Tog at 95: Singing Along With Morro Bay's 'Living Treasure'

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When you are the patriarch of the Tognazzinis, one of the most well-known families on the Central Coast for half a century, the father of 10 children — eight still living and thriving — and have been married for 73 years to Henrietta, the love of your life, you don’t often hear a question like “What else have you done?”

But that’s the question that Wilmar “Tog” Tognazzini enjoys answering the most. Because, while raising a large family that has contributed so much to the growth of Morro Bay and the county, he has also managed to make his own indelible mark as a school teacher, principal, superintendent, guide, historian, author, poet, musical performer and volunteer. Now, to honor all he has done and has had the good fortune of sharing with hundreds of residents in his long life, the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce on January 17 proclaimed Tog “A Living Treasure.”

Naturally, at 95 his step is a bit slower, but he is still sure afoot and his hands still remarkably nimble and precise. Certainly these are clear, verifying signs that longevity belongs to those whose walk is sturdy and hands steady. But it is the startling busyness and bustle of his mind that is even more striking when it comes to explaining his mastery of long life: his mental motor never stops running. This is a man, the ultimate self-starter, still diligently searching for his next task, fulfilling a purposeful life with unquenchable curiosity, taking extraordinary delight in the everyday things that bring him joy, surprise and a never-ending sense of discovery.

“I’m a doer,” Tog says. “I spend my waking hours thinking of things that I can do – thinking of things I might put into my life or somebody else’s life.”

Sure, Tog is proud of all his children – Jane, Alan, Susan, Noel, Mary, Ann, Mark and Todd — and they’re proud of him; they also know their father comes from a heritage of globe-trotting individualism, grew up during  an historic era of dramatic modernization between the great World Wars, and that he thrives on the unlimited possibilities in every tomorrow.

Born in Guadalupe in 1918, the third of three children, his mother was a librarian in Guadalupe and his father a mechanic, “and on the school board, so I suppose all those interests came to me,” Tog says.

He derived the most pleasure from a happy childhood in Guadalupe from “the fact that my folks gave me piano lessons. I must have gotten the interest from my sister and she ended up being quite a nice piano player. I ended up being a half-assed piano player with a lot of mistakes and no music.”

As a youngster he wasn’t the physical type. Outdoor sports held little interest for him, but when it came to the piano and homespun hobbies he was an indoor athlete. Life was good for young Tog until 7th grade when his father fell and broke his back on Christmas eve. “From that time on it was a changed life,” he says, “because Dad had to go to the hospital in San Francisco and get this and that taken care of, so we moved to Greenfield.

“Money was short then and, as far as the piano was concerned, if I wanted to learn the piano I had to learn it by myself, and so I taught myself.”

Tog had a knack for teaching himself how to do things and he enjoyed showing others what he’d learned to do. Over time these basic personality traits would find form, evolve into skills and become his profession.

He moved to Greenfield in Monterey County in 1930, graduating high school in King City in 1935, earning his elementary school teaching credentials from San Jose State Teachers College in 1939, with a major in education and minor in music and science – although his major would share top billing with his minor for years to come.

In fact, given a choice between describing himself as a teacher who played the piano or a piano player who taught, Tog replied without hesitation: “A piano player who taught. I was a teacher, too. I think I was a good teacher.”

As good a teacher as he was, it was music that introduced him to his wife-to-be.

“I went to a dance, and her sister was at the dance and introduced her to me. She was 15 and I was almost 21.” After a proper and “careful” courtship Wilmar Tognazzini and Henrietta Brown tied the knot in Greenfield in 1939.

Starting in1938 Tog took a series of teaching jobs in Pacific Grove, Los Gatos, San Jose, Kernville and Monterey, then sliding down the coast to Morro Bay in 1944 he began a highly successful 18-year run as principal and superintendent of the Morro Union Elementary School during the boom years, and also taught in San Luis Obispo. In 1947 he earned his elementary school principal and supervisor credentials and Master of Arts in Education at UCLA.

In 1967 Tog began learning Spanish in summer school at the University of Mexico, beginning a lifelong love affair with Mexico and its people as the couple traveled the country extensively and he immersed himself in the culture. He taught himself Spanish “mostly by keeping a Spanish book alongside the bed, and whenever a word came up I looked it up.” They also traveled around Central America and the U.S. as well as to England, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland to keep up his family ties there – Tog is Swiss Italian.

“My mother was born in a small town in Switzerland called Gordevio,” he wrote in his book Good, Bad and Indifferent, “and although my father was born in Australia, his ancestry is Swiss Italian. Both of his parents migrated to Australia before he was born and the family migrated in 1888 to America. Through Dad’s grandfather on his father’s side, who became an American citizen, my Dad achieved the same rights.”

After leaving Morro Union in 1962, Tog taught a captured audience at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo and also taught grades and Spanish in Paso Robles from 1968 to 1977 when he retired. After 35 years as an educator it was time for Tog to look beyond classroom walls for his next challenge. It was early on during his post-Morro Bay period that they opened Tog’s Party Shop, the first party shop and party catering business in SLO, which they sold in 1968.

“It’s easy for me to find something I’m interested in,” says Tog, and sure enough, soon after selling the shop in 1968 he became a “permanent intermittent guide” at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The next year he became guide supervisor at the Castle and for the next dozen years he wrote the training manuals, trained the guides, and gave tours to such luminaries as Leon Panetta, Loretta Young and several California governors.

In between, the parade of children had begun, and all the while the music never stopped for Tog; he never stopped playing the piano. Music has played a “terribly” important role in his life and provided some of his and Henrietta’s most memorable “fun” times.

“My wife’s family had a little dance band,” Tog fondly recalls, “and while I was courting her, her mother and father and my wife, we used to play at all these places in the county. We usually played for the granges. We used to play songs like ‘I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad,’ and we did a lot of specialty dances like a Paul Jones, which was so popular.

“Mom played the e-flat alto sax and later I played the piano when her mother and father turned it over to me, and so the two of us continued and we played all over. When we played with her father the band was Joe Brown’s, when they played with me in was Tog’s Band.”

Henrietta enjoyed her own bright musical spotlight. According to a January 2000 Morro Bay Sun Bulletin article on their 60th anniversary, powered by her excellent baritone saxophone work she “became one of the original members of the Morro Bay White Caps Band. In 1981 she joined the San Luis Obispo County Band. Subsequently, she served two years as the first woman president of the County Band, the only woman to do so in the band’s 125-year history.”

Later, as their band days wound down and their audiences began to age Tog started playing and singing at convalescent homes, nursing homes, senior-citizen residences and other places for other organizations through his countywide “Fun With Music” campaign” and “Sing-Along Exercise Program.”

“At first these homes needed someone to play the piano, and so I played every home here (in Morro Bay) and for different organizations over and over again, and then gradually people started moving into homes, and the homes always had someone who could play, and so gradually I tell people I became super-saturated. I see a picture in the paper every week or so about a man who lives in one of the homes and he’s playing for them. That kind of put me in a no-play place. But every now and then I get a call and I play.”

Tog is a passionate people person. “I like to meet people. That’s certainly one of my favorite things to do.” And it’s all in the name of good clean fun, something Tog, with his sitcom-ready sense of humor, is always up for because he knows that “90% of being happy is doing something that you like to do,” he says, “enjoying what you do, and enjoying having people enjoy what you do.”

Tog also enjoyed putting together the popular “One Hundred Years Ago” column for the Telegram-Tribune – 16 volumes of columns published between 1988 and 2003 covering SLO County history from 1888 to 1903. And while he had several short articles published in the past, it wasn’t until 2011 that he finally began telling his own personal story and published his first humorously-titled book of poems, God Said It! I Just Listened and Wrote It Down. He had so much fun writing the first book that in 2012 he encored with his second book of poetry, the heartfelt Good, Bad, Indifferent, But Honestly, All Mine! His books are modest treasure chests of insights into a unique man, a whimsical dreamer, a serious man of deep faith, a wise, thoughtful man with a tender heart and a wide streak of humility that tempers his pride in his family and personal accomplishments.

Armed with a perpetually active mind and a boundless curiosity, and having done so many things to prove it, it’s hard to imagine Wilmar “Tog” Tognazzini being bored for even one day in his life. For example, questioned about what subject he would teach if he could teach anything, Tog replies:

“If I had to live my live again and do anything, I think I’d teach dancing.”

