A Century of Viola Girsh

When Viola Girsh turned 100 years old, half of Santa Barbara came by to pay its respects – from Girl Scouts that she has been supporting to Little Leaguers (who play on Girsh field in Goleta), grandkids, neighbors and folks from the Congregation B’nai B’rith that Viola and her late husband helped to found 75 years ago.

When Viola came to Santa Barbara as a teenager in 1921, the city ended at Constance Avenue, just a few blocks from where she lived with her two older siblings. Her father, William Schoen, manufactured fine cigars and operated a cigar store and newsstand on State Street near Ortega – which was then the center of town.

When the Schoens moved here, Santa Barbara had a population of fewer than 20,000 people, and there were not yet enough Jewish men for a minyan (at least 10 adults) to hold regular services. However, during the 1920s, 1,000 people per year were moving to Santa Barbara and little by little were adding to the tiny Jewish community. In 1925, the first Orthodox service, and the first Bar Mitzvah had taken place (with visiting rabbis), and a group of Jewish men began working to organize themselves. The first charter for Congregation B’nai B’rith was adopted on June 2, 1927. That same year, Viola married Dr. Lester Girsh, a young optometrist who had come to town a few years earlier.

By 1931, there were 80 members and Lester Girsh and nine other men set up the by-laws to establish a Conservative Temple. The following spring, Lester traded out some land he had on State Street for an old grocery store building on Garden Street. The men remodeled and refurnished the building, and the Temple B’nai B’rith was dedicated in June, 1932. A crowd (in those days) of 150 turned out for the celebration. The attendees included a dozen priests from the Old Mission who added their blessing to the building – making it the town’s first ecumenical service! (Dr. Girsh was the optometrist for the Catholic community at the Mission and Seminary.) Viola and the other ladies cooked all day to prepare a dinner afterward for the guests.

Since that time, Lester and Viola Girsh remained major benefactors to the temple. Before Lester died, he and Viola also made possible Girsh Park, the 25-acre outdoor park and recreation facility in Goleta.

Sudoku on the Mind

From my buddy Ashleigh “Potshots” Brilliant – I have this question about people who like Sudoku puzzles: Would they remember if they had done the same one before?

The Clip Clop Show

Toni Stern was not a household name but if you were awake during the sixties, you certainly would have known her music. She was the lyricist who worked with Carole King, most famously for “It’s too Late,” but also “It's Going to Take Some Time,” “Sweet Seasons” and “Where You Lead” (later used for the theme song on the “Gilmore Girls” TV show).

So where is she now? Just like the blue bird of happiness – in our own backyard. She made her nest in the Santa Ynez Valley around 1995, and is hip into horses. In fact, she just released her new hip hop video. Well, make that a “clip clop” video (after all, it’s about that horse.) See for yourself on YouTube, the online video service.

Father Virgil Cordano & Million-Buck-Chuck

Charles Schwab grew up in Santa Barbara. His parents and family were very close to Father Virgil Cordano, who performed the baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. Schwab and his wife, Helen, just gave a $1-million gift to name the Father Virgil Community Center for St. Vincent’s Affordable Housing Project.

“It is so appropriate for the Schwabs to honor Father Virgil with this community building because Father Virgil has been such a ‘community builder’ of Santa Barbara,” Sister Paule, head of development for St. Vincent’s, told me. “He has a way of making everybody – rich, poor, what have you – feel welcome at the table and part of our ‘community family.’”

Arguably the most recognized figure in Santa Barbara, Father Virgil came to Santa Barbara in 1934 to attend St. Anthony’s Seminary, a preparatory high school for Franciscan priests. For several years he taught seminarians in Oceanside and worked on his doctorate in Washington. Other than that, he has spent nearly his whole life in Santa Barbara, serving as rector for the seminary, pastor of the Old Mission and also college professor, author, administrator and community volunteer. He was named Santa Barbara’s Man of the Year in 1988.

Father Virgil is known for his interfaith dialogue; UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies named the Virgil Cordano Chair in Catholic Studies in his honor. Among his noted local activities is hosting (for 40 years) the Fiesta Pequena show opening Old Spanish Days Fiesta, serving as Marymount School chaplain and blessing the Harley-Davidson bikers and Ranchero Visitadores annual rides, and the household pets of community children on the Feast of St. Francis.

Currently being completed, the Father Virgil Community Center is a multi-purpose building with a large kitchen, spacious downstairs and divisible community room.

Sunday Discussion

Dr. Doyce Nunis, distinguished professor emeritus in History at USC and author of several books on California history, will speak on Sunday on “A conversation about California History” at the Mission Archive-Library.

Nunis, who is also forever editor of the Southern California Quarterly and has been president of the board of the Mission Archive Library for a couple decades, just stepped down from the board at the end of 2006, although he remains on as a trustee.

On Sunday, he will be introduced by Thomas F. Andrews, past executive director of the Southern California Historical Society. The talk is open to the public and there is no charge.

Call 682-4713, ext. 124 for more info. ‘60 Minutes at the Mission’ After a half-year search, the board at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has named Rolf Geyling as its newest president. The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has the longest (40-plus years) and largest drug and alcohol treatment program between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition to its men’s and women’s 12-month residential recovery program, it also has outpatient recovery, family support, relapse prevention, men’s sober living, academic instruction, job skills training and year-round emergency shelter services for the homeless. The Rescue Mission’s residential drug and alcohol program has won regional and national recognition for its effectiveness – one of the highest success ratios in the nation. Wanna know why so many people – Leni Fe Bland, Phyllis Marble, Dr. Gary Hanson, Bob Heavner and Dorothy Schuele – are so supportive of the Rescue Mission? Here’s how to find out. The Rescue Mission is having “60 Minutes at the Mission” on the second Wednesday of the month for people to hear about what they do at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, take a tour and ask questions. The next one is June 13 at 11 am at the Rescue Mission, 535 East Yanonali Street. For more info, call Rebecca at 966-1316, ext. 105.