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Heather Warthen, Contributing Editor
8:49 am PDT May 8, 2020

If there was anything Malibu resident Ellen Reich had, it was a way with words. The current Malibu Poet Laureate had a strong sense of creating community wherever she went and inspired many through her creative writing and poetry classes over the past four decades in Malibu.

Eleanor S. Reich, more commonly known to family and friends as Ellen, mom and grandma, succumbed to pancreatic and liver cancer at her home on Zuma Beach Friday, May 1, at the age of 86.

Early life

Born on April 4, 1934, and raised in New Jersey by her parents, Oliver and Katherine Sabold, Ellen became an elementary school teacher and married her first husband, Harry Gaynor. They had three sons – Bill, Jim and Barry. Harry died in 1967 and in 1971, she was remarried to Herbert Reich which gave her two more children to add to the family, with Herbert’s children, Paul and Julie. 

“She was a phenomenal teacher earlier in her career,” daughter Julie King said. “She was a Protestant who married into a secular Jewish family and she worked at a Jewish elementary school. She loved it and the kids loved her.”

Ellen’s son Jim Gaynor said his mom’s work as a teacher inspired many of them to go into education.

“She was a fantastic teacher,” he said of his school where his mom first taught – Redwood Elementary School in West Orange, New Jersey. “As a kid there, she was probably a favorite teacher. Being raised by a mother who was a teacher was very motivating for all of us. We all had academic aspirations. A lot of us became teachers. She motivated us because it looked a lot more fun.”

The ‘write’ stuff

“To the best of my understanding from conversations with her, she did a lot of writing when my father, who passed away in 1967, had leukemia,” said Ellen’s son, Bill Gaynor. “I think she wrote to cope at that point and probably didn’t think much about formal poetry or what have you. I can make some assumptions that she got good feedback or liked what she was doing. When she moved to California in early 1970s, she got involved with writing groups and started to get positive feedback and hone her skills.”

Shortly after that move, Bill said she published her first poem and it gave her a boost. 

“She has had hundreds and hundreds of poems published in various literary magazines,” he said.

An award-winning writer, Ellen was published several times over in variety of publications including “The Los Angeles Times,” “Slant,” “ACM” and more.

Ellen taught creative writing and autobiography in Malibu for Emeritus College, a division of Santa Monica College. Additionally, she was the instructor for the Strictly Poetry Workshop for Adults through the Malibu Cultural Arts Commission.

“She very quickly became published because it was such a passionate pastime of hers,” King said. “She spent hours and hours writing books, and had such a close group of poet friends who absolutely adored her.”

King said she remembers when her brother Barry died, many of Ellen’s poetry friends attended the memorial.

“It was really striking to my brothers and me that Ellen’s friends were that engaged with her to drive 30 miles up the coast to his memorial to support Ellen,” she said. “She was loved by so many people around her.”

Memories of mom

Ellen’s son Paul Reich said he couldn’t say enough nice things about his mother.

“She was always a very caring, sharing, loving person,” he said. “She was warm and loving. One of the memories I have was when I was first dating my eventual wife and we had our first little apartment. It was moving day and my mom and brother brought a picnic lunch over out of the clear blue sky. It was very nice and she always had very thoughtful gestures.”

According to Reich, his mom chose to forego treatment when she received the cancer diagnosis.

“She was a very brave woman in the sense of when she got the diagnosis, she made a firm decision she wouldn’t fight it and let nature take its course,” he said. “I think it took a lot of bravery on her part to stay firm with her decision and make that decision. She had lots of conviction.”

All of Ellen’s children said that she tried to live and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Ellen always lived out her goals and ideals,” King said. “She didn’t like to take pills and she never took an Advil until the last two weeks of her life. She wanted to eat as healthily as she could.”

Ellen’s daughter-in-law Lisa Gaynor said she had been eating organic food and healthy her whole life.

“She never had a microwave oven,” she said, adding Ellen had said, “I just think those have to be bad for you.”

King said that while Ellen was her stepmom, she said all four of their parents had always been close and that she thought of Ellen as her mom. King recalled an experience of when she was in college and her boyfriend was heading off to graduate school, but she had been hospitalized with a kidney infection. 