Considering all the subjects he has taught, it may be somewhat surprising to some to discover his favorite class was dancing, but it was the widespread impact of that teaching experience that has stayed with him:

“I taught dancing in Morro Bay. It was a tremendous success,” he recalls. “I had kids who traveled from every place in the county, and it went as far as Fresno and Santa Cruz. They danced over 100 different dances. That was probably the highlight of my educational life, because they kids were from 4th grade through 8th grade, and it was wonderful. You can imagine 8th grade boys performing that sort of thing! They were just outstanding. And these were the dances of the foreign countries, they weren’t two-bit dances.”

Tog has been honored many times by many organizations for his diverse life’s work in the community and unequaled generosity as a volunteer. He has received enough awards of recognition and certificates of appreciation to remind him that he is much admired, should he ever forget, and that each and every award is well deserved.

This is how the years have passed, although some things haven’t changed all that much. The rolling hills and farm fields of San Bernardo Creek just outside the town of Morro Bay have remained bright green with winter rains, and brisk ocean winds continue to chase the clouds inland, constantly changing the sky, while Wilmar Tognazzini has accumulated 95 years of life along the changing California coast.

Yet time stands still for Tog as his fingers agilely grasp the lip of the small parchment scroll embossed with the music to “I Fall Down and Go Boom” and load it into the back slot of his circa 1929 Rolmonica Player Harmonica — half harmonica, half player piano. Then, turning the handle of the scroll and blowing the harmonica at the same time, he coaxes the popular tune from yesteryear from his rare Rolmonica. So he’s still making music today.

When the music stops the conversation inevitably turns to Henrietta, 90, his musical partner, who is never very far from his side, and how their marriage of 73 years has reached historic longevity.

“You can’t believe how many people say when they know how many years, they say, ‘I never heard of anybody who was ever married that long,”’ he says. Does such a comment annoy him? “No,” he says, “it’s kind of pleasuresome. There’s a certain air to it. Or (people say), ‘I’m glad you did it.’”

But tell us, Tog, how did you do it?

“Sometimes we don’t answer,” he said with deadpan humor, Henrietta laughing. “No, we try to give each other credit. I’ve got a great family but their Mom is an awful lot of that great family, too, you have to remember that.”

No need to remember what no one forgets, including the fact that, as good as life has been, they have had more than their share of heartbreak, which happens when you live a long time.

“We lost two children and my Dad and Mother went before I did,” Tog says. “My sister went before I did and my brother was killed in World War II. My brother was in the air corps. He was in a plane, a B-17, flying with his group from France back to England and two of our planes collided. He went to the bottom of the Thames and so he was lost.”

Which is one of the big reasons why Tog cherishes his memories, why he keeps his loved ones close and why his heart is so big. He sums himself up simply and humbly. “I’m a very varied person. I like to do lots of things… I like to do everything, and I like to be able to say that I can do them. I tell my kids, do those things which you like to do and be proud of them.”

Tog and Henrietta have lived in the same house for 67 years, though not in the same location. Many years ago they had the house moved intact from the heart of Morro Bay to rural San Bernardo Creek Road just outside of town, and then built on more rooms for the children that would fill the house. There, his eight children, 18 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and many friends come to visit.

When asked the next day what he told the audience after being honored January 17 as one of the town’s “Living Treasures” — at an event he thought he was attending for his son Mark, Tog wrote:

“Yes, last night was a surprise! Of course you know that the speaker of the evening never remembers what he said. The best source is the listeners! I did have the gang of people meet all of my families and there were quite a few of my family there. They are the reason for me plus the most important person, my wife! She is always the most important but she takes it with pride.”

P.S. According to the Bay News, Tog actually said to the audience: “Now I know why so many of my family members are here. I give full credit to my wife for everything in my life.”

Tog passed away on October 20, 2013, followed in death five months later on March 11, 2014 by his beloved wife, Henrietta. They are now together forever in heaven.

 

END

 

Photos courtesy of the Tognazzini family archives.

 

Giovanni DeGarimore: Wizard of the Waterfront

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If you want to meet one of the most successful businessmen in San Luis Obispo County, you will have to travel down to the waterfront in Morro Bay, to the historic Embarcadero, where the sea lions bellow, pelicans swoop low, and fishermen haul their catch on to the docks with cloud-swept Morro Rock behind them.

And you may have to walk half the length of the Embarcadero to find him, because he could be anywhere from the newly-opened Off The Hook restaurant, where he consults, to Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley restaurant and STAX Wine Bar & Bistro, which he owns, to find someone who’s seen him, and you might only find that they’ve been looking for him as well.

Now some might say he’s elusive, and he may appear that way to anyone who doesn’t know his busy working rhythm and pace, but those who know him well know he’s a man of constant motion, and if you’re in constant motion, too, you’ll have no trouble finding him on the Embarcadero, where the bay meets the Pacific Ocean at the end of the continent, one of the most beautiful perches in the entire country.

So if you think finding Giovanni DeGarimore—Gio to his close friends—isn’t easy then you’d be doubly surprised by his openness and warm smile when you do catch up to him. He connects easily with people, and it’s impossible to talk to him very long without feeling his burning passion for his work, for good food, the ocean, and for Life with a capital “L” in general. Clear-eyed, congenial, articulate, he springs from tradition and represents the “New Guard” on Morro Bay’s tourist-fed Embarcadero. At 38 he’s young and a pier veteran, part of and highly respectful of waterfront history, and a sharp, up-to-date entrepreneur with a unique vision for the future of Morro Bay dining. His European sensibility, taste and sophistication sparkle on the Embarcadero where new ideas don’t always find an easy landing.

“My family’s been on the waterfront since the ’70s,” Gio said. “Central Coast Seafoods, which is the wholesale part of my family business, started here in 1973. Right before that my dad was an abalone diver. For 17 years he was diving abalone between here and Santa Barbara until one day my mom looked at him and said, ‘Hey, Mike, why don’t you try fishing something else?’ He said, ‘What do you want me to fish?’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you fish the fisherman? There are restaurants out here that need seafood…’

“I can’t help but think that she got that from a popular Bible verse where it says: ‘Go make fishers of men.’ She passed when I was eight, so I can’t ask her if that’s what she meant, but I have a good feeling that she did because she knew the Bible inside and out. So the translation was: ‘Fisher, go fish the fishermen.’ And he did. He realized he could start buying the fish. My dad just has this innate ability to run business. He’s the best businessman I’ve ever met. Everything I know about business I attribute to him.

“People now come to me,” he said. “That why I’m currently doing consulting for businesses. Because they want my knowledge, and I learned it all from my dad.”

After 17 years diving abalone, his father, Mike, opened Central Coast Seafoods, then the Finicky Fish I, Finicky Fish II, Finicky Fish III, the Fish Cooker in Paso Robles and the Avila Bay Seafood Company, and the family business grew “very big.” As his dad grew closer to retirement, they downsized to Central Coast Seafoods and Giovanni’s. Gio’s brothers ended up with Central Coast Seafood and he ended up with Gionvanni’s, which his father started in 1985. By the numbers that queue up there almost every day, Giovanni’s is the most popular tourist destination on the Embarcadero.

 

Growing up on the waterfront

 

Gio wasn’t actually born on the waterfront, but it was close. At that time, his father and mother were running Finicky Fish II, which is where the Thai Bounty boat next to Tognazzini’s used to be.

“My dad came back one day and there was a note on the door that said: ‘Gone to have a baby. Be back tomorrow.’ My mom had put that note on the door. She went off, had me in the hospital, and she was back to work at that little fish-shaped Finicky Fish building the next day, and I was in a wooden fish box in the back. My crib was a wooden fish box with rope handles and it had a little blanket lined in there, and I was there when I was one-day old. So I’ve been in the fish business since I was one-day old, and I started working as soon as I could see over the counter, probably eight years old when I started selling shrimp cocktails, cleaning abalone shells.”

Gio describes growing up on the waterfront in the ’70s as “kind of surreal. I have very vivid memories,” he said, “of grabbing a fresh baguette and a smoked salmon collar from the new smoker.

“I’d open the smoker and steal a salmon collar out and grab a piece of sourdough bread, and I’d grab my fishing pole and tackle box and go under the docks and fish for perch and smelt all day long, eating my bread and smoked fish. That’s what I did, day in and day out. I remember Mitch the manager would get so mad. ‘Don’t open the smoker!’ he said. ‘You’re letting all the smoke out!’”

In his teen Gio moved over to Finicky Fish III in Atascadero, where he lives, and that’s when he started cooking in the kitchen, making fish & chips when he was about 14 or 15. He began managing the restaurant by the time he was 18.

About eight years ago, Gio took over Giovanni’s and the marine fuel dock where they unload the fish—some to be exported to Japan, some shipped fresh back east, some shipped “anywhere in the world” as the sign advertises in the Fish Market. As established as Giovanni’s was, as prepared as he was for the job, it was still a daunting task riddled with expectations.

