January 20, 2022

9. Emily Karnes, Assistant to the Editor


What I remember best about the early days at the Messenger is our kids rolling on the office floor, entertaining themselves as best they could without getting in our hair as we met ridiculous deadlines. They were my son, Joe, and his best friend, Vaj (Flavia’s son), Susie Walczak’s daughter, Jillian, and “little Mary” Colvig. Their energy drove us crazy and added to the creative chaos that began it all.

It was a time of endless cups of coffee at Julianna’s restaurant, “Topanga is not Malibu” bumper stickers and rubbing down by hand, letter by letter, each and every headline, subtitle, photo credit and caption with Letterpress.

Colin fancied himself somewhat of a gourmet (and he did know his food and wine), so Flavia assigned him to write Topanga restaurant critiques. Those were some good times and we sure ate well.

Seeing as no one was paid at that time, there were other perks, like endless bottles of wine, crackers or bread and stinky cheese as we finished collating the paper at the Community House. Somehow the resident Theatricum dog always managed to be there to keep us company and clean up the scraps and handouts.

Pam Auer, another Topanga mom with a daughter, was also a volunteer and we would often soak in her hot tub after a late night collating the latest issue. Oh, that felt so good!

Eventually, the Messenger incorporated as Phoenix Rising, Inc., and I remember when we received our stock certificates. We couldn’t stop laughing at the irony of this tiny paper issuing shares, let alone the elusive vision of seeing the stock rise; they weren’t worth anything then and probably not now, but they’re sure pretty.

For such a small newspaper, we tackled a lot of very important issues, local and global.

•We scooped a world exclusive on a new statue at the Getty museum, the one located on Pacific Coast Highway and recently renovated.

•There was the horrific fire of 1979, followed by the 1980 flood. Fire and flood—these issues are constant visitors to the Canyon and inspired the creation of organizations such as Allen Emerson’s Arson Watch, T-CEP, and other citizen efforts to prepare and protect our homes and people.

•The Messenger staff initiated the concept of the Topanga Canyon Town Council (TCTC) to provide a public forum for residents to discuss concerns and arrive at solutions.

•Arthur Nissman, another of our early volunteers, dashed into the office one Sunday, leading the charge for the Battle of Big Rock. We actually tossed out our cover and the lead article that were due at the printers the next day to instead deliver this important story about a potential plan to develop the Big Rock area in Old Canyon. This was our first investigative reporting where we exposed the fraud and nipped the ill-conceived project in the bud. This was a precursor to our coverage of the 16-year attempt by another developer and eventually the Disney Company to build houses, a golf course, even a heliport in Summit Valley, Topanga’s watershed at the north end of the Canyon. We won!

•“Have you heard about the Longest Walk?” This was another “stop-the-presses” story dashed in this time by Mark Butler. It was the first of many articles about Native American religious, environmental and political issues.

•We published our first kid’s issue and my daughter, Nicci, was acting editor.

•This was not an “issue” or a “scoop,” but Colin’s photographic creativity knew no bounds: he wanted to produce an issue in sepia tone. That was an energetic editorial meeting as we hassled over it but Colin, aka “Silver Shoes,” won us over. We called him “Silver Shoes” because he spray-painted his old worn-out shoes silver trying to get a bit more wear out of them before they simply dissolved on his feet.

Did working with and meeting so many people from different walks of life with new slants and ideas help influence my future endeavors? You bet. Tom and I worked on various Native American issues for quite awhile. Then, when I retired after 20 years as a registered nurse, I worked part-time for six more years at Calpirg, an environmental and consumer advocacy group, and volunteered at The Nature of Wildworks.

And what happened to those kids? Well, Nicci lives in south Florida with her husband and the two greatest grandkids ever (Amber, 16 and Quinn, 15). And Joe, the kid on the floor, is a professional bass player touring all over the world, but still playing locally at the Theatricum, Abuelitas and Topanga Days. He’ll always be a Topanga kid.

Emily Karnes retired over a year-and-a-half ago after a 20-year career in nursing and six additional years working for Calpirg and other public interest groups. She and husband Tom have been traveling throughout the U.S. full-time in an RV. They have spent part of their time traveling to Native American sacred sites like Wounded Knee, and going to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, a place Emily worked long and hard to protect while at Calpirg.