Piece of Mind: Remembering a man who left his mark on the city

It is fair to say that the single most influential member of this community over the past 50-plus years was Sport Chalet's founder, Norbert Olberz, who died last Friday.

Although his obituary appears on the front page of today's paper, an appropriate nod to his stature in town, the article can't possibly capture every nuance of this complicated businessman.

It might seem to some that it's disingenuous of me to try to add more here, especially since we had a slightly adversarial relationship as central figure and reporter, respectively, during the ugly year in the late 1990s that he labored to get his preferred vision of a shopping center built on Foothill Boulevard at Angeles Crest Highway. But I'll try, just the same.

In our paper's efforts to present both sides of the issue at a time when there was vociferous opposition to the project then on the table, we offended Olberz and his supporters. This was made very clear to me by the cold shoulder we received whenever we made an attempt to contact Olberz for a comment. No dice.

If we were not clearly in his corner, it seemed, he wanted nothing at all to do with us.

I really wanted a conversation with him, to get a true feeling for the man. It wasn't until after that iteration of the project was killed and a then-member of the City Council, Deborah Orlik, wrote an opinion piece on a related topic that I was given the opportunity for an interview. Olberz was said to be outraged by Orlik's piece and on a June morning 12 years ago I was summoned to a meeting with him to explain why she was allowed to write what she did.

I was a little nervous when I arrived in the plain office space Olberz occupied near Taylor's. Also joining us was Dennis Trausch, a Sport Chalet executive.

Trausch stayed on point, and on offense, throughout the hour-long meeting. His position was that we had done Olberz's La Cañada Properties — which owned all the land that now comprises the Town Center — wrong by giving Orlik a voice. My explanation that the council member was within her rights to offer an opinion fell on Trauch's deaf ears.

Within minutes, however, Olberz turned unexpectedly warm. It's not that he was suddenly shy about stating his case, but he seemed to decide that we had printed the piece without malice.

He opened up and candidly told me why he was so frustrated with the city and so stung by criticisms of the project.

By the end of our meeting he was actually telling me some old jokes. I appreciated his efforts to make me feel more comfortable. I left his office newly-informed about someone who had moved to this town shortly after my parents settled our family here.

Years later, I was very happy Olberz lived to see Sport Chalet's corporate headquarters built and, later, the grand opening of the Town Center with its new flagship Sport Chalet store. I reflected then on how many local teens he had employed over the decades, and how much he had given to the community by sponsoring youth sports teams and donating to causes.

By rolling up his sleeves after buying with his wife Irene a tiny ski shop here in 1959, Norbert Olberz and his strong work ethic put the small city of La Cañada Flintridge on the map. He built a business that we can all point to with hometown pride.

And that is quite a legacy.

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CAROL CORMACI is managing editor of the Valley Sun. She can be reached at ccormaci@valleysun.net or carol.cormaci@latimes.com.

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