Our Laguna: Warm and witty honors for Laguna's 'rescuer'

Ann Hutchinson Quilter has never been one to pat herself on the back, not even at a luncheon in her honor.

Speakers at the Laguna Beach Woman's Club Woman of the Year luncheon heaped praise on Quilter for her accomplishments on behalf of the city.

But when the guest of honor spoke, she talked about the contributions of all of the groups represented in the room and the support given her in a time of personal crisis as she recovered from the devastating 1998 mudslide that destroyed her home and almost took her life.

First came the accolades.

Speakers described Quilter as a quixotic force of nature who represents the best qualities of Laguna's volunteers, no one more complimentary or endearing than Emily Quilter.

"I am Hurricane Ann's daughter, Tropical Storm Emily," she said at the sold-out luncheon.

"Over the past few weeks, Mom has been compared to some forces of nature, a hurricane, a bulldozer with a heart, a one-woman army and, to be honest, I can't really argue with any of those metaphors. Nothing really slows her down."

And she doesn't do "normal."

"But then again, if she did, we probably wouldn't be gathered here to honor her today," her daughter said.

Ann Hutchinson was the daughter and sister of U.S. Marine Corps aviators and then she married one, Charles Quilter II, who served in Kuwait, Bosnia and Iraq.

Raising Emily and her brother CJ, while Daddy was away at war, required nerves and other equipment of steel, for which Ann is known.

She survived the '98 mudslide that swept her out of her Laguna Canyon home and left her naked and alone in the dark, only to pick herself up and seek refuge. Can anyone be surprised to learn she was an aerialist with the Florida State University Flying High Circus while a student, or that at almost 50, she climbed back up on the trapeze while attending a college reunion.

While still in college, she climbed Mt. Fuji and hitchhiked through Europe. She has also escaped drowning at Waimea Bay, Hawaii, come close to flying over the White House during her solo cross country flight for her pilot's license and beaten breast cancer.

Her life experiences have left her compassionate and unable to leave a job undone.

Marine Corps born and bred, Ann Quilter never leaves anyone behind—from a classmate of Emily who needed extra tutoring, to organizing going-away parties for young Marines about to leave on tours of duty, or gifting five African children with college educations, not to mention Bonaventure, a Rwandan orphan the Quilters have taken into their family.

"No one gets left out," Emily said. "No one gets left behind when you are in Ann Quilter's unit."

And when the unit's headquarters is in need of repair, she is in charge of construction.

"She can drywall her own walls, hang doors, install windows, paint any surface, and once I came home from school to find her three stories up, with no safety harness, (hey that aerial training came in handy at times) fixing a hole in the roof," Emily said.

Quilter also was a member of Laguna's "Methodist Mafia," whose work teams helped build churches, and community centers and education centers in the poorest areas of Zimbabwe, Costa Rica and Cuba.

"They say when you have young school-age children that sometimes you lose your identity; you are known only as Emily and CJ's mom," Emily said. "In the circus, Mom was known as "The Flying Wedge." In the Cessna flying club, she's known as "Annie Margarita." To my dad, she's Annie Pooh. These days, I am exceedingly, exceptionally, utterly proud to be known as Ann Quilter's daughter."

In Laguna, Quilter is known as a Godsend.

"When I decided to step aside as chair of the capital campaign, she volunteered and raised the rest of the money," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who really got to know Quilter as a fundraiser for the senior center.

That included the $750,000 donation from the sons of the late Elizabeth Quilter, a columnist for Coastline whose pen name, Susi Q, gave the senior center its name.

"I stand on the shoulders of seniors who carried this dream for 20 years," Quilter modestly dismissed her own efforts.

After the 2010 December deluge, Pearson once again turned to Quilter.

"I was getting e-mails from the Quilters, saying shouldn't we be doing this, shouldn't we be looking at that?" Pearson said.

"I said, 'Yes, you should.' And she did.

"After a disaster the most important thing is taking care of people. Everything else follows and that's what Ann did." The shortest accolade at the luncheon came from Susan Neely.

"You rock," Neely said.

"Thank you for the 'boots on the ground' in the flood," said Laguna Beach Relief and Resource Coalition Chair Faye Chapman.

Chapman presented Quilter with gaily colored striped rain boots, another metaphor about Quilter as being able to face tough jobs with a gay heart.

Quilter was also presented with resolutions of appreciation from Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) and county Supervisor Pat Bates and a proclamation from the city.

"You will hear a lot about this woman," Mayor Toni Iseman said. "She is someone who gives 140%. She shows us what is possible."

League of Women Voters member Jean Raun said Quilter's legacy to Laguna includes creating a format for election forums that make the candidates the speakers, not the questioners.

"What I love most about Ann is that anything to do with her is a non-event," Chris Loidolt said. "If it's about anyone else, it's an event."

Event Committee member Stephany Skenderian called Quilter the verb and noun of volunteer.

"That's what Ann puts together in that vibrant body," Skenderian said.

That vibrant body was fashionably clothed in a spring green silk dress and coat that Quilter said made her look like fashionista Pearson, but had been purchased at a used clothing store—another metaphor of Quilter.

Club member Connie Burlin presented the Woman of the Year Award to Qullter, who was given a standing ovation.

"I am honored to follow former honorees," Quilter said.

She expressed appreciation to her family for putting up with her when she was cranky in the morning after a late night working on someone else's problems and especially to her husband for not standing in the way of where her heart led her.

"It has been a privilege to work with the finest men and women I have ever known, starting with league and then the PTA—if you want to get something done, call a PTA mom, " Quilter said. .

"I learned that collaboration is better than a bulldozer, but a bulldozer is also important. From the Methodist Church, I learned the importance of transformation—to keep your heart, eyes and ears open."

Quilter has involved herself in community activities that range from helping to found a Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders chapter in Laguna for underserved children and adults with ADD to sweeping the floor in preparation for a meetings on the financial benefits of converting a trailer park to a high end resort. And drummed up the necessary support.

"Laguna is a formidable machine when it gets cranked up," Quilter said.

But her family had the last word—words written by brother-in-law Chris Quilter and sung by the Sons of Susi Q—Charlie, Matt, Pat and Chris—to the tune of "Stand By Your Man."

…."Stand up for Ann

With her two hands to hold us

And a big heart to warm us

We won't be cold — ---and lonely

Stand up for Ann

She helped the town recover

By giving all the love she can

Stand up for Ann."

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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