• Maria Tornek (Photo - Maelane Chan).

      Maria Tornek (Photo – Maelane Chan).

      Recently ColoradoBoulevard.net had the chance to chat with Pasadena’s First Lady, the lively and intelligent Maria Tornek. She, Mayor Terry Tornek and Vice Mayor Gene Masuda had just returned from their self-funded Sister Cities tour, which is where our talk began…

      By Melanie Hooks

      How did that go?

      It was a wonderful trip, just incredible. We got to tour Japan for ten days, and four days we got to spend in Mishima, which is our Sister City. Open arms. A wonderful mayor…we went to celebrate their flower festival…and they had a parade. Disney was celebrating 15 years in Japan, mayors from 15 cities with parades in 15 cities.

      Similar to the Rose Parade?

      No, fifteen minutes. That was it. The whole city was out, 115,000 people. Kids were running down the path…having fun. One band, 2 floats …fine.

      Not to mention efficient. Did you get to wear a kimono?

      [After a cultural performance], they said, “Would you wear a kimono?” Of course Terry said, “No, but Maria would.” [laughs] And I have to say there was one move…the women [do] with those long, long sleeves, and I forget if it was to mimic the clouds or water, but I almost got it. They said, “You must be shy.” I’ve never considered myself a shy person, so I took my glasses off and I did this [looks down], and I think that qualifies for shy.

      The [mayor]’s daughter had spent two years in Irvine [on a student exchange]. She was the interpreter for us.

      Then we spent four…days in the Xi Cheng District of Beijing, our sister city. Very different culture, philosophies, economic systems…That was a lot more formal visit.

      Maria Tornek with Mayor Terry Tornek at the welcoming ceremony in Mishima, Japan (Photo - Maria Tornek personal collection).

      Maria Tornek with Mayor Terry Tornek at the welcoming ceremony in Mishima, Japan (Photo – Maria Tornek personal collection).

      Has there been an adjustment period between being a Councilmember’s wife and the First Lady of Pasadena?

      Zero difference. Except occasionally people say, “Oh you’re the First Lady.” And I say yes, but my name is Maria.

      But you don’t see Terry that much now…?

      I didn’t see Terry before either, so there’s no transition. [laughs]

      He’s at the same meetings.

      Yes, and the campaign as you know was long and hard…He really worked very hard to win the votes. He always says he walked every street. He walked for a year and a half, every Saturday and Sunday through the heat. It’s Pasadena so no rain or sleet. I’m really proud of him and what he did. He’s a good listener. He listens; he really does. And he’s a good director.

      And at home as well?

      More com-see, com-sah. He always says I’m really in charge, that the mother is kind of the center and then there’s the spokes. I [do often] make the big decisions. Coming to California, I really prodded.

      You wanted the move west?

      Because we felt like we were the last of the Mohicans. We were in Massachusetts. Terry’s parents had transitioned, retired and were in Miami. My parents had retired and come to California. So I was not happy with the life that was going to open up in Massachusetts…We had been there eleven years and were still being introduced as “the new couple “.

      I often wonder. We’ve been back to Springfield, back to our old home, and I wonder if they say, “Oh yes. The Torneks used to live here.” I don’t think so though.

      So you’re responsible for bringing Terry to California.

      There was the American Planners Association job listings, and I said, “Look. This says Pasadena. They’re looking for someone. Now where’s Pasadena?” [laughs]…. He applied and came out January 2, 1982, because I wouldn’t allow him to come to the Rose Parade without the family.

      You had children already then?

      Yes, all three – nine, six and three years old then. Terry came out first, and then I took the train across country. Being an elementary school teacher, I had to show them the expansion out west. Plus it allowed the furniture to come from Springfield. And the kids…to this day they will still talk about the train experience; getting off the train in Cheyenne because it was snowing. I was in the bedroom, and I came out saying, “Why are my children’s voices outside? Get back on the train!”

