Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am One of Miss Dawn's Little Sponges - Part 2 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

This is the second of a four posting series, “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I still have very vivid memories of living in Redondo Beach, in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles, in the mid 1950s.  Back in April 2011 I posted some recollections of running the grunion with my folks and their friends along Redondo Beach - my most viewed post to date.  “I was a young buck then, the scourge of Miss Dawn’s nursery school, and surely I was making up the whole thing . After all, I used to stand in front of the picture window in our living room watching the nighttime glow of wildfires burning in Malibu and Topanga Canyon across the bay and thinking that China was on fire. What did I know?” [ ].

During a road trip through California last fall I returned to Redondo Beach to see if I could locate some places still seared into my memory so many decades later.  Driving around I got a sense of the place I once lived, but so much that was there in the 1950s is gone now.  The old apartment complex along Palos Verdes Boulevard where we lived has been replaced by a more modern collection of condominiums.  The view of the Pacific Ocean is still there, however, but there is a great deal of newer residential housing between there and the beach where we use to run the grunion.  The old Fisherman’s Wharf extending out from the beach is not how I remember it, and the Ralphs grocery store where my mom use to shop is gone although the tall Washingtonia palms still line much of Catalina Avenue.  I wandered down to 211 Avenue I where Miss Dawn’s School was situated a block east of South Catalina Avenue just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean.  The old pink cinder block building that was my school has been replaced by small shops along this commercial strip.  To quote Thomas Wolfe: “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”  It did matter.  Gone were the swimming pool and the playground.  You can go home again, but there are no guarantees it will be how you remember it.

To avoid hitting the evening LA rush hour traffic back toward San Diego on the final leg of my road trip, I decided to stop for a bite to eat.  A nice looking sushi place on Avenue I was closed and so I asked around for a good seafood joint.  I was quickly directed to a fairly nondescript strip mall on Palos Verdes Boulevard just a few blocks away from my nostalgic wanderings.  Gina Lee’s Bistro (at #211 . . . happen chance? ) specializes in Asian fusion dishes and the menu is heavy on seafood.  Always a plus in my book although I was sad to see there was no offering of grunion . . . that would have been almost too much to hope for.  I arrived shortly after it opened and was able to get a table without a reservation.  I was lucky because the place quickly filled up.  Obviously this is a popular place despite its simple outward appearance wedged between a jeweler and a hair salon.  The restaurant itself was a large, open room with several tables and an open kitchen.  Always a nice touch although it can make for a lot of ambient noise and this was certainly the case here once the place filled up  The dishes were a bit pricey but I was told they were worth it.  In the end I had no complaint about the food or the service.  It was a decent meal.

This meal was special not for the food or the atmosphere; it was the serendipity of my coming to this place during my journey into my past.  One of the dishes on the menu was “Evelyn Dawn’s Potato-Crusted Salmon” which was served with sauteed vegetables and a dill cream sauce.  I inquired whether the woman for whom the dish was named might possibly be identical with Miss Dawn, one of my first teachers just a few blocks and so many years away.  In fact, they are the same.  The dish was named in honor of Miss Dawn, a regular patron, after her passing several years ago.  There is also a framed photograph of her hanging in the restaurant.  Perhaps my being directed here is what Thomas Wolfe called one of those "dark miracles of chance that make new magic in a dusty world.”

Just recently I was looking through an old family album for some old “Throw Back Thursday” photos of myself to post on Facebook when I came across two photographs taken on my fifth birthday, in March 1956, when I was attending Miss Dawn’s School.  I also found a progress report dating from January 1956 and signed by Evelyn Dawn, the school’s proprietor, and my teacher Zelma Seekford.  “He cooperates well in group play and is well liked by the other children,” wrote Ms. Seekford.  “He is willing to share the toys, and other equipment, and has quickly learned to be a part of all the activities.”  High praise for I am quite sure I could be quite the rapscallion some of my later teachers described to my parents.  Perhaps Ms. Seekford recognized my impishness with her antepenultimate praise of my “outstanding creative ability.”  Unfortunately it was not always used for good.  Thinking back on that time I grew curious about whatever happened to Miss Seekford and Miss Dawn, my very first teachers who played a major role in setting me on the path to my own adventures in education.  A couple quick “Google searches” and I discovered that both of these women had long, productive lives and careers in education.

Evelyn Dawn Thomas was born in Long Beach in 1907 and was raised in Glendale.  Educated at the University of California, she used "Miss Dawn" as her professional name throughout her career in education in the Los Angeles area.  She established her first school - “Miss Dawn’s School - in Manhattan Beach, California, and in 1953 she opened a second new preschool, which also included two swimming pools, on Avenue I in Redondo Beach.  Eventually, in 1961, she realized her vision of a primary school, establishing the Rolling Hills Country Day School on the nearby Palos Verdes peninsula.  By 1968 it included kindergarten through Grade 8.  Miss Dawn believed her little charges were “like little sponges ready to soak up everything."  By the time I left the pre-school at age five I could already read and was beginning to write in cursive.  I was sad to learn that Miss Dawn passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.

Zelma Seekford was originally from west-central Ohio, where she was born in June 1912.  She attended Wittenberg University in nearby Springfield where she received her teaching certificate before moving to the Los Angeles area where her husband worked as a mortician in Santa Monica and she taught at Miss Dawn’s School in Redondo Beach.  She and her husband eventually returned to Ohio where she continued to teach elementary school until her retirement.  She passed away in 2007 at the age of 95.

My Google searches also took me to an interesting reference to the salmon dish I enjoyed at Gina Lee’s Bistro at 211 Palos Verdes Boulevard nearly a year ago.  Scott and Gina Lee, the proprietors, said of the salmon dish: “This is a crowd favorite. Lots of people remember ‘Miss Dawn’ . . . She came in the restaurant nearly daily and always had the salmon professing that the omega 3 fatty acids kept her going at top speed. We’ve had former students and teachers come in and marvel that she lives on our menu.”  So it was indeed serendipity that I happened to have dinner there during my search for an old childhood haunt.

I hope that Miss Dawn and Miss Seekford are looking down with smiles on their faces and secure in the knowledge that the short time I spent in their care paid off in the long run.  "Teachers teach because they care,” wrote the education reformer Horace Mann. “Teaching young people is what they do best. It requires long hours, patience, and care."  I am certain I benefited from my time at Miss Dawn’s School.  "The dream begins, most of the time,” say Dan Rather, “with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth."   I am thankful for the careful prodding of Evelyn Dawn and Zelma Seekford.

My fifth birthday, March 1956, Redondo Beach, California

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.


  1. WOW! Was just doing on image search of old Redondo Beach & your photo came up. I went to Miss Dawn's from preschool to 2nd grade - leaving there June 1957.

    1. Hey, Ron! We must have been there at the same time. How wonderful to hear from you! Many great but far distant memories of that time and place. I hope you are happy and well.

  2. only recall a couple names; Robin Pulliam, Robert Coleman, Michael Rae, Stephanie Lampella