In the fringes of World War II, then 26-year-old Bette Deziel and her husband Don opened a jewelry store in downtown Manhattan Beach. It was 1952. The young couple at the time was living in Venice.
Don’s Jewelers, where toy store Bella Beach Kids now sits, was among a jumble of local shops owned or co-owned by women – shoe stores, bakeries, dress shops, a sewing shop as well as a yardish shop, Deziel recalled.
That following year, Deziel and 24 others, including the original Mrs. Becker of Becker’s Bakery, were approached by three ladies from Inglewood. They wanted to know if the group was interested in chartering a Manhattan Beach chapter of Soroptimist International, a worldwide volunteer organization for business and professional women whose mission is to advance the status of women and girls.
In June of 1953, Soroptimist International of Manhattan Beach (SIMB) officially came to fruition.
“They were very strict about who could join and who couldn’t,” Deziel said. “It’s not that way anymore.”
Now, at age 87, Deziel is the last one standing among the original 25. Next Sunday evening at Ayres Hotel in Hawthorne, she will be the only founding member to celebrate SIMB’s 60th anniversary.
“I’ve outlived them all,” she said, laughing, during an interview last week. “I’m very lucky. The good lord has blessed me to be here this long.”
Deziel, who has white-blond curls and has embellished herself on this day with a pair of flowery clip-on earrings, a matching brooch on her white short-sleeve sweater top, recalled the early days of SIMB with fondness and precision, particularly for her friends’ names.
Their first weekly luncheon meetings took place at the foot of Manhattan Beach pier inside the Lions Club House, which then also operated as the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce office. Their lunches, she remembered, were catered by a member and local caterer named Silvia Winters.
“Now I have news for you,” Deziel interjected. “This lady was the best cook in the world. Never forget her. Of course, she’s been gone for years and years.”
In 1955, two years after opening shop, she and her husband found a cozy home in Manhattan Beach, where she still resides after her husband’s passing in 2003. Both became heavily involved in serving the community, she as a Soroptimist and he as a local member of Kiwanis International, then a men’s volunteer club.
“We’d have a potluck in the evenings, sometimes white elephant sales,” she said. “On those types of things, if we made 20 dollars we thought we were really doing something. Now unless we make two, three thousand dollars, it’s not considered worthwhile.”
SIMB’s signature programs from the early times remain to this day: the “S” Club at Mira Costa High School and an annual distribution of scholarships, one to a female high school student and another to a disadvantaged female head of household returning to school.
But the heart of the organization remained in simple acts of service, said Diezel, who served as chapter president in 1960-1961.
After the war, there were two army bases in Manhattan Beach: one at the corner of Rosecrans and Highland, the other on the north end of Sepulveda and Aviation. Many ladies of Soroptimist utilized their expertise to serve the soldiers and make them feel at home, she recalled, from Mrs. Becker dropping off cookies every week to the yardish shop owner and two other members, seamstresses by profession, making curtains for a barren room in the camp.
“At the camps, there was nothing around it, just sand and rocks,” Deziel recalled. So the ladies sought to rectify that, trucking over flowers and plants to the campsite and planting them all along the driveway to the entrance gate.
“Everything was very simple in those days,” Deziel said. “Now it’s simple in a lot of their eyes but not mine, which is because of my age. Lord, I’m two generations older than most all of our members now.”
SIMB currently has about 50 members, among whom are physicians, managers, environmental engineers, teachers and retired professionals – “people from all walks of life,” said past president and region treasurer Kelly Fogarty, who joined 10 years ago as a realtor.
While serving the army base is no more, Fogarty highlighted a number of hands-on services that SIMB still does, including its breast cancer comfort bag project, for which members procure tote bags of comfort items for breast cancer patients and hand deliver them to hospitals and clinics. SIMB members also volunteer weekly at the Crown Jewel Club, an afterschool program for inner-city fifth grade girls.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on this earth,” Fogarty said, quoting Muhammad Ali. “For women who are busy, are working and have families, you want to do service in a timeframe that meets your needs and requirements to do service. That’s the more indicative thing about our club.”
For Diezel, a 60-year community service veteran, the future of SIMB looks optimistic. Change, she noted, is a good thing.
“We have young gals even in their 20s, which is wonderful because old ones can’t go on forever,” she said. “You gotta get some new blood in there. Also, new members bring new ideas. All of my ideas have been tried and tried and I don’t come up with anything new.”
SIMB’s 60th anniversary celebration, called “An Evening of Chance and Celebration,” will be held Sunday, June 2 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Ayres Hotel in Hawthorne. Tickets are $75, available at simb60thanniversary.eventbrite.com.