Walt Keller, 84, has lived in Malibu since 1961. He was the city’s first mayor and a leader in the cityhood movement. He had a successful career as an aerospace engineer before retiring from Northrop in 1988. He’s been married to his wife, Lucille, for more than 58 years and has two children, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild on the way. He’s seen Malibu change throughout the years, but says the one thing he is the most disappointed in is the city’s voter turnout rate.
The Malibu Times got a chance to sit down with the man who bought his lot in Malibu for $6,000 in 1960 and built his dream home, only to lose everything when his house burned down in a 1978 wildfire.
What was it like to be the first mayor of Malibu?
That was the only good part. There was an 89% vote for cityhood and for me to be mayor. Everything went downhill after that. It was a very tough first couple of years. We had very limited resources. Construction of everything was shut down for two years. Council meetings would go on until 1 a.m. People were protesting. To be the mayor presiding over these meetings was tough. People don’t like to be cut off. I lost the reelection in 1994. That was when negative campaigning had just come out. I was labeled as the person who hates children. Can you believe that?
What was your dream/vision for Malibu when you were elected mayor?
My wife and I wrote the vision statement. I expected Malibu and its voters to be different and that they would care. I didn’t think we’d have politicians running the city. People participated and cared back then. It wasn’t about fame and fortune.
What were some of the challenges you faced while trying to bring Malibu to cityhood?
Forcing the county to do their job. First we needed a petition to be signed. The petition was challenged. Then we needed an environmental impact report. Going to downtown Los Angeles for court constantly was a challenge in itself. All kinds of games were played. But I got to draw the boundaries of the city.
What would you like to say to the current mayor of Malibu?
Keep the needs and the goals of the residents, not to get reelected. I like that he’s the youngest mayor. I supported him. I’m very unhappy with the swap arrangement of Charmlee Park for a few acres of usable land on Bluffs Park. People [who want] ballfields are a minority of the town and they swing the votes. I’d like to see better turnout of votes. I never thought the turnout would be so low.
You’ve been married for almost six decades. What’s your advice for a long lasting and happy marriage?
They should agree on finances. They should both be spenders or savers. We’re both savers. Money comes up all the time. You can’t avoid it. So make sure you discuss it ahead of time and that you’re both on the same page about it.
What are some of your hobbies?
I used to go backpacking and jogging a lot. I recently participated in a 5K foot race in the 75-plus age group and I won. No one else was in the group.
How has Malibu changed in the many years you’ve been living here? What is your favorite thing about Malibu?
More signals and traffic on the highway is one of the biggest things. Also a lot more shops. There was only one major grocery store and drugstore when we moved out here. Cary Grant held the door open for us once. My favorite thing is the rural aspect of Malibu. I moved here because I wanted my children to grow up around nature.
If you could change one thing about Malibu what would it be and why?
Getting people to vote nonpartisan. I don’t care how you vote, just vote. Also, we need our own school district. And I don’t like the lighting of the football fields, it’s not fitting to Malibu.
How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?
Very different. I never had that before. It was quite an experience. It’s another milestone that I can check off. Getting drafted, check. House burned down, check. Mayor, check. And now this, check. She’s great.
Johanna Spinks paints portraits by commission. Visit johannaspinks. com or call 310.384.7029.