Growing Up in Malibu

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Ritchie Valens

The following story was submitted by local author Pete Haynes, detailing coincidences between his sister, a longtime local and famous musician Ritchie Valens, until his untimely death in 1958. The two women attended San Fernando High School in the 1950s at the same time as Ritchie Valens, without having met each other.

The two women who are pictured in this story were strangely connected when they were both of school age. As of today, Yvonne Gillett Gelbman lives here in Malibu and my sister, Linda Ann Haynes Schamel, lives in Brookings, Ore.

I have known Yvonne for nearly three years. The first time we talked was down at Zuma Beach while she was walking her two dogs, a beautiful black Lab named Poppy and a small little brown guy named Chewy, short for Chewbacca. 

Yvonne and I were talking about our school days and she shared with me that she graduated from San Fernando High school in 1960.

For some of you who have read the book I wrote, “1950s Malibu – Growing up in Paradise,” you will have ascertained that my sister and I arrived here in Malibu to live with Jimmy Haynes, the then-resident California Highway Patrolman. The year was 1949. We lived here from 1949 until 1959.

In 1959, we were living in a shack just south of Paradise Cove. That same year, the owner of the shack decided to sell the property, so we had to move. That year, I enlisted in the U.S. Army.

My dad, my sister and our new stepmother, Mary Cady, moved to Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley. Linda was in 11th grade at Santa Monica High at the time and she transferred to San Fernando High School.

Linda and Yvonne were in the same school and in the same grade at the same time; however, they never met one another. In 1960, they both graduated from San Fernando High School.

Yvonne and her younger sister Loretta had arrived in San Fernando in 1957. Yvonne was in the ninth grade at Pacoima Junior High and was classmates with none other than Ritchie Valens, the young rock-and-roll star.

Yvonne remembers Ritchie was never without his guitar at school and would play it and sing, endlessly entertaining his schoolmates at lunch and giving concerts in the school auditorium. He was 15 years old.

On Jan. 31, 1957, a disaster struck Pacoima Junior High.

Two aircrafts — a four-man crew D.C.-7 transport and a two-man F89J Scorpion Jet Fighter — collided at 25,000 feet, right above the school, sending flaming deadly debris down onto the playground.

At that time, Yvonne was in the school’s auditorium preparing for graduation. She said she heard a loud bang and then all hell broke loose. Her sister Loretta was out on the playground at that time and she said she ran as fast as she could to get away from the flaming aircraft parts.

Three kids were killed on the playground that day. All were attending seventh-grade gym class. Numerous others were injured and taken to local hospitals.

Ritchie was not at school when the two planes collided because he was attending his grandfather’s funeral. Had he been at school that day, he probably would have been with Yvonne and all of the other ninth graders, preparing for their graduation.

The next school year, Ritchie and Yvonne would move on to 10th grade at San Fernando High School.

Yvonne remembers Ritchie singing and playing his guitar at lunch, entertaining his classmates. His singing career was just beginning to take off at the end of the 10th grade.

He never made it into 11th grade because he began touring with other popular rock-and-roll singers. My sister never had the opportunity to meet Ritchie because she enrolled when he was leaving to tour. 

As history tells us, Ritchie never made it back to San Fernando High School to graduate in the 1960 class as he — at 17 years old — was killed on Feb. 3, 1958 in a plane crash, along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.

The graduating class of 1960 decided to dedicate a full page in their yearbook to his memory. The page includes his picture and a short testimonial that reads:

“When Richard Valenzuela first came to our school, he was more than just another B-10. Playing at assemblies, class parties, noon dances, made him popular with the entire school. As his talent was noticed by more and more people, he became the professional singer, Ritchie Valens. Although he never became a senior, nor wore the Ultrason sweater, we, the Ultrasons of Summer ‘60, would like to dedicate this page in memory of a guy whom we are proud to have had in our class.”