First published in the Dec. 30 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
The year 2021 is coming to a close much like it did in 2020: with a rise in COVID-19 cases due to families throughout the nation gathering for the holidays amid the discovery of a more transmissible Omicron variant — which has supplanted Delta as the dominant strain.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported nearly 12,000 new coronavirus cases on Christmas, a stern reminder that the pandemic is still very much present and will likely remain in our lives in 2022. The disease has claimed more than 815,000 lives in the United States alone and continues to affect municipalities, businesses and everyday life across the world.
La Cañada Flintridge wasn’t immune to the effects of the coronavirus, dealing with its own tribulations — such as beloved restaurants struggling to stay afloat due to public health orders, students dealing with virtual instruction and being thrusted back into in-person learning amid a pandemic, and community traditions such as Fiesta Days being canceled to prevent the spread of the disease.
However, hope for LCF and every other city to pull through came with the COVID-19 vaccines, and a semblance of life before the pandemic was restored as more Californians were inoculated.
Though the recent surge brings a sense of deja vu, there is one major difference in that hospitalizations aren’t nearly as severe as they were last winter — an indication that the vaccines are working in getting life back to the way things were before the pandemic.
Here are some of the Outlook Valley Sun’s top stories chronicling 2021:
Return to Normalcy
As the spread of COVID-19 in California declined and vaccinations decreased, state and county officials gradually rolled back many of the restrictions to which residents had grown accustomed. On Jan. 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who later soundly defeated a recall attempt — lifted a stay-at-home order that allowed restaurants to serve patrons for outdoor dining. During the summer, customers returned to movie theaters, bars and restaurants with capacity limits gone.
The county aligned with the state’s health order and officially reopened on June 15. LCF restaurants gladly served patrons indoors again, and the City Council held its first in-person meeting in 15 months.
“I think we’re all a little bit in shock, but we’re very excited to be here,” then-Mayor Mike Davitt said to chuckles from masked audience members present at City Hall on June 15.
The community marched back to life with a parade on July 5 after not having Fiesta Days festivities — which occur on Memorial Day — the past two years.
“We are very happy to be coming out of the pandemic,” said attendee Jeanne Gronfeldt. “To be able to gather and be together is very important, and it seems like we are doing better. Seeing this is encouraging and inspiring.”
The tradition of trick-or-treating on Indianola Way the evening of Halloween also made a comeback this year, allowing residents to enjoy holidays again.
“We are ecstatic in our return to normal life and appreciate that our community can celebrate holidays again,” said council Vice President Keith Eich.
LCUSD Committed to In-Person Learning, Senior Class
Newsom and legislators struck a deal in March to provide financial incentives to school districts that opened their doors for in-person learning after nearly a year of virtual instruction, fulfilling a promise he had made in late 2020 of getting students back on campuses throughout the state.
However, the La Cañada Unified School District was well ahead of the curve compared to other local districts. It was one of the first districts in the county to bring back children in TK-2nd grade for limited in-person learning and was one of the few to do the same for 3rd-graders in Feb. 16.
The district took a staggered approach to returning its pupils, and ultimately welcomed back its largest group: students in grades 7-12 at La Cañada High School.
“It’s not normal by any means with seven check-in stations,” said LCHS ⅞ Principal Jarrett Gold. “But having them back makes the campus feel alive again. It no longer feels like we’re in a panic; it feels more like recovery.”
LCHS administrators went even further on making up for time lost by giving its senior class of 2021 — which missed out on social and sporting events for more than a year — an unforgettable commencement ceremony at the Rose Bowl Stadium.
About 1,450 people gathered at the stadium to celebrate a senior class that spent the majority of its final high school year at home in front of a computer screen and listening to teachers via Zoom.
“That we’re here is the victory — together in person, on one of the grandest stages in the land. And that we are here says a great deal about who we are as a learning community and what we value,” LCHS Principal Jim Cartnal said during the ceremony.
The district didn’t rest on its laurels, and remained committed to keeping students safe and on campus with a return to a normal schedule for the 2021-22 school year. LCUSD officially reopened for business on Aug. 16 with a five-day-a-week bell schedule for the first time in 17 months.
High School Athletics Return
Ahead of the return to in-person learning was the resumption of outdoor high school sports practices and games, which restarted across California in March after a yearlong hiatus. Later, as the state continued to enjoy a lull in coronavirus cases, officials also permitted indoor sports.
Despite the obstacles brought on by the county to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which included mask-wearing and weekly COVID-19 testing, La Cañada athletes persevered and made the most out of the opportunity to compete for the first time since March 2020.
The cross-country team kicked off sports in the COVID era in March and the football squad followed suit after not having played an official game in more than 16 months.
The girls’ track team captured its first Rio Hondo League championship since 1993 in May, and went on to win three events in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 championships. Arielle McKenzie won the 800- and 1,600-meter races and helped bring home the program’s first CIF title in the 4×400 relay since 1977 along with teammates Ellaney and Katelyn Matarese and Catherine Mispagel.
