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Rebuffed, Then Polished

Opening of time capsule gives affluent Oak Park a chance to reflect on its beginnings, when it was unwanted by neighbors.

April 02, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

When push came to shove, it was the orphan neighborhood that nobody wanted.

But as orphans often do, Oak Park grew up and became a success. And now nearly everyone would like to adopt a piece of the community that can trace its roots to a school board meeting fracas.

That's what residents of the once isolated Ventura County valley were thinking Saturday as they opened a community time capsule -- and remembered the not-so-good-old days of nearly four decades ago when neither Los Angeles County nor the next-door Las Virgenes Unified School District wanted to have anything to do with them.

That unneighborly cold shoulder forced Oak Park teenagers to travel 46 miles a day to and from classes in distant Simi Valley. And that bus ride galvanized the parents living in a subdivision of 609 ranch-style homes clustered next to the Ventura County line to audaciously create their own school system and begin seizing control of their own community's destiny.

So no wonder an enthusiastic crowd of some 600 was on hand for the unearthing of a capsule buried 25 years ago on the day Oak Park High School first opened its doors.

"Let me thank the Las Virgenes school district for not letting us in," Richard Daley, one of the Oak Park Unified School District's founding trustees, said to heavy applause.

Old-timers in the crowd could remember how difficult life was in the late 1960s and the '70s for those raising families in the unincorporated neighborhood that lies 10 miles west of the San Fernando Valley.

There was only one way in and out of Oak Park: Kanan Road, which dead-ended in the housing tract. There were no shops or stores, so the 2,400 residents had to travel 1.5 miles through Los Angeles County cattle-grazing land to buy groceries and gas in Agoura.

Firetrucks, sheriff's deputies and rescue ambulances from Thousand Oaks responded to Oak Park emergencies. That 10-mile trip was a stomach-churner when a house was on fire or a resident was suffering a heart attack and firefighters from Los Angeles County were unable to come and help out.

That isolation worried Ventura County officials so much that a land swap was proposed that in 1967 would have turned over Oak Park's 2,650 rolling acres to Los Angeles County. No thanks, responded the would-be recipient.

Oak Park children had their own elementary school, constructed when builder Louis Boyar's Metropolitan Development Corp. acquired what in the 1940s and '50s was ranchland owned by "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio stars Jim and Marian Jordan.

The grade school was operated by the Simi Valley Unified School District. But there was no middle or high school campus in Oak Park. And a range of 2,000-foot-high mountains separated the community's teenagers from secondary classrooms in Simi Valley -- necessitating the 46-mile school bus trip.

"It was awful. We had to get on the bus in the morning in the dark. You couldn't do after-school activities -- you couldn't be part of your school," former student Barbara Manning Preston recalled Saturday. "And we'd have to ride past two other high schools to go to another one."

Her mother, Pat Manning, said their family tried to leave shortly after buying one of Oak Park's original homes in 1968.

"It was so tough for the kids. Oak Park was not the most wonderful place to be because of the school situation. We tried to move, but we couldn't sell our house. We couldn't give it away," said Manning, who would later help create the Oak Park district and serve as its first board president.

By the early 1970s, Oak Park parents were begging the next-door Las Virgenes district to annex their neighborhood. Geographically and socially they were one community, the parents argued. And annexation would put their youngsters within walking distance of Agoura's public schools.

The parents' campaign unraveled 32 years ago this month at an emotional Las Virgenes board of education meeting as angry accusations -- and fists -- flew. Surprising many at the meeting, Las Virgenes' then-school superintendent urged that his school system welcome the Oak Park youngsters.

"Irrespective of whose fault it is, the children in Oak Park are disadvantaged by geography and topography," Ken Osborn said. "We believe that we should not be bound by what was realistic for a Spanish landlord in 1820. We believe that now is the time for a people-oriented and child-oriented philosophy to be extended."

Those on the Agoura side of the county line denounced the annexation idea. A woman from Agoura's Hillrise subdivision told board members that she was worried about her children attending class with the Oak Park subdivision's "little dope addicts."

Oak Park resident Mark Shaw took the microphone to refute "that lady -- if you can call her that .... "

From the audience the woman's husband yelled, "You can!" He raced to the front of the hearing room and knocked Shaw to the floor, upending the speaker's lectern in the process. Startled school officials separated the two men.

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