“Well, first thing, God, I had such big shoes to fill,” Gio said. “Here was my dad, my hero, the best businessman I ever knew. It was like, I’ve got to do this right! I mean, the whole world’s looking at me. He’s looking at me, more importantly. By that time my daughter was looking to me. So trying to be a role model for my daughter, trying to live up to my father’s expectations, and then trying to live up the community’s expectations, it was a huge burden on my shoulders.

“But I knew that my dad I put good procedures in place—I’d watched him my whole life. The business really was running itself in a good, healthy way for several years before I bought it, so I knew that as long as I didn’t go changing everything for the worst it would be fine.”

 

Hands-on, plugged in, taking off

 

“That being said, I’m never good enough just sitting on my laurels. I’m never OK with the status quo,” Gio said. Under pressure to now lead the business, not just manage it, his next-generation ingenuity began to emerge. As soon as he took over, the first thing he did was to start a Website. They didn’t even have Internet service then.

“This was only eight years ago so you can imagine, we were behind the gun,” he said. “I started with a small website that cost me about $800. It was really basic but it had pictures and you could order seafood by calling. It said on the website, ‘Want an order of seafood to go, call us.’ They’d call, we’d take their credit card number over the phone; we’d make them a package and take it up to the Morro Bay Mail Center and ship it off. We were doing, oh, three-four a month.

“Yesterday we sent out 50 boxes, and during the holidays we do around 100 boxes a day, so we have FedEx and UPS trucks that come to our business every day and we ship from here to Maine every day.”

They ship everything from live local Dungeness crabs, live local spot prawns, local sablefish, local rockcod, local halibut when in season, local tuna and local swordfish right now.

“This is local fish that we unload across our own dock. We cut it in our own house, we filet it, put it in a box, and send it off to Connecticut tomorrow—never frozen—and that’s why people love it. It’s from the boat to their door in one day. They love it and it works. So we’re seeing huge growth right now. We’re up 37% this year on our Internet sales alone.”

Gio was just starting to tap the Internet. Social media was beginning to take off and he was all over it.

“Social media wasn’t even really around eight years ago,” he said. “So I started that as soon as it was available. I just wanted to kind of put my twist on Giovanni’s, the next generation, if you will. My dad was very old school. You know, we had a list of phone numbers for people who wanted tuna when it was tuna season. Obviously I automated all that process so it’s on an email signup form. You get notification in your email box when the tuna boats come in. Then email moved on to social media.

“Now it’s Facebook, now you don’t even have to wait to check your email when you get home, now it’s on your phone. So you’ll be at work and say, oh, ‘look the tuna boat’s in at Giovanni’s, $299 for tuna. Let’s go there on the way home.’ It’s helped us succeed and grow during an economy of flat-at-best sales for most people. We’re just starting to see the economy slightly rebound but a lot of people are happy to be flat. We’ve actually shown positive growth every year since I’ve taken over… Every business in America should be doing this…”

Gio doesn’t claim the cutting edge. He recognizes there are certainly better technologies, but as far as making e-commerce work and applying the basic tools with staggering success, “I’m in the forefront,” he said. “I like to go with what I know works, but there’s a lot of people who just don’t take advantage of social media and marketing. It’s a very powerful tool. It equates to, for me, between email and social media, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sales.

“That’s more than some businesses do in their storefront. I do more on the Internet than a lot of businesses do in their whole store. For me that’s kind of a safety net because say a tsunami came and wiped Giovanni’s out, I would still have that Internet business. I could work that out of a warehouse inland. I could just come pick up the fish from here and Santa Barbara and truck it to Atascadero and ship it out.”

Clearly, between the Web, email and social media, Gio has built a strong next-generation platform for Giovanni’s to thrive on into the future. But he took it one step further. He began to use Facebook as a popular canvas to apply the same colorful philosophy he applies to serving food to customers in his restaurant—with sometimes instant results.

 

A taste palate of many colors

 

“The first thing we do is we eat with our eyes, then we smell, then we eat,” he said at Off The Hook, the exciting new Asian-American fusion restaurant that George Leage has opened on the Embarcadero, and for whom Gio is a key consultant. “You can get one of those senses right away on social media. On your phone you get a picture of tonight’s dinner special, which is char-grilled red snapper with fresh vegetables and potatoes. And you can see the picture of the snapper and the vegetables and the herbs. It just looks so good, you know, you see the char marks on it, it looks great. The sushi rolls they have so much color and texture and crunch. You see the vegetables and the shrimp tails sticking out and the gobo root, and the green stuff, the white stuff and the red stuff all sticking out, and it’s like, oh, I want to eat that! And it makes people want to come in here…”

Gio is the epitome of the hands-on businessman. To say he is very involved in the details of the look and taste of the food he serves would be an understatement. He is often found in the kitchens he runs or consults, judging the plating, tasting the food for quality, flavor and consistency, and talking with chefs and staff. Gio sets the bar high. He know what customers expect, and if something isn’t right with the food or the presentation he will demand it be fixed and make sure it is. He is detail oriented, thankfully, he is so detail-oriented that everything he touches makes whatever he’s involved in better.

“I don’t come from a strong culinary background, but I feel that I have a strong culinary sense,” he said. “I learned a lot at home, I learned a lot in the family businesses, and I’ve acquired a niche for spotting good food. Again, it comes down to: it needs to look visually stunning. If it looks visually stunning and doesn’t taste visually stunning, you’re missing part of the component. It doesn’t work. A plus B has to equal C. So half of it is look and the other half is taste. Then from a business point of view there’s the cost involved, but yeah, I want to be visually stunning.”

It is not OK in business to be average these days, he said. “You’ve got to be above and beyond what your competitors are doing. People don’t want average anymore, they want more than what they expect. It’s perceived value versus expectations. With high expectations come high expectations, so if your prices are expensive you better wow people. For me, I want people to not just pick me because I’m the default answer, I want them to seek me out. And you do that through beautiful plates and great product.”

Gio talks about the value of having “the trifecta in restaurants,” found, for example, at Giovanni’s. “For the class and category that Giovanni’s is, we serve a large portion, the quality’s great, and the price is cheap. Now if you think about that, with any restaurant you go to, if you get two of the three you’re lucky. You usually get one of the three. But at Giovanni’s I believe our food’s really good, big portions, good taste, cheap price—that’s the trifecta. If you can get three that’s what makes you successful in the restaurant business—it’s very difficult to achieve that.

“We always had that,” he said. “I fine-tuned some things…”

Gio’s “fine-tuning” led to another major tilt in the business dynamic since he took over—he switched the emphasis more on quality than money, which, of course, has only served to grow the business.

“I brought the quality up a little bit. What that means is, I use a little bit better quality ingredients. I made a little less money but that’s OK. For me, money is not the most important thing in my life,” he said. “You see I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, that’s what I wear every day. Money is not important to me, my reputation is more important than money…”

That’s why when it’s pointed out to him that Giovanni’s is, by all appearances, the most popular restaurant on the Embarcadero, he says right away, “Yeah, and it’s got my name on it so it has to be right. So, for me, whether I made an extra $1,000 a year by using a cheaper mayonnaise or going to a better mayonnaise I’d rather have the better product than save $1,000 a year, and there’s a fine line between those, especially when you’re in a startup business. Now, with Off The Hook I’d like to keep that same mantra, but as a startup business you have to be very aware of costs.”

 

STAX celebrates second anniversary

 

By 2010 Gio was looking to grow outward, and he found that opportunity just a few doors north from Giovanni’s when the lone tourist shop at the main intersection where sloping Beach Street meets the Embarcadero became vacant. After brainstorming all the possibilities, he tapped into one of his passions—fine wine—and STAX Wine Bar was born, a bold, classy outpost of wine country on the waterfront, bringing the best of inland Paso to the pier. Impact: Breakthrough. It immediately became the talk of the town, a town where change comes slowly and different is almost dangerous. In the two years since startup, STAX has naturally evolved from a wine bar into a Euro bistro serving tantalizing Euro-style lunch and dinner entrees, vibrant wine and food pairings, and daily specials that a glass or two of world-class wine turn into stolen moments transported to a brilliant, little out-of-way four-star restaurant somewhere in France, Italy or Spain.

Unlike Giovanni’s with more than 25 years under its belt, STAX started from “scratch” as a “labor of love,” and that’s exactly the way Gio wanted it.

