By Sue Pascoe
Early one recent morning at the Pacific Palisades Woman’s Club, the organization’s new administrator, Roberta Donohue, was cheerily conversing with several members. One woman wanted to make a donation to the building fund, and Mary Dean, who teaches a free tai chi class, stopped to say “Hi.” Vera Norris, whose husband was the son of the original owner of Norris Hardware, was chatting with a friend.
“The best part of my job is I’m back in the Palisades, seeing my ‘peeps’ [people]” said Donohue, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, and whose father Rocco owned the Mobil gas station at Swarthmore and Sunset. “I like it here, it feels good.”
Donohue was the publisher of the Palisadian-Post for almost 30 years, before being fired by the paper’s new owner in early 2013, and was a leading member of the Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce. She continues to serve on the Chamber’s board of directors and, before taking the Woman’s Club job, had been working part-time for the Pacific Palisades Historical Society, helping to catalog the Betty Lou Young collection, which was donated to the Huntington Museum by Young’s son, Randy.
After all these active decades in the community, it seems that Donohue (who lives in Malibu with her husband, Rich) knows practically everyone in town through one connection or another.
For example, as a young woman, she taught piano to Vera Norris’ daughter, Melissa.
“I had taken lessons all my life,” Donohue said. “There was a music store [where Café Vida is located today] and after graduating from Palisades High with the 1970 winter class and then business college, I taught there for a brief time.”
One of the former owners of the Palisadian-Post, Charlie Brown, was best friends with Donohue’s father. “He wanted to know if I could type,” she said, noting that she could do 150 words per minute. “I was hired in 1972 to work on cold type, which was a Compugraphic computer that printed out a tape. No computer screen back in those days. That tape was then put into a uni-setter that we would set up with a film strip and each film strip was a different font style.”
After six months in the back shop, Donohue was offered the receptionist job, which meant she handled subscription circulation and hand-stenciling addresses on the newspapers. While in the front office she learned how to paste up classified and real estate ads from Marie Brown.
In 1981, the paper was sold to the Small Newspaper Group of Illinois, but Paul Brown (Charlie and Marie’s son) stayed on as publisher. Three years later, he left and after interviewing several candidates, Tom Small asked Donohue, “Why don’t you apply? You know this business like the back of your hand.”
Over the next three decades, Donohue directed the newspaper’s business operations and commercial printing.
“The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were good years for commercial printing,” she said. But once computers and the internet became part of every household, the competition undermined printing shops everywhere.
“Our two businesses [printing and the newspaper] went hand-in-hand, helping each other,” Donohue said. “We made a profit every year, and were still making one when the business was sold in December 2012. I don’t believe people will ever want to stop reading a good old-fashioned newspaper.”
Asked how she felt about the sale of the Mobil station to developer Rick Caruso, she said: “I believe in progress, and I think that is what Caruso will do with the real estate [he is purchasing on Swarthmore and Sunset],” she said. “It will probably no longer be a Mobil station. That was my dad’s life, but I took it harder when the Post was sold.
“Although Rodeo Realty has made the building [on Via de la Paz] look nice, it was really hard seeing the backshop area and the printing press torn down. When you take a major piece of history and shut it down, you’ve destroyed an era,” Donohue said. “We bonded with the community. I’ll always remember the kids who came through on tour and watched the paper come off the press.”
Donohue has been hired by the Woman’s Club to oversee the day-to-day administrative tasks and work with business leaders and the community at large. One of the more challenging projects will be to help the club raise $150,000 to restore the clubhouse and preserve it as a vital meeting space in the community. “She’s an old lady that needs a little updating,” Donohue said, smiling. Then it was back to her phone and her computer as she worked to promote the 29th annual Home Tour on Nov. 16.
The Donohues’ daughter, Jenny, at- tended local schools, graduating from Palisades High School in 2008, and Loyola Marymount University in 2012. She is now a lead designer at Chromatik, a Santa Monica-based company.