I Have Loved Every Minute of It
Seventh generation Californian Anthony “Tony” Moiso is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Rancho Mission Viejo and indisputably one of Orange County’s most influential citizens. His family’s land-owning saga began in 1882 when his great-grandfather Richard O’Neill, Sr. and business partner James Flood purchased more than 200,000 acres of adjoining ranchland encompassing parts of northern San Diego County and southern Orange County. The Marine Corps absorbed the entire San Diego property for Camp Pendleton in 1941, and upon the death of Richard O’Neill, Jr. in 1943 the remaining 52,000 acres passed to his widow, Marguerite (“Ama Daisy”), and their children, Alice Avery (“Moks”) and Richard Jerome O’Neill. In 1964, in response to the demands of an expanding population, the O’Neill family and partners began the development of the 10,000-acre planned community of Mission Viejo. Fresh out of Stanford University and the U.S. Army, Alice’s eldest son Tony was an officer of the new development company, Mission Viejo Company. He took on the responsibility of managing the remaining 42,000 acres, working closely with his Uncle Richard to successfully retain ownership and seek a balance of development and stewardship.
Because I live at the Hollister Ranch, where that balance has been achieved in a very different way, I was particularly interested in how Rancho Mission Viejo has evolved, how much of a ranch and conservation consciousness can survive in the heart of an urbanized area, and to what extent the land can be protected and preserved despite growth and pressures to develop. Tony’s story mirrors the history of California, and he has grappled with issues that are vital and current to this day. But he’s a busy and hardworking man, and credit goes to his 25-year-old nephew, Richard O’Neill Avery, for contacting him, setting up this meeting, and asking the questions. The interview is an inter-generational conversation between two family members.
We met at the Rancho Mission Viejo Headquarters on June 15, 2017. I was touched by how often Tony acknowledged how blessed he and his family have been, and by his good-hearted and thoughtful responses. Richard began with a thank you.
TONY: Thank you. I hear you. But I appreciate the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with you because what’s important is for the next generation, not only Melinda’s and my daughters, but you too, Richard, as a member of this family, to hear some of this, because it doesn’t just happen. There’s no reason why you would know these things. It really hit me, as I looked at your questions, that they’re really big, and really significant, and that you don’t know the answers. I don’t even know if I know the answers!
But it’s important that you hear me, because we’re very blessed to have this Ranch, and we’ve all worked very hard, but you’re gonna be here a lot longer than I will. I read the obituaries; it’s called the “Irish Sports Page”. If I read the sports section first and then go to the obituaries, I see a lot of people there, but the good news is I’m not one of them yet. I hate the fact that I have to wake up someday, open the obituaries, and there I am.
It’s special at this stage in one’s life to ponder some of these questions. One thing that comes to mind is how blessed and fortunate our family was and has been. Think of it: a guy came here in 1882 and he bought this ranch. It was over 200,000 acres. You’ve seen the map. Many consider it the greatest of all California “ranchos”. It had almost twenty miles of coastline, from San Clemente all the way to Oceanside. In 1882 there wasn’t anybody south of the Tehachapi Mountains.
My grandmother (Richard’s great-grandmother) was born in 1879 in Los Angeles, when the population was…well, we have an 1882 phone book, and there are only seventy numbers! The point is, there wasn’t anybody here when this was done.
This was a great tract of land…thirty-five miles long, in some places fifteen miles wide. Yes, the military came in 1942 and took the real ranch, to establish Camp Pendleton…low rolling hills, beautiful land. Up here in Orange County, the land we got stuck with still turned out pretty well, but the topography is more severe. When you think about a cattle ranch, you have cows, and you gotta go get ‘em. And if you have to go into deep ravines and up steep hills, as we do here, gathering cattle is tough.
As I was telling Richard earlier, the only time anyone in the cattle business makes any money is when he or she sells the ranch. But we figured out a way. Actually, I don’t know if we figured it out or fell into it. We’ve created development companies where we step in and buy the land from the landowners, and thereby provide the money that allows you to be in the cattle business.