“I didn’t open STAX for the money,” he said. “I opened STAX as a challenge to myself, to prove to myself, to my dad, to the world, that I could do something that wasn’t fish. And I did it just to prove that I could start from scratch and do something that wasn’t my father’s doing, that had nothing to do with my dad.”

Gio’s thoughts ran deep as he swung his plan into action. “There are so many people who think that I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nothing is further from the truth. We had wooden fish boxes for chairs at our dining room table. We always ate the leftover fish that was going bad. We had the least of the least at our house. That’s what it takes to start up a business, especially in the ’70s and ’80s.”

At the time he conceived of STAX, Gio had a real passion for wine. Seafood and wine go well together, and he had a vision. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that I would enjoy going to, somewhere with leather couches, dark interior, wood floors, granite and marble tops, where you could have a good glass of wine and some cheese and bread for not a lot of money. I thought, there’s nothing like that around here. Paso’s doing it like crazy. Why can’t Morro Bay have something like that?

“So I created an atmosphere that I would want to go to. Turns out everybody in Morro Bay agreed with me and thought the same thing. People love to go there.”

STAX may not be the money-maker that Giovanni’s is, but it wasn’t designed to operate that way. While Giovanni’s is geared to the mainstream and is the gold-standard business model in the tourist district, STAX is easily the most ambitious restaurant on the Embarcadero, a huge leap forward in local dining and sophistication, drawing fine wine and dining enthusiasts to the Embarcadero where ocean sunsets behind Morro Rock provide the master’s touch to a one-of-a-kind dining/entertainment experience.

“We have 130 bottles of wine that you can walk in off the shelf, put it on your table and pour it. Not many places offer that. Typical wine bars have five, 10, 15, 20. I don’t remember the last bar I went in that had 130 bottles of wine that you could choose from, ranging from $14 a bottle to $214 a bottle—Cristal Champagne, Booker, Saxum, Alban’s Reva and Bodegas El Nido.”

“You can have great bottles of wine,” he said. “It’s not enough to have wine because you need to eat when you’re drinking, so it gave me another creative outlet for food. There are certain things I just can’t do at Giovanni’s. It just not that niche. STAX let me explore a little more my creativity, doing things like filet mignon crostinis with a basil pea stew, which is amazing. We couldn’t do that at Giovanni’s. Small plates that really wow your senses. They look good, they smell good, they taste good. We have rotating specials. I can do fresh crab cakes, I can do meat sandwiches, things that when I’ve traveled to Europe I can bring those back and recreate here at an inexpensive price. You can come in, have a plate of food and two glasses of wine for about $20. Where else can you get that?”

STAX celebrated its two-year anniversary on December 6 with a raucous, full-house wine-tasting party featuring Graham Beck Sparkling Wines and catering by Chef Charlie D. Paladin Wayne. The five-course sampler of dynamic food and wine pairings for $30 per person was an electric gourmet dining experience not to be found in Morro Bay before STAX came along to upset the applecart: Rose and caviar; Blancs and smoked salmon; Brut NV and Chef Creek oysters; Brut Zero 2005 with Maine lobster “BLT”; and finally Bliss Demi Sec and chocolate truffle. Stir in the hypnotic reggae vibrations of singer/guitarist Vance Fahie, a full restaurant in full vino bloom, and it’s clear that the focus of STAX is on the total experience, the fun factor, the accume of the whole package of great food, wine and entertainment you can’t find anywhere else on the coast.

STAX was a word twist on the three tall power plant smokestacks that loom over the waterfront. A friend came up with the name. “I wanted it to be very different than everybody else,” Gio said. “I wanted to be a little modern, a little edgy, a little current, if you will, and so that’s why we have the X instead of the CKS.”

If the name works it’s because Gio works and works hard. It is not uncommon to see him sweeping the sidewalk outside STAX. In fact, on his Facebook page, Gio lists his employment at STAX as “Janitor, Morro Bay, 2010 to present.”

“Well, I am the janitor sometimes,” he said. “That’s the thing. To open a business you’ve got to be the janitor. You’ve got be willing to do everything, and that’s how you become the best boss, by doing everything. I spent five-eight years as a fry cook for my dad. You’ve got to start at the bottom. I was a dishwasher for years, I was a manager for years, I was a fry cook for years, I opened the Fish Market for years, I was a fish cutter for yearsI did it all and that makes me uniquely qualified to be boss. So you can say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing that right’ or ‘Hey, you can do this better by doing that’—not because I’m pretentious and I think I know better; no, because I spent years and years doing your job before you did.”

 

Lessons learned, the road ahead

 

What does Gio do when he’s not working?

“Gio almost never isn’t working,” he said about himself, “but if I’m not working, I’m raising my daughter, and if I’m not doing that, I do try to make time to travel. I like to scuba dive, I’m a pilot in training so I fly from time to time—I have 200 landings under my belt—and I love to travel. I just got back from France and Spain. I spent some time in San Sebastian and Bordeaux for 10 days. I just had to get away… I need to see the world, taste the world… I eat. That’s all I do. Eat.”

A master cultural assimilator, he has only made a dent in the world he brings back to Morro Bay and translates into new food ideas for his restaurants. He passionately, relentlessly continues to pursue the best tastes and flavors in the world so he can bring them home alive. You won’t find these rareties on tour groups, so he makes his own way.

“I like to go where the locals are, so I go to the back alleys and eat where the locals are eating. I love Mexico, Mexico is like the other woman for me. I don’t know why I keep going back but I keep going back and I keep going back. I’ve been all over Mexico and I love it and I’ll continue to go there. I’ve been to Italy twice, I’ve been to Sicily, I’ve been to Greece, France, Spain. I want to go to Costa Rica soon. My bucket list is so long that if I don’t retire soon I’ll never get through it…”

Of all his accomplishments, Gio is proudest of “being a dad, for sure” and a son. Few so openly respect, love and honor their parents like Gio, and it says a lot about the man, his humility and his heart.

“My biggest accomplishment is being first and foremost a dad,” he said when asked. “My daughter Katherine is the love and inspiration of my entire life and she’s the reason I do everything I do is for her, because if I didn’t have her who would I be doing it for? She’s my everything. My other favorite accomplishment is making my dad proud, keeping the business successful, taking it to places that he says he never would have thought of, you know, ‘You’ve taken this business further than I ever could have dreamed’—that makes me proud, and so I’m happy that he’s happy, and I’m happy that we’re successful.”

Gio will always be grateful to his dad. His work ethic still drives Gio onward. Through his dad’s Herculean efforts, a network of thriving businesses grew with the times, supporting families and the next generation, and that success has also given Gio the priceless freedom to explore and evolve.

“Giovanni’s does one big thing more for me,” he said. “It allows me to express my creative outlets in other businesses. Opening STAX was $150,000. I wouldn’t have had that if I didn’t have Giovanni’s. Giovanni’s allows me travel, it allows me to open other businesses, it allows me to express myself, so for that I’ll always be thankful to my dad because he gave me not only the business ethic but a really good tool to make money. And I’ve learned how to make it make quite a bit of money.”

Amazingly, as young as he is, as successful as he is today, Gio is already beginning to plan ahead for retirement. “I’m probably going to follow in my father’s footsteps and at some point probably start downsizing again. My time is worth more than my money. That’s another one of my mantras. My daughter is 13. Time’s flying by. I want to hold on and cherish as much time as I can, so I don’t want to wait until I’m too old to retire. My dad made that mistake. Some of the greatest lessons we learn from people are what not to do. And so while the greatest things I learned from my dad were what TO do, one of the most valuable things I learned from my dad was what NOT to do. He waited too long to retire. He’s not in good health. He can’t travel. I want to be able to travel.”

His goal is to start retirement at around 45 by perhaps initially taking off a week a month, then the next year two weeks a month. “Maybe by the time I’m 50 I’m only working one week a month, just transition into it. Because I want to see the world and I want to see the world with my daughter, and the person I’m with.”

Meanwhile, the DeGarimore family flourishes, embracing the ocean and all that it provides. It seems like it was always that way with the DeGarimores and the sea, in one form or another. In the beginning, the family came from “somewhere between Sicily and Genoa” as Gio remembers being told. His dad was an abalone diver and his grandfather ran a couple of small retail shops in Morro Bay. The Captain’s Cargo was in Morro Bay for many years, selling fishing and nautical items. He originally had the Whale’s Tail and also a little store called the Ship Store Deli on the Waterfront. Of course those are all gone now.

Today, his step brother, also named Giovanni, runs Central Coast Seafoods which was recently acquired by Santa Monica Seafoods. His other brother, Tony, runs Pier 46 Seafoods in Templeton in the Trader Joe’s shopping center. The brothers and their businesses are prospering.

