by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

2021 was a year of highs and lows. It started off with a terrifying number of COVID cases, and a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines became more readily available. Schools continued to struggle with distance learning and then a hybrid model, but everyone eagerly returned to campus full time in the fall. Restaurants reopened, closed, and reopened again, entertainment came out of cars and got back onstage (including indoor venues) and current events stopped being all about viruses. Local politics, climate change, amazing people and organizations and a whole collection of special issues made for a diverse collection of features over the course of a year at the Ventura County Reporter. 


Nadine Stilwell, Step-Up

Rising COVID-19 cases put a damper on the holiday season, so we started the new year with a soothing story about a stunning outdoor destination: the remote, beautiful and wildlife-rich grassland of the Carrizo Plain . . . which just happened to celebrate its 20-year anniversary as a national monument on Jan. 17, 2021. This was followed by an in-depth look at a Sacramento-based PAC advocating against stricter regulations of oil drilling in Ventura County. Health took center stage in January as well, with a profile of a local man struggling to overcome a COVID-induced stroke and our first-ever Health and Fitness Issue.


Future development at Channel Islands Harbor and Fisherman’s Wharf in Oxnard were in the spotlight again, as residents and city officials came together via Zoom to discuss potential visions and wish lists for the waterside locations. But it was COVID-19 which continued to dominate our coverage, with investigations into home treatments for the disease and the search for effective regimens. We also presented another special issue devoted to the “great outdoors,” with stories on local hikes, the growing popularity of golf, freediving, archery on horseback and more. 


March is traditionally Women’s History Month, so we kicked off the month with a Q&A with the Museum of Ventura County’s Barbara Barnard Smith Executive Director Elena Brokaw and, later, another with Oxnard intensivist Elizabeth Babu, MD. The thorny issue of mental health care — the struggles of the families dealing with it, the lack of local resources to treat it and the role of police when a crisis hits — was examined at length, as were the efforts to restore Ormond Beach in Oxnard. In March we also featured the winners of our annual Photo Contest, with the theme of “Our Pandemic Year.”


Alma Ignacio being embraced by her son, Ignacio Ixta Jr., after he was released at the Ventura County Jail on April 13, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

In 2010, Ignacio Ixta Junior of Oxnard was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Due to the dogged determination of his parents, a local investigative reporter and a pro bono legal team, that wrongful conviction was finally overturned, and Ixta was released from prison on April 13, 2021. In April we devoted much of our coverage to in-depth reporting on the case, which included its history, the people involved, the conflicting eyewitness accounts and more. We also introduced the VC Voices series, with a Q&A with Celina Zacarias of Oxnard; took a look at local efforts to eliminate fossil fuels; and saluted the many chefs and restaurants of Ventura County with a new Dining Issue.


History in Ventura County took the spotlight the first half of May. We looked at the agricultural legacy of the Maulhardt family, whose ancestors arrived in Ventura County more than 150 years ago, and who donated 52 acres of their land to Oxnard Union High School District for the creation of the new Del Sol High School. We also spoke with ethnohistorian Jonathan Cordero, Ph.D., who discussed the romanticized history of the mission era and the effects of that period on the California Indians. Dan Curry, an Emmy award-winning visual effects supervisor who worked on four Star Trek series, came to town to give a talk for the Ventura County Chapter of the Aerospace and Defense Forum, and he discussed his long and illustrious career in a fascinating Q&A. We wrapped up the month with a Memorial Day issue devoted to boating, biking, zip lining and other exciting summer activities.


José and Veronica Rodriguez outside BG’s Cafe in Downtown Oxnard. Photo by Luis Chavez

Fraud related to the local produce sold at Certified Farmers Market was the subject of our first feature in June, as we delved into the way growers outside the area find ways to cheat the system. We also considered the opportunities presented by manufactured homes, particularly in areas ravaged by wildfires, and the childcare providers fighting for a living wage. The June 24 edition was our “people issue,” in which we recognized the movers, shakers and characters that make Ventura County so special. We wrapped up the month with a sobering report on the disturbing allegations of sexual abuse at Ojai’s prestigious Thacher School, which came to light as the result of an investigation made by Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles and Olson.


