Rich Wilken Will Ride as Parade Marshal

Rich Wilken emcees the Palisades 4th of July fireworks show.
Photo: RICH SCHMITT

For more than four decades, Rich Wilken has volunteered for almost every job needed on the Fourth of July in Pacific Palisades: the morning 5/10 Run, the afternoon parade, and the evening fireworks program. The only position he hadn’t held was to serve as parade marshal–until PAPA President Matt Rodman called in mid-May.

“Deann and I were in Hawaii celebrating our 50th anniversary, and it came as a total surprise.” Wilken said. “I felt extremely honored to even be thought of being considered.”

Rich Wilken’s ties to the parade go back to when he was a toddler and watched the first Palisades Fourth of July parade in 1948. He recalls marching in his first parade as a 10-year-old Boy Scout in a display called the Flags of All Nations.

“It was really colorful with the flags blowing in the wind,” he said.

Rich Wilken dressed for Fiesta Days in 1954

When he was 14, Rich and fellow members of his Junior League baseball team had gathered along Via de la Paz to ride in a station wagon driven by their coach.

The team’s sponsor was Colvey’s (the menswear store that has since been replaced by Elyse Walker), and owner Ray Colvey dropped off the station wagon where the boys were waiting. Unfortunately, the team’s coach had yet to arrive, so Colvey handed the keys to Wilken. The teen unlocked the vehicle and climbed in with the other boys, who were in their baseball uniforms. They flipped on the radio while they waited for their coach.

Parade volunteers were unaware that the station wagon was packed with under-driving-age boys, and told them to move the vehicle forward.

“I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, so I moved the car a few yards,” Wilken said. “We’re laughing a little bit and thinking that Coach will show up any minute. Next thing you know the volunteers are saying ‘Go, go,’ and we’re in the parade. Here I am, 14 years old and waving at my friends along the parade route. Luckily, I didn’t kill anybody.”

Rich’s mother, Myrtle, happened to be a few cars back riding with the Soroptimists women’s club. She had no idea her son was taking his first drive through town.

Wilken, 77, who has been parade president at least twice, joined PAPA in 1982 and his first parade committee assignment was to “support Bud Petrick, who organized the fireworks show held at Pali High School — that was more than 42 years ago, and still counting,” Wilken said.

This year, he once again is the fireworks chairman and a vice president, working with the City for fireworks and parade permits, organizing street closures, barricades delivery and working with fire and police.

Wilken has also been a parade announcer from the corner of Sunset and Swarthmore for at least 20 years.

Rich Wilken has been a parade announcer at Swarthmore and Sunset for decades.

Prior to joining PAPA, Wilken helped organize street closures for the Will Rogers 5/10K run. In 1977, for the first 10K race, he designed a huge tennis shoe titled “Whistle While You Run” to support the effort.

In 2009 Wilken saved the fireworks show. Palisades High had just laid a new artificial turf field at the Stadium, and the school didn’t want the fireworks shot over the new plastic field. The seating venue was changed to the baseball field and Wilken secured a Fire Department permit for the revised location.

Less than a week before July 4, the city’s new fire inspector, who had never worked previous Palisades events, canceled the permit.

The inspector said as an option the Parade committee could shoot the fireworks off a chartered barge, which was way too expensive, or perhaps the Field of Dreams at the Recreation Center might work (except there was no safe distance between where shells would be shot and a place for spectators, not to mention the tinder-dry canyon brush surrounding the field).

Wilken spent endless hours with city fire officials and even working with the state fire marshal and came up with the idea of shooting fireworks from the PaliHi quad that is surrounded by brick and concrete structures (the site where fireworks are still shot). Requirements included putting plywood on the second-story windows facing the quad, supplying water hoses long enough to reach the roofs, and providing ladders to portions of the surrounding roofs.

The night of the fireworks show, volunteer fire crew members were stationed on four of the roofs to monitor any smoldering shell fall-out, as was a fire captain in charge of public safety for the area.

