‘Once Upon A Time’ in San Diego

by on January 20, 2020 · 4 comments

in History, San Diego

By Colleen O’Connor

Trying to recover from the flu?  Or avoid the wall-to-wall Impeachment imbroglio?

This is a pleasant, fun, and perfect distraction for anyone older than thirty.

Remember all those amazing San Diego gifts once readily available — and mostly free — but, now long gone.  Try.

For example, once upon a time, kids could go the publicly-owned pitch and put golf course and learn to swing a club for free. Tap, ballet, and swim classes were also available — for free — from the City’s Park and Recreation Department.

Mrs. Sorley patiently coached “first position; second position; plie; or Saute’ at University Heights rec room to hundreds of uncoordinated wannabes.  Those memories still provide laughter.

Or coach Bill Lucas, who ran his youngsters into team champions via long workouts at the Mission Beach Plunge or Morley Field (now Bud Kearns) pool. Children, teens, and young adults could safely “hang out” in these enclaves for youth.

Sometimes one could even admire San Diego athletic greats like Joe Alkire who broke the world record for 50-yard freestyle.

Or Carol Chapman, San Diego’s English Channel swimmer after Florence Chadwick.  Those were the days of nothing but tank suit and lots of grease to stay warm in rough, shark-infested waters. i.e., pre-wetsuits.

Or Little “Mo” Maureen Connolly, who won major tennis championships with the kindness and class once expected of a true “sportsman.”  And those wooden rackets.

Then there were neighborhood memories.  Johnny the butcher, who ground raw hamburger daily at the Buses’ corner grocery store where the owners let their customers run up “a tab” until pay day.

Or the Helms bakery man who tooted his whistle at those houses lucky enough to purchase fresh doughnuts every morning.  Or the Dairy Mart Farms guy who delivered fresh milk in glass bottles to your door step.

Think about it, San Diego once had 200 dairies within the city limits.  And, in 1950 our population was only 334,000. Today, it is 1.4 million.

I swore to myself — sometime in the sixties — that I would leave my birthplace when the cows left Mission Valley. Still here, though, having lived through the “no growth,” “slow growth,” “managed growth” and now “unstoppable growth” cycles.

Indeed, as a youngster training at the local beaches for rough water competition, I remember spray painted graffiti signs—”Tourists Go Home”—that caused a kerfuffle downtown.   Indeed, those signs created a bigger sense of alarm than the current pollution at La Jolla Cove or the loss the Children’s pool to children!

Once Upon a Time, can deliver more favorite memories — about real neighbors.  You know. The kind you actually knew and remember their names and still keep in touch with?

All good people.  One could also recognize them by the cars they drove.  For example, Mrs. West had the first and only Edsel in town. Others had those wonderful “Woodie” station wagons.  And, as children, we often walked to the beach or piled into their cars for the miles long trek to the ocean.  Nothing amiss.

One even knew and liked the “good cops” — such as the one who patrolled the area around Normal Heights. He found my siblings and I rushing to school (already late for the school yard assembly flag salute and pledge of allegiance—as we had chores to do!) Super guardian, this police officer hailed us over, told us to jump in his squad car, turned on the siren and lights and delivered us to our gawking and envious classmates.  Honest, it happened.

Sometimes, we misbehaved — like running through the neglected graveyard near Grant school on Halloween.

Or making fun of the neighborhood oddity, “Cecil,” who walked the streets always wearing a long coat and a woman’s pink purse dangling by his side.  We called him “the crazy man.” He never harmed anyone.

And then, there were the “pagan babies.”  Unique to Catholic schools in the 50s, this was a marketing tool (quite successful) to educate and motivate students about the less privileged in the world.

For a few pennies (or if rich, a whole $5), students could purchase a “pagan baby”—meaning a child who was orphaned or hungry or in need.  An actual certificate was produced as proof of the donation, along with the right to name the child.

So, if we pooled our coins, everyone got to add a name.  Somewhere there is a child with many, many names that was helped by a group of Catholic kids in San Diego.

To this day, some have kept those certificates to remind us of our youthful idealism and to enliven our own “Once Upon A Time” get togethers in San Diego.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

OB Joe January 20, 2020 at 11:20 am

Colleen, thanks for the nostalgia and memories. I have to tell ya, though, I was one of those young OB radical hippies who spray painted “Tourists Go Home” on an alley blank wall. I did catch caca from some of my colleagues and I think the OB Rag even ran an article against the spray painting message. I recall that James Terrell wrote the article. Yet the underlying thought was that back then (maybe still today?) the San Diego establishment thought more highly of tourists than its poor residents. And the message was a pushback against that trend.


Glenn January 20, 2020 at 7:31 pm

Ms O’Connor,

Here is a little history, personal to both of us. I moved to San Diego in 1973 and began working in the Criminal Division of the San Diego City Attorney’s Office on December 26. That job entailed being in the old courthouse on Broadway every day for the weeks we did not cover Traffic Court on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. Almost every day about 9am there was an older gentleman sitting in the hallways wearing a suit (with bow tie, I believe). Another attorney in the office mentioned that he was your father.

You know why he was there; for the other readers I will explain that he was one of the several retired “court-watchers” who came to the courthouse to keep “up-to-date” while getting a little exercise walking from one courtroom to another to ascertain which had interesting cases.


coconnor January 21, 2020 at 8:31 am

How kind of you to comment and to remember my father. He loved court-watching. and was pleased when one of his daughters one into law.

He had some amazing stories to tell when he got home–or just to see if he could shock us…..like details of “the trunk murder”—as in a body in the trunk (when that was RARE in the news!

Papa would also loved that you remembered him
My Best,


Frank Gormlie January 22, 2020 at 11:23 am

Colleen – I also remember your father sitting in court – when I was practicing. He used to wear a hat, as I recall and was always dressed up.


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