We did have a ranch in northern Nevada. Uncle Richard, Jerome, Gilbert and I owned it together. We bought it in 1970 and had it for thirty years. It was 65 miles north of Elko. Elko was probably 10,000 people then. There was no freeway. It snowed. You’d go there to brand cattle, and all you did was rope all day. There’s no beer, no blender, no mariachi, no party. You just went to bed and got up the next day to keep doing it. So there are ranches and there are ranches. That was a real ranch. Having one in Orange County is just a gift from God, and having one in Santa Barbara County is not that far behind it.
Anyway, I’m glad we’re doing this. So you want take the first question?
RICHARD: What are your earliest memories of Rancho Mission Viejo?
TONY: A couple of things come to mind. When I was a little boy, the family owned the Ranch, but it was held in trust. When Jerome O’Neill died in 1926…he actually owned it all…he put the whole Ranch in trust for other members of his family, and then eventually it was broken up, and our side of the family ended up with Rancho Mission Viejo. But the ultimate say was not by the family. It was held in trust by a bank.
So we would come visit the Ranch with my mother Moks…your grandmother, Richard…and my grandmother Ama Daisy. Some of my earliest memories are of this hilltop because in those days there was a little ranch office, and there were three or four houses back here, and you passed the manager’s house on the left as you came up the driveway. It was a big house with a big grassy backyard, and the manager would have barbecues, and we’d be invited. I remember just wandering around here as a little kid. The cactus plants I used to hang out in are right behind that building. Here at the top of the hill, it was always warm, and the managers were always friendly.
And then there’s another place, Cow Camp, about three miles from here and it’s still the cowboy headquarters. That hasn’t changed. And that’s where all the saddles, horses, and loading chutes are. I remember going to barbecues there, and my mother would pack picnics. Going to the ranch was always special.
Other favorite places are Amantes Camp, our family cemetery, Camp Portola, and Gabino Canyon. All are beautiful: huge oak trees, many sycamores, very quiet. Moks, Uncle Richard, Donna, Gibby, J.J., and Chava are at the cemetery.
It was a long way from Brentwood. And there was no freeway. But I grew up in West Los Angeles. I can fake it pretty well around here, ‘cause I can ride a horse and all that, but my world was State Beach in Santa Monica. I’d just ride my bike to the beach. I remember one time when I was about thirteen or fourteen, we were playing volleyball at State Beach, and we were hanging out there one day, and I’ll never forget, this guy was mad at us, and he said, “You guys are just a bunch of bums. Why don’t you have a job? You’re just always here at the beach.”
And I realized it was true. I really did just come to the beach every day.
So enough of that, those are my earliest memories.
CYNTHIA: Since we’re on a tight schedule here, and there are a lot of good questions, I just want to make sure we get to this one. Have you viewed yourself primarily as a rancher, or a developer? How have you balanced stewardship and preservation with pressures to build and develop?
TONY: I can address that right now. It’s really important, and it relates to what I was saying earlier about how blessed we are as a family. We did get really lucky. We seized the opportunity to become developers, but we burn our candle at both ends. We have the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy and Friends of the Rancho Mission Viejo Reserve. We have 18,000 acres of open space. We have docents, and we’ve got kids who come in on school buses. We are a ranch, a ranch where some of the greatest master plan communities of all time have been established. But our values are still those of the ranch: your word is your bond, the code of The West…those kinds of basic principles that I believe are fundamental.
So at Rancho Mission Viejo, we are blessed to be able to do both. We try to develop the Ranch in a sensitive way and create wonderful places for people to live, but we also try to acknowledge the land and preserve it, and recognize how lucky we are.
In 2004, when we had the big battle with entitling the rest of the Ranch…and what that means is, you create a plan, but you have to take it to the public agencies that have the power to tell you whether you can do this…so when we asked for 14,000 houses to be developed over time, and to keep the whole bottom part of the Ranch as open space, that was because we wanted to still be a ranch.
In one of the meetings at the County Board of Supervisors, one Supervisor actually said the county needed 75,000 houses, not 14,000. On the other hand, to be honest, traffic-wise, I don’t know if we had the roads to build 75,000 houses. So as you can see, there are a lot of dynamics and conflicting demands.
And the environmental community helped everyone pay attention. It was a little easier for us to handle the pleas for preservation and the cries not to develop because we genuinely wanted to limit the development, as opposed to those who buy land and want to maximize the return on the investment.
