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San Diego Legends

San Diego County Library and Aging & Independence Services present San Diego Legends: Living Well, an annual recognition comprised of painted portraits by local artist Mona Mills, photographs, and impact statements about local elders who lead by example.

The Legends exemplify lifestyles that embrace inclusion, spiritual integrity, humanism and healthy living. Their lives and accomplishments are a testament to the nobility of hard work, as well as respect for each other and one's self. As the exhibit is displayed at a new library each month, residents have the opportunity to meet the Legends, hear about their experiences, and participate in related programs.

Exhibit Schedule

The 2014 Legends

Wadie Deddeh

"What brought me to America? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'"

Wadie Deddeh is an immigrant, an American, a teacher, a servant leader, a family man, the "father of Caltrans," and the first Iraqi-born American elected to public office anywhere in the United States. Wadie immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. He became a teacher and later entered elected office serving 16 years in the State Assembly and 17 years in the Senate. Through his work with the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and through his leadership in the development of Caltrans to provide a strategic solution for long-term transportation challenges, Wadie demonstrated leadership through action and the power of positive engagement. He believes in "crossing the aisle" to forge solutions just as our founders taught us. He believes in the power of community and the value of responsibility. His advice to the next generation: participate in politics; follow and engage with the news in state, country, and the world.

Ofelia Escobedo

"We can all work together. We can support each other. All of us have the potential to do great things."

Ofelia Escobedo is a community builder and two-time cancer survivor who has a passion for culture, family, and the value of the neighborhood. The co-owner of Lola's Market and Deli, Ofelia spent her early adulthood in a Barrio Carlsbad that was friendly and united. After raising her family in Orange County, she returned to the area in 1985 and was shocked to see her town center neglected and littered with graffiti, drugs, debris, and gangs. Determined to restore the community to its prior vibrancy, she rallied the neighborhood and formed the Barrio Carlsbad Association. Through her leadership and the support of the community, the neighborhood decline was reversed, and the area was successfully transformed and today is a vibrant community full of life, hope, and possibility. To her credit, Ofelia started an annual Fiesta in 1990 that now attracts over 8,000 people a year to celebrate the history and culture of Barrio Carlsbad. Her resiliency and commitment to purpose have been foundational in building a renewed sense of unity and strength within her community. When you walk into Lola's Market you can see the evidence of her work: family behind the counter, tables filled with people of all ages, and an ever-changing Wall of Fame celebrating high achievers. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is recognized.

Murray Lee

"You've got to be focused, you've got to study, you've got to graduate."

Murray Lee is a World War II veteran, a historian, an author, and a curator. Through his work at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, his book, In Search of Gold Mountain: A History of the Chinese in San Diego, and his leadership, Murray strives to inform the community about local history and the struggles inflicted through discrimination, as experienced by Chinese immigrants in California. Today, Murray remains engaged and to that end, gives tours of the former Chinatown neighborhood and shares details of exclusion and prejudice in hopes of inspiring new generations to be more inclusive. He has also worked with the City of San Diego to honor the Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese people who made downtown their home. Murray's commitment and scholarship are representative of the value of cultural competency.

June Singer

As one of the first female Marines, June learned something that has stayed with her throughout her life: "You are a member of the greatest force ever. You are a role model. You go do it."

June Singer is a fixer, a dealmaker, and an enterpriser. After getting a college degree in chemistry she went on to join the Marines as one of the first women to enlist and serve in the first detachment of women at the Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps' boot camp. June retained her resolve and commitment to purpose when returning to civilian life, and since that return has worked for Solar Turbines in Human Resources management, and most recently as an ombudsman. Inspired by the 1965 Older Americans Act, June is remarkably selfless and is a tireless advocate for the rights of elders. She is the County of San Diego's Aging and Independence Services' longest-serving ombudsman, and has volunteered her time for 18 years, fighting for the dignity and respect local elders deserve. Throughout her career two attributes remain constant: her devotion to articulating the needs of those not necessarily seen by the masses and, most importantly, her unequivocal commitment to serving her country and community through service.

Bridget Wilson

"It's not about you. It's never about you. It's about the people behind you."

Bridget Wilson is a torch bearer for equality, a woman of singular yet universal purpose, a human being who has helped create social and cultural change. Bridget served in the United States Army Reserve before attending law school, and has fought tirelessly throughout her career to end LGBT discrimination, both locally and in the armed forces by working to end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' She is a charter member of the San Diego Veteran's Association and American Veterans for Equal Rights. She worked to create San Diego's first LGBT bar association, and served on the board of the AIDS Foundation, as well as co-coordinated the Dixon Defense Group, which defended seven Navy women attacked for lesbianism. Bridget is a political activist, having served as co-chair of the United San Diego Elections Committee, a bi-partisan political action committee. Through a focus on ethics, values, and a belief that anything is possible through action and responsibility, she has spent her forty-year career fighting for the LGBT community's rights and quality of life.

