Hansen: Living up to a family legacy

He just wanted to be a surfer but family got in the way.

And not just any family, but one of the early, prominent families of Laguna Beach.

Joseph Richard Jahraus III, 65, is an oldest son and not surprisingly felt the legacy of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather — all Laguna icons.

No pressure or anything.

His great-grandfather, Elmer, arrived in 1902, when there were only 11 families in town. He was the first Realtor and saved Heisler Park from development.

His grandfather, Joseph "Joe" Richard I, opened Laguna Lumber, which almost single-handedly started the real growth of the area. He also helped create the Laguna Beach County Water District and was instrumental in the city's incorporation, among many other civic contributions.

His father, Joseph "Dick" Richard II, 88, continued running the water district and served on several boards, including the Festival of Arts and Boys and Girls Club (before there were girls). He still lives in the house he grew up in on Cliff Drive.

But like all multi-generational families, there comes a reckoning: Pursue personal dreams or continue the family tradition.

"In retrospect, I wish I would have went to Hawaii and went surfing my whole life," said a smiling Jahraus, sitting comfortably in his Woods Cove home, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and surrounded by surf art.

Jahraus was only half kidding. A part of him remembers friends in high school who went on to surf professionally and travel the world.

But then another part remembers when his dad sent him to military school in New Mexico because he was surfing too much. Jahraus had started at Orange Coast College but spent more time in the water than studying.

"My dad sent me over there to straighten my ass out, and it did real quick," Jahraus said.

Recall the timing. Jahraus came of age during the Vietnam War. Young men either fought or fled, burdened with a duty that was not their own. Jahraus was spared, but many concocted elaborate schemes to avoid the draft.

So it was not only the discipline of the military school that affected him. It was the exposure to other students from across the country.

Learning to appreciate Laguna

"What I really learned is Laguna allowed a lot of different people — gays, weird artists, black people," he said. "When I went to New Mexico, it really woke me up. Laguna has had everything and tolerated it. That made me appreciate Laguna."

Jahraus spent just one year in New Mexico and then finished his business degree in San Diego. He willingly came back to Laguna and the family lumber business, where he originally started working at age 10.

"It's hard to leave a place where you were born and raised," he said. "Would I like to move somewhere else? Yeah. The crowds just drive me nuts. But it's really hard."

Jahraus's wife, Susan, is also from a long-time Laguna Beach family. Her father, Bill Thomas, owned Bill Thomas Cameras in Laguna. The family has Orange County roots that go back to the 1880s.

"We're not a quaint village like everyone seems to think. We're more Newport now," she said. "Money speaks louder in this town than it used to."

Decisive and matter-of-fact, Jahraus does not pine about the good old days because, frankly, it's somewhat pointless.

"Some of the old-timers talk about, 'Oh, remember the old days when….' Yeah, I do, but my God, that was 50 years ago, for criminy sakes."

Joe officially retired when the lumber company was sold in 2001 to another family-owned business, Ganahl Lumber. He still keeps busy running family affairs, along with brother Jeff, who splits time in Colorado. Sister Jennifer lives in Arizona.

Despite his early surfing desires, Joe fulfilled the family legacy, not out of obligation or guilt but because he saw its real value. He was active in the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce and Neighborhood Watch.

His friends used to ask him why he never ran for mayor, but Jahraus did not have the patience for it. Like the patriarchs before him, he prefers action to politics.

"I couldn't stand all the [garbage] they put up with," he said. "Whenever I ran meetings at the Rotary Club or Neighborhood Watch, they should last an hour. OK? City Council lets a two-hour meeting go until midnight. Guys, if you can't say it in five minutes, you don't have anything important to say."

Jahraus realizes the town has changed. It is inevitable. He misses walking downtown and knowing everyone. Now he doesn't even go downtown unless he has to.

L.B.'s 'bootstrap history'

Back when the city was smaller and everyone participated, residents solved problems in more of a straight line without the overhead.

"In the old days, if there was a problem in town, everybody got together over a drink at a local bar and ironed it out," he said. "There are new people in town."

He added that he is frustrated "that they come into town and then five years later they want to run the town. But on the other hand, to me, it's not worth making it a big deal and ruining my day."

After more than 100 years, Jahraus has earned a pleasant day off. His family has paid their dues.

But Jahraus admits it never seems to end. The desire to give back is too strong. His family has done so much for so long that "retirement" seems hollow by comparison.

He sometimes wonders if most people in Laguna even remember — if they take the time to appreciate the city's bootstrap history.

"It would be nice if people would come and ask me, 'What did you guys do back in the day?' That's all."

What the Jahraus family did was make things happen.

Because they could.

"The Jahraus family all stand high in the regard of the residents of Laguna Beach and enjoy a well-deserved popularity there, for they are everywhere recognized as among the most enthusiastic and dependable workers for the best interests of this attractive beach town." — Samuel Armor, 1921, "History of Orange County, California."

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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