But the short answer to your question is we’ve tried to do it all. And we’ve created the balance that allows us to do just that.
Richard, it’s important for you to hear this, so that your generation knows what one of our dreams here was: to have it all.
RICHARD: What schools did you attend? What was your experience like there? Do you have relationships today with people you met at school? Do you have a particular professor that was a big influence on you?
TONY: I went to Brentwood School…a public school. We would ride our bikes or walk to school from Moks’ house right above Sunset. Then I went to Harvard School, now called Harvard Westlake, from 7th to 12th grade. And I went to Stanford after that. I also went through the U.S. Army Infantry Officers Basic Course in Fort Benning, Georgia, where I really learned most of the lessons of life.
I was pretty spoiled. I was lucky. Harvard School was a wonderful prep school for boys and it prepared you for college and when you go to Stanford, it was okay. I took history and political science. Anybody can pass those; you can kinda talk your way through.
But some of my dearest friends are from grammar school, high school, and especially college. I’ve mentioned my friend Paul Bloch. He was chairman of the PR firm Rogers & Cowan; I met him when I was five years old. He’s an image-maker. When Motown first came to Hollywood, Barry Gordy, they gave him to Paul. Paul was only twenty-three or twenty-four years old. But Paul told me, “I could make you into anything you want to be. But it would really help if you had some talent.”
As for having a particular professor who influenced my life…not really. There were a couple of people I remember. There was a History of Civilization teacher. I think he must have been a communist, because I’d get into arguments with him. And then there was a political science professor, his name was James Watson, and he was everybody’s favorite, not just mine. Other than that, no.
But I was blessed to go to some really good schools, and I liked them.
RICHARD: What was your position in the Army? How has it helped you today?
TONY: Well, Richard, I mentioned the Infantry School at Fort Benning. My MOS, military occupational specialty, 1542, was “small unit tactical leader”, an Infantry Platoon Leader. The infantry is the branch that fights the war. Vietnam came just as I was leaving active duty, so I never was in combat, and I wasn’t assigned to a real Army unit, but I was an Infantry Officer.
My job was pretty easy. I was sent to Fort Ord, California, which is in Monterey, and I was Basic Training Company Commander. Two hundred or so recruits would come through every nine weeks, and all the NCOs – platoon sergeants, drill instructors, and the mess hall personnel, the permanent party, reported to me. I had a lot of responsibility. You have to earn their trust, and this is my whole point. I was an officer, a training company commander, but you have to earn the trust and respect of your men. It just doesn’t come with the position. You have to work hard, and earn their respect, because those people had been in wars. Second World War, Korea, a few had already been to Vietnam.
I grew up in the Army. It really helped me to learn to shoulder the responsibility of leadership. Somebody has to make the decisions. I learned then that leadership is a lonely job.
I blew my cover once. There was one particular man, Master Sergeant Robert LaRose, who had already been to Vietnam and wanted to go back. I was sitting in my big office, and he came to me and made this request, and I blurted out the question that I wish I’d never asked: “Why do you want to go back to Vietnam?!”
He looked me right in the eye and said, “Sir, with all due respect, I’m a soldier. And that’s where the war is. And to be honest, all this…this is all bullshit.”
That was real comeuppance. But the Army was good for me. It has helped me to this day because I had a lot of responsibility at an early age.
I also learned that there was a real world. If you grow up in the world of Brentwood, Harvard School, the Los Angeles Country Club, the Bel-Air Bay Club, or the Beach Club, or your dancing classes at the Riviera Country Club, or the Beverly Hills Hotel…yours is not the real world! Then all of a sudden, in the Army, there’s the real world, with all segments of society. And you begin to see it isn’t always the way it is where I grew up, or where you grew up, Richard. That was a real eye-opener for me.
RICHARD: How is Rancho Mission Viejo connected to Camp Pendleton? What is the relationship like between the Ranch and Camp Pendleton?
TONY: The Marine Corps came in 1942 and condemned almost 130,000 acres and all the beaches to establish the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The United States–the Navy Department– government condemned it. It had the power to do that. It was called the War Powers Act, and they took the land, and in so doing they took the best part of the Ranch. There are books written about the great Santa Margarita Ranch.