“It’s fun that we’re all in the business, and to be honest I feel blessed to be part of the story. I’m one of the luckiest guys I know. I have a lot to be thankful for.”

At the end of the long day we call life, the philosophy that guides Gio is based on living life to the fullest. Losing his mother at a young age and watching his father work 12-14-hour days—once working nine straight months without a day off—has fueled his unquenchable appetite for living.

“The main thing is that life is short and you need to live it full throttle,” he said. “So live every day as if it’s your last year and that’s what I do. I realize first hand that life is precious and life is short. You don’t know how much time you’re going to get so you better do something with it while you’re here—and make a difference, make a change, and put your stamp on the world.”

And, like Gio, do it with flair.

END


Giovanni on Stopping PG&E’s Seismic Test: ‘Everything Was at Stake’

 

There was a distinct chill in the air in Morro Bay on the morning of August 14, and it wasn’t from the weather because every day is a beautiful day in Morro Bay, rain or shine.

Hundreds of miles north in Sacramento the State Lands Commission was holding a hearing to decide whether or not to approve PG&E’s Environment Impact Report and issue them a permit to begin blasting the ocean with 250dBs of high-intensity noise that would cause “significant and unavoidable” damage to abundant and flourishing marine life in Estero Bay, threatening endangered species, and the very future of Morro Bay itself.

The hearing and what could result from it was so important to Morro Bay, whose ocean backyard had been targeted as the primary test area, that it was transmitted via Skype video feed from Sacramento on to a meeting-room wall at the Inn at Morro Bay where it was screened before about 80 people.

Emotions were riding high. There was a palpable anguish in the room, an intense dread that bordered on the grim air surrounding a pending death in the family. During public comment, speaker after speaker, about 65 of them, reasoned, pleaded, argued, even commanded State Lands to deny PG&E a permit to bomb the ocean.

One of those speakers was Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni’s Fish Market & Restaurant and STAX Bistro on the Embarcadero. He spoke with a fire in his gut and he spoke for the entire community when he questioned PG&E’s Environmental Impact Report.

“I heard a lot of slick talking at the beginning of this hearing from people that sounded a lot like politicians,” he said from the podium, his image enlarged on the screen, “but I’m just going to be real simple. Something stinks here. Looking at the big picture it just doesn’t sound right. The ‘taking’—whether you call it catching or killing or whatever you’re doing—of fish, baby sea otters, whales, turtles, fishermen, is not right. You’re going to be killing our community, you’re going to be killing our resources, and it’s not something I support. I’m not anti nuclear but I am anti-killing of our resources and killing of our fishing industry. It’s not right…

“We’re talking about baby sea otters, we’re talking about whales, we’re talking about fishermen, we’re talking about people. Let’s not ram this through. Let’s step back, let’s think about it. Let’s think about what’s good for the people and the environment.”

When the SLC accepted the EIR and delayed the actual permitting decision one week, not only was there no relief from the pressure, but the impact on Gio and the fishermen after the SLC approved the dangerous EIR was clearly emotionally devastating. One by one they filtered out into the parking lot in stunned silence. They just stood or sat and said nothing, staring out from anxious eyes that reflected the pain of their deepest fears being realized.

Flash forward to November 10. Almost three difficult months later, after the community, local fishermen and environmental activists joined forces to oppose PG&E’s 3D high-energy seismic testing, the California Coastal Commission voted 10 to nothing to deny PG&E a permit, and sent them packing with little philosophical wiggle room to return to reapply for a high-energy permit in 2013.

You could almost hear an entire town stand and cheer as one. Along with the rest of Morro Bay and neighboring coastal communities, and those throughout the state opposing ocean blasting for any reason, Gio celebrated this rarest of victories over PG&E and a run-amuck state and local government pushing the test. It was hard to believe and still is for those used to be on the losing end of trying to fight big companies and big government.

Looking at it from the Commission’s perspective, considering PG&E’s huge influence on government agencies, Gio found it “surprising that they did the right thing.”

“I applaud them for doing the right thing which might have seemed easy to us, but I guarantee you behind the scenes it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. At the end of the day the right thing happened, and because of the grassroots effort and because our voice, the people’s voice, got so strong, at the end of the day that’s what really made the difference, I’m sure of it. Because if this thing would have flown under the radar, under the media, it would have gone right through.

“I applaud them for unilaterally coming across the board and saying ‘absolutely not.’ And not ‘come back and try again.’ It was ‘No!’ and a firm no.”

The more he read about the test, the more he realized the impact was going to be devastating and far reaching—had it been allowed to move forward.

“Everything was at stake,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is they cleanse our ocean of any living life. In the best-case scenario they kill millions and millions of sea life. I mean, by their numbers… their best plausible number was millions and millions of fish. It was going to be horrific for the ocean.

“Look at the real numbers,” he said, “and now we’re talking hundreds of millions if not billions of fish and sea life and all the other things that they didn’t take into account, things that can’t swim away when they’re ramping up their power, like abalone, sea urchins, clams, mussels and scallops. And you’ve got to remember that each one of these little pieces affects the ecosystem because of the trickle-down effect, and it goes on and on and on.”

Any prospect of that happening was simply unimaginable and unacceptable to just about anyone that heard about it, except PG&E and the politicians.

“To be brutally honest,” Gio said, “this first caught my attention because it was going to affect me on a financial level because my business is solely seafood. I buy seafood, I sell seafood, I unload the boats that do the seafood, I put fuel in the boats that do the seafood. It was going to affect me in every aspect of my life. So when I first looked at it, I thought, wow, they’re going to put me out of business. I looked at it purely from an introverted standpoint, and at the time PG&E was offering me lots of money to quell me, if you will, and I started thinking about it. I negotiated with them and gave them numbers, and I looked at how much money it could cost me per day.

“But the more I started reading about it, and the more I started seeing how PG&E was really being disingenuous and dishonest, the more I realized that not only were these people not trustworthy, but for me it wasn’t about money anymore, and no matter how much money they offered me it wasn’t going to be enough. I knew that once I started speaking publicly against them, my chances of ever getting a claim with them would be non-existent.”

“So the day that I stood up and testified at State Lands I knew that all chances of getting money from PG&E was out the window, but at this point I didn’t care about money, because it was far bigger than just me now. This is about the environment, this is about the ecosystem, this is about where I live, and more than anything it just came down to right and wrong. At the end of the day it was an easy decision to jump on board with this and put all of my energy into it.”

As a result of his decision, his thinking changed in an unexpected way.

“I’ve never been a self-proscribed tree-hugger or environmentalist,” he said, “but God, I kind of get it now, and it felt good to do something right for the environment that didn’t really mean anything monetarily for me anymore. It was just the right thing to do and it felt good…”

Gio’s concerns about seismic testing didn’t end with the Coastal Commission’s ruling against PG&E on the 3D high-energy test.

“The one threat that really bothers me is the low-energy testing that’s been going on, it seems, without benefit of any permit that I can see. We don’t really know a lot about it. There certainly have to be some ramifications. The fishermen are telling me that the fish catch really seems off this last year… The whole time they’re out there doing this testing, what are they doing? They’ve sunk geophones, I believe, in the MPA. They must have gotten a permit to do that. It was all very low under the radar when all that started.

“We’re in line for a really healthy fish stock for all fish stocks here on the California coast. We need to keep people like PG&E away from doing things to disturb that, and there are other threats out there, too, but right now I think it’s a pretty safe area, as long as we can manage the environment.”

— Ed Ochs

 

The Promethean Spark of Botso Korisheli

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What Georgian sorcery is this mortal who plays the piano with talking hands that sculpt the gods and teach angels how to sing four-part harmony? Who is this maestro who traveled thousands of miles with a heavy heart and a trunk filled with sheet music and hope? Who is this Prometheus of the pines who, with courage and dignity, transmuted tragedy into joy and changed people’s lives by touching them deeply with the wand of music and wonder?

Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, legendary Morro Bay music master, teacher, sculptor, poet, painter, mentor, husband, parent and friend has been celebrated in the local press, New Times and Tribune, and featured in the Los Angeles Times. In 2010 he saw the publication of his autobiography, Memories of a Teaching Life in Music. A recently-completed documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art, has embarked on the international film festival circuit in search of distribution. On April 29, a video interview conducted between Botso in Santa Barbara and Voice of America-Georgia in Washington, D.C. for their “Washington Today” segment was broadcast throughout the Republic of Georgia, his homeland. After 50 years of teaching brilliance, thanks to technology and the lasting impression he’s made on hundreds, even thousands of students, the world is finally catching up to the shepherd boy from Georgia with the gift of passing the flame of music.