      How did you and Terry meet?

      Second day of high school….I was still 13, there was no dating then. I’m from an Italian family.  So of course we used to go on group dates. We’d all go to the movies together or the zoo. The zoo was a big deal to go to in Brooklyn.

      We were born and raised in Brooklyn. We were in the neighborhoods that are all now very chic.  Now you could buy a condo in my tenement apartment house, for $1 million. And our family owned that building. If my grandfather had only kept the building…[laughs]. 

      Maria Tornek sharing a laugh while leaving a note on the wishing olive tree: "Serenity and calm" (Photo - Maelane Chan).

      Maria Tornek sharing a laugh while leaving a note on the wishing olive tree: “Serenity and calm” (Photo – Maelane Chan).

      What would you consider your most passionate local concerns?

      Number one, my family, so passion goes to the family. We’re grandparents; we have seven grandchildren, all ages. Joshua and his wife Claudia live in town so we’re very active with our granddaughters here.

      They are in the public school system, correct?

      Yes, in fact since my granddaughter’s third grade (she’s now 19), I’ve volunteered with Hamilton School. I spend 3-4 hours in the classroom. For the past four years, I’ve been volunteering at Marshall in the music education department in the office of Joel Lopez. Education [is a priority] since I am a teacher.

      What do you do in the music department?

      Actually I helped him rearrange his music library. You can imagine the amount of sheet music he has since he has jazz bands, the symphony and marching bands…basically just in the music room getting my hands dirty. Organizing files, finding file cabinets to put them in….

      We should mention that you’re secretly an opera singer in addition to being a painter…

      You want music, you want Terry. He’s been in choirs and is a wonderful baritone and can make believe he’s a bass.

      You’re an active volunteer at several places, yes?

      I’ve been a docent at the Gamble House since 2000…I did touring for many years, and then I went into the junior docent program which is really something that they…are very proud of and have replicated in many places. They train kids in the 7th and 8th grades, and those children are the docents when the 3rd graders come in.

      And the hospitality committees. I always get involved in cooking. And when I take off the apron, I say, “Have it catered” or “Let’s have cheese and crackers.” But those women are dedicated cooks.

      Do you consider yourself a good cook?

      I consider myself better than okay.

      Your favorite dish?

      Lasagna. Homemade green lasagna. I use spinach macaroni; I call [the lasagna noodles] macaroni pasta, spinach pasta. And pesto, and I usually use zucchini and sometimes artichoke hearts, my own herbs. Basil and arugula from my garden. We have figs, lavender, strawberries in the yard. And squirrels, we have squirrels in the trees right now just eating my nectarines…I do love Indian food, not to cook

      And you’ve just returned from there too?

      Yes, Terry wanted a quiet private vacation, so we’ve just gotten back from southern India. Romantic, yes. Very exotic. Very unlike northern India. Everything’s on a somewhat smaller scale, but there’s still millions of people. It’s 20% Christians so that’s a whole demographic you really don’t see in the north. Very few of the sacred cows. There are beef eaters…very humid and hot. Poor India’s really burning this year.

      Pasadena's first lady Maria Tornek at the Throop Learning Garden (Photo - Maelane Chan).

      Pasadena’s first lady Maria Tornek at the Throop Learning Garden (Photo – Maelane Chan).

      What grades did you teach?

      Second through sixth. I kind of liked 4th grade the best. They were real people. They’re not hormonal yet; they’re just kind of open-faced, tell you unusual things about their parents. [laughs] Bring you weird gifts. I taught on the lower east side of Manhattan, PS 160, across the street from the Streits Matzo factory that just left that area. [It] finally had to move, gentrification. And one little boy…I can still see him, he came to me and said, “Mrs. Tornek, I have this lamp for you. It’s magic.” He had found a silver-plated lantern, like a genie lantern. I still have it.

      Did you teach when you were in Massachusetts as well?