They paid $4,150,000, and that was divided up by others of our family and of the James Flood family, our family’s partners. What our side of the family ended up with was 52,000 acres in Orange County. In many ways, topographically, it was the dregs. There was no beach. It was a long way from anywhere. And then look what happened. In 1960, the freeway came, and look what we’ve had the opportunity to do.
But to answer your question, Camp Pendleton has always been a great neighbor, and we nurture that. As recently as ten years ago, the Marines reached out, and Moks and I had dinner with the then commanding general, Major General Mike Lehnert. In 1950 when the First Division was going to Korea, Ama Daisy was asked to review the troops; she took me with her. We have ties, and we have some of the same issues, so we work together a lot, and I have great respect for the Marine Corps. It’s been a good relationship.
RICHARD: How has your relationship with the Mission San Juan Capistrano influenced your life, and how has the Mission influenced Rancho Mission Viejo?
TONY: That’s a great question. The blessing of the Mission of San Juan Capistrano is that it’s located in an urban place; it’s such a special oasis in this urban world in southern Orange County. I went to an event at the Mission just last night. It’s beautiful. It’s a place of peace.
The Mission and California history are things that I value for many reasons. This land here…this is Rancho Mission Viejo…the Ranch of the Old Mission. This place once belonged to the Mission. The Mission and the Ranch are synonymous.
And it goes back to being a Catholic too. My grandmother took me to the Mission when I was a little boy. She encouraged me to take care of the Mission. Uncle Richard’s father told him that too. He took Uncle Richard with him when he met with the pastor to give money to the Mission, and he said, “You pay attention now, because someday you’re the guy who is going to have to support the Mission.”
I’m just the next guy in line.
RICHARD: So here’s the question you talked about earlier about whether you view yourself as a rancher or a developer. Do you want to share some more thoughts on that?
TONY: The cattle and ranching business is still a business. What does that mean? In any business, whether you’re a filmmaker, or you own a shoe store, or you’re in the music business, whatever, you need a business plan. You need to know what you want to accomplish; you need to have a goal or a dream. In the cattle business, you’re out to improve your herd. You’re out to improve the health of your cattle, so you’ll have calves every year. If you don’t have healthy cows, more of the calves die.
In the development business, it gets harder and harder, but the principles are sort of the same. You still have to have a business plan and establish the goals you are trying to accomplish. You step back and try to figure out what you need on a daily basis to accomplish those goals. So in many ways it’s the same.
I got really lucky. When I came back from the Army, there was no such thing as master planned communities. There were just homebuilders. That’s why the San Fernando Valley looks like it does. That’s why the north part of Orange County looks like it does. There were a lot of little dairy farms there, but developers bought ‘em up, and it’s just a sea of houses.
Here in Orange County you got lucky because there were these large pieces of land: Irvine Ranch, 100,000 acres right up the middle, 50,000 acres here, twenty-something thousand acres across the street, The Moulton. To develop those huge tracts of land, you really had to work together. So the leadership of the Irvine Company, Ray Watson, welcomed working together. Beginning in 1965, we met regularly…we all got to go. I was there. We addressed topics like water, sewers, and really thrilling things like roadways, transportation, school districts, and how do you pay the taxes
So in many ways it’s different, but in many ways it’s just the same. Richard, you have to show up every day. You have to persevere. You’ve got to manage people. But you also have to have a dream and strive to make it happen.
RICHARD: What did you learn? How did you have to learn it?
TONY: I learned by showing up every day. I was young enough that I could outlast the others. I could disguise my lack of knowledge by youth, and now I disguise it by being the oldest guy. You just have to show up. To be successful in business in the long run, you have to show up every day. You can outlast them.
I also apply sports to it. You can out-hustle them too. Full-court press. You can knock the other guy down. And if they knock you down, you gotta get up. I remember in 1955 we were playing Culver City High School when I was in eleventh grade, and the kick-off went through my legs. I picked it up, and I was smothered. I was crushed, at the bottom of the pile, and some guy hit me right in the face. I sort of started to cry. Then I thought, “You can’t do this!” And I jumped up.You gotta get up. Keep going.