Oil well drilling permits, abandoned wells and offshore oil drilling (specifically at Rincon Island) were the subject of an “Eye on Climate” at the start of the month, followed up by the need for a Hazard Mitigation Plan — and the Office of Emergency Service’s request for public input — later in July. One of our biggest stories, however, was the return of the Ventura Music Festival, which went live once again in 2021 and featured trombonist Aubrey Logan, string trio Time for Three and classical guitarist Andrea Roberto. At the end of the month, it was all about cocktails, with the “Shaken & Stirred” issue devoted to our favorite bars and the fabulous cocktails Ventura County bartenders were pouring out. Because, let’s face it: In July 2021, who didn’t need a stiff drink?


Bu and Jenny Hwang at their Wienerschnitzel restaurant in Ventura as they prepare to retire. July 30, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

In the summer of 2021, staff writer Kimberly Rivers got a tip about Bu and Jenny Hwang, Korean immigrants who operated the Wienerschnitzel on Harbor Boulevard in Ventura for 30 years. They finally retired at the end of July 2021, and we tell the story of their arrival here — and the way they turned your average fast food restaurant into a community hub — in our Aug. 5 issue. Also covered in August: controversy and complaints over the appointment of a port commissioner at Ventura Harbor, pass/no pass options for high school students, and the growing popularity of cornhole, with an in-depth look at Spencer Makenzie’s Throw Down Cornhole Tournament and Music Festival.


Melissa Baffa was named executive director of the Ventura Land Trust in the summer of 2021, and we did a profile of the environmental activist in our first issue for September. We followed that story up with a report on the bald eagles returning to Channel Islands National Park and a historic look at Ventura County through the imagery of Herman Keene obtained by the Museum of Ventura County. But our grooviest edition in September was the annual Best of Ventura County issue,

A bald eagle soaring at Channel Islands National Park. Photo by Chuck Graham.

listing the favorite shops, vendors, restaurants and more as voted on by our readers in 2021. We hit the dance floor in honor of all our winners with a disco-inspired theme that was out of sight. Kimberly Rivers had the privilege of speaking with Suz Montgomery — Ventura resident, lifelong community activist, local government watchdog and more — a few weeks before she passed away (on Oct. 12, 2021, at the age of 73), and the VCReporter published some of her final thoughts and reflections in our Sept. 30 issue. 


Climate change was in the spotlight once again, as we considered issues related to water in the Ventura County Watershed, the frightening prospect that it might all be drying up, and what changes we can make now to safeguard it for the future. The history of U.S. Pony Club’s made for a fun and inspiring change of pace on Oct. 14, while our Oct. 21 Women’s Issue put the focus on local women making waves in Ventura County. Coverage in October ended, appropriately, with Halloween, with an interview with Reign of Terror Haunted House creator Bruce Stanton. 

The city of Oxnard’s Cultural and Community Services department organized the building of a 6-foot tall La Catrina, who stood over a large ofrenda altar Nov. 1 and 2 on the steps of the Carnegie Art Museum. The public was invited to contribute personal items to display on the steps. The items have now been moved inside, where the public can view them through windows. Photo by Oxnard Mayor John C. Zaragoza, used with permission.


Día de los Muertos takes place Nov. 1-2. In 2021, many organizations celebrated this holiday during the weekend of Nov. 5. So we began the month of November with an in-depth look at Day of the Dead, its roots, its importance to the Latinx community and local celebrations in our Nov. 4 issue. The ecological impact of beavers in California — specifically on the Central Coast — was investigated as well. Community activists and industry leaders butted heads over the proposed reopening of a Santa Paula wastewater treatment facility, while VIP Dog Teams was the subject of a story on therapy-facility dogs.


We returned to the Channel Islands for a story on the circumnavigation of San Miguel Island, the westernmost isle in the National Park and a paradise for sea lions and seals. We also presented our 2021 Ventura County Holiday Gift Guide, followed up with a last-minute gift guide and a bunch of local sources for fabulous presents as selected by VCReporter staff. Also covered in December: a roundup of holiday entertainment, the impact of drought on local beekeepers and honey production, and a profile of Terry Pendleton, whose long and distinguished career in Major League Baseball (first with the St. Louis Cardinals, later with the Atlanta Braves) got its start playing ball with others in the Colonia neighborhood of Oxnard.

Despite a worldwide pandemic that still hasn’t gone away, an economy in flux and a political climate that remains divisive, we have weathered the worst of the (current) storm. At least, I like to think so. We’ve been tested, but we’re still holding on, and I’ve no doubt we can keep on keeping on no matter what the future may hold. #VenturaCountyStrong — now and forever. Here’s to 2022.