Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

La Verne’s Genius Woodworker Stands Mightier Than the Oak

February 26, 2017
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Ruben Guajardo, who has lived on 6th Street all of his 62 years, welcomes a visitor to his home.

Walking home from Bonita High School, along the streets and alleyways of lower La Verne, Ruben Guajardo, like a lot of 18-year-old kids about to graduate into the world in 1973, didn’t know exactly where life would lead him that summer. He had signed up for fall session general education courses at Mount SAC, but his career vision didn’t extend much beyond that.

Then approaching his home on the northwest corner of 6th and G Street, he encountered an unremarkable pile of wood and asked its owner if it was available. “I’ll tell you what,” the man said, “if you want it and will clean up the mess, you can have it.”

Eddie's Italian Eatery

After racing home, Ruben came back and gathered the wood in a red wagon, because his family didn’t own a wheelbarrow. Days later, working with only a hammer, handsaw and a bucket of nails that his father had given him, Ruben built a crude coffee table from that serendipitous heap of wood scraps.

Now 62 and a master woodworker who created the magnificent doors for the La Verne Library and Hillcrest Retirement Center Chapel and most recently the City’s new seal unveiled in January, Ruben can look back on that moment as the seminal event in his life

“I don’t think it was an accident,” Ruben said.

The table, which wasn’t sanded, stained, oiled or waxed, never made it into his family’s living room, but it occupied a prominent place in the backyard where it was admired.

“I would go back there every day and stare at it,” Ruben said.

Now 44 years later, Ruben said he would be embarrassed to show that first piece. “I know what that first coffee table looked like, and it was horrible,” he said.

But if others felt that way, they didn’t let on. “My dad and mom, I know what they saw, but I was surrounded by love,” Ruben remembered. “They said, ‘Well, that’s good son’ and ‘Keep it up.’ Only loving parents would have said that, but everybody has to start somewhere.”

PURSUING A NEW PASSION

Awakened to a raw, surfacing creativity that he didn’t fully comprehend and awed by the infinite possibilities of wood, Ruben passionately pursued his new interest at the La Verne library, then located on Bonita Avenue in what later became the Lutheran Thrift Store before its more recent transformation into Gina T Interiors. He read everything he could get his hands on about finishes, joinery, boring and a score of other woodworking techniques. His sudden and deep dive into the magic of woodworking also introduced him to a wide range of masters, from Henry and Charles Greene to Michelangelo and Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 17th Century violin maker who inspired the phrase, “Autograph your excellence.”

That saying, which he discovered more than four decades ago, adorns his garage workshop today, and for good reason. After learning of Stradivari’s painstaking attention to detail and the violin maker’s vow of excellence, the 18-year-old Guajardo pulled the tarp off his coffee table that had been sitting in the back yard and engraved his name on it. Also like Stradivari, he swore that he would labor over each and every step of his woodworking process to ensure that he had “autographed” them with excellence and the best that was in him. It was an astounding and precocious commitment, given he still barely knew how to wield a chisel.

The truth was, at 18, achieving excellence for Ruben was more aspirational than anything else. In fact, he didn’t have any more wood or money to buy a new supply of it. So, being both creative and confronted by reality, he dismantled his new coffee table and started making hand mirrors from the repurposed wood.

In the absence of the mastery that would come, other gifts would fill his life in the form of “grace, mystery and mystery,” qualities he refers to often to try to account for all the blessings in his life. For him, there is no other explanation for the success of the kid who has lived all 62 years of his life on 6th Sreet in La Verne, the son of a fruit picker and later a custodian at Roynon Elementary School.

Ruben’s stumble into woodworking was all the more remarkable because outside of a woodworking class at Ramona Middle School taught by Virgil Welch in the 1960s (now a resident at Hillcrest), he really had little introduction to the craft. “I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was doing with the wood I was working with, but I knew I had to do it,” he said. His garage wasn’t filled with woodworking equipment, but rather old rims, tires and transmissions that he and his father were going to restore someday.

After enrolling at Mount SAC that fall, he got a part-time job with the telephone company. With the extra income, Ruben bought a sander and a portable jig saw. Turning on the jig saw that first time for him was like graduating from simple math to geometry.

