’s Presbyterian Youth Group leader.
No matter where you go—to the Boys & Girls Club of the South Coast Area, San Clemente Library, the Post Office, DMV, North Beach or San Onofre—chances are you’ll see someone you know. And the local drug store, barber shop, doctor’s office, Thai take-out, local bar or breakfast spot? Well, if you make yourself a regular, not only will the patrons know you, the owners most certainly will too.
This is a town where you actually call your mailman by name and where you can call ahead to ask your butcher at Billy’s Meats Seafood and Deli to cut double thick fillets.
The amazing thing, 30 years later? San Clemente is still essentially the same—a little bigger, but maybe a little nicer too. Timmy Patterson’s Surf Shop, Holley’s Tire Service, Keith’s Flower Shop, Michael Kaupp’s Stanford Court Antiques, Adele’s Café at the San Clemente Inn, Aaron’s Restaurant Supply, Dan Yielding’s escrow office—each of these (and too many more to name) have been neighbors and friends for decades here. They make this whole town feel like the Cheers bar. To patronize their establishments is to be where everybody knows your name.
Jim Kempton is an obvious long-time resident, who is appreciative of all the local establishments that have indulged his special orders, tolerated his corny jokes and provided his children their work ethic.