Commentary: Community lost a gem

Laguna has lost a treasure. After a vigorous battle with cancer, Dennis Morin passed on Dec. 31. He was only 66, way too young for a man with such an appetite and energy for life.

Dennis was a bon vivant, a raconteur, a connoisseur and other French words. He founded and took public one of Orange County's largest software companies, Wonderware, helping many achieve financial and career success. He was famous for throwing lavish company parties, like renting the New Orleans Superdome for 80,000 customers, and booking groups like The Pointers Sisters and Neville Brothers.

He went on to build Laguna's famous Rock House, the partially submerged home near Aliso Beach that is one part eco-friendly, one part Catalan and all parts pleasure. This is the ultimate bachelor pad with sexy curves, sunken living room, home theater and hot tub that would make Hugh Hefner blush. Dennis spent four years designing and engineering every detail of the house, and it shows. It is a masterpiece.

Dennis spent most of his time on the Rock in his immensely dense kitchen, not in size, but in the accouterments of a working chef: books, cutlery and the latest in technology, like a sous-vide slow cooker. I am a somewhat obsessed foodie who has lived in Italy, and I have never known a cook with as vast a repertoire as Dennis. From the finest French to every continent in Asia, to down home barbecue, clam bakes and pizza, Dennis always raised the bar on panache, presentation and pairings (he was an inspired mixologist as well). And he lavished all of this on his friends in the most delicious settings, eschewing the dining room for the coziness of the floor in front of the fire.

But it wasn't his entertaining that drew innumerable women — and men — to Dennis. Nor was it the seductive Rock House. What always won the day was Dennis' searing intellect, charm and humor. He was, quite simply, always the smartest guy in the room. His B.S. meter was somewhere on a par with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, and he spent the better part of his battle with cancer equally battling with his Republican friends on Facebook. With logic, not name calling.

He worked tirelessly (and hilariously) to point out hypocrisy within the party, and equally hard to support Barack Obama. He believed if he changed one mind, it was worth it. I believe he left us feeling the world was in a better place with Obama.

Dennis also moved people with his clear and lucid ruminations on his journey with the disease. He expressed his fears and stoicisms about death freely. It was a balm, and a clever and poignant way to keep friends in the loop without the tedium of repeating it over and over. What else was special about Dennis? He could fly a plane, sail a boat, race cars, write computer code and expound on science. When Apple released the iPhone, Dennis released some of the first and most successful apps — as a sideline!

But I believe most would agree that Dennis' most endearing quality was his generosity of spirit. Behind his laconic New England surliness was a pussycat who loved to entertain, laugh, love and take care of people. That's what chefs do. And entrepreneurs. I think of him as that rare dichotomy of businessman and artist. He was a trenchant writer, took amazing pictures, played guitar, cooked beyond comprehension and was always the best thing on Facebook.

He was a sensualist and incurable romantic. And he loved. Madly. Late in life, he discovered the love of his life, Annie Speck. His love for her simply bubbled over. I was with him when they briefly split up, and saw his emotions crack wide open. He fought to win her back with public proclamations of love so naked that it made women swoon, and men, well, a little defensive.

So if there was one light always shining bright in his battle with cancer, it was Annie. He felt her tender heart by his side through it all. They were an inexhaustible team, chasing down every avenue for a cure. Annie would drive while Dennis searched for the best nearby ethnic restaurant to buoy their spirits after hospital visits. He was knocked out by her beauty and spirit. It softened him.

Before Annie, he used to grimace for pictures. After Annie, it was all smiles. Their romance was way too short, and I'm sad for Annie and the grief she will feel for too long a time. But she will look back at the years spent with the man she called Bubboo and see it as the gift it was. One for the history books.

Those of us who he touched — and there were many — are already feeling the sting of loss, because we know it will be quite some time before we see the likes of someone as talented and interesting as Dennis Morin.

BILLY FRIED is a resident of Laguna Beach.

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