Deborah Szekely

Nine decades of service and leadership

The life story of Deborah Szekely is as full of achievements as it is improbable. Born in Brooklyn in 1922 and raised in New York City, Tahiti, and Marin County, California, Deborah (as she prefers to be addressed) found herself at age 18 jouncing down a dusty road in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, in an old car with her husband, a 34-year-old Hungarian scholar, philosopher and natural-living experimenter.

Edmond Szekely had been named the Director of the British International Health and Education Society in Leatherhead, Surrey, England, but as the war broke out he found himself unable to return to Europe. Szekely was in the reserves of the Romanian army (typical of most educated eastern-European men). He had been ordered to report to duty to support Hitler’s ambitions of world domination, and as a Jew this was tantamount to a death sentence. Szekely ignored various orders until finally in 1940 his passport was cancelled, and an order for his arrest was issued by the Romanian government. This, the last straw, he also ignored.

Then U.S. Immigration and Naturalization notified him that if he was found in the U.S. after June 1, 1940, he would be arrested and returned to Romania as a deserter. Britain’s cities were burning, and transport back to England by ship was extremely hazardous. A number of foreign-passport Jewish men in the United States were in a similar position at this time; forced to leave, but with nowhere “back home” in Europe to go. Those with adequate funds to wait out the war went to Canada. Those without, crossed over into Mexico.

Without documents, Edmond and Deborah crossed into Mexico—and Mexico welcomed them. All of their possessions rode in a box mounted to the back bumper. (They were, in fact, “undocumented aliens” – one of the reasons that she has been a champion of immigrant rights and cross-border cultural and environmental programs throughout her life.)

In the 66 years since, Deborah has gone on to fashion a remarkable life and career in three public arenas:

The founder of the modern health and fitness movement, both as the owner/director of two destination spas –Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door – and as an industry leader through such organizations as the International Spa Association (ISPA);

A government career during which she served as President and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation in Washington, D.C., various assignments as a U.S. Diplomat, and other posts;

A philanthropist and public servant who has funded numerous causes in the realm of education, health and welfare, and the environment, and created several non-profit organizations that continue to affect lives today in the San Diego-Baja California region as well as nationally.

Service in particular has been a way of life for her: Even as a small child she was accustomed to helping her mother (a trained nurse) care for a small colony of sick, impoverished European and American expatriates living in the proverbial grass huts on Tahiti.

In her private life, Deborah Szekely is the mother of two children, Sarah Livia and Alex (deceased), and the grandmother of three. She lives in San Diego, California, and continues her work as Founder-Creative Director of the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta, Founder/Chairman of New Americans Immigration Museum and Learning Center, as well as several other commitments. In her business and community service work she relishes calling herself a “professional networker” who, when asked, “How did you do it?” replies, “I just recognize a need, sell the dream, and help everyone else join in and make it happen.”

The founder of the modern-day fitness movement

Deborah’s parents first met Edmond in Tahiti. Edmond was known as a progressive thinker and a philosopher of the simple life, and hundreds of persons around the world who had read his books would come to these camps. Upon graduation from high school, she found herself helping in one of his annual summer schools.

When he discovered she had become “indispensable” both to the lives of his guests and his own, he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically accepted, and soon found herself supervising all details of the couple’s camps for an international clientele. The war in Europe had cut off her husband’s income from his book publishers in England and in France, and the two relied on Rancho La Puerta’s “$17.50 a week/bring your own tent” charges to gradually improve and purchase land in a remote valley about 35 miles southeast of San Diego.

The thrust of her husband’s message was prophetic: he emphasized the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol and espoused the need for foods grown in healthy soil, pure air and pure water. Long before the Korean War he recognized the potential threat of cholesterol and fats in the American diet, and advocated the enjoyment of a low-fat, organic vegetarian diet rich in locally grown fruits and vegetables. He was one of the first to contend that a balance of mind, body and spirit was essential to both health and productivity but also one’s happiness and sense of well-being. His masterwork was his world-view book, Cosmos, Man and Society, written when he was 33.

In many ways, Deborah’s self-education after high school in the U.S. was the result of her husband’s wide-ranging scholarship, and a desire to meet his expectations. She also learned harder lessons from life itself, as early days at the Ranch were utterly “pioneer” in fact and spirit; the Ranch had no electricity or running water, reading at night was by kerosene lantern, and gardens and goats, as well as guests, needed constant tending. Everything was rustic and what is now termed “organic.”). From the beginning, the Ranch’s guests were also a source of knowledge and excitement—they were an eclectic collection of world-travelers, scholars, and entertainers that included such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Gardner Murphy, Kim Novak, Burt Lancaster, and J.I. Rodale, founder of the organic gardening movement in the United States.

By 1958, as her marriage to Edmond was nearing its end, she began the Golden Door on her own. It was considered a masterpiece: the first elegant fitness resort ($250 a week, now $7.500 a week in 2006). It was time for Deborah to steer her own course, although in fact she had long ago assumed responsibility for Rancho La Puerta’s growth, excellence and innovation, as her husband wished to confine himself mainly to lecturing and writing about the verities of the world’s different religions.

She is widely credited with establishing the “Fitness Revolution” when she began hiring exercise instructors with backgrounds in modern dance—an approach from which all of today’s fitness-spa instruction springs. She also pioneered the Fitness Day (this is now called “cross training”) during which one alternates an active class with a passive one. Soon guests were returning home with word of a fitness lifestyle that included yoga, tai chi, hiking, aerobics, dance, stretching, weight training, massage, meditation, and much more – a lifestyle inspiring enough to continue at home. Almost 500,000 guests, and many hundreds (over the years) of instructors spread the word; in the early days this was the beginning of a revolution that eventually saw the President’s Council on Fitness honoring Deborah with appointments to the council under several different presidents. She was asked to give the keynote address on fitness at the Nixon White House.