Well, enough of that. It was a long, long time ago. Because you asked these questions, I can go back and reminisce about high school sports and college and things I haven’t thought about in years. My high school reunion is this year: sixty years. Most of the guys are dead. Wow.
RICHARD: What does it mean for you to be here? How has it changed? How has it remained constant?
TONY: It’s a blessing to be here. I have loved every minute of it. It’s wonderful.
And how has it changed? It’s changed dramatically. When we started at Mission Viejo, you had to create a reason for people to drive through the Irvine Ranch. Why would you go all that way and live in Mission Viejo? You had to have less expensive houses, more playing fields for kids…you had to make it more attractive. That’s why we had swim programs, and why we built a golf course.
I was the project manager for that first golf course. It was so hard nobody could play. There was a wonderful writer for the Los Angeles Times back then. His name was Jim Murray. Jim Murray was going to write an article about our golf course, so he came to play. Well, there was a TV show in those days called Mission Impossible. And that’s what he titled the article: Mission Impossible. It was too hard.
So you learn. I made every mistake you could make there. Then we opened another golf course, Tijeras Creek, in Rancho Santa Margarita, and we did a little better job then. Finally we opened Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, and it’s perfect. It’s easy to play. You can make it hard if you want, but the average player shoots the best score of his life. It only took forty years to figure it out.
You learn as you go along. There are a lot of things in life you wish you could go back and do over. I wouldn’t have started to cry while playing Culver City. I would have taken Saturday golf lessons when they were offered free to members’ kids at the Los Angeles Country Club. A lot of things you just wish you’d done differently, but it’s all turned out okay.
But two weeks ago, I was practicing golf. A friend of mine walked by and said, “What are you doing?” I told him I was practicing. He said, “We’re so old, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Well, enough of me. What else do you have here?
CYNTHIA: It’s all you today. You’re the star. What fundamental experiences have shaped your worldview?
TONY: That’s a great one. Wow. I go back to what I said about the Army, and even about going to Stanford, because that was the first time I met people from different backgrounds, different worlds. I had a roommate in college from San Francisco, 100% Italian. (I’ve got the perfect name, but I’m not really Italian.) He was there on a full scholarship from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco.
So all of a sudden I was meeting people who didn’t go to the Beach Club, who grew up with nothing. That’s the fundamental experience I’m trying to impart to you, Richard. We were really lucky. But that isn’t the way the world really works. That’s why you have to show up every day. No one owes you anything.
And in my case, I didn’t own anything either. Moks and Uncle Richard got lucky, but the way the Jerome O’Neill Trust worked, it all stopped at that generation. If I could go back in time and re-do something, I’d get Jerome O’Neill, who died in 1926, and make him add “and the heirs of their bodies” as trust beneficiaries. That’s all he had to do and that would have included me, Jerome, your father, and you.
All this that we’ve done…we created this wealth, Richard. It’s because we went in and bought the land. And I’d form these development companies, and I took Jerome and your father and put them in it. I gave them these interests, or they wouldn’t have had anything. But that was the right thing to do, because we were blessed to have this. I get paid a salary for doing all this stuff, and they don’t get a salary because they don’t work. On the other hand, they’re in the game because the family was blessed to have all this.
I don’t know how I wandered off into all that, but a turning point in my life was to realize that no one owes you anything. I hope you get that as you face real life. My father and mother were divorced when I was five. That’s where Waldo comes into my life, when I’m eleven, your grandfather. But my father was a good guy, and he did teach me two things in life. One, when you make somebody a drink, take a big glass, fill it all the way with ice, and give ‘em a real shot. That’s one lesson. The other is: you get to be old for a long time. Think about it.
When you’re seventy-eight years old, I hope you’ll think back about your uncle here, rambling on, telling you that life goes by really fast. I don’t know where it all went. It happened in just a snap.
CYNTHIA: It’s all on tape now. Someday when you’re in your seventies, Richard, you can listen to your Uncle Tony’s voice telling you this.
TONY: I hope you’ll listen to what we’ve shared here in this conversation, and what is on this recording, Richard, and apply it to your life, because you have that opportunity. You’re just on the threshold right now, on the threshold of greatness. It’s true.
RICHARD: Can you tell us about an interesting or colorful person, or someone who was a big influence in your life?
