Malibu Poet Laureate Remembered: ‘She Left a Trail of Light, and That Light Is Inextinguishable’

Malibu poet laureate Eleanor “Ellen” Reich was being mourned across Malibu, Santa Monica and surrounding communities this week following news of her death on Friday, May 1.

Reich, who was still in her first year as Malibu’s poet-in-residence, was a longtime Malibu community member, teaching poetry and writing classes at the Malibu Senior Center as well as creative writing classes as an emeritus professor at Santa Monica College. 

“I’m really glad that she got a year as the poet laureate because she deserved it and her poetry was exquisite,” Ann Buxie, a fellow poet and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Malibu poet laureate program, said on Tuesday. Buxie, who knew Reich for many years, said Reich’s lasting legacy to the community would be her many years teaching classes—and the deep kindness she showed her students.

“She always found the good in everyone, and it’s a wonderful trait,” Buxie said. “It meant that you could—in her writing classes—you felt free to share anything and everything, because nobody was going to squash you. She wasn’t going to squash you and criticize you in a way that would shut you down. She never failed to find the good in something, and it was never fake.” 

“She left a trail of light, and that light is inextinguishable,” Buxie added. “What more can you say about someone?”

Kristin Riesgo, deputy director of the Malibu Community Services Department, agreed, saying, “The way she teaches just inspires you to be a better person and a better writer.”

Reich was born April 4, 1934, and raised in New Jersey by her parents, Oliver and Katherine Sabold. There she earned a teaching credential and married her first husband, Harry Gaynor. The two had three sons, William (“Bill”), Jim and Barry. 

After Harry’s passing in 1967, she reconnected with primary school classmate Herbert “Herb” Reich during a class reunion and, in 1971, they were married. Herb brought his two children, Paul and Julie, into the family and she loved them as her own. That year they moved to Southern California.

Reich wrote poetry for many decades, including hundreds of published works and several book publications, and was well respected by her peers. She was an instructor of poetry and autobiography in the Santa Monica City College Emeritus program as well as teaching classes at the Malibu Senior Center.

“She grew very close with the people she taught and they came back, year after year,” her son Bill said. “She was very keen on accepting people and their writing and not trying to narrow their scope or thought process. I think people really loved her for that.”

Reich was healthy and active up until her cancer diagnosis about two months before her death. For decades, she took daily walks around her neighborhood of Malibu Park, Bill said, and was in good spirits until the very end. 

“Once she had come to terms with her illness and understanding that it was incurable, she was very happy that she was able to end her life on her own terms, without being hooked up to hospital tubes, being at home and being surrounded by her loved ones until the end,” Bill said.

“She was kind and interesting and giving and she loved her family,” Bill said, adding, “she was all about making people feel comfortable and welcome—and that’s not to say she was a pushover. She stood up for herself. But she was just a very kind and loving person. I think you’d find hundreds of people that would say the same thing.”

One of those people is Ricardo Means Ybarra, the only other person to have held the title of Malibu poet laureate (the position was founded in 2017), who developed a strong friendship with Reich, according to her son Bill.

“Ellen was la Maestra of Malibu,” Ybarra wrote in an email. “She promoted and advocated for the arts and writing when Malibu was slumbering. Twenty years ago, she was teaching poetry and holding salons and readings. Her style in teaching and life was to always look for the best, for the good, and we were blessed because of it—blessed to know her energetic, happy husband Herb, her loving wonderful family and friends. When you read her poetry, you will find humor, intelligence and a joy of life. Ellen life was glorious; she is glorious.”

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