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Landlord Leader Remembered

By Jorge Casuso

Jan. 21 -- Pick a subject. Any subject. And John Jurenka had an opinion he wanted to share.

Week after week, year after year, he shared them at City Council meetings and Rent Board meetings. He shared them with strangers on street corners, in the editorial pages of the local paper, handed them out and posted them on telephone poles.

And although many disagreed with his views, on Tuesday the opinion was unanimous -- John Jurenka, who died on January 14 after battling a number of health problems, was one heck of a guy, a big burly former wrestler who seemed bigger than life.

A landlord activist who once ripped out the Council Chamber podium after an exchange with a Rent Board member, Jurenka was known for his ideological passion, keen mind, kind heart, and, some would say, knack for tall tales, that left a mark on Santa Monica during the politically turbulent '80s.

Jurenka lived a life that was "well-lived, well-loved, well-shared, a life well-discussed, one of those local figures, an icon of community involvement in Santa Monica," the Rev. Robert Richards of the Lutheran Church of the Master said at a service at Gates, Kingsley, Gates. "He was someone who engaged life."

"He was one of these bigger than life characters that when you're young and you're reading a novel, you say, 'What a fertile imagination the writer has,'" said Wes Wellman, a local realtor and property manager. "He was from the Midwest, a real meat and potatoes guy, kind of like John Wayne."

"He was a kick," said Gwen Wunder, executive director of the ACTION Apartment Association, an organization of mom and pop landlords that counted Jurenka among its ranks. "He was a great raconteur, a great story teller. He was very clever. A very smart man."

After dropping out of college in his native Chicago and moving to Santa Monica to get away from the frigid winters, Jurenka used his sharp mind and business acumen to pick up apartment buildings in Ocean Park. After voters approved Rent Control in 1979 and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights gained control of City Hall, he became a leading opponent of local government.

"He was not formally educated, but he was very intelligent and very articulate," Wellman said. "He spoke totally extemporaneously. Compromise was not in his vocabulary. His moral compass had two settings -- right and wrong. He took private property rights very seriously."

Jurenka's distinctive speaking style -- he pronounced "th" as "t," called lies "horse pucky" and originated the tradition of exclaiming "except in Santa Monica" after the Pledge of Allegiance -- was a staple at council and Rent Board meetings.

"You never knew what he would talk about at the council and you never knew what he would say," said former mayor James Conn, who was also Jurenka's tenant. "When John wasn't there, it was either a boring agenda, or he was sick. I think he planned his vacations around being back on Tuesday.

"I don't think there was anything we agreed on, but he was always an honorable opponent," said Conn, a rent control activist and former pastor of the Church in Ocean Park, who served as mayor from 1986 to 1988. "You always knew exactly where he was coming from, and we had a great friendship out of that opposition."

"John had very strong principles, and he never changed them in the 35 years I knew him," said Bob Sullivan, president of Sullivan-Dituri Realtors and a past president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles.

"He was very frank," said former City Manager John Jalili. "He often didn't use much diplomacy. He was very much interested in efficiency and economizing and spending less money. He had a lot of opinions on a lot of issues, and he was quite willing to express them. It didn't matter how long the council meeting went."

"John was a constant presence, in the front row generally," said City Manager Susan McCarthy. "He believed passionately in the things he held dear, and he was not shy about expressing those things, by any stretch of the imagination. When he was committed, he was really committed."

Born in Chicago in 1929, Jurenka was the first in his Czechoslovakian immigrant family born in America. A large man, Jurenka joined the wrestling team, where his long arms earned him the nickname "monk," short for monkey.

He courted his sweetheart Joan by revving up his Harley. He would make it "backfire to cause noise and shoot flames to get Joan's attention," his daughter Jill recalled at the service.

John and Joan would be married for 51 years. They raised a family in Chicago, where John worked for Illinois Bell. Early on, his kids knew their father was different. He would ask them strange questions - "How many seeds in a cucumber?" Then he would drop a tip -- "Make sure it's an odd number. It's more believable."

"He had a mischievous way of pulling your leg," Jill said.

To avoid the Chicago winters, in 1966 the family moved to Santa Monica, where Jurenka landed a job with General Telephone. At night he took real estate classes, got a license and began picking up property in Ocean Park. Soon he was in the thick of the thorny political scene.

"Articles and newspapers featured him," Jill said. "He felt it was his duty to help the community. He served in the Red Cross."

As the 80s ended, Jurenka began battling heart problems and diabetes. He bought land in Kern County, where he wore a straw hat and joined the field hands to pick garlic. He also bought land in Arizona.

But he was often back on Santa Monica's streets ready to give his opinion about the latest goings on at City Hall, until his health finally gave out. His daughter Jill recalled that "illness left less and less of my father, a shell at the end."

"People have told me it's the end of an era," his wife Joan said before the service.

Jurenka is survived by his wife, Joan; three children, Jill, Jana Emhardt and Jeff Jurenka, and four grandchildren.
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