McKenzie carried that success over into the fall and helped the girls’ cross-country team finish as runner-up in the CIF-SS Division 4 finals and CIF State Championships.
The girls’ tennis team also had an impressive fall campaign, reaching the CIF-SS Division 1 championship match but falling to league rival San Marino, 10-8, last month. Senior Eliana Hanna and Tsehay Driscoll bounced back in the CIF Individuals Doubles Tournament earlier this month by defeating Aliso Niguel High School’s top duo in the championship.
Ray Wipfli also brought home a CIF title by winning the Division 1 diving competition last spring.
In the private school sector, St. Francis had three programs reach the finals in 2021. The lacrosse team won the Division 2 championship and the volleyball team and the volleyball program played in its first-ever championship match last spring. Most recently, the Golden Knights reached the Division 4 football championship but fell to powerhouse Long Beach Poly, 38-7, on Nov. 27.
The Flintridge Prep girls’ tennis team had a Cinderella season during the COVID season, reaching the Division 4 championship game as an unranked team but being edged by Beverly Hills via tiebreaker on points, 72-71, after a 9-9 tie.
Council Denies 600 Foothill Project
After months of discourse and deliberation from residents and LCF officials, the City Council denied a controversial proposal for a three-story, mixed-use structure at 600 Foothill last month.
The council voted 4-0 against the resolutions amending the city’s Downtown Village Specific Plan and zoning needed for the proposed project — which included 47 senior housing units, 12 hotel units, underground parking and 7,600 square feet for office use — to move forward.
Councilman Jonathan Curtis had a financial stake in the 1.29-acre parcel that was purchased by 600 Foothill Owner LP for $4.2 million two years ago and recused himself from the discussion and vote.
“If [zoning] changes are needed, we need to make changes but we need to go through the process, taking into consideration what is good for the city as a whole and not just for one project,” Mayor Terry Walker said.
Many community members, including former mayors, voiced their opposition to the proposed structure with concerns about its size and traffic that may arise from such a project.
The council supports the idea of senior housing but prefers that it be done adhering to the city’s General Plan.
“I hope there’s still an opportunity for a development there, but it’s got to be scaled to a different level and it’s got to meet our current plans that we have in the books — not a new plan created and then fit this in,” Councilman Davitt said.
LCUSD Doubles Down on DEI
The La Cañada Unified School District remained steadfast in its diversity, equity and inclusion initiative this year despite disapproval from dozens of stakeholders.
A group of parents voiced their concerns — and in some cases launched accusations — to district staff and the governing board after a series of edited videos leaked online in early August allegedly showing a private book club meeting among La Cañada Elementary School teachers and administrators. The videos seemingly depict LCE employees discussing “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DeAngelo, a professor who researched whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis.
For some stakeholders, the videos affirmed their suspicion that the district would implement critical race theory — an academic movement developed decades ago that examines the dynamics of how race and racism are expressed throughout American history and its institutions, especially law — in the classroom and indoctrinate students through its DEI initiative.
LCUSD superintendent Wendy Sinnette assured parents that La Cañada has and will continue to adhere to the state’s educational standards, which do not include CRT, and that the initiative is about inclusivity, not race.
“Our kids are dealing with the most complicated world that has ever existed and it is our duty as schools and as parents to prepare them to succeed in it,” she said. “It would be a disservice if we did not give them the skills of empathy, compassion and discernment to be the inclusive, equitable leaders in that world as our next generation of adults.”
The district pushed forward its three-year plan by adopting two documents pertaining to DEI in May, approving an oversight committee that includes community members and district employees and hiring a consultant to assist in its effort.
More Accidents on Corner of Foothill and angeles crest
The intersection of Angeles Crest Highway and Foothill Boulevard has long been plagued by collisions and more were added to its history this year.
A truck traveling southbound on Angeles Crest Highway lost control and crashed into a sign and a boulder before coming to rest on the south corner of the intersection. The incident that occurred in February brought back memories of the horrific 2009 collision at the same intersection that killed two people and injured 12 others.
“This is like the fourth [crash] I’ve experienced,” said Cesar Valencia, an employee at Hill Street Cafe, which is located on the south side of Foothill Boulevard and Angeles Crest Highway.
Unfortunately, history repeated itself not once, but twice at the infamous intersection on Nov. 6.
A car collided into Hill Street Cafe early in the morning and, hours later, another vehicle speeding down the highway crashed into neighboring businesses Veruca Salt and Compass Real Estate.
Carolyn Bretz, owner of Veruca Salt, was relieved no one was inside the building at the time but lamented the closure of her store. She announced on social media that Veruca Salt was unlikely to reopen, even if the building owners and her insurance allowed her to get the business up and running.
“I think I’ve had enough of being in a place that is being hit by cars,” she said. “I do not believe It’s safe … it’s a dangerous intersection. I don’t think [any business] should be there until safety barriers are put in place.”
