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Flash Flood Sweeps Away Academic Couple Who Had a Mission

September 04, 1988|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

The dean who liked to play the "Moonlight Sonata" and the neighborhood activist unafraid to ruffle feathers at City Hall are dead.

Torrance residents Juanita and Robert Mantovani, who were both 44, each had high-powered careers.

Juanita Mantovani, dean of undergraduate studies at Cal State Los Angeles, was a familiar figure striding across campus on her way to a morning meeting, her business suit clashing with her jogging shoes. Her husband, Robert was in charge of career counseling at Long Beach City College.

Both were active in civic and cultural affairs.

As president of the Riviera Homeowners Assn. in Torrance, Robert Mantovani argued passionately--not always successfully--against all who would intrude on the spectacular views of the Hollywood Riviera. His wife traveled the state, speaking at educational and women's conferences. She was the organist at St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic church in Redondo Beach. They sang together in the Baroque Consortium that Robert organized.

But it was the mountains near Mammoth that were dearest to them--the setting where the couple had made most of their friends and where they spent most of their weekends, according to Juanita's brother, Philip Watson.

Their love of the mountains proved fatal last Sunday when the Mantovanis--returning from a weekend at their new Crowley Lake vacation home--were caught by a flash flood that roared down from the hills, covered California 14 near Inyokern and swept them far down a desert ravine to a muddy death.

Lt. Mike Senna of the California Highway Patrol's office in Mojave estimated that the rushing waters carried their car "between two and three miles. That will give you an idea of the force."

Couple Found by Rescuers

The flood forced the Highway Patrol to close off sections of the highway for about five hours last Sunday. Rescuers searching for stranded vehicles found the couple, still held by seat belts, in their flattened Jeep Cherokee about midnight Sunday.

"Quite a bit of their identification was gone. Clothing was gone. We didn't know who they were," CHP Officer Kim Armbrecht said.

The Kern County coroner's office, which said the Mantovanis had choked to death in the mud, released identification of the couple Tuesday.

In Torrance that night, Mayor Katy Geissert, whose campaigns had been supported by the Mantovanis, opened the council meeting with a tribute to them.

"They were tremendous fighters and advocates for protection of the hillside and protection of the beach," she said.

Kay White, a past president of the Riviera Homeowners Assn., said members were devastated by the deaths. "They were just wonderful, vibrant people. It's just awful."

In 1985, Robert Mantovani tried to get the council to agree to putting television cables underground, arguing that above-ground wires would spoil the view. "They are not welcome here," he asserted at a council meeting.

Mantovani lost that battle, but "not for lack of trying," White said.

"He used to ruffle a few feathers at City Hall when he got up to speak. . . . He would tell it like it was, and some people didn't enjoy that."

Although Robert Mantovani was more active in civic affairs, Juanita focused more on the professional world.

She had a bachelor's degree from Marymount College, a master's degree from UCLA and a Ph.D. from USC. From 1973 to 1981, she was assistant dean of humanities at USC.

In 1981, she became dean of undergraduate studies at Cal State L.A., supervising the instruction of 15,000 students and serving on key campus committees involved with curriculum and student counseling.

"You would see her charging into meetings in her tennis shoes," said Jo Ann Johnson, past president of the Academic Senate.

Interest in Students Cited

A statement released by the university said she was "a champion of innovation in undergraduate education," backed opportunities for women in higher education and supported the honors program.

"Her keen interest in assisting students to accomplish their academic and career goals earned her widespread respect around the campus," the statement said.

"Juanita was a well-respected colleague in searching for the truth and not being afraid of tough questions," Johnson said. "The issues she was most concerned about were the quality of (student) advisement and revisions in the general education program."

She also encouraged the staff of University Times, the feisty student newspaper that regularly published articles some administrators disliked.

"She was happy that I never let up on blasting the administration," said Peggy Taormina, former University Times editor.

Robert Mantovani was coordinator of career planning at Long Beach City College, where he began work in 1974. He wrote a self-help book on career planning, was active in the Academic Senate and directed the Colleague Capers talent show. Last year, he was president of the California Community College Counselors Assn.

The couple, married almost 20 years, had no children.

Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach.

Scholarship funds at Cal State L.A. and Long Beach City College have been set up in the Mantovanis' names.

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