The afternoon the news broke of Martin Senat's death, the waves crashed, a sharp ocean breeze blew, and a dozen dogs gamboled around their owners on a short strip of beach off Pacific Coast Highway.
Senat, who died July 25 at the age of 81, co-founded and served as president of the group that maintained the Huntington Dog Beach for more than a decade. When the beach's nonprofit preservation society announced his passing three days later, there was no memorial for Senat anywhere on the shore between Seapoint Avenue and Goldenwest Street. Still, the scene showed off the legacy Senat left for Huntington: a lean strip of the shoreline where dogs ran around without leashes and splashed in the surf.
Among the dog owners at the beach that afternoon were Gail and Eric Segal of Orange, who brought their 3-year-old miniature poodle, Molly. They had come to the Dog Beach at least once a week since they moved from the East Coast five years ago, they said. Gail Segal added that she had never met Senat, but she appreciated his efforts.
"Thank him, his family and the foundation," she said as Molly darted along the sand. "I hope it continues. This is very unique and wonderful."
Senat, a native Brit who retired from a career selling insurance before co-founding the Preservation Society of Huntington Dog Beach in 1997, was a common sight on his beloved beach, where he often walked with his dog, checked the doggy bag dispensers and even gave tours to out-of-town groups. Even to those who didn't know him, though, he left an indelible mark on Surf City.
Or, maybe, he left a mark on DogTown USA. A year before he died, Dog Fancy magazine awarded that title to Huntington Beach, in part because of the dog beach's reputation.
"We do have a number of really dog-friendly cities in California," Ernie Slone, the editor of Dog Fancy, said this week. "Carmel is a very dog-friendly place. San Diego is a very dog-friendly place. But Huntington Beach, what makes it special is just that there's a dedicated group of local people who are volunteers."
That group of volunteers came together in the late 1990s when the city was considering closing the Dog Beach, according to Amy Tucker, the chief financial officer for the preservation society. Senat and others set up the nonprofit to clean and maintain the Dog Beach, which had existed under the city's care for years.
Like the animals he loved, Senat was known to bark at times. Jim Engle, the city's community services director, faced off with Senat in 2007 when a number of residents complained about the nonprofit's merchandise tables on the bluff overlooking the Dog Beach. Engle asked Senat to move his tables down to the beach, a move that some said would kill the nonprofit's ability to raise funds, and Senat encouraged supporters of the beach to contact the city with their concerns.
In the end, the two sides reached an agreement by replacing the merchandise tables with covered booths. Engle noted that despite the media coverage of the controversy, he and Senat generally had an amiable relationship.
"He was a man with a mission, and he had a lot of energy," Engle said. "He loved dogs, and he wanted to do the best he could to keep this beach open, so he organized everybody, basically got them to work to save the beach. What I mostly remember is just a great deal of energy, a love for dogs and an ability to get a large group of people working for a common cause."
To Michael Palajac, a longtime member of the preservation society, Senat was a fighter who had no qualms about taking on City Hall, but also "a perfect English gentleman."
Palajac, who owns the Doggie Spa locations in Huntington Beach and Irvine, often helped Senat set up booths and banners on the Dog Beach and even sent his employees to lend a hand. A dog owner himself, he remembered Senat stopping by the beach at least five times a week, saying hello to passersby and handing out literature.
"I found him just an amazing, relentless man who had that deep desire for pets," Palajac said. "That's something I'll never forget."
A memorial service for Senat is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Seapoint end of Dog Beach near Tower 26.