“All of a sudden, the work stopped being linear and all 90 degree angles because of that jig saw,” Ruben said. “I went wild with experimentation because no one was looking and the replacement blades were real cheap.”

Failing faster with his cheap blades gave Ruben the foundational practice he needed, but with his backyard serving as his makeshift studio, he risked electrocution every time he worked in the rain with his power tools.

That’s when his father gave him the okay to clean out the garage and fill it with his woodworking dreams. “I recall my dad saying, “’It’s empty now, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but go for it.’”

Ruben in his studio with his Tree of Life.

CHURCH CONNECTION

Ruben’s still-forming aspirations got a boost when a church friend of his parents who had heard about Ruben’s growing interest in woodworking set up a meeting with the Chino-born Sam Maloof, the genius woodworker who would go on to be the first craftsman to win the MacArthur fellowship. Maloof was looking for apprentices to help him in his studio.

When Ruben arrived at the Maloof home in Alta Loma, Calif., carrying a few photos of his chairs and hand mirrors, a public television crew was filming Maloof, so Maloof’s wife Alfreda showed the 18-year-old Ruben around the compound, which included a furniture-making shop and studio.

“I became frightened after seeing the rocking chairs, the settee, and the dining room table,” Ruben recalled. “Good God, it was a museum of beauty.”

Finally, Maloof slipped away from the cameras and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Sam,” he told a frozen Ruben. “Now son, what is it that I can do for you?”

“Your work is really pretty,” Ruben replied awkwardly.

Maloof and his wife quietly smiled.

“I didn’t have the vocabulary that could satisfy what I was seeing at 18,” Ruben said, describing how his words had failed him that day.

But the skinny kid from La Verne still managed to muster the nerve to ask Maloof a defining question.

“If one was to work with you,” he asked Maloof, “would you be all right if after I put in my eight hours, I could stay a little longer and maybe work on some of my stuff?”

The question triggered a deafening silence.

“You could hear a pin drop even though the exhaust fan was howling away in the studio,” Ruben said, reliving the moment. “Freda stopped smiling.”

Then Maloof took Ruben’s hand and didn’t let go.

“Son,” he said, “you cannot. I will teach you the Maloof method and you will one day be an apprentice and then one day be a journeyman and then a master craftsman, and I will celebrate.

“But you will never do your work again. You will do Maloof work here and I will guide you.”

Then Maloof let go of his hand and Freda showed Ruben out.

When Ruben got home, he didn’t mention his meeting with Maloof to his parents. “I didn’t know if I had royally screwed up.”

The two woodworkers did not meet again for three decades.

Indeed, Ruben’s life would take a different, if not, solitary path. He went on to receive a fine arts degree from California State University at Fullerton, with an emphasis in wood design, even though the school didn’t have a wood shop. He continued to pick up woodworking commissions as his reputation grew around town while also learning telephony as an internal technician for the General Telephone Company.

Ruben speaks at the dedication of the La Verne Public Library doors.

NEW KIND OF ROMANCE

Outside of work, woodworking and church, Ruben’s life had few distractions so his expertise grew, but his romantic life was failing.

“I wanted a sweetheart, but nobody was lining up at my studio garage to meet me,” Ruben said. His friends and family fretted he simply didn’t get out enough to meet anyone.

Finally, his sister, who worked in the front office at Roynon Elementary, took action, convincing her brother that there was this young, smart, beautiful and single teacher, Lisa Fornay, who was dying to meet him. Supposedly, his sister had shown her pictures and a newspaper article of her handsome and accomplished brother.

Taking the bait, Ruben showed up at the Roynon teacher’s lounge before his sister pushed him into the room, locking the door behind him.

“I could hear the click, Ruben said.

Terrified and turning purple, he saw Lisa across the crowded break room and began making his way toward her. He did have an “in” after all. Each teacher followed his every step, except Lisa whose head was tilted down, sipping tea and reading a book.

“I don’t know where I got the courage,” Ruben recalled. “Excuse me, good morning, excuse me, good morning,” Ruben kept repeating as he shuffled his way around a table to introduce himself to Lisa.

When their eyes met, she had no idea who he was. He could have been the man from the moon for all she knew.

