top of page
American flag waving

Rick Shoemaker
2024 Grand Marshal / Air Force Veteran and Humanitarian

Often, our grand marshals are famous individuals who have a connection to Laguna Beach.  But this year, we thought it would be more appropriate to choose someone who personifies the best of our “Laguna Heritage.” Known to all as Rick, James Richard Shoemaker was born in 1936 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, grew up on Long Island and moved to Tulsa where his father was based as an airline pilot. As a student at Will Rogers High School, Rick found he was more fascinated with the design of cars rather than sports, and he became known as the boy who could repair them in the family garage as well. In college at Oklahoma State, he pursued a fine arts degree in product design while also participating in Air Force’s officer training corps. 

Graduating in 1959, Rick was awaiting orders to pilot training when he and a few pals decided to drive to California and get summer jobs.  Rick found work at Disneyland as a ride operator. In his spare time, he discovered the joys of body surfing at Laguna’s beaches. Whether operating the “Alice in Wonderland” ride, which involved remotely controlling three-wheeled cars on rails helped to qualify him as pilot of a strategic bomber is debatable. Nonetheless, he won his wings in jets at Craig Air Force Base in Alabama and was selected to join the Strategic Air Command.

It is difficult to understate the demands and discipline required of a pilot flying SAC’s first jet bomber, the six-engine Boeing B-47. Navigation was done with a sextant and crude mapping radar. The B-47 had limited range, so Rick found himself standing ready alert overseas in places from Morocco to Spain to England.

Released from active duty with the rank of captain in 1965, Rick decided to continue his studies in design at the Los Angeles Art Center. He soon realized that the previous six years had equipped him better for the future. He joined the “proud birds” of Continental Airlines as a Boeing pilot. It was in 1969 while he was flying a 707 that a flight attendant named Kathy Betton accidentally spilled coffee on him in the cockpit. He turned around, and rather than being upset, was suddenly struck with the thought: “This is the woman I’m going to marry.”  And so it was. 

They settled in South Laguna, refurbished a house, joined Laguna Presbyterian church and gave birth to a beautiful and spirited daughter, Sarah, who later would become a graphics arts designer herself. Rick made captain at the airline.  Life could not have been better.  Until it wasn’t.

His father was dying. His airline was taken over by a corporate raider who looted its assets and then, in 1983, took it into bankruptcy along with cancellation of the pilots’ contract. A bitter strike put him on the street without pay or health benefits just as Sarah was born. Unable to pay the $6.000 hospital bill, Rick began working as a carpenter and handyman in town, experiences that would later figure in his life.  He eventually joined another airline but at the very bottom of the seniority list. That meant another long haul to captain and transcontinental commutes in order to keep the family home here.

Retiring in 1996, Rick put his design and construction skills together and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, the large international organization that builds homes in some 70 countries for the disadvantaged. His first project was to build ten homes in ten days in Romania. Kathy joined him in Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand and once even Siberia! 

Post-retirement life was rewarding. Then, in 2001, family life was upended again. Kathy was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. Treatment at first was successful allowing more HFH volunteer work in Orange County, rebuilds after Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina as well as in faraway places like post-communist eastern Europe. Of all his many projects, Rick is particularly proud of a build of 27 homes called “Homes for Heroes” in San Juan Capistrano, over half of which went to wounded veterans or their widows.

Sadly, Kathy’s health declined again with a series of debilitating illnesses, each requiring more treatment. After an unsatisfactory stay in a nursing facility, Rick decided to bring her home and become her full-time caregiver with help from Sarah and members of the church. Surrounded by love, Kathy died in 2017. 

Given these depressing circumstances, many would have given up. But, that is not in Rick’s character. He threw himself into more volunteer activities helping others including the homeless, but he also took some time for himself to meticulously restore a 1932 Ford roadster, perhaps the classic American hotrod. Later on, he restored an Austin Healey. Even so, loneliness is an inevitable feature of being widowed, and with a bit of not so subtle encouragement from some in the congregation, he met Wendy Huntley, herself a widow. Happily, they married in 2022. Today, we honor Rick Shoemaker for his selfless example that deservedly is a part of Laguna’s heritage.

bottom of page