MY LADERA FRIENDS – by Gary Lee – July 2020

20 Years ago Year 2000 Gathering – Punta Pescadero, Baja, Mexico
Front fm Left: Mike Voss, Eric Chapman, Gary Dodge, Brad Dodge, Jim Driscoll, John Hanson
Back fm Left: Garrick Baggs, Calton Stetson, John Safier, Garry Lee, Neil Norton, Glenn Rudolph


In the summer of 1974 when I was 10 years old, our family moved from New York City to a small suburban community in California called Ladera. I was entering 5th grade at the local elementary school. On the first day, I was warmly welcomed by a group of boys who all seemed quite happy to have a new kid joining their class. A boy named Gary Dodge was giddy about having a new schoolmate with the same first name as his, yet he assured me that we would not get mixed up because the other kids could call him by his nickname Gee. Every day at lunch, we all gathered in the same spot on the same bench. Neil Norton often had a box of instant Jello in his lunch sack, and we would form a line to be doled out a palmful of the coveted flavored sugar snack. If you were lucky enough to have something good to trade, you had a shot at getting a bite size piece of John Hansen’s mom’s famous chocolate chip cookies.

In sixth grade, we kids were bused to the local middle school, called La Entrada, which consolidated 3 of the local elementary schools. There were new friends to be made, new kids to hang out with, and new activities to join. Yet at the end of each school day, our group would gather down at the elementary school yard to play basketball or football together until dinner time. In the summers, we all hung out at the community pool.

At the start of 9th grade, some of us, including myself, went to private high schools, while others were split between the two public high schools. We saw less and less of each other, yet on weekends, we would gather at the local shopping center parking lot in the evenings to hang out and drink beer. Lazy summer days at the pool were still had, but more seldom, and it now included girls.

When college rolled around, we all went our separate ways, created new groups of friends, and rarely saw each other. We each stayed close with a few of the group, and would only hear about the others from one friend who heard from another friend.  

It wasn’t until many years after that we reassembled at Mike Voss’s wedding. Many of us had not seen each other in 5 or 10 years, yet when together, it was like riding a bike, enjoying each others company as we used to, with barely a hiccup. My friend Neil Norton saw the importance of this group’s togetherness and afterward began arranging reunions every 5 years or so. The first couple were in Baja Mexico, where Neil’s family owned a house on a remote beach. Others were held in Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite. Our last reunion occurred in Joshua Tree just 2 weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak. It had been over 10 years since meeting up together.

Our individual journeys have taken us on varying paths, from being an accountant to an arborist to a minister. Along the way, we got married, had kids, some got divorced, some remarried. Some have had life threatening events, one took his own life. At our gatherings, we peripherally talk about our families, our jobs, our parents, and the crazy world around us. But we purposefully keep it light. What we focus on are the memories of our past, of previous reunions and crazy antics, enjoying each other’s company in the moment, and creating more memories for the next reunion. We toast to our friend Jim who had passed and relish in how fortunate we all are to have such a beautiful friendship.

20 Years Later Year 2020 Gathering at Joshua Tree National Park, Ca.
From left going clockwise: Lars Nilson, John Hansen, Neil Norton, Gary Lee, Garrick Baggs, Chris Carlsmith, John Safier, Glenn Rudolph, Brad Dodge, Mike Voss, Mark Elder, Gary Dodge, Eric Chapman, Jason Hubbard


Billy’s Comments: As a parent, I coached Gary and many of Gary’s friends soccer when they were around 10 or 11, and I was a loyal supporter at many of their baseball games as well. What an amazing group of characters – different personalities yet so harmoniously connected. I have to salute Neil Norton for keeping the group together, and I salute Eric Chapman for coordinating their very recent one. The spectacular gathering was written up in Ladera Crier by Chris Carlsmith titled : ” Ever wonder what Ladera Friendships mean to our children? Lifelong ties and memories ! “ It takes good efforts to sustain ! BTW, I miss seeing Andrew Rossi in the photos. How are you doing, Andrew ?