By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Lanny Borthick’s life has played out in many ways like the way he plays his beloved clarinet: by ear, by instinct, from the heart; and even though the notes might not always initially come together as seamlessly as he would like, each time, the song he produces somehow turns out beautiful and inspired. Borthick’s parents, both originally from Oklahoma, settled in Southern California, where his father started a lucrative custom luggage business, “Atlas Luggage: Travel the Globe,” while his mother stayed home to raise the family.
Born in Bell Gardens in 1940, the middle, and only, son with two sisters, one 8 years older and the other 10 years his junior, Borthick found himself drawn to two things in his youth: music and trouble. “I wasn’t a very good student in school,” Borthick recalls. “I was a smart aleck. Belligerent. Mostly, I was bored.” It didn’t help that, in spite of good intentions, Borthick always seemed to run afoul of his teachers. In second grade, “Mrs. Hattail – we all called her Rat Tail – didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. Some kid’s money went missing and, because I’d gone to the bathroom, well, she assumed it was me. She stood me up in front of the whole class and said, ‘This is what a thief looks like.’ I was 7. I went home and told my mother I wasn’t going back.” His parents transferred Borthick to a private school across town. “I had to take the bus every day with a bunch of old men going to work.”
Even while he struggled in school, Borthick found solace and redemption with music. His father, a lay leader for the Church of the Nazarene in Bell Gardens, helped young Borthick see the light. “I was raised in the church. Sang with the Gospel Quartet, and harmonies with my dad. We loved singing together.” When Lanny was just 12 and taking music in school, he discovered and began his lifelong love affair with the clarinet. “It was a school clarinet, and not in very good shape. I brought it home and played a song for my dad. The next day, he went to L.A. and came back with a brand new one. I’ve never been without one since.”
Borthick’s love of music, and his innate ability to play, all came by ear. He never learned to read notes, which didn’t seem to bother anyone, his gift was so great, until he entered the high school music program. Borthick’s family moved to Downey as he got ready to enter high school, and, although Borthick played to perfection, and his middle school teacher wrote a letter on his behalf, when his new high school music teacher discovered he couldn’t read music, Borthick was shown the door. “What a pud he was,” says Borthick. Without music to hold his interest, Borthick either left that school or was kicked out, depending on whom you talk to.
Borthick’s parents tried to give him one more shot, so they asked family friends, the Sparkmans, to take their son in so he could qualify to enter another high school in a nearby district, as well as get a job “at the Lucky’s 19 cent Hamburger Place with Eddie Sparkman.” Borthick’s pal Eddie turned out not to be such a great influence. “We got into all sorts of trouble. Racing cars and rolled my Ford pretty bad. I got pretty banged up.” He even tried to talk Borthick into robbing their employer. Borthick backed out, but Sparkman did it anyway. By the time he was 15, Borthick had been kicked out of his second high school, and his father decided enough was enough. He marched the teenager to the local Air Force recruiting office and even though 15 was normally too young to enlist, with the parents insistence and Borthick’s unusually high IQ scores, they made an exception.
Borthick did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) near San Antonio, Texas, but even though he enjoyed the regimentation, he initially didn’t fare much better than he had at home. “I’ve always been kind of a goof. A misfit. I got kicked out of my first barracks for taking short cuts. The second one was much more strict, but I became friends with the guy in charge. He was an Okie too, like my parents, so we got along.” After basic, Borthick was sent to Bunker Hill AFB in Indiana, which had reopened in the wake of the Korean War to be a strategically located national and international Tactical Air Command Base. By day, as part of the ground crew, Borthick kept planes fueled, ready and maintained, and he honed his carpentry and mechanical skills. “I made shoe shine boxes for the guys, even a Craps table for the barracks.” By night, Borthick would go into town, play and sing at local pubs, make time with girls and get into the occasional bar fight.
At the age of 19, Borthick had done his duty and returned home to Downey as well as returned to church. “It’s a great way to meet girls,” he says with a laugh. He dated around, and finally met the girl who would change his life, right in his own front yard. The Brassell family lived across the street from the Borthicks, and Borthick’s father had asked 16-year-old Cheryl to accompany him as he prepared to sing at a cousin’s wedding. “We visited a little bit. I walked her home. Then I started going to her Baptist church. Pretty soon we started dating.” That was in March of 1960. By January of 1961, they were married.
The young couple soon moved to San Jose to pursue framing and construction work procured by his older sister’s husband, and the Borthicks started a family, with Sandi, Susie and Steve coming soon after. During their next 8 years in Northern California, Borthick obtained his contractor’s license, invested in his brother-in-law’s business venture, and things were going well until the business went under, and the Borthicks lost absolutely everything in one fell swoop.
In the meantime, Cheryl’s mother, Nelda, had moved to the Kern River Valley, a place where she and her kids had spent a lot of time “playing and visiting our grandmother, who played Honkey Tonk piano around town,” says Cheryl. So, in 1972, the couple packed up all they had in the world into Cheryl’s old Thunderbird and Lanny’s truck and headed south. Along the way, Cheryl’s car caught fire outside of Buttonwillow, “so we moved the kids and the dog into the truck and kept going.” It was a real low point for Borthick, but the valley was about to turn things around.
Nelda, who was waitressing at the old Mountain Mesa Restaurant, paid first month’s rent on an apartment and “introduced me to all the main contractors – Kissack, Joughin, Carter. They gave me an opportunity, and I wasn’t going to blow it.” With the help of his father-in-law, Borthick framed his first house in one day, got the job and got back on track. Word quickly got around that Lanny Borthick did quality work at a reasonable price, and the jobs just kept on coming. The family eventually settled in a home on Sirretta Street that Borthick quickly remodeled and “brought up to snuff,” where they still reside today. Borthick got even more involved locally when he presided over the Kernville Chamber of Commerce from 1990 to 2000, and together, the Borthicks were recognized for their considerable community contributions, receiving the valley’s “Man and Woman of the Year” award in 2010.
When asked how many Kern Valley homes and commercial buildings he’s had a hand in, Borthick shakes his head. “Gosh, I’ve probably built more than half the buildings in the valley, and quite a few in Bakersfield, too.” Some highlights include the Kernville, Lake Isabella and Weldon Post Offices, Mt. Mesa Lanes, Kernville Animal Hospital, Click’s Realty, the log building in Kernville that housed the USFS for years, the Bakersfield Marriott, a myriad of homes and remodels, and of course, Cheryl’s Diner. “Cheryl had been working for her mother at Nelda’s, running it while her mother traveled around, and I said, “You should have your own place.” We were driving through Kernville, I spotted this property, Jerry Click gave me a good deal, and I built the whole place myself.” To date, Cheryl has been running this Kernville dining landmark, now with daughter Sandi’s help, for over 30 years.
Borthick, who celebrates his 78th birthday on Thursday, October 11, is happily spending his retirement enjoying and singing with his “boatload of beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” and even though he doesn’t like to toot his own horn, his greatest passion and pleasure is picking up his clarinet and “playing with anybody who’ll let me.” Currently that includes Pete & the Misfits, “The Spur of the Moment Band,” with son Steve on drums; the Kern River Ukelele Club, playing at the KVHD Skilled Nursing Unit every Tuesday; and the Praise Band for the Mountain View Baptist Church on Sundays. “I just love music, and I love playing,” and almost always with wife Cheryl by his side, sharing their love of music together and sharing their considerable gifts with the entire Kern River Valley.