“My boyfriend asked me to travel across the country and I was worried I would get sick,” she said. “Ellen said, ‘Of course you will go. You only get an opportunity like this just a couple times in your life time and you should be taking it.’”

Ellen then drove her 50 miles to her boyfriend’s house to go on the trip.

“She was so encouraging of all of us and whatever was important to us,” King said.

Ellen’s son Bill Gaynor said he remembers the first poem his mother wrote to him after his father died.

“I could still recite it and it made such an impact on me when I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said. “Just whatever circumstance, she was always there for the people she loved.”

Son Jim Gaynor said his mom was a “zealous environmentalist” and was “very particular about conserving water and not polluting the ocean with plastic.”

“She really lived an unusual life and practiced what she preached in that regard,” he said. “She cared a great deal about Malibu and it’s environment and not having it polluted or exploited.”

He also said she was a “fitness buff.”

“She walked three to five miles a day in the hills of Malibu, right up until she was diagnosed,” Jim said. “She was hard to keep up with.”

Life in Malibu

Jim Gaynor said his mom spent 47 years in Malibu, living on a bluff above Zuma Beach.

“She loved being on the ocean – her bedroom had a sweeping view of the waves,” he said.

Jim said he and his brothers, Paul and Barry, grew up surfing every day.

“My mom was the best mom for the neighborhood kids,” he said. “There was an entourage of surfers who all hung out at our house. My mom would make lunch for everyone and she always made them feel welcome. Both of my parents were so OK with having kids around.

“She enjoyed being around kids, even though it was a rowdy bunch of surfers. All the kids liked her and respected her.”

Jim’s wife, Lisa, said one of the things she admired about Ellen was her sunset ritual.

“Every day, at sunset time, she would stop what she was doing and take time to look at the sunset,” Lisa said. “She would comment on how beautiful it was. If it was really spectacular, she’d walk upstairs and look outside the upstairs bedroom window.

“She lived that long and never took it for granted. So many times I saw her say that and do that, and that was kind of amazing.”

If there was one place that Ellen loved to eat in Malibu, it was Spruzzo’s.

“She loved that place,” Jim said. “She knew all the servers there and the owner. We went on Thursdays every week. She just loved Spruzzo’s and it gave her so much joy. She never rushed and just relaxed. She was the smallest eater, but loved being there and looking out over the ocean. I know that place had such a fondness in her heart.”

Serving as Malibu Poet Laureate

“She kept the fire burning, ever since she started teaching at Santa Monica College and creative writing at the [Malibu] senior center for years,” fellow poet and Malibu resident Ann Buxie said. “Her classes were always full. People just loved being in her class.

“She saw the good in everyone.”

As a creative writing teacher, Buxie said Ellen focused on writing poetry.

“She was always well prepared and had prompts,” she said. “People wanted to share and we heard about each other’s lives. Her students were devoted and dedicated to her. I learned a lesson from her about finding the good in people and how important it was.”

The friends originally met through mutual friends taking a creative writing course. Buxie said Ellen introduced her to the poetry scene in Malibu and that she nurtured creative writing. 

One of Ellen’s greatest honors was when she was appointed Malibu Poet Laureate by the Malibu City Council on March 11, 2019. Her two-year term began March 28, 2019.

“Reich’s spirit and ideative poetry, along with her relentless devotion to the development of poetry in Malibu since 1974, made her the ideal artist to hold the position of Malibu Poet Laureate,” according to the Malibu Arts and Culture website

“As poet lauerate, they are in charge of nourishing poetry in the area they are appointed,” Buxie said. “Ellen had been doing that for decades. It was important to her to nourish poetry in this community. Ellen felt Malibu was more than movie stars. There were just regular people writing poetry. 

“Ellen was a regular person, but she left a trail of light behind her because of who she was and how she found the good in everybody.” 

Buxie said Ellen’s poetry friends plan to create a memorial for her by engraving a poem of Ellen’s choosing onto a stone she fell in love with at Art City in Ventura.

In addition to her four children, Ellen is survived by nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren and their families. She was preceded in death by her first husband, Harry Gaynor; her second husband, Herbert Reich, sister Emily Tompkins and her son Barry Gaynor.

Ellen wrote the following in a poem she called “Death Holds Us In Its Arms, Rocks Us:”

“Death is a holding that dances

I rise and dance too”