“I just want to say it’s lovely to meet you,” he said, thrusting out his hand, praying she would grab it.

“Oh, okay, it’s nice to meet you,” she replied. “Have a nice day.”

Ruben couldn’t run to his car fast enough, but before he could climb in, his sister caught up with him. Ruben was ready to kill her, but before enabling her demise, she informed her brother that she told Lisa that the intruder in the room was her brother who had come to ask her to lunch before chickening out in front of all the other teachers. She handed him Lisa’s phone number.

“Two-and-a-half years later we married,” Ruben said, glowingly.

A roll-top desk

UP A TREE

Perhaps the timing or delay was meant to be – God’s unmerited favor, mercy and mystery revealing itself again – because Ruben had been given a unique commission, before he met Lisa, almost as large as planning their future life together.

A majestic but diseased oak tree in front of La Verne Heights elementary, which had left its imprint on generations, had to be cut down before it came crashing down. It was hauled off to the city yard, ready for the wood chipper when Brian Bowcock, who worked for the city, showed up at Ruben’s garage and proposed the idea of salvaging it by using part of the tree for the doors to a new library the city was building.

“It amazing how just one person can make a difference,” Ruben said. “Brian had the vision, and I was simply the tool he used. I was honored and humbled that Brian put that trust in me.”

Once Ruben and Lisa started a family, Lisa stayed home to raise daughters Sara and Alison. Meanwhile Ruben, instead of feeling tethered to his job with General Telephone, felt propelled by it.

“I didn’t want to take my loved ones through this starving artist journey,” he said, understanding that for every Sam Maloof, there are hundreds of artisans, skilled as they are, who scrape out a meager existence.

“The job gave me freedom of artistic expression,” Ruben explained. “Had I gone into woodworking fulltime, I would have had to do things that didn’t interest me, like making a thousand breadboards or a million cheeseboards.” Ruben estimated that he has turned down more work than he has accepted.

Also, woodworking in his studio garage was so different from his day job that the activity actually rejuvenated him. Invariably, after the kids had done their homework and gone to bed, he would slip away to the garage for an hour, which would often turn into three, sounding the midnight alarm.

“When I’m out there in my shop, that is my church,” he said. “That is my personal time with God. If my work had all been the same, I would have just watched the news and gone to bed.”

Oddly, Ruben said his work has had a larger audience in the east than in California and the west, which he attributed to two major factors. He noted that oftentimes people in the east visiting relatives here would see one of his pieces and inquire about ordering one. His trademark roll-top desk and matching chair also were featured alongside some of Sam Maloof’s work in a major craftsman and folk art exhibition that was traveling the country.

“That one show kept me busy for 20 years,” he said.

True to his Stradivarius vow made when he was 18, Ruben offers all of his clients a lifetime guarantee on his work. “As long as I’m alive, and I still have the health to go out to my shop, your pieces will look as good as the day I deliver them,” Ruben said.

His work is so well done, he never actually had anyone call him about his guarantee until a couple from New York City, for whom he had built and installed doors, said the wood panels had been lovingly abused by their free-spirited, Hot Wheels-piloting boys who constantly crashed their cars into them. After their boys outgrew their Hot Wheels, they decided the doors needed repair.

Ruben flew to New York and refinished and rehung the doors. Fortunately, his wealthy patrons paid his airfare, picked him up at the airport and put him up for the night.

Of course, Ruben’s biggest impact has been felt and witnessed right here in La Verne. Well aware of his iconic library doors, the Hillcrest Retirement Community called to commission him to replicate the doors for their chapel.

“Goodness no,” he said, noting that a quarter century had passed. “We can do so much more.”

Ruben’s Tree of Life doors became a force of nature and a metaphysical calling to reach for truth here and beyond. The doors took three years to complete.

Ruben shines a bright light on design.

THE SECOND MEETING WITH THE MASTER

Before the 16-feet-wide-by-10-feet-high doors were installed, they were featured at a fundraising dinner in Ruben’s honor in the Hillcrest Community Center. As a surprise, seated next to him at the head table was Maloof, whom he hadn’t seen in almost three decades.