From little Morro Bay on the temperate Central Coast of California, a small town far afield of the media capitals, Botso Korisheli’s astounding and inspiring life story continues to catch a wind around the world. Even Botso expresses surprise at not knowing where it will all end, or if it even can be stopped now, this globalization of Botso; for fact is far more powerful than fiction, one man’s spirit greater than all the armies of darkness combined – and the beauty and truth in music, as he teaches it, provides hope to a world out of harmony.

So it made sense for the Voice of America to beam in Botso from Santa Barbara to send a message of hope from harmony’s ambassador to the people of Georgia. Botso was nervous. It was an important occasion. Although it was far from an interrogation as he knew as a young man back in Georgia under Stalin, he still hoped they would be satisfied with his answers.

After all, he had fled his homeland as a young man to escape a possible death sentence, and he remains opposed the historical Russian oppression of Georgia, an independent, freedom-loving country once part of the former Soviet Union. If the voices in Washington were satisfied he wasn’t too political or controversial, his interview would be broadcast throughout the Republic of Georgia.

Botso was bewildered by his Santa Barbara surroundings. It almost felt like a government plot, something the KGB might cook up to find out exactly what he knew. After what happened to him and his family, he anticipated some form of inquisition by the authorities; it was planted somewhere in the back on his mind. And he was right. They did want to know what he knew. But any nerves disappeared as soon as they asked him the first question. It was a question he knew practically everything about: teaching music. He was happy to talk about music with his people, one of the most music-loving people in the world. He could even laugh about it now, 75 years later.

“They dragged me down to Santa Barbara and they put me in this beautiful house,” Botso said. “I suspected there was once a bunker there, reinforced, beautifully, fantastically arranged. I was puzzled. It turned out to be that it was Reagan’s meeting place for state affairs and for the secret service. They had since changed it to international communications now. …

“They put me in a chair and put something in my ear. I thought, what are they doing to me?” he laughed. “But I was amazed. They sounded like they were in the same room. And the first question was, ‘What is it you do with your students that you have all these very successful people?’”

Botso’s success is impossible to deny. Many of his former students are accomplished amateurs and professionals. They are members of prestigious international orchestras, or direct them to standing ovations. Their success is living proof of his success. He doesn’t have to say a thing.

So Botso answered like a teacher to his student. “Well, I have one aphorism: ‘I am much more I when I am you.’ This is my approach. I like to get inside of my student, and the sooner I accomplish that, the sooner they get inside of me. Then we have complete communication. This communication really allows me to go 200 miles an hour…”

Practically wired up to the lie detector of history, he felt he had to tell the truth. Each question held its own perils. One cut deeply through a lifetime of sorrow as if it happened yesterday.

“They asked why my father was executed,” he said, the tone of his voice stiffening slightly to absorb the blow. “That was a hard question… I said he was a pretty well known dramatic actor. I said my father believed that the stage is a mirror of society. It is not a service to the politics, it is a service to the people…”

Why!? Botso asked himself that same question for a long time. At some point he realized that why wasn’t important anymore and he accepted the sad reality. Since that day, however, and over the next 76 years, Botso has been slowly but surely becoming his father. “They allowed me 20 minutes to be with him. Every word he was saying was for me, and they became my bible. I live by those words…

“We talked without even knowing if he would be sitting right here — he is sitting right here all, well, most of the time, you know… It became the pulse of my life.”

Just as Botso’s father, Platon, gave his son a world of advice in 20 minutes, Botso is continuing the tradition in reverse by taking 100 years to share his knowledge with the world and teach hundreds of students the art and craft of a lifetime in music. His book is enriched with the compelling phrase “the power of music.”

“That comes from my mother,” he says. “She was a pianist, too, but she was an actress mainly, a dramatic actor.”

His mother, Susana, died in 1960 before they had the opportunity to reunite. She is always with him by the piano in the music room in his home, and her portrait is displayed next to his father’s portrait in the sitting room.

As a child, some of his fondest memories are of visiting his grandparents in the town of Dimi (“my dreamland and will be all my life”), and spending the day with the shepherds. This is when he first started piano lessons.

“My mother always insisted that I take a small, three-octave silent keyboard with me – I don’t know where she found it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “That keyboard, which I detested, did not have any sound and I had to practice for an hour each day. The hour was torture, but later on I found out something which has been so valuable for my teaching. That silent keyboard and one hour of torture taught me how to improvise. The sounds that I wasn’t hearing, I was actually producing inside of me. Later on, the strongest point in my musical career was improvisation, thanks to the silent keyboard.”

Added Botso recently, “First time I remember she would play one single note, and then I would listen to that note again. And then she would select another one to match and agree with that note — not disagree with it — agree with it. Immediately there was a seed in my head that now I can sit at the piano and improvise without end.”

Bosto believes the power of music isn’t fully known. What music can and cannot do has yet to find limits. “Never, never,” he says. “It’s a floating element, it can never be touched. It’s not a smell, it’s not a vision, you can’t see it. Yet it’s there, in the air, and then you never know which way it’s going to go, but it’s trying to please you. If it’s displeasing then you have to be alert for something.

“For instance,” Botso says, illustrating the ancient link between Georgian folklore and music, “during a time of war, the Assyrian king tried to invade Georgia, and he came home and said, ‘These warriors are singing before war!’ And it was harsh music, and there was all this different kind of an energy…

Botso leans in to say, “Stalin knew that… Music is one good weapon for (fighting oppression)…  He sent one of the Ministers of Heavy Industry to Georgia, and this minister played guitar. Upon his arrival he told the Georgians, ‘I’m going to bring my guitar and sing for you.’ Can you imagine that?! And he did! They received him and he was a very amiable guy. I met him. He liked my dad very much.”

Greatness of Georgia

Georgia, its history, people and culture remain uppermost in Botso’s heart. After all, he is a Georgian-American as well as American-Georgian, but he’s born Georgian and is Georgian through and through. You won’t come to know much about Botso until you learn something about Georgia. It’s not just Botso’s birthplace or a distant memory dulled by time. It remains a very active part of his everyday life. Therefore, if you can’t fathom the depth of Botso’s message then perhaps you need to look up Georgia, watch the documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, the Power of Art, and discover a magnificent country that is one of the great ancient cradles of the wine and music civilization in the world, well known for its rich folklore, unique traditional music, theatre, cinema and art. Georgians have a strong, uplifting tradition of singing, dancing and playing music, and has produced world-class dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, vocalists and musical performers. Georgians sing when they work, plant, harvest, make wine, eat at the Georgian table – or simply greet each other, on the street or on the phone.

In Greek mythology, one of Botso’s favorite subjects, the Caucasus was one of the pillars supporting the world. Prometheus was chained to a rock on snow-covered Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus by Zeus, to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle as punishment for giving the “secret of fire” — the spark of life — to humankind. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), mythical Prometheus became a symbol of strength and inspiration for Greek revolutionaries and their supporters, and over the years has evolved into a symbol of “people power” for social justice and equality in former communist countries. It is also the subject of one of Botso’s most impressive sculptures. Greek hero Jason and his Argonauts sailed to the west coast of the Caucasus in pursuit of the Golden Fleece — actually sheep fleece laid on the bottom of torrential streams pouring down from the high Caucasus that collected gold flecks. These are the same breathtaking mountains and icy streams hiked by Botso and his father and friends. Myth thrives naturally in the highlands where they were born.

Since emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union as an independent state in 1991, Georgia has again become an arena of conflicting interests, this time between the U.S. and a revivalist Russia. Tense relations with Russia have been further exacerbated by Moscow’s support for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s brief interlude of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia ended when it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the Soviet Union a year later. Russian oppression of Georgia is of great concern to Botso.

“The one important question they asked me was what I thought about the present situation in Georgia,” he said. “Russia is putting pressure on Georgia, not just now but historically. I told them Georgia is Georgia, Russia is Russia, and they each have their own culture, their own language, which is historically proven to be one of its kind, according to Michael Maher, the well-known language historian. So they were satisfied with the answers to their questions… I was a little bit nervous to be honest. I like to have people in front of me. I have to see their face. They could see me but I could not see them. No complaints though.”

Botso strongly believes in the power of music to change the world, and that’s is possible to tune an instrument to the human soul for direct communication. “Absolutely,” said Botso. “That is the whole formula of Schubert. Schubert happened to be my dissertation. Mozart was incredible, unbelievable, all the time causing a chain of suggestions. Schubert was very much into searching the soul. Yes, absolutely music has to touch the soul. If it doesn’t touch the soul then it’s going to be kind of an effect, but no affect.