TONY: My grandmother, Ama Daisy. Your great-grandmother. Ama Daisy’s name was Marguerite Moore O’Neill. She was born in Los Angeles in 1879 and died in 1981 at the age of almost 102. Think about what she saw in her lifetime! There were no cars. There was no radio. The telephone had just started. (She’s the one who gave me that old phone book.) She first came to this ranch in 1900. She didn’t marry Richard O’Neill until 1915.
I spent a lot of time with her while she lived in Beverly HIlls. She also had a house on Balboa Island, and Jerome and I would go there in the summer. She’d take me to the races at Del Mar. She was great.
When we’d go to church, she’d give me two quarters. She’d say one was to pay for your seat, the other was to pay for the show. She was the one who said that my mother was a world-class spender; she made Jackie Kennedy look like a Class C player. In I. Magnin’s in Beverly Hills there were two fitting forms, one for Nancy Reagan and one for Alice Avery! So Ama Daisy was always complaining about my mother, and she taught me to be smart about our money.
She told us, “Take care of the Ranch. Because the Ranch has always taken care of the family.” Even though it was in trust, when you think about the Depression, if worst came to worst, you could always grow crops, feed yourself.
She’s also the one who said, “Never take out a loan on your home.”
Grace Parsons Douglas was another important influence. Her Douglas Ranch Camp in the Carmel Valley, imparted many life lessons and positively impacted young people for three generations. I was a camper for five years, from 1950 to 1955, and I benefitted greatly from the structured, yet carefree, glorious days in the sun. Mrs. Douglas taught us to shoulder responsibility, make integrity a priority, accept the dignity of heard work, and embrace competition. A sign from the camp’s mess hall wall, quoting sportswriter Grantland Rice, read: For, when the one Great Scorer comes to write across your name, He marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game. I keep that on my office wall now.
Then there was John Marder, the headmaster at Corona del Mar’s Harbor Day School for a quarter century. Our four daughters graduated from Harbor Day, and Melinda and I enjoyed a nineteen-year relationship with the school and a lifetime friendship with John, who died in 2012. He was a great leader and teacher; he led the school’s community–not only the kids, but the parents. His skills made us all better parents, people, and trustees. His most important lesson: “Allow your children to do the work; don’t do it for them.” Heeding that advice helped make our daughters responsible, hard-working, giving, and caring members of society, and we the parents much more effective family heads.
Finally, one other person I wanted to mention was Charles “Chuck” Clustka, a coach who died in 1989. He had played for Coach John Wooden at UCLA. He was a great mentor. He’s the one who said all those things I was talking about earlier: “Get back up. I don’t care if you foul out, but I want you diving for every ball. Never, ever quit. Never give up.” He was a big influence. He taught geography. First day of class, he threw a guy out the window. I thought, “I better pay attention to this guy.” I guess you could do that in a boys’ school in those days.
I don’t know if you have anyone like that in your life, Richard. Maybe if you don’t, I can play that kind of a role for you. It’s important. I know you’ve had some mentoring, I believe, by that fellow who was your teacher, but now that part is over. I know you’ve come down here and met with Derek and seen how this all works, but if you’re interested, and the magical word here is commitment, if you’re committed to actually learning and willing to put the time in, I would be happy to be in that role for you. Someone has to take you under his or her wing for this. I’m here.
I got lucky when I first got back from the Army, there was a fellow who was second in command at our Mission Viejo Company, and there’s a man who eventually became president of the Irvine Company, Donald Bren. I met Donald when I was twenty-three; he was thirty. There were two companies competing for who was going to be our family’s partner. One was John McLeod, Mac Shattuck’s grandfather and Ama Daisy’s associate, from Macco Development Corporation, and one was Donald, who was younger. He got Jerome dates with Miss Newport Beach. He took Melinda and me water skiing in the Back Bay. We decided we wanted to go with this young guy!
CYNTHIA: You could have done a lot worse.
TONY: Yes, Donald was good. Another influence was Philip Riley. He was Don’s lawyer with Rutan & Tucker, at that time the biggest law firm in Orange County. They both told me that if I could convince my grandmother to go in with them, they would teach me the business when I returned from the army. Well, there was no business. We all had to learn it. But this fellow, Phil, and Donald kept their commitment when I came back. There weren’t any employees, so I got to be third in command. When Donald left…I’m not gonna tell that story now…but he left, about a year and a half after I came back, and Philip became president, and because there was nobody else, I got to be executive vice-president. It was a big title for someone who really didn’t know what he was doing. But I could fake it by that time pretty much.
