Name another high school that can pool an Oscar winner, head of Plastic Surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, state Senator, former Major League Baseball player, NASA engineer, deputy district attorney, pilot and philharmonic oboist and have them all on the same campus, on the same morning.
On Saturday at La Cañada High School, 33 of La Cañada Flintridge’s most successful residents, a diverse cross-section of the community, came armed with motivational, biographical messages as part of an event billed as “Challenge Success: Building Your Path.”
All that inspirational firepower drew a crowd of about 500 students, many with parents in tow.
LCHS Principal Ian McFeat characterized the event as an opportunity for all the students who showed up on a weekend morning to garner “extra credit — that matters.”
The idea, Superintendent Wendy Sinnette said, was for the young members of the audience to learn that “your path to success is different from the person sitting next to you.”
“I come from a small community in Pennsylvania,” explained LCUSD Governing Board member Brent Kuszyk, who spearheaded the event. “And I wasn’t exposed to the things that my children and you are being exposed to. I’m amazed every day at the quality of people we have in this community, and this is a great chance for us to expose our students and our alumni to these amazing individuals … and to different career opportunities.”
Chris Buck, Oscar-winning director of “Frozen,” and Dr. Mark Urata, division head of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at CHLA, kicked off the event with a pair of keynote addresses in the school’s theater.
Buck, who described himself as having been a shy child who loved to draw, encouraged students to strive to live without regret. He shared a motto he read in a Readers’ Digest magazine left in a condo he rented once upon a time: “People regret more of what they haven’t done than what they have done.”
He also spoke candidly about his personal anguish at a time when his professional career was peaking; his son Ryder was killed in a collision on the freeway a month before “Frozen” hit theaters.
“The movie was getting these great reviews and people were starting to buzz, and on the other side, my personal life was just a mess,” Buck said. “I’m thinking about my son and how he affected people and what I do every day — cartoons, it’s trivial, it’s silly.”
But he said he was buoyed by an “ask me anything” session he participated in on the Reddit, a popular online forum, during which fans told him how much the movie meant to them.
“This one woman, she said, ‘I was ready to take my own life and then I went and saw ‘Frozen’ and I’m still here because of you guys,’” Buck said. “So I sort of changed my thinking. I realized that what I do is important… and I think what you guys can do with whatever thing you follow, whatever road that leads you, whatever passion you have, you can inspire people and give them hope.”
Urata also deals with hope. He spoke of how he started out wanting to be an orthodontist and wound up, after 22 years of continuous USC schooling, as the head of CHLA’s plastic surgery division.
He said his experience in the Trojan Marching Band made him appreciate the notion of collaboration, or “working with a group of people for a singular goal,” and how that’s translated into his current work as a craniofacial surgeon, performing reconstructive surgery on children who often either have been born with defects or been involved in accidents.
Urata hopes that his job helping children has influenced how his own children see the world: “I like what this job has taught my children; we’ve had kids with difficulties coming into my house since they were babies, I’d like to think they can understand there are people in the world who have issues, problems and challenges that are much greater than they do.”
Following keynote presentations, presenters and their audiences spread out to classrooms all over campus for smaller-scale discussions.
Like Urata, Scott Trowbridge, a creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, sang praise for his collaborators. He told 25 students gathered in the choral room that he worked with a team of hundreds at the Universal Parks & Resorts’ Research and Design division when they developed the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the first ride to combine moving vehicles with 3-D technology and synchronized film projections.
“Engineers, computer scientists, artists who actually bring it to life, the story-writers, all these people make it happen,” he said, in addition to sharing another key takeaway.
“If I have to impart one life lesson to everybody, it’s that nobody knows what they’re doing,” Trowbridge said. “Everybody is making it up as they go.”
In another room, state Senator and former LCF Mayor Anthony Portantino was espousing the value of finding a good fight: “Find a good fight and then get in it. [Not] a physical fight, but a cause. Getting involved makes a difference.”
Orlando Sanchez, a jiu-jitsu black belt and owner of the Gracie Barra studio on Foothill Boulevard, knows a good fight, having overcome drug dependency and depression: “The more real you can get with these kids and talk about real-life issues, [that] there’s drugs and violence and depression and there’s bullying, the more you can communicate that stuff to young kids, it helps them be the best they can be.”
Michael Yang, a technology entrepreneur who sold his startup mySimon.com in 2000 for $700 million, gave his email address to the students who attended his presentation and encouraged them to reach out and inquire about internship opportunities — and to come up with disruptive, potentially lucrative tech-driven ideas of their own.
“When we started the company, it was two guys with an idea and it had zero value,” Yang said. “But in less than two years, we sold the company for $700 million. Where in the world can you do that?”
Yang’s son, David, an 8th-grader at LCHS, sat in on the first of his dad’s three presentations and learned that his father sold computer terminals to support himself through college.
Actually, David Yang said, he’d learned a lot Saturday morning.
“This is really good because it opens viewpoints of jobs,” he said. “It’s changed my outlook, even with just a few sessions.”
Speakers also included: MiMi Aung, project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Valeria Aenlle-Rocha, deputy district attorney with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department; John Hicks, pilot; Marion Kuszyk, oboist with the L.A. Philharmonic; Kevin Tsujihara, chairman and CEO of Warner Brothers; and Matt Whisenant, former major leaguer, among others.