Happy 90th birthday to beloved Ojai teacher David Essel

Last night I went to the 90th birthday party of my former teacher David Essel, who I met in 1966 when I was a shy, introverted student at Happy Valley School (now Besant Hill School).

The party was held at the Ojai Retreat and the room was filled with his lifelong friends. I planted myself right next to the birthday boy in a comfortable padded chair where I could sit cross-legged with a plate in my lap piled high with delicious vegetarian food. I listened intently while he told endless stories about old Ojai—the Ojai I knew as a child.

To the other side of David Essel sat the writer Catherine Ann Jones. Also sitting in our little huddle of guests was author David E. Moody and Mark and Asha Lee, founders of the Oak Grove School. Catherine asked the birthday boy what was it like to be ninety and he replied that he’s always felt ten years younger than his chronological age–he feels only eighty! He expressed surprise that his daughters were throwing this party for him so soon –he laughingly said they should have waited till he was a hundred.

In the course of the evening David Essel told the story of how he, Alan and Helen Hooker (of Ranch House fame) and Frank and Bennie Noyes (grandparents of Marla McFadin and Brian McFadin) came to Ojai in 1949, lured by Rosalind Rajagopal, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Annie Besant, and the Happy Valley School. He remembered a young girl named Jan, the mother of Marla and Brian, who I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye. Jan was one of the early students at Happy Valley School when the campus was located just past the Ranch House, downhill from the Ojai Retreat.

I can tell you that David Essel’s mind is sharp. I saw no sign of either short or long term memory loss. I remember many of the people he mentioned and his recollections refreshed my own childhood memories of Beatrice Wood, David Young, Heather and Peter Young (parents of musician Martin Young and his sister Lindy) —and other Ojai pioneers, educators, and artists ahead of their time.

When the birthday cake was presented someone shouted, “Speech! Speech!” For a moment this youthful elder looked overwhelmed and at a loss for words. But then he gathered his forces and launched into a lengthy Life Review, as most of us are apt to do given the golden opportunity of an audience waiting for the cake to be cut.

David Essel described the stages of life, beginning with his childhood family life on a farm, growing their own food. He was allergic to cow’s milk so the family learned the art of milking goats. Then came the years in the marines and the awareness of the horror of war. He told a story about meeting a Japanese family, “the kindest, nicest people… the same people we had been killing…” He described how he went to school and studied animal husbandry–and how after he had to slaughter an animal he threw all his papers and schoolwork in the trash in disgust and became a vegetarian.

He told how the three people who influenced his life the most were his father, his wife, Mary, and J. Krishnamurti, for their impeccable integrity. David’s father spent time living deep in the woods and loved nature. He also recalled that when his father was still single he gave up a secure job so that his friend, who had a family, would not be laid off.

We never know how much we influence the life of another person but I know David Essel influenced mine. His sensitivity and kindness made a great impression on me. Like Beatrice Wood, who also rescued dogs and carried spiders outside, he taught in word and deed that all creatures, great and small, love their life as much as we do.

2 Responses to “Happy 90th birthday to beloved Ojai teacher David Essel”

  1. Keith Flower Says:

    I join you in deep admiration for David’s teaching and life. I was a student of his at Blackstock school in Oxnard.

    I wrote a bit about how he inspired me to choose the right paths in life here:


    Thanks for your celebration of him, and for reminding me to write and wish him a happy birthday, too.


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