An LAFD fire captain, a relative of the fireworks supplier working off the clock for the fireworks company, ran the fireworks crew. Shortly after the fireworks display was completed, the unhappy fire inspector told Rich the show went off safely, but that he would never approve another show in this location.

The next day Wilken contacted the mayor’s office, and in the following 15 years, he has never had an issue obtaining a LAFD permit for shooting the fireworks from the PaliHi quad.

“Rich spent probably 14 hours a day, seven days a week in the weeks leading up to July 4 to make sure the fireworks could happen,” said Wilken’s wife, Deann.

For those efforts and for his community involvement, he was named Citizen of the Year in 2010. The Palisadian-Post still selected that award and Post publisher Roberta Donohue said, “Few residents have ever been as active as Rich in so many community organizations, and few people can match his willingness to take on leadership roles.”

Wilken has been an assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 222 for 33 years, a member of the Optimist Club (since joining in 1979, he’s been president three times) and an elder in the Lutheran Church (he’s been president four times). He chaired PaliHi’s 50th reunion, was president of the Palisades Civic League, a charter member of the Palisades Specific Plan Design Review Board, an honorary fire chief and town sheriff and a member of the Sons of the American Legion.

Growing up in the Palisades with brothers George and John, Wilken attended Palisades Elementary, Paul Revere and was in the first graduating class from Palisades High in June 1964.

His father, John, a former pastry chef for William Randolph Hearst, owned John’s Pastry Shop on Swarthmore and his mother ran the Patio Coffee Shop.

Surfboards build by Palisades resident Rich Wilken.

John Wilken passed away in 1963 and money was tight. In the summer of 1966, Wilken began earning money by coloring and eventually designing surfboards under his own label, Wilken Surfboards, which became famous.

Decades later, his son Matt’s teacher at PaliHi learned that Matt’s father had created Wilken Surfboards.

The teacher told Matt that his favorite surfboard was a Wilken. Matt came home and said, “Hey dad, did you know you used to be somebody?”

In 2017, Wilken was inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame.

His path as an architect took a circuitous route. At times high school and college presented a problem for Wilken. He had dyslexia, which was not diagnosed until he was in his early 40s.

He attended Santa Monica College but dropped out after two years to work on his surfboard business.

Wilken persevered, though, and earned equivalent college credits towards his California state architect’s license by working with various engineers and being a partner in a local architectural practice. He has participated in more than 700 projects since beginning his practice in November 1970.

His list of buildings is long and includes: Mort’s Deli, the Palisades Lutheran Church sanctuary, the Emerald Bay Scout Camp dining facility, one of Barbra Streisand’s homes, an art studio for Bob Dylan and a remodel of St. Matthew’s parish.

On the Fourth of July, one of Wilken’s favorite moments is just before the fireworks display begins. He leads a salute to the veterans, firefighters and first responders, whom he asks to stand while the rest of the audience remains seated. “God Bless the U.S.A.” is then played as a tribute.

Wilken said his buddies were drafted during the Vietnam War. He couldn’t serve in the military because one of his legs was shorter than the other. However, many of his Palisades High friends did serve, and he appreciates the chance to recognize their service every year.

With Deann, who is the long-time director of the Marquez after-school Star program, they have two adult children, Heather and Matt, and three grandchildren, Kendall, Jack and Ryan.

Village Green activist Marge Gold, another long-time community volunteer, summed it up: “Rich is always ready to help where he is needed and when asked. He is invested in maintaining the town’s character and is a longtime Palisades booster.”

Rich and Deann Wilken have been married 50 years.
Photo: RICH SCHMITT

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4 Responses to Rich Wilken Will Ride as Parade Marshal

  1. Cindy Simon says:

    Rich Wilken is a perfect selection for our Grand Marshall! A more enthusiastic Palisadian cannot be found!! Well deserved Rich!

  2. Bruce Schwartz says:

    MY HERO !!

  3. M says:

    The 4th of July Committee could not have chosen a better Parade Marshall. The choice is long over due…
    Rich Wilken is a true “Palisadian” and a fine gentleman thru and thru. Congratulations!!!!!!

  4. Marge says:

    Well deserved!!! Congrats Rich.

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