Patrick DeChellis, LCF director of public works, said the city traffic engineer is looking at the design of the intersection to see what the city could do to better prevent such accidents.
LCF Seeks Help From State After Numerous Outages
More than 1,000 residents suffered from a number of unplanned power outages from June through August, prompting the City Council to formally complain to the state.
City Manager Mark Alexander notified Southern California Edison that there had been as many as 16 power outages reported between June 21 and the end of August. Most of the power failures affected residents and businesses connected to the Haskell circuit, one of the longest lines in the city.
It was all hands on deck for Edison, which upped its presence with dozens of crew members working to repair and replace aging equipment in August.
Despite their efforts, the council was resolute in moving forward with a formal complaint to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates and oversees utility companies.
“It’s our responsibility to be the voice of our residents, and everybody on this panel knows that we’ve been getting email after email and we’ve been guaranteeing our citizens that we are doing everything possible to remedy this situation,” Mayor Walker said. “And I really think we have to do everything possible, and everything possible includes the complaint to the CPUC.”
Former Spartan Turned Pro Golfer Has Remarkable Year
La Cañada Flintridge native Collin Morikawa had such an impressive 2021 that he could have had his own top stories list with all of his accomplishments.
Morikawa, a four-time Rio Hondo League MVP who graduated in 2015, rode a wave of success all year long, winning the WGC-Workday Championship in February and British Open Championship — his second major title — in July. The Former Pac-12 Conference player of the year also tied for third in the Tokyo Summer Olympics but lost in a seven-man playoff for the bronze medal and bounced back to help the U.S. team win the Ryder Cup in September.
Most recently, Morikawa became the first American to claim the European Tour’s Race to Dubai title and won the DP World Tour Championship. Prior to the tournament, the 24-year-old phenom was awarded a lifetime membership to the European Tour, an honor that has been given to only four other American golfers: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Patrick Reed and Tom Watson.
Such accomplishments catapulted Morikawa to No. 2 in the official world golf ranking, but the former Spartan says he wants to “win more.”
“It’s not a swan song, a farewell to what I’m doing in 2021,” he said. “I’m going to set my goals high; I’m going to set the bar as high as I can get and keep going. I’m still not No. 1 in the world. I still have a lot to work on my game. … I just want more.”
LCUSD Schools Recognized for Excellence
The La Cañada school district, one that prides itself on delivering a robust education, had three of its schools nationally recognized in 2021 with the high school among the best in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings and Palm Crest and Paradise Canyon elementary schools being named Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education, a coveted honor given to 325 schools nationwide.
In May, LCHS received an exemplary scorecard of 98.74 and placed 10th out of 659 qualifying schools in Los Angeles, 27th out of 2,598 in the state and 225th in the nation.
“LCUSD always looks to research-based indicators to assess our performance, and we recognize that this is just one measure, but we are proud of our high school’s achievement here and wish to recognize the performance of our students, teachers, staff and administration,” Sinnette said of the honor.
With PCR and PCY on the Blue Ribbons Schools list, the district has now had all of its schools recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. La Cañada Elementary received the honor in 2013 and the high school received the distinction three times (1993, 2004 and 2015).
LCF Resident Sends NASA’s JPL to New Heights
Space enthusiasts celebrated along with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists when the Mars Perseverance rover survived the entry, descent and landing — also known as the “seven minutes of terror” — and touched down safely on the red planet on Feb. 18.
Though rovers have been sent to Mars in the past, this mission was unique in that it was the first to send a helicopter to another world. It was also special to La Cañada Flintridge, not only because JPL is in the city’s backyard, but because LCF resident MiMi Aung had a hand in the historic feat.
Aung was the project manager for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which became the first aircraft ever to successfully make a powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19. The helicopter’s mission is a technology demonstration project, she explained, the findings of which could lead to actively adding aerial dimension vehicles to space exploration.
“It’s a mission of high risk and high reward,” Aung said. “We are in uncharted territory, but this team is used to that. Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next.”
Youth Baseball Team Participates in World Series
It was an unforgettable summer for the La Cañada All-Star 12-and-under baseball team, which went on a historic run and won the Pony Western Zone tournament in July to represent the West in the World Series, a feat no other LCF team has achieved.
“This summer has been one I know these boys will remember — a trip to play in Cooperstown, N.Y., followed by a trip to the World Series in Texas. Pretty special for these kids,” said manager Matt Regan.
The squad concluded its outstanding postseason run finishing fourth in the World Series, falling to eventual champion Laredo in the semifinals.
“Sure, we went to the World Series with the goal of winning it, but give the team from Laredo credit — a solid team who played well. We just ran out of gas,” Regan said. “But wow, what an experience. I could not be more proud of these boys. I know La Cañada is proud of them, too, as I cannot tell you how many well-wishers sent us notes of encouragement.”