Philip was really great. He’s another one who had a big impact on my life. He’s the person who sat me down and we went over things like how to read a financial statement, the kinds of things I should have learned in college had I at least taken some business classes. I wish I had gone to business school. Or law school. If you have Richard O. Avery, Attorney at Law, on your letterhead, you can be really scary. You might not know anything, but you can really scare people.
RICHARD: Can you tell us about your relationship with Uncle Richard (O’Neill)? What did he do for Rancho Mission Viejo and the community of San Juan Capistrano?
TONY: Well, my Uncle Richard lived up the street in Brentwood when we were kids. He’d come by Moks’ house and we’d play basketball. He’d take all the girls to be on his side. He was great. He’d take a picnic table and turn it over, and that would be his fort. He’d have the boys pick plums and pomegranates and we’d divide ‘em up, and we’d have a big plum fight. I can just see my mother now, leaning out the kitchen door in the back. Plums are hitting the house. She’d lean out and say, “Goddammit, Richard!” He’d take me to football games at the Coliseum. He was wonderful that way.
As we got older…there was always the Ranch, but not this. The family Ranch House here was a place you could visit. My Uncle Richard became a partner in four different restaurants in Los Angeles: the Blarney Castle, the Black Forest, the HMS Bounty, and the original sports bar, called the Bull and Bush, and it was right down the street from a hotel, the Sheraton West, where all the visiting teams that came to play the Rams or the Dodgers or the Angels would stay. The Dodgers didn’t come until 1958. But all those teams would hang out in this bar. It was a great place. There were five buses that would go to Ram games, and all that kind of stuff.
My whole point is, when the freeway came in 1960, the world found South Orange County. Uncle Richard came down to the Ranch, and he started living in the house and spending more time there than Moks. She never lived in the house, but she liked to come down. So Moks raised hell. She complained, “How does Richard get to go and live in the house?”
Ama Daisy told her, “Just be quiet, Alice. If we can get him out of those bars and to take an interest in the Ranch, more power to him. Let him go live there.”
So he did. And my relationship with Uncle Richard changed over time as I grew up, and we sort of became partners in this whole act. He wasn’t gonna show up every day, and he put up with my antics. One time he referred to me as the “quarterback of the family” because I showed up. I felt really honored.
Uncle Richard came back from the Second World War and went to Cal Poly. He was gonna go to SC…he’d gone there before the war…and he was ready to go back to SC where the party was on, but my grandmother took him by the ear and said, “You know, we’ve got this ranch. You’re going to Cal Poly. You better learn about cattle.”
But he fell in love with Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. He was a great Poly guy.
I guess the point is, what did he do here? He put up with my antics.
And let me tell you about Donna, his wife. Donna loved the money, but she was the original environmentalist. She lived in Brentwood, just off Montana near the country club. She would come here on the weekends and raise all kinds of hell. Uncle Richard and I always met on Tuesday mornings and I knew when he’d come in that she’d been raggin’ on him: “Tony’s doin’ this. Tony’s doin’ that.”
So he was caught. He had to keep peace with his wife, but also he supported what we were doing. One way I can tell you he supported development is that in the old days before I got in a lot of financial trouble in the early ‘90s when the world collapsed in the real estate business, the banks would loan you money if you pledged the land and executed a personal guarantee. Well, he signed with me. He went along with it.
And then we both grew up, and all of a sudden we were in a lot of financial trouble. Real trouble. We had seventy-eight million dollars of personal guarantees. We had to work our way through. That’s a whole ‘nother book. We basically re-financed our way out of it but he signed, so he was part of the development act. He was part of the development. But because of his allegiance to Donna, it was hard for him.
But my relationship with Uncle Richard was always strong.
