Reclaiming a Piece of Malibu History, Thanks to the Reagan Library

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Duke Blackwood

A Malibu man is making a kind and unusual gesture to some local parents who may have lost everything in the Woolsey Fire—returning some priceless mementos from their children’s elementary school days. 

As a 40-year Malibu resident, Duke Blackwood has lived through fires, mudslides and other natural disasters, but pointed out, “Last year was so much more devastating.” Blackwood is the director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, where thousands of area children have visited on field trips throughout the years. As the host to countless dignitaries in his nearly two decades at the helm as director, Blackwood is responsible for overseeing the museum, archives and physical plan of the library. The archives contain 63 million documents, the official record of the President of the United States and his administration and showcase nearly 120,000 square feet of exhibits featuring the president and Mrs. Reagan in the 1980s on its 100-acre campus. 

Thinking about the fire and many of his friends who lost their homes, Blackwood came up with a brilliant idea while going through some of his files. “I came across these letters from the kids from Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School that came to visit, and they said, ‘Thank you.’ I thought to myself, ‘Wait a second, if a family lost everything and they have nothing from their son or daughter’s childhood, this might be a nice memory that they can continue.’” Blackwood said he’d like to return the letters to any of the Malibu families, especially those who lost their homes and mementos. 

The newly found letters were personally written to Blackwood, who hosted the fifth graders who visited the library in March 2007. Most of the students continued on to Malibu High School and graduated in 2014. Blackwood received 34 thank you letters altogether, and the letters are charming to say the least—filled with typical fifth grader misspellings and straightforwardness.

Even though his own children were not on that particular field trip, Blackwood’s daughters ended up going to high school with many of the students who thanked him—so he knows some of the families who lost everything. But Blackwood pointed out that he does not know all of the families.

“A lot of the families—I don’t know if they lost their homes,” the director mused. “I thought, well, if they did, they’re not going to have anything left, so this might be kind of cool.” So, he’s offering to return the letters as a memento of the children’s fifth grade experience. “Being in my position it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” he said.

The Malibu Times contacted some of the parents who may have been on that field trip with teachers Margo Dunn and Kris Jennings. None of the parents remembered exact details, saying with multiple children that have visited the library and museum they could not recall specifics. But some parents, especially those that did lose their homes, echoed the sentiments of parent Kari Cole, whose home did suffer some damage but still stands.

“That is so kind and thoughtful of the director!” Cole shared. One parent who lost her home emailed, “It would mean so much if I could receive a copy of it.”

Those interested can email Duke.Blackwood@NARA.gov (which stands for the National Archives and Records Administration). 

Remembering a little back on that March day in 2007, Blackwood recalled, “The kids were great. I absolutely remember it. 

“Thirty-four fifth graders are always a challenge, but when they come to the library there’s two things that I know for certain: they want jelly beans [President Reagan’s favorite candy] and they want to see the plane [Airforce One],” he continued. “When they saw the plane, it was very memorable. I was impressed with how well behaved they were because as a parent of youngsters you’re always worried about that, but as a matter of fact all the school classes we’ve had from Malibu have always been good over the years.” 

Blackwood wanted to add, “I hope this is a little bit of a memory that can last and continue because after the fire and the devastation these small things can mean a lot and I can only wish them all the best.”