“The power of music is unexplainable. That’s why Pythagoras said music is astronomical. It’s there, and it’s related to many things; it’s a psychology, a way of thinking, and a communication, primarily communication.”

Given more lives — he’s already lived several to the hilt — and given a choice, would Botso rather be a shepherd in Georgia, a mountain climber in Bavaria, or a concert pianist in Carnegie Hall?

“Every one of them,” says Botso without hesitation. “Why not?” Yet he stopped to defend only one with a story.

“When Victor Hugo was traveling he stopped at an inn. A sheepherder came in and started to talk to him in French and he couldn’t believe it! My father portrayed Vazha Pshavela, who was also a shepherd-poet, a very, very highly loved poet – I have all his poems. Every time he would portray him people just went ‘Vazha, Vazha!’ when he appeared. … A local painter painted a big portrait of him for a postage stamp. That was the shepherd-poet and the mountaineer and everything else,” he tails off worshipfully.

Botso’s last several years have been spent documenting his life, times and teachings. With his book published (see Review following) and recently completed documentary now seeking distribution, what’s next for Botso? There have been requests to translate his autobiography into the Georgian language. “It’s a good idea. I’m going to set out and do that. I’m a busy, busy man,” he laughs. “It’s good to be, though. Absolutely.

“As long as I can contribute something to humanity, that’s fine,” he adds humbly.

Every day Botso has been measuring his life by his father’s standard, which he passed on to his son: “Have I done enough today?” Botso is still teaching in the music room and sculpting in his workshop he calls “my paradise.” When he sleeps, thousands of his musical children are stirring, their musical minds churning. Botso realizes that when he is teaching his students he is also teaching the teachers of tomorrow who will then continue the continuum of his life’s work. He also realizes that the film will spread his teachings around the world, guaranteeing he will have more students into the decades because the film will travel where he can’t go, and young people will continue to be taught the soul of music by one of the greatest American music educators of the century, Botso Korisheli, for whom continuation brings new meaning and hope to all including Botso himself.

Significantly, the documentary is also irrefutable testament to the essential nature of music education to a child’s overall education. Many of the fine musicians interviewed in the film talk about how their lives were changed by the music instruction they received from Botso when they were young, in stark contrast to those who would cut funding to the arts. Yet Botso initially didn’t want to do the film. If the film didn’t directly benefit children by providing scholarships, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to participate.

“I was not for it at first,” he says. “Why? I don’t know. Because maybe I was scared. My dad was so popular. Maybe there was something kind of holding me back, you know. But then they convinced me that I should and so I did it – I’m glad I did it. My father will be happy, too.”

Yes, Botso’s father will be happy and proud to know what a great man his son turned out to be, and his father will love the incredible story about have far he has traveled in his life, from the gates of hell to the shores of heaven. His father will also be happy to know Botso returned to Georgia where he is almost as famous now as his father was then — and fresh recognition keeps pouring in every day. Botso lights up the universe in the documentary when he walks the narrow streets of Tiblisi again, and looking back through the years he cries, “It’s so beautiful!” Who in the world will not see this light shining now?

Music cascades over his soul like torrents of water pouring down from the high Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia where Wachtang Botso Korisheli was born, the child of what today might be called a show business family.

“Music has to sing,” says Botso. “Music is not the touch, it is not the smell, it is not seen, just heard. No other discipline is like that.”

When Botso teaches, every note tells a story and tells it with feeling. One after another, notes climb off the page, rub their eyes, and grow towards the sound of the human heart. And while he teaches the technical knowledge with his own disciplined method of scales, exercises and etudes, he is always reaching for the pure emotion, the human experience – the profound — in every note.

“When my students hear one note, I’m very concerned they hear the next note coming,” he told a rapt audience while improvising on the keyboard on May 11 at an evening with Botso and the San Luis Obispo High School Chamber Ensemble at Cal Poly Pavilion to “Celebrate Music in Schools.” Botso said, “Music is not commercial, it is spiritual. That’s why I know they can’t drop music education out of schools.”

If the object of being a great teacher is that the student teaches him or herself, then Botso leads them up the staircase of self-discovery. This staircase is built into his Morro Bay music room.

“For ear-training and sight-singing,” Botso writes in his book, “I built a twelve-step staircase in my music studio to mirror the twelve chromatic tones in the scale. … It served two purposes: ear-training, and focusing pitch-orientation for where the students were, musically, in a composition… I would choose a scale and play it on the piano, but it was not visible to the student. They had to follow the sound in different directions, up and down. Sometimes I would skip a step or two…”

“I stop them and say, ‘Where are you?’” Botso recently explained. “And, if they know where they are, then I know they are absorbing it, that it’s getting into them…”

Botso knows something about “getting into” his students, and they know a thing or two about getting into Botso.

“I gave up a concert career but I can teach them how to express themselves musically,” he says. “I finish the lesson, we work hard, and then they get up and give me a hug, everyone of them. They have to give me a hug before they go and I love that! They’re my child!”

His relationship with his students, past and present, and their families, is uncanny. Few truly appreciate teachers or even understand the art and craft of teaching until they meet someone like Botso. When they finally “get” who Botso is, what he does for children, and how it does it, they’re ready to commission a statue of him and place it at the entrance to Morro Bay.

“Finally I can teach the piano and it’s just entertainment teaching. I like teaching music for music’s sake. I see students three times a week now. Sunday they come with the parents and I train their ears for an hour, free. Everything is free. I’m tired of money in everything. So they’re happy and I’m happy. What else can you ask for in this world?”

In the music room of his cozy, all-wood home in Morro Bay, Botso sits down at a valuable Steinway with “a lot of energy” in it. “I cannot use these two fingers,” he says, as a result of nerve damage many years ago. He begins to play in the pauses, “I don’t know what I can do, but if I touch… the sound… you must listen very well… If I make a sound… and it meets another one… I don’t know what I did but it comes to me… Then that sound is just asking for another friend. Yes…! Question…? Answer? There’s always something to say. Life goes on.”

It goes on for Botso, too, richly, purposefully at 90, surrounded by his family, friends and students. “I don’t concertize – these two fingers don’t work – but I can sculpt the stones,” he laughs warmly.

And sculpt he does in his workshop, with large stones in various stages of progress and a young tree growing up through a space in the roof — with his guidance, of course. On display in a tiny studio off the workshop are some of his and wife Margaret’s sculpture – her media is metal. Some of his sculptures are based on Greek mythology, one of his favorite topics.

“I was fascinated with the history that the Greeks required music and astrology, which has its source in science,” Botso explains. “Eruditio means that you don’t stop learning, you keep going all the time. That’s my formula, eruditio, all the time. I still don’t know… I still don’t know…”

Botso loved to listen to his father’s voice. He has his father’s “warm voice” and speaks in “slow, short sentences with lots of pauses in between” like his father. The deep, musical tones of his voice are as resonant as a cathedral and percolate with the vitality of a rushing mountain stream. He responds in stories from experience, aphorisms and feelings. He speaks in poetics, choosing English words that flow easily over his tongue rather than ones that perhaps are more technically correct but cold and mechanical to his trained ear. His laughter rises from the bottomless joy of having survived losing everything and then finding everything. Flashes of brilliance, of humanity and humility blind you and touch your heart and echo in your dreams.

So listen closely to Botso Korisheli when he speaks because he’s speaking to your soul and you don’t want to miss a single note.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp54PtdrOD0


The Story of Botso: The Book

Botso Korisheli’s 2010 autobiography, Memories of a Teaching Life in Music, could just as well have been titled How to Become An Artist, for it is both deeply moving and highly educational. For the artistic reader who knows art when he or she hears it and feels it, Botso’s book is advanced sensitivity training in the quality and value of what lies behind, within and without every musical note that strikes the human soul.

Botso states his primary reason for writing his autobiography in the first paragraph of his Introduction – “to help (my students, friends and family) to understand a person’s faith when one loses everything, literally everything, and yet does not give up having faith in humanity…”

“When one loses everything”? This is as profound as it gets. For readers it’s a weighty concept to fathom. For the writer it is deeply personal, and difficult to relive the sorrow and subsequent struggle for survival in a land torn apart by war. At the same time, the passage of years doesn’t always make it easier to reopen what might appear to be old wounds that manage to stay fresh forever just beneath the surface.

To underscore Botso’s nature not to draw attention to himself, he was well into his eighties before he “finally decided” to put his life to paper. In other words, he could have written a book years earlier if he really wanted to, but he apparently felt no great urge to do so, even though Botso is clearly a dynamic figure of historical importance not just to Morro Bay, but to the world.

