Otto W. Laula
by Tom Moore
This is a photograph of Otto Laula on his BMW motorcycle, Glen, and his beloved daughter Jessani, now the mother of four wonderful, grown children.
Jessani’s mother Sue was killed in a tragic landslide on Mount Shasta 46 years ago, and since that time Otto has been a devoted single parent to his daughter. The bond and deep affection between them has always been unmistakable, as Otto remained constantly involved in the lives of Jessani and her family.
I recently told them both that I thought I had witnessed their relationship grow even deeper. Sadly, this change was occasioned, over the past eleven weeks, by Otto learning that he had advanced cancer, leading to his death on October 12. Otto had a large network of family and friends, all of whom really loved him. Though most of us knew what was about to happen, it can’t soften the blow of him being gone from our lives.
Otto was a remarkable individual, possessed of an acute intellect and a buoyant sense of humor. His pursuits in life were many, and eclectic. My own relationship with Otto derived from a 30-plus year partnership in a publishing enterprise we called The Woodie Press, named for his grandmother, Eva Wood, also known as Grandma Woodie. Our logo featured her on this same motorcycle in a stylish dress hat, skirt, white heels, and Otto’s letterman’s jacket.
Otto and I were brought together by his sister Molly, who introduced us when she learned of our shared fascination with neighborhood grocery stores, the subject of our first calendar in 1976. Over the next thirty years, we went on to create unique and quirky calendars, as well as postcards and posters. One of our posters was a four-part photo series, featuring Otto, on how to manifest a refrigerator, spoofing the New Age. In more recent years, we saw each other pretty regularly, mostly in the context of his 25-year affiliation with Café del Sol, working as a bartender. As a non-drinker, this was the most time I had ever spent in a bar. It wasn’t Cheers, but it was a pretty fair approximation, with a cast of colorful regulars, some of whom also became good friends.
But there’s so much more to this beautiful, compassionate, intelligent man. Otto was educated at Duke University and earned a degree in law from the University of Michigan. Out of law school, Otto worked in Vista, started by Robert Kennedy, and often characterized as the domestic version of the Peace Corps. He worked with the Navajo in Arizona, where he met people who became friends for life, many of them also finding their way to Santa Barbara. But again, so much more.
Otto also taught a college English class for a friend in the east who took a leave of absence, as well as an adult education class in Santa Barbara. In addition, he spent time as a long-haul trucker, driving semis coast to coast, a Santa Barbara cab driver, a real estate salesman working with Eric Lyons and Joe Ambriz, later getting his own broker’s license, a tutor, a member of the California bar, the first manager of the Santa Barbara Recycling Center, and a bartender at the Café del Sol.
During the 11 weeks between Otto’s diagnosis and his passing, he was cared for by a devoted team of his daughter Jessani, his sister Molly, and his partner of eight years Patsy Evans. Throughout this time, Jessani kept an expanded circle of loving friends in touch through a remarkable collection of frequent text messages about Otto’s condition. They could be heart wrenching, but they were also very touching, and often equally funny. They gave me a greater sense of my already high level of appreciation for the love that existed between these two. I also learned some things Otto had never mentioned. I’ll share just one. Jessani described going out in the car with Otto one evening, stopping first at Spudnuts Doughnuts, picking up all the leftover pastries from the day. Their next stop was Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter to deliver their bounty to an enthusiastic welcome for “The Doughnut Man.” Leave it to Otto. Without oversimplifying, I think Otto’s life is an impressive manifestation of the spirit of the Sixties, and the vision shared by so many about how we could make this a more just, joyful, and compassionate world.
Indeed, Joy was the name Otto and Sue gave their daughter as a middle name.