The 2013 Legends

Gordy Shields (April 20, 1918 - June 30, 2013)

"People say, 'Gordy, is that your bridge?' I say, 'Yes, that is my bridge.' I love that. I guess I'm a legend. I always wanted to be an icon, but I guess I'll settle for legend."

Gordy Shields represented the very best in civic engagement. He kept busy throughout his retirement by setting national bicycle racing records and advocating for local bicyclist's rights. Gordy picked up cycling when he was fifty, and raced against the likes of Lance Armstrong, was a four-time national champion, and earned a total of 36 gold medals. But he was never just in it for the win. Gordy was a leader, advocating tirelessly for bike lanes and the importance of sharing the road. Through his efforts, 14 out of 19 miles of the Bay Shore Bikeway were completed, including the Coronado Bridge. Gordy passed away on June 30, 2013, at the age of 95.

"Above all, people shouldn't feel sorry for themselves. They ask, "Why me?" Well, why not? Get up, get out, and get moving."

Salvador Barajas

"Having integrity as one of our qualities makes our journey through life much easier; integrity without truth is not integrity."

Growing up in Mexico, Salvador "Sal" Barajas and his family immigrated to the United States when Sal was 18. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Sal developed as an artist, studying advertising design at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College then attending the Academy of Arts in San Francisco and San Diego State University. A strong sense of community, justice and integrity has guided Sal in his work as a professional art director and community muralist. In 1973 he was one of the original muralists to paint the world famous San Diego Chicano Park murals, later playing an important role in the Chicano Park Mural Restoration Project. Sal and his wife are major proponents of education and, as a result, all four of their children have graduated from college. Sal owns Motivational Designs, a business that provides teachers with classroom tools that promote bilingual education.

"In the beginning you do artwork to fulfill material needs, in later years you create to satisfy your soul."

Phebe Burnham

"My family always said to me, 'You're going to be an artist.' So I was brainwashed and always knew what I'd do with my life."

Ninety-three year old Phebe Burnham has been an artist for as long as she can remember, capturing the world through oil paints, pastels, and other mixed media. Encouraged to pursue art from a young age, Phebe frequented museums as a child and went on to attend the Swain School of Design and the Columbia University School of Painting and Sculpture. She gets her inspiration everywhere, and always aims to please her customers, even entertaining the occasional request for a "de-wrinkle job" and other "enhancements."

"I have two tips for living well. First, keep a sense of humor. Second, find something you love and stick with it, even if it doesn't make you a billionaire."

Rita Cloud

"Prejudice is like the elephant in the room. No one wants to see it, no one wants to talk about it. People get afraid when they don't understand."

Rita Cloud lives social justice. Her family was the first African-American family to move to the El Cajon area fifty years ago. As a substitute teacher for the Cajon Valley School District, Rita faced discrimination by students and faculty alike. She took action by serving as Co-Captain of the Affirmative Action Committee for local schools, and joined the Friends of the El Cajon Library. As a member of the Friends, Rita successfully fought for a new library to be built that would better meet the needs of a diverse community in need of empowerment and education.

"I fought everyday to sensitize people. Sometimes you have to buck what's going on and say, 'There's a way.'"

Carmen Duron

"Pay attention. Try to really make an impact. You don't just sit down and wait for something to happen."

Carmen Duron has spent the past eighty-three years fighting for equality and giving a voice to those that are too often silenced. She attributes her steadfastness to her career, having worked for twenty years as an operating room nurse. On weekends, Carmen worked in the fields with Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Union, fighting for the rights of others. Today, her determination to help others carries on as she works for Adult Protective Services in San Diego County. Her goal? To ensure that people of all ages are engaged, healthy, and living the best lives possible.

"If somebody doesn't try to hear them, then there is no voice."

Randy Edmonds

"To make changes you have to get yourself in the position to change things."

Randy Edmonds (Koiwa-Caddo) is a respected Southern California Tribal Elder and a tireless Native American activist. Known for his ability to build tight-knit communities and provide spiritual guidance, Randy has become a well-known leader throughout the country. Randy grew up in Oklahoma, but was relocated to Southern California during the Urban Relocation Program in the 1950's. Randy recognizes the importance of keeping the tribal identity alive. He was the founder of the Indian Human Resource Center and the national Urban Indian Council, and he supports culture and unity through Pow-Wows and other community events.

"Pow-wows are a higher purpose of all nations; they're a vehicle for consolidation of people. Drumbeat and songs are the heart of the people."

About the Artist

Mona Mills has worked her entire life as a professional artist. She considers herself a "survivor" woman artist, as her career was launched at a time when a female artist had to sign with a man's name. Mills was born in Chicago and attended the Art Institute at the University of Chicago. Her murals brighten the walls of many San Diego County Library branches, and she has also served as an art instructor at many local schools.

"The paintings are no longer just portraits; they are symbols that are the individual, but, also, symbols that go far beyond any one individual. We need to teach with our murals. This idea makes art a necessity, not just a frill."

The County of San Diego and the San Diego County Library disclaim any responsibility for the accuracy of the translations.
KPBS San Diego Public Library