"Get your shovel," Gay Wassall-Kelly deadpans upon opening the door to her home on the Balboa Peninsula.
Coming before a hello, the words serve as a quick introduction to a house that looks to be in the process of emptying itself out. The couch is piled with memorabilia about the boat Wassall-Kelly and her husband are looking to sell. The office down the hall boasts VHS tapes, paper supplies and assorted remnants of the newsletter that she churned out here for 17 years.
Wassall-Kelly, longtime editor of the Balboa Beacon, has clearance on her mind, and it takes a nimble pair of feet to slip around some of the artifacts that line her living space. In some cases, the items she's unearthed are news even to her. Picking up and studying a poster advertising a 1988 wooden boat festival, she confesses that she can't recall the event.
Soon, this material may make its way to storage, courtesy of the Newport Beach Historical Society. In March, with doctors' orders not to sit too long after a back injury, Wassall-Kelly put out the last issue of the Beacon. Asked if she'd revive it, she answers no, but then works in a joke about women always changing their minds.
There's a lot of material in this tiny room, and little of it began as Wassall-Kelly's. Much of it was given to her by residents: photos, posters, books, bits of family histories.
"What it is is the excitement of getting it together, getting another story that nobody's heard," says the 74-year-old, dressed in a red long-sleeved shirt and black slacks with a seashell-shaped necklace. "Then I get the feedback of people calling and, you know, they love it. And [they say], 'What are you doing next week?' or 'I've got something' or 'We're having a family reunion — could you come and take a picture? If not, we'll send you an email.'
"I feel like I was part of everybody's family that was reading it."
Those blunt monosyllables, printed at the top of page one of the Balboa Blab on Feb. 8, 1996, preserve for posterity the beginning of Wassall-Kelly's journey as a town chronicler.
In a "surprise move," the brief story begins, Wassall-Kelly took up editor Jim Fournier on his offer to sell the Blab to anyone for 2 cents. "When asked if he felt hoodwinked by the sale, Fournier replied, 'Hell no. I'm laughing all the way to the bank.'"
At the counter on the left side of her office, where a printer, stamp machine and other devices sit crammed side-by-side, Wassall-Kelly photocopies all four pages of that issue. A Daily Pilot clipping, which she also has handy, outlines the transaction: Wassall-Kelly had written columns and reviews for the Blab, and when Fournier decided to hand the newsletter off after two years, his contributor took the reins.
"We'll be staying out of politics and policing," the Pilot article quotes her as saying. And that's what she's done for the last 17 years as the Beacon — which she soon renamed — has landed every Thursday at locations around town.
For that matter, Wassall-Kelly has made the rounds too. Pulling open a drawer next to a row of framed posters, she smiles upon finding a set of mugs that the Goofoffers, an informal social group that met to discuss local goings-on, used for their coffee. The mugs, personalized for each member, include a courtesy one for visitors. That sometimes included Wassall-Kelly, who wrote about the Goofoffers and covered them for city television.
Mathematically, that put Wassall-Kelly one degree of separation from the Duke.
"They made one [mug] for John Wayne, but John Wayne got feisty and only came a few times because some people didn't recognize him," she says.
Celebrities, by and large, haven't been the Beacon's forte. The newsletter, which Wassall-Kelly assembled on old-fashioned cut-and-paste boards, tracked the ups and downs of ordinary life: businesses opening, buildings being demolished, neighborhood folks gathering. The last issue, which came out March 28, advertises a Newport Elementary School reunion with a front-page portrait of the class of 1932.
When Wassall-Kelly pulls out her file on George Grupe, one of her research historians, she lingers over it. His school class photo is the one that graces that front page, and he's written content for her since 1996.
If the editor's cut-and-paste operation feels old-fashioned, Grupe has done her one better. In the file, Wassall-Kelly locates one of the handwritten pieces that he provided for her — delivered by hand, week after week.
Grupe, who recently moved to Truckee to live with his daughter and son-in-law, was a Newport resident for nearly 90 years. By phone, he expresses sadness about the Beacon's folding.
"When I called Gay, that's what I said — it was a shame that after she had done so much for the community, that it ended in such a sad way," he says. "It, in effect, broke my heart because she had worked so hard."
Others around town miss the newsletter too. Shirley Pepys, creative director of the Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society, talks about Wassall-Kelly's "magic touch." David Beek, general manager of Island Marine Fuel and chairman of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, misses the days when the publisher and her husband, Bill Kelly, would personally deliver the latest edition around Balboa.
"The Balboa Beacon was unique in a lot of ways," he says. "One, because it usually focused on very localized deals — the peninsula or the island. It was always very Newport Beach coverage. Also, you knew most of the writers and you knew the publisher, so it was kind of a family affair."
That affair may be over, but it has an equivalent of sorts. Carlos Tapia, who printed the Beacon for years at CT Printing in Costa Mesa, launched a newsletter of his own, the Edge, in July. His publication isn't a duplicate of the Beacon — it comes out twice a month instead of weekly — but it is the same size and features a similar layout.
Tapia started the Edge, he says, out of a sense of responsibility. He wanted to provide ongoing space to businesses that had advertised for years in the Beacon. Still, he doesn't view his endeavor as competition.
"If Gay calls me tomorrow and says she wants to restart the Balboa Beacon, I will gladly put a stop to this," he says.
An hour isn't long enough to hear Wassall-Kelly's stories. As she browses files, she rattles off one yarn after another. One recounts a testy local businessman who insisted that she deliver no more than one copy to him — and stipulated that it should be folded and not dropped on the floor.
A minute later, she remembers getting an email from a local English teacher who took Wassall-Kelly to task for the Beacon's grammatical errors. The teacher claimed she had given copies of the newsletter to her students to correct.
As for the teacher's message? It contained a misspelling and a dangling participle.
Already, Wassall-Kelly misses her role as the neighborhood's historian. Still, not all the neighbors have moved on. Some, she says, still drop off artifacts to her. Soon, she plans to box up all of those items and deliver them to the historical society. Gordy Grundy, the group's president, is happy to receive them.
And that, for the first time in years, will mean an office in Wassall-Kelly's home with plenty of open space.
"It's gonna feel empty, I know," she says.