The depth and breadth of Botso’s intellect, advice and observations cannot be overstated. In his Introduction he offers three overarching observations or “steps” that “convey” the “points woven into my stories.” Those points are:

1. Do not contradict or try to change the nature of Nature – I mean the elements of our existence – air, water, animals and earth.

2. Skill and imitation are part of learning, but you must grow out of imitation to create your own identity.

3. It is important to learn the demands of your body and system, your intuition, to stay well adjusted to the demands of our existence.

The book begins with the single defining moment of his life, his father’s execution by Stalin when Botso was 15 years old. He and his mother were given 20 minutes to see his father before he disappeared behind prison walls never to be seen again.

Writes Botso: “Father talked to me most of the twenty minutes and held mother’s hands. Since that day, I have lived seventy years, but I still know every word he passed to me. I catch myself repeating and reciting the conversation, trying to imitate his warm voice I loved so much.”

So will you, dear reader. So will you.

Botso was born in 1922 in Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, in the cruel eye of war. At the close of World War I, Georgia, historically oppressed by Russia, proclaimed independence in the throes of the Russian Revolution of 1917, only to be brutally conquered again by the Russians in 1921, the year before Botso was born.

“A small number of Georgian revolutionaries adopted the (Russian) Bolshevik teachings,” writes Botso. “Among those were Joseph Jugashvili Stalin, Orjonikidse, Beria, et al. They went to Russia. There they joined their chief, Jugashvili (Stalin), and organized the Russian attack on their own land, leading the Russian troops into Caucasia.”

It was Stalin who put his arm on 12-year-old Botso’s shoulder at a private showing of his father’s play in Moscow and asked him: “Are you proud of your father?” Less than three years later, in 1936, Stalin ordered the execution of Botso’s father, Platon, as an enemy of the state. He was accused of undermining the Soviet system by supporting an independent Caucasia.

His father, a famous actor in Georgia, told him at that last meeting, “I will be with you all the time.” Writes Botso: “These last words never left me.” Since then Botso has never been spiritually separated from his father and mother; they are almost always with him.

Botso’s mother knew there was no future in Georgia for the son of an executed patriot. His future in doubt, she helped him get assigned to a Russian work crew on the Polish border where he escaped into German-occupied Poland and was held in a prisoner of war camp. There it was discovered he spoke German and Russian, which may have saved his life. He was flown to Germany and became useful to the Germans as a translator. When the tide of war turned against Germany and the allies and Russians were closing in on Berlin, Botso was awarded transport to what was to soon to become an Americanized zone of Salzburg, West Germany.

After the war, while working as a piano tuner, he attended the Mozart Festival and was transported by “the power of music.”

“The musicians seemed to be transplanted into another world, the world of Mahler,” Botso writes, enthralled. “The incredible warmth of Frau Schwarzkopf’s singing brought tears to my eyes. More than half a century later after that miraculous performance, I can close my eyes and relive the experience I had in Salzburg. The power of the music was contagious. The audience seemed to breathe with the sound…

“It was more than a concert. The dream of humanity to unite came through, thanks to the power of music. Next day I hiked back [to my apartment] with a rekindled desire to get back to music.”

Botso auditioned for the Munich Conservatory and was accepted with a scholarship from the Georgian Immigration Association in Munich. After a year of study he learned he had a relative in Los Angeles, and he decided to enroll as the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Art “for a year or two and see how much I could pick up there.” Botso was soon “sailing to the dream land” as a displaced person.

Botso had been born in the vortex of history, his family destroyed. He had been carried like a bobbing cork on a violent wave of war that swept Europe and Russia, a political refugee running from the grip of Stalin who killed his father — among millions — then running from the shadow of Hitler who killed millions trying to conquer the world. Now he was on board a transport ship with 1,500 displaced persons heading for America with questions about his unknown future “swimming in my head.”

Having survived almost every test of human endurance, Botso faced the timeless challenge of a stranger in a strange land with a new language. When he was about to sign his American citizenship papers, the judge looked at his long name and said, “There are some twenty letters there.” And his last name was changed on the spot from Chikvinidze to Korisheli – his father’s stage name derived from the name of a mountain village, Korish, in western Georgia. “Botso” means “little steer” in Georgian – it was a nickname he earned in grade school for his head-first, bull-rush fighting style, and it stuck. In 1957, at 38, life was beginning anew for Botso in almost every way.

Divine intervention seemed par for the course set by Botso in the world. All through his life he encountered “angels” at crucial crossroads and “stars” in the darkest nights that illuminated his difficult path, and, as the book recounts in his mesmerizing crystallizations of life experience, he found angels and stars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara as he followed his destiny to Morro Bay. He discovered he had come a long way “to teach and raise musicians.” And they had a long way to go to become musicians. It was a perfect match with music being the common denominator and a teacher with European dedication and discipline, along with the dramatic ability to inspire young people to achieve the amazing.

When Botso came to Morro Bay, the population was less than 5,000 and a 1,000 of them were fishermen. When he retired from public schools in 1984, the population had increased by a few thousand and Botso was teaching music to the children and grandchildren of parents he taught in Morro Bay, Los Osos and San Luis Obispo. From the first generation of talented music students Botso founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Orchestra in 1965. Other Botso graduates went on to join or lead orchestras. Those who followed different paths in life still carry with them Botso’s work ethic, passion and drive to achieve.

Bosto has returned to Georgia three times since that fateful day in 1950 when his ship of displaced persons pulled away from Bremerhaven harbor in Germany. The elegant, evocative documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art captures the remarkable journey and tidal emotions of a life come full circle, from occupied Georgia to Nazi Germany, to a free America and back home again to a free but fractured homeland; of one man walking through the narrow streets of history and, after a lifetime away, finding himself standing in his childhood footsteps overflowing with memories of how it all came to be. It is one of those rare moments to share, when all he has survived to see with his eyes runs through his mind like a gushing stream.

In a timeless tribute to extended family, those friends and mentors who help replace our lost biological family members, Botso revisits his wonderful friendships with high school classmate Dzuria Djaparidze, Professor Dr. Hans Eggebrecht in Germany, Cambria teacher Dick Rush, influential fellow local Georgian, sculptor George Papashvily, and his wife Helen. It was George who taught sculpting to Botso, and Botso hasn’t put the chisel down since.

Losing his family in his youth taught him a valuable lesson not found in any school curriculum: “Tragedy is educational, according to Aristotle,” he writes. “In my opinion, by going through suffering and tragedy, you learn to face them with feelings of survival – to live with the demands and powers of nature, to go on and finish what others could not… For me, my wish is to teach my children and my students that death is part of us, part of the nature we live in.”

After an enlightening exchange with a former student that was years coming, Botso observed: “That meeting was very meaningful and educational for both of us. His playing was beautiful. It made me think: what a wonderful example for all of us to be able to sing a song, recite a poem, play and instrument with our own feelings, inflections, emotions – to use agogics (Latin musical term for using one’s interpretative feelings and imagination). In short, to be an artist.”

In his chapter “Teaching Music” Botso explains the “two concepts I developed for my performing students. The first is the word scientia (Latin), meaning learning science and knowledge that will become a mental possession. The ideal aim here is to become a master. The second: the word eruditio (also Latin, meaning a process of knowledge rather than possession of knowledge.) This way, knowledge becomes humanity-oriented.

“Both scientia and eruditio are important, but for musicians and artists, the eruditio should be above the scientia (although) it takes both to become an artist…”

For those who aspire to artistry, in music or other arts, Botso’s book should be required reading, for it will be referenced again and again for its guidance, support and inspiration. It is written by a humble man who happens to be a great storyteller. In fact, much of the wisdom in his words of experience is gleaned by the reader through his stories, aphorisms and feelings. Those seeking to find out what Botso knows about how to make a million dollars in the music business will be severely disappointed because, for Botso, music is not commercial, it is spiritual. And what comes through loudest in his book in his soaring spirit.

Reluctantly as his may have been at first to write the book and participate in the movie, he has enjoyed the results. He has now apparently changed his mind about sharing his extraordinary story Georgian style at the table of humanity: “My hope is to share all my experiences with everyone I meet.”

Memories of a Teaching Life in Music is the autobiography of a master of life and art. His book is not so much about exact dates, times and trivia. For Wachtang Botso Korisheli, shepherd, hiker, poet, dreamer, champion of humanity, life is about spirits and souls, the gods, and the music they make. And now he is one of them.

—Ed Ochs

Memories of a Teaching Life in Music: The Autobiography of Wachtang Botso Korisheli. 266 pages ($16.95). Available at Coalesce Bookstore, Morro Bay.