Happy 90th, Deborah Szekely!

Dear Deborah,

Your 90th’ birthday is worth celebrating not for the number of years you’ve lived, but for the way you’ve lived those years. 90 is a cause for celebration in and of itself, just to have survived the rigors and challenges of day-to-day living. But for you, Deborah, all that  you’ve packed in and all that you’ve given back is really a lot more than that. I remember once bringing John Huston to the home of a wonderful Dutch sculptor named Jan de Swart.  Huston was a director, a writer, a pugilist, a painter, a horse breeder, a gambler, and a ladies man, and when he looked at the artist’s work he said, “You must have led two full lives.” To which Jan responded, “And you must be Methuselah.”

When I think of all you have accomplished, Deborah, I think of Jan’s remark because, based on your hearty health and mental agility, you’re on your way to becoming Methuselah, who was purported to have lived for 969 years.

But Methuselah is more a metaphor for longevity than accomplishment (though he was the grandfather of Noah and stuck around long enough to see the Ark built).  You, Deborah, are a woman of accomplishment.  Rancho La Puerta , of course, is your gift to the world of health, exercise, eating right, and appreciating nature.  There is also the Fundacion La Puerta, your environmentally-aware gift to the people of Tecate.  There is the New Americans Museum and Learning Center in San Diego.  There are your 17 years of service in Washington, D.C.  There are your countless lectures, all aimed at the theme of Living Right.  There is your fight to prevent child obesity through education. There are all your well-earned awards, including being named Mrs. San Diego, Humanitarian of the Year, Philanthropist of the Year, and just overall Best Person, for all the years you’ve given to help motivate and encourage others.  In all you’ve accomplished, and all you will continue to accomplish, you have served as an inspiration and a guiding light to all who know you.

On a personal level, you have given me the gift of the Ranch, for which I will be eternally grateful. I first came to the Ranch as a journalist in 1997, bringing my wife and two daughters, ages 17 and 14. After just two days I saw that this would be the one—and probably the only—place where I would be able to get my daughters to join us as they worked through their teenage years.  They took to the Ranch like birds to flight or tadpoles to water.  I wrote about what a magical place this was.  I described how Grandpa Raven, your stone-reading Indian in residence, shared his wisdom in a fun and gentle way. I wrote about the freedom one had to explore, about the exercise one got just walking from one’s room to the dining room, about the conversations one had with guests who didn’t feel like strangers, about the steam, Jacuzzi, newspapers and lemonade in the Men’s Health Center (I miss the lemonade!), about how I didn’t recognize my younger daughter after she had just had her hair cut, and I introduced myself to her as if she were someone I was meeting for the first time.  Her words—“Dad, it’s Hana”—have become part of our family lore.  I returned with my family the following year, and again wrote a story about the Ranch.  And again, the third year.

By that time I was told that I had become a “friend” of the Ranch, and if I ever wanted to return to write or just to get energized, I was welcome. That was a clear example, Deborah, of your extraordinary generosity.  But my wife was uncomfortable with such a gift. It’s part of her Japanese culture that when you are given something, you should also give something back. And that’s how I became a presenter at the Ranch. I asked you if you’d like me to offer a workshop, or talk about the people I’ve written about, and you said yes. So now my wife feels more comfortable doing Pilates, advanced yoga, and swimming here. Nothing’s really changed…for her.  But my enrichment continues to grow as I get to know some of your guests on a deeper and more personal level. Thank you, Deborah, for that as well.

Over the years that we’ve come to the Ranch—and I think we’re now past the 20 visit mark—I’ve been able to share some memorable experiences with different members of my family.  I brought my mother here from Florida once, and when she arrived in San Diego she was in a wheelchair—a surprise to us, but she didn’t want to say anything for fear we might suggest she not come.  I got my exercise that week pushing her wheelchair, and she got hers by taking various classes in that chair.  I brought my sister and her husband here and had a wonderful bonding time with my brother-in-law, the memory even more special as he passed away at an early age a few years later.  I brought their son here and we bonded by laughing so hard at our inadequacies in a Pilates class that we were politely asked to tone it down.  When my daughters complained about eating at a table with people they didn’t know, I remember telling them that they should be more open-minded, then said, “Let’s see who we wind up sitting next to tonight. If they’re uninteresting, we will eat by ourselves the rest of the week.”  I felt pretty confident we wouldn’t be doing that, and they agreed with me after we sat down next to a woman who said she worked for President Clinton at the White House, and the man she was with said he was the brother of the president’s Chief of Staff.

I’ve gotten so many stories, even stock tips, from people I’ve met at the Ranch. I once met a composer for Madonna in the Jacuzzi, who turned me on to a singer I had never heard of named Madeline Peyroux. I once met Bill Moyers in the men’s health center. When I told him we had John Huston in common—he had interviewed Huston for one of his PBS shows and I had written a biography of the Huston family—he told me that he had recently bought 10 copies of my book on interviewing to give to his staff. That, I said to him, was the best review I could ever receive.

When Alex lost his battle with cancer, you showed me the incredible depth of the research you did concerning his disease—a remarkable testament to a mother’s love. It was such a difficult time for you, and I know that you and Sarah have continued to improve the Ranch the way he would have.

I could go on and on talking about my experiences at the Ranch and what this place has meant to me and my family, but it’s not about just us—it’s about all of us who come to the Ranch.  It’s about you, Deborah. It’s your vision, your input, your care, your ability to choose people like Manulita, who has served your guests now for 50 years, and Phyllis, Joe, Cesario, Barry ….it’s about how you manage and how you delegate and in the end, how you understand how to continue to make the Ranch as special and unique and as comfortable as it is.

Happy 90th, dear Deborah. It’s been an honor and a privilege to know you.  Thank you for helping us become a little healthier, a little wiser, and a lot friendlier than we would be without you.

With love and affection from Hiromi, Maya, Hana and

Larry

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