      Yes, in Springfield, which is the same size or a little bigger than Pasadena. I was in a bilingual resource room. At that time my Spanish was still pretty good. Coming from PS160, which was basically Puerto Rican and Dominican.

      So the transition to a large Spanish-speaking population in southern California was no big deal. Did you teach once you got here too?

      Yes, for a brief period. But then with three kids in three different schools….

      You’ve noted Pasadena’s current and historical racial diversity as well as your dedication to a strong public school system where everyone can mingle.

      People always want what’s best for their child. But is what’s best for their child to be in an enclave where the other kids look like themselves? Spend like themselves? That’s not where I come from. That’s not what the world is. So how are you preparing [your children for it]?

      Or you risk Affluenza court defenses?

      Yes, I know you have to protect a child, but you have to teach a child right from wrong and common courtesy and love of oneself and…


      Yes, gardening [laughs]. In India and Japan we went to these wonderful tea plantations… unbelievable, huge, wonderful, hillsides, mountains, just undulating green. It almost looked like mosaics, all the different greens…and there were [local] seeds [for sale]. So I bought some for what I call scallions and eggplant, and I have my pots in a row…so today I’ll go home and put my gloves on and plant them.

      Do you have some favorite green spaces to escape to in Pasadena?

      My yard is pretty green, so I’m very lucky. Except for the three story condominium. That’s in fact why Terry really got involved in city work.


      We had a ramshackle California home behind us that had a two-car garage with broken glass…and lo and behold, the City Council approves a condominium project, three stories, and right smack in the middle of a residential district. So now I have a beautiful French mansard slate roof view and windows. It’s very intrusive.

      And that spurred Terry to want more of a voice?


      (L-R) Wafic Khalil, Maria Tornek, and Melanie Hooks) (Photo - Maelane Chan).

      (L-R) Wafic Khalil, Maria Tornek, and Melanie Hooks) (Photo – Maelane Chan).

      You sought and found a voice here shortly after arriving too, on local cable station KPAS. Could you tell us a little about that?

      Coming to Pasadena as a mother of three, used to a little more street activity…I said, “I have to do something.” Terry was Planning Director, and a crew…came to the house, and Jesse…set up the camera and the lights and all this, and he interviewed Terry in the dining room, and I said, “I want to do that! Gee, I really want to do that….” I mean, I wasn’t going to write a script or anything. So I went to PCC, and I took some telecommunication classes. Then the City established a whole…video department beside the Office of Information. Victor LaRucchia was the first director, and I started as a camera operator for $8.25/hr….I loved it. In the heyday, I  directed City Beat, Spectrum, and Pasadena on the Move. It was all low budget; we’d have $300. It was all talking heads. We’d go out and shoot B roll.

      What were some of your favorite stories?

      At one point, we had a real budget. We could do some extra, different shows…and I did [one] on “Tale of Two Cities” [about the racial and socioeconomic split between areas of town].

      [And] we went live for…hours during the Rodney King riots. Larry Mantel [of KPCC] was our voice. He did Spectrum, which was an hour long show, dealing with issues of Pasadena.

      Did you ever host?

      No, I never liked hearing myself or seeing myself. I loved directing people and producing…I’m a big behind-the-scenes person.

      I understand you had to leave eventually due to concern over potential favoritism in coverage once Terry became a Councilman. Do you miss it?

      I did; I really did. I still will watch the media and say, “Why is he doing that? He’s not even giving him [interviewee or host] any looking room.”

      Your media savvy was probably very important when it came time to campaign.

      I have to say when Terry was running, the family was a big part….We had a lot of support. Our [children] were very instrumental. It takes a lot of time and a lot of man hours to get those signs out….how could I say no to [Terry’s] passion?

      And of course, without you, our Mayor might have been the Mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts.

      [laughs] That’s very true.

      Maria Tornek's note on the wishing olive tree


      > Wafic Khalil contributed to this article.

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