April 29, 2016
Richard and Joe welcomed the founding “godmother” of the modern-day spa and fitness resort movement: Deborah Szekely, now in her 90s and always on the go. Despite being a nonagenarian, she happily proclaims that she feels like she’s “still in her 60s.”
Born Deborah Shainman on May 3, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, Deborah had a peripatetic childhood that included a number of years living with her parents and brother in a very real pleated coconut-frond house on a beach in Tahiti, attending local schools, speaking French, and tending fish traps via dugout canoe at the mouth of the encircling reef. Her mother, a woman Deborah fondly calls “a health nut,” had taken the family to the South Pacific during the Great Depression in search of fresh fruits and vegetables and a lifestyle far from the big city, which Deborah remembers as being very “grey and sad.”
In Tahiti the family met Hungarian philosopher and author Edmond Szekely, who was there doing research. A few years later, the Shainmans returned to the United States and settled in Northern California. Szekely had also come to the U.S. and was holding various “health camps” in the States and Mexico. Deborah, despite being a teenager, was soon handling many day-to-day tasks in camp while “the Professor” lectured and counseled. He soon felt she was invaluable. He proposed and they married in late 1939 when she was 17. He was 18 years her senior.
When World War II broke out, Edmond received a letter to report to his regiment in Romania and fight under Hitler. He ignored it. Another letter, this time from U.S. Immigration, cancelled his passport. Another informed him that if he were found in the United States after June 1, 1940, he would be arrested as a deserter and deported.
With their worldly goods stuffed into a 1928 Cadillac, Deborah and Edmond fled to Tecate, a dusty border town of 400. Together they started a health camp of preventive nutrition and exercise, Rancho La Puerta, in what Edmond pronounced “the healthiest climate in the world.” In 1958 she alone established the world’s premier spa, the Golden Door, in Escondido, California. By then Deborah had taken charge of Rancho La Puerta, often rated as the top destination spas in the world.
Szekely ran as a Republican for a San Diego area congressional district in 1982. She lost in the primary (“I was pro-choice”) but the experience led her to conceive and launch “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide.” Prior to the guide, new members and their staff of Congress were greeted with little more than an empty office and little or no procedural help in launching their term—a system that appalled Deborah. Now in its 15th edition, “Setting Course” continues to serve as the only comprehensive training and reference manual for the staff of newly elected Congress members, chief of staff on down, who often refer to it as “the Bible.” Many training sessions using the manual are paid for by Congress itself.
She was hired as President and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, an agency of the federal government, and served there from 1984 until 1991 under presidents Reagan and Bush.
Her board memberships include Claremont Graduate University; Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC; Center for Science in the Public Interest; and Partners for Livable Communities.
Representing the United States, she was co-founder and co-president of the U.S.-Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (Fulbright Commission) and served as the U. S. A. Principal Delegate to both UNESCO and the Inter-American Commission on Women (CIM).
Her many awards and honors include being named “Mrs. San Diego,” in 2002 by San Diego Rotary; “The League of Women Voters Civic Award;” “The Committee of 200 Luminary Award for Philanthropy;” the “Morgan Award for Community Service” from LEAD; “Humanitarian of the Year” from The National Conference for Community and Justice; “Philanthropist of the Year” by the San Diego Chapter of the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives; and Alexis de Tocqueville Society of United Way, $1 million donor.
Non-profit organizations founded by Deborah include: Eureka Communities (1991), a national leadership training program for CEOs of nonprofit organizations; and New Americans Museum (2001), an immigration learning center and gallery located in San Diego’s Liberty Station.
In 2012 she was awarded “Order of the Aztec Eagle” by President Enrique Calderon. Presented by Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan in New York City, it is Mexico’s highest honor bestowed upon non-Mexicans.
Listen to a podcast of Deborah Szekely’s interview!
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