Ruben reminded Maloof of their long-ago encounter and the two warmly embraced. After they sat down, Maloof reached under the table for Ruben’s hand and held it.

“Why didn’t you come back?” Maloof inquired.

“All of a sudden, I was 18 years old again,” Ruben said, transporting himself back to that life-defining moment.

Then Ruben spoke freely.

“Sam,” he said, “we are both old woodworkers now, and it has been good, hasn’t it? It’s been good for me. I found myself, and I have my best friend here,” referring to his wife Lisa.

Then he added, “If I had come back, those doors never would have happened.”

“No they wouldn’t have,” Sam replied, still holding Ruben’s hand.

Ruben keeps rocking in with his iconic chairs.

Then Maloof smiled, looked at Ruben’s dessert and asked if he was going to eat it. When Ruben said no, Sam helped himself.

“That’s when I fell out,” Ruben said, glad their reunion had turned out so amicably. “It got rid of the tears.”

Two years ago, Ruben retired from the phone company, meaning he will have more time to spend in his garage studio to work on home projects, including a new roll-top desk for Lisa, precisely measured and perfectly contoured to her body.

The garage can’t be more than 15 square feet and appears little changed since he started working in it 44 years ago, but oh, the memories it holds. He’s added a table saw and band saw, but there’s still no heater in the garage, which is why in winter he still works in three tee shirts and a sweatshirt.

On one wall, partly covered up is a picture of Ruben with singer Kenny Loggins, days after the star received a Grammy Award for “What a Fool Believes.” He said he had made several pieces for Loggins, but the singer had questioned Ruben’s engraved signature on the rosewood hope chest he had just delivered to the Grammy winner.

“I never made another piece for him,” Ruben said, revisiting his long-held oath that “nothing leaves this shop until I take responsibility for it with my soul,” secured by his engraved signature.

In another corner of the shop sits a menagerie of plastic figurines towered over by a not-so-menacing Godzilla, a gift from a friend who thought Ruben was spending way too much in his garage. If he couldn’t lure him out of his studio, then his friend would at least bring him a mascot to keep him company. Many reptilian companions and members of the “Star Wars “franchise have since joined the original Godzilla.

Years ago for a Christmas present, his daughter Sara wanted to give the place where his companions assembled a proper designation, so she ordered a sign that was supposed to spell out museum, only it arrived missing the “e.”

Seeing the tears roll down her cheek upon seeing the error, Ruben said, “Musem, no? It’s French.”

That’s the kind of woodworker Ruben is, compassionate, working in free form, in the moment!

SEAL OF APPROVAL

In 2017, Ruben’s French museum and woodworking studio have been as busy as ever. When Councilmembers Donna Redmon and Robin Carder came to him to create a new seal for the City, one that was not only more colorful and brilliant, but also more historically accurate, where the sun rises in the east, not over the northern mountains, Ruben donated his services.

He wanted to honor Redmon and Carder for their unique vision as much as he wanted to honor the city that has been his only home for 62 years. “Donna and Robin wanted to create something different,” Ruben said,” but remain true to what La Verne is.

“They had come to me 29 and a half years after Brian did, and whether you like those library doors or not, I was honored and humbled to do it,” Ruben said. He did the commission for free.

Interestingly, Ruben heard grumblings from some that the “Industry” section of the seal shouldn’t have been represented by orange groves. Ruben defended his depiction.

“These are the groves I grew up with,” he said, his ardor rising. “They pay homage to our first industry. That’s why my father came to La Verne from South Texas and worked in a packing house by the railroad tracks.

“That’s what brought us here.”

At 62, Ruben knows what’s important. While he shies away from controversy, he has no use for vanity, including his own.

“I wish there were more beautiful things everywhere,” he said. “More passion for history. Greater support for education. Just betterment. But it takes a long time.”

For now, Ruben is doing all he can to advance the cause of beauty and purity in the world. He has commissions that extend for more than a year. If the phone stops ringing, he’s not worried.

“I have an old house here to have fun in,” he said.

And when the honey-do’s are all completed?

“I’ll just keep working and give it away, because that’s fun.”

In Ruben Guajardo, grace, mercy and mystery have found their proper vessel.

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