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Love them? She thinks the world of them

Dagmar Tomlinson's grandchildren pick their destination, and she takes them there. Patagonia, Ireland, Costa Rica? She's game.

June 08, 2007|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Dagmar Tomlinson is the grandma you wish you had or hope you will be.

At 85, the retired legal secretary from Pacific Palisades has given 12 of her 15 grandchildren a rare eighth-grade graduation gift: a trip with her anywhere in the world they choose.

In the last 18 years she has journeyed to Africa, Australia and Patagonia. She has taken grandchildren glacier climbing and river rafting.

"She took me to Alaska," said Austin Bellows, 15, of Santa Cruz, about her 2006 grad trip. "And we hiked and -- wait, you know she bungee-jumped off a bridge, right?"

Yes, evidence does exist.

Leafing through photo albums in her 1949 ocean-view home, Tomlinson narrates stories of her own travels, some with her four adult children, most with her grandkids.

"These are pictures of our trip to Costa Rica," Tomlinson said of photos of her and then-15-year-old granddaughter Marisa Arellano in orange life vests and helmets on a trip riding rapids. In another photo, only her frilly swimsuit and white curls are not caked in mineral mud.

Tomlinson has no eighth-graders graduating this spring, but she will be in Seattle this week for grandson Ian Tomlinson's high school graduation. She's already taken him to Ireland.

"We did a ton of stuff, and it was a blast," Ian, 18, said from his home in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way.

A rock guitarist, Ian wrote comic limericks with his grandmother on their 2005 trip to the Emerald Isle.

"She's not," he added, "your typical grandma."

Tomlinson's youngest three grandchildren are 9, 10 and 11. She's thinking of taking all three on a Disney cruise or to a dude ranch. When her oldest granddaughter, Chelsea Schlunt, 28, of Santa Cruz, asked why her grandma wasn't waiting until they reached eighth grade:

"She laughed and said, 'For God's sake, Chelsea, I'd be 91!' " Schlunt said.

(Schlunt's choice for her graduation trip was to visit Prince Edward Island, where "Anne of Green Gables" was set. Her grandma deemed it underwhelming and added a three-week, cross-country train ride with sleeper car to the itinerary.)

The trips began in 1989, after Tomlinson's husband of 46 years died of prostate cancer. Her firstborn grandchild, Damian Arellano, now 30 and living in San Francisco, wanted to visit Eastern Europe at age 12.

Tomlinson saw that the Passion play was to be performed in Germany's Black Forest, which happens only every 10 years.

"That was a onetime thing," she said, her silver dangly earrings catching sunbeams in her living room. "But you know, Damian's sisters started in with, 'What about us? We want to go on a trip too.' And I thought, 'Well, why not?' "

So began what the family now calls "the grandma trip." She thinks she's planted the understanding in each child that the world is a big, beautiful place. Most of them keep traveling after their grandma trip, sometimes with her.

Tomlinson was born in a Nebraska farmhouse in 1921. By the time she was 4, her father, a respected hog farmer in the Omaha area, was killed in a car crash.

Tomlinson said her mother managed to live off the farm with help from her three older children until Dagmar graduated from a one-room schoolhouse at 16.

Her two brothers, then the rest of her family, sought jobs in Los Angeles, and her high school beau, Elton Tomlinson, followed. They married, he joined the Army Air Corps and made gyroscopes for military aircraft, but they wouldn't see much of the world for decades.

Despite the newly passed GI Bill's low-interest housing loans, postwar building had not yet boomed and Tomlinson said "there were no houses here to buy."

The couple lived with her brother; his friend was building a house in Pacific Palisades, then considered the outskirts of civilization. The Tomlinsons fell in love with the hilltop neighborhood, bought land for $2,000 and started saving to build a house.

For four years after his discharge, the couple couldn't afford a car and commuted by bus to jobs in downtown L.A.

She worked as a secretary; he made commercial plane gyroscopes but returned to college to study engineering. She got a job at a prominent law firm. Her mother lived with the Tomlinsons and tended the children.

"I was lucky, because I lived in the Palisades, worked in the Palisades, and my kids could be cared for in their home," she said. "I always loved working."

One of the law partners, Eric Scudder, had become like family, and when he died in 1975, he left his home, designed by architect Cliff May, to his trusted secretary.

Elton retired early from an aerospace firm, the couple rented out their original Palisades home, and the proceeds helped them travel the world.

In recent years, Tomlinson has been making $75 an hour as the personal assistant to the widow of Meredith Willson, who created "The Music Man."

She likes the part-time work, she said last week, from a rental car zooming along a Minnesota country road. Crammed in with her were three grandchildren, a great granddaughter and her daughter, Colleen Bellows, 42.

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