Much smaller and more private than Rancho La Puerta, the Golden Door in Escondido, California, was built to be a luxurious accommodation as pleasing as Nature (and Deborah’s efforts) could make it. The Door was soon world-renowned as a setting of privacy and intimacy. It, like Rancho La Puerta, was a sanctuary from which guests took home the latest ideas in mind, body, and spirit wellness, often many years or even decades ahead of national trends. Deborah also helped pioneer mainstream acceptance of vegetarianism through her two spas’ menus, which proved that artful, creative cuisine was achievable without meat and poultry.

A distinguished government career

Deborah ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982. Yet it proved to be a breakthrough. In the process of running, she discovered that there was not one single book that answered a new House or Senate members questions, “What do I do first…what do I read…what do I study?” Recognizing a vacuum as always, Deborah set about to fill it, and lost her image forever as “the lady from the fat farm.” She conceived and created the first ever management manual for members of Congress, both house and senate. In November, 2006, the 10th revised edition of “Setting Course” greeted the freshman class.

During 17 years in Washington, her greatest achievement was as President and CEO of Inter-American Foundation from 1984-1991. As she stepped into the post, IAF was under attack by conservative politicians despite its altruistic mission to support self-help efforts of the poor throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Deborah stayed the course and built the agency into a successful and accepted catalyst of change, innovation, and fiduciary responsibility.

Today this model is much in the news again. The Inter-American Foundation pioneered the concept of “micro-financing” and grass roots development, which helps create pockets of entrepreneurism throughout a nation as a way of combating poverty and aid dependence.

Her other accomplishments in the nation’s capital include her work with the Organization of American States (OAS) as a principal delegate to the Inter-American Commission on Women.

A community and culture volunteer and philanthropist

In the late 1980s, Deborah was president of the International Volunteer Association, and 11 years later was named the Philanthropist of the Year by the San Diego Chapter of the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives.

However, the genesis of Deborah Szekely’s life of public service came long ago in a moment of observation…and inspiration. In 1952, noting that the small border town of Tecate, Mexico, home of Rancho La Puerta, had no school and programs for the deaf and deaf-mute children, and were being mistreated and misunderstood as if they were imbeciles, she established the first-such school in Baja California.

Soon thereafter she founded the town’s public library, starting with 500 paperback books, a collection that quickly grew to 5,000.

Her tour de force was Children to Children, a cooperative effort between many school districts throughout Baja California, Mexico, and Southern California to collect, clean, mend, and distribute used children’s clothing throughout Baja California. Donators took used clothing to local fire stations, there to be picked up by the Marine Corps. Local laundries washed the donations for free, Junior League sorted them, and a local businessman’s trucks handled deliveries to the border. “That was ‘networking!’ recalls Deborah today.

At the same time, her lifetime passion for the arts began with a volunteer job (translation: cleaning, set teardown, and ushering) at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. She would later lead the Globe’s successful capital campaign to rebuild after a fire. Today she is on the Tony Award-winning Globe’s Honorary Board.

“Volunteerism was my Alma Mater,” she says today. “I learned that you use the skills you gain as a volunteer not only to further change in your community, but in business.”

Other public service achievements include founding the Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County (COMBO), a version of United Way for the arts that raised more than $2 million per year during her involvement from 1964-85. Almost 30 different cultural and arts organizations were brought together by Deborah’s networking to encourage and pool donations, culminating in an annual auction unique in the nation at that time.

She founded Eureka Communities in 1990, applying what she had learned from administering foreign aid and creating new programs. She believed that the leaders in community-based organizations across the country would welcome learning with, and working with, one another, via a Eureka 200-hour Fellowship. Eureka’s system of peer and mentor support has been an active success now for 16 years.

She has been on numerous councils and boards, and has also received a great many awards for her service work and philanthropy; including most recently the San Diego/Tijuana Citizen of the Year (please see CV). She was also particularly proud to be honored as Mrs. San Diego by the San Diego Rotary in 2002 (the fourth woman so honored).

Her service work and creative volunteerism today focus on two areas: she lectures regularly about wellness, and the egregious prevalence of industrialized foods in the diets of Americans young and old, and she pursues her dream of opening a museum-cultural center in San Diego that honors the immigration experience and infuses the process of becoming a new American with added purpose and honor. The Museum, currently without walls, has already sponsored numerous immigration education programs during the past five years in collaboration with San Diego public school systems.

As Deborah enters her 85th year in 2007, she continues to maintain a schedule of activities, work, and travel that matches her calendar when she was in her early 60s. She feels no less creative, committed (and frustrated!) then she has in the past 66 years, and look forward to her next decade of seeking change. Her leadership throughout the San Diego region, the state of California, and the countries of both the United States and Mexico, has been a fulfilling and successful force toward the good of all.

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Entries by Deborah Szekely

Today’s Brilliance from Deborah Szekely

Today’s Brilliance is a bit different from other days. About two months ago I had the honor of spending a glorious week at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. I met the co-founder and owner, Deborah Szekely. I was one of 18 bloggers invited to celebrate Rancho La Puerta’s 70th anniversary. Just shy of her 88th birthday, Deborah glows with an energy that one rarely finds in a 50 year old. She does Pilates three times a week and trains three times a week with a Navy Seal. When she said “I know that eventually I will get old”… I… Read more.