He was the chairman of the California State Democratic party in the 1970s, when Orange County was a bastion of Republicans. And of course that was interesting, because anybody that had any approval power over us was a Republican. But he loved the game; he loved politics. He loved running people for office. He was supposed to be with me at some meeting once and he didn’t show up. “Where’s Uncle Richard?” He’s in Long Beach getting out the vote. When you have a campaign, a big part of the effort is to get people to show up and vote. So you have volunteers go house to house, knocking on doors. Have you voted yet? No I can’t; I got three kids here and I got to take care of ‘em. So they say, “I’ll take care of the kids. You go vote. Here’s where you go.” Then they give you a piece of paper, and say when you get there, vote like this. So Uncle Richard, he’d do stuff like that! He loved that.
I learned about politics from him. There’s always tension between Congress, the Senators, the President. That’s the way it is. But Uncle Richard taught me that if you’re not involved in politics at the local level, you’re missing it…because that’s where the game is being played. It’s still the same. And Richard, this applies to you now.
We worked it pretty well. He was the Democrat and I was the Republican. I’d walk behind him and say, “Dick didn’t mean to say that. This is the real story.”
CYNTHIA: Do you have a Democrat to balance you now?
TONY: The answer is, they think I’m a Democrat. I still get invited to Democratic events The answer is no. But I kind of walk the middle. I’m sort of an independent. I don’t go to all the Republican stuff either.
When Jerry Brown wanted to run for governor again…he’d been governor in the late1970s and early ‘80s…he called up and said, “Tony, I want to meet some Republicans.”
They used to call him Governor Moonbeam. I said, “What are we gonna tell ‘em about Governor Moonbeam?”
He said, “That was thirty years ago…I’ve changed, I’ve married, I’ve learned a lot.”
I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll have a luncheon for you.”
So I invited many of Melinda’s and my friends, all of whom disliked Jerry Brown, and I said, “You’ve never met him. You’ve never talked to him. Come to El Adobe.”
They came, he came, and he was great. And he’s a good guy. He’s the only adult now in Sacramento.
What does that all mean? You just gotta get in the game and play. All politics is local.
CYNTHIA: Then there are the questions about what gives you strength, what gets you through the hard stuff, and what advice you might give to a younger person. You’ve shared a lot about this already.
TONY: Long ago, and I mean more than forty-five years ago, I went to a seminar called PACE, personal and corporate effectiveness. It was all about setting goals.
Let’s say you wanna be the greatest big wave surfer of all time. You set your goals, but then you have to figure out how to accomplish them. First, you have to visualize yourself as successful. But then you must acquire the technical skills. You have to go ride those waves. You have to have the courage to do it and put in the time required.
I also wrote down: trust in yourself, personal integrity, and making sure your word is your bond.
Then it gets pretty deep here. The church. When the going got tough for me, there were not enough candles to light at the Mission, because I’d lit every one of them. I didn’t really, but I’d sure go pray a lot.
And then show up. Don’t expect life in the real world to be easy. It’s hard. But you have to show up and persevere.
One of the things we try to live up to around here is as simple as the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. Have respect for people. Just because you think this is how you should do it, doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the only way. Listen. Even if think you know the issues and how you would solve them, listen to other people. Have enough humility to hear and learn from others.
CYNTHIA: Here’s my favorite question: What gives you hope?
TONY: I don’t know what the answer to that one is. The Sunday before last, the homily that the priest shared at church was all about faith, hope, and love. It really hit home. Without hope, you’re lost. What gives me hope? I started to write down: belief in God, and the beauty of the world.
I told you I was at the Mission last night. I think so much of it is in God’s hands. Sometimes you think you have a plan, and God is looking down laughing. Someone else told me: Let go; let God.
On the other hand: If it is to be, it’s up to me. Sounds corny, but that’s a pretty good philosophy too. Nobody is gonna do it for you. You’ve got to go do it for yourself.
This is life on earth. The hope is…the real deal is when you die. Eternal life. That’s what keeps you going.
CYNTHIA: Sounds like your religion and spiritual foundation are a very big part of this.
TONY: I got that from my mother and my grandmother. That’s been my solace in life.
RICHARD: Maybe we can give you hope too, younger people like me, and Austin and Speedy. You pass down all this information and great knowledge, and we can in return show you that we’re using it. Maybe that can give you hope.
TONY: Thank you for sharing that, Richard. That’s very special. And certainly the opportunity is here.