It was my good fortune to meet Chet Gala almost immediately upon moving to Santa Barbara in 1983 to take a job as reporter with the Santa Barbara News & Review. Technically speaking, you’d say Chet was the superintendent of the Balboa Building, a utilitarian, six-story office bunker located in downtown Santa Barbara where the News & Review was then located. But I quickly came to recognize Chet was more a hybridized court jester and guardian angel equipped with tool belt, paint brush, and big set of keys.
Our exchanges, typically in the hallways or elevator, were frequent and brief. Often, Chet would leave me with some gleefully profane image I couldn’t shake out of my head – and wouldn’t want to – or the latest global skullduggery perpetrated by David Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission. With one eye, Chet was always cracking wise. With the other, he took in the world with a shrewd and appraising kindness. “It’s all bullshit,” he’d invariably conclude. But never with rancor or cynicism. Chet would not give “bullshit” that satisfaction. A Samurai of the spirit, he prevailed with an irresistible lightness of being. Only later would I come to appreciate what a determined act of will produced that lightness.
Chet grew up in Flint, Michigan, one of 12 siblings—some half, some step, and some whole—and the son of Polish immigrants. By all accounts, his was a hellacious childhood. The Gala family was so poor that Chet’s oldest brother was forced to quit school at age 12 to go to work. To the extent Chet’s father was around, he was a vicious drunk who terrorized Chet’s mother and the kids. There are stories of how Chet—at age five—was kicked out of the house during a nasty snow storm. He spent the night under the house. And of how his baby sister died at age four, a victim of malnutrition and neglect. His younger brother John Gala remembers Chet as an athletic loner who served as a “surrogate father,” steering him along “the straight and narrow.”
At that time, guys from Flint served in the military and then worked for General Motors. Chet appeared poised to follow that script. At 17, he joined the Marines and saw action during the Korean War. Afterward, Chet would tell friends he should never have been sent to Korea. No one, he said, should ever have gone. When Chet got back, he took a job with GM, and in 1958 married a woman named Frances. But Chet wanted the hell out of Flint and set out for California. At that time, you didn’t leave Flint, and certainly not for California. Everyone in Chet’s family knew that’s where all the “weirdos” lived. Frances – with whom he’d had no children – opted not to make the move and sought a divorce instead. Chet, said his brother John, “seceded from the family.”
When Chet arrived in California, he was very much on his own. He was also very much an alcoholic. He settled first in San Jose, where he worked as a welder and did wrought iron design, and it was in San Jose that Chet stopped drinking. For a while, he worked for as a rehab counselor helping other alcoholics get sober. When his clients relapsed, he’d refer to a poster on the wall listing all the excuses, recounted one friend, and ask them to point out which one.
It’s not clear what brought Chet to Santa Barbara. But when Bob Klausner – who would emerge as a major mover and shaker in Santa Barbara politics throughout the 80s – bought the Balboa Building in 1976, he discovered Chet came with it. “That was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me,” Klausner said. “He was an exceptional guy. Whenever you were with him, it was an upper.” When Klausner bought the building, it was a seedy property – “a real Sam Spade building,” Klausner called it – in what was then a semi-seedy part of downtown State Street. While City Hall concocted one scheme after the next to revitalize the city’s retail core – a process that would take nearly 20 years – it fell to Chet to spruce up the Balboa Building, gradually, both inside and out. Klausner discovered there was little Chet couldn’t do. But Klausner was equally struck by the close relationships Chet struck with the building’s tenants. “Everybody loved the guy,” Klausner said.
When Daniel Frank, a Rolfer with offices in the Balboa Building, first met Chet in 1976, he wasn’t so sure. With his jet black hair, blue jeans, and pack of cigarettes rolled tightly into the sleeve of his white t-shirt, Chet looked “like a high school gangster from the 1950s,” said Frank. But in no time, Chet, the former rehab counselor, was discussing various treatment modalities with Frank. Over time, the two became close friends. Frank would learn that Chet was an omnivorous reader, a talented writer, a hard-core opera nut, and a lover of all things Puccini who himself sang all the time and sounded a lot like Dean Martin. He was also an occasional guest on Baron Ron Herron’s popular radio show – broadcast live from KIST, which was then also in the Balboa Building – commenting on Santa Barbara’s abundant local color. Frank also learned if you needed to get in touch with Chet, the best way was to ring the elevator emergency bell twice and go to the lobby. You wouldn’t wait long. “I considered him the pulse of the Balboa Building,” said Frank. “When he wasn’t there, you could feel it.”
Chet evolved. He grew less interested in politics and more focused on eastern spiritualism. He studied under a guru. Afflicted with high blood pressure, Chet stopped eating meat, became a vegan, and embraced a strict exercise regime. Except Chet always made “strict” look fun. He could be seen striding along the beach in sweatshirt and shorts, hands wrapped around weights. He lived frugally, renting a small, sparely furnished apartment – with a lemon tree just outside his kitchen window – and driving his signature beat-up yellow pickup truck. Although he never married again, Chet had least one serious romantic relationship, though it did not last. He was a garrulous guy who had lots of friends but still managed to guard his privacy. With Pat Brumm, a manager at the Edgerly Arms apartment complex where Chet lived, he attended public lectures and concerts, watched old black-and-white movies, and cherished long evening conversations.
Six years ago, Chet experienced two massive strokes. For a while, the part of his brain that controlled speech was shut down. Somehow, Chet could still sing. Friends communicated with him by song. He may not have sounded much like Dean Martin anymore, but it did the trick. Klausner and Mike Nichols, a friend and accountant who looked after Chet, made sure he got the care he needed. But it was Chet’s personality that converted strangers to care-givers and compelled so many care-givers to go the extra mile. For six years, Chet struggled to recover. There was no self pity, no complaining. And he made strides. But recently, Chet suffered a series of smaller strokes that required that he be moved into several new facilities. The last one was way too noisy and lacked the privacy he so valued. Chet, according to friends, decided it was time to check out.
He did not die estranged from his entire family. He had one niece, Marianne Schlegelmilch, who over the years had managed to re-connect. She too had escaped the confines of Flint, and had suffered some of the same stinging rebuke. She and Chet stayed in touch and became close. “He was just a good person,” Schlegelmilch said. “When you find a person like that, it’s powerful.”
Schlegelmilch, a nurse, said she and Chet talked a lot about their different healing traditions. And he talked a lot about his spiritual beliefs. Much of it, she said, went over her head. But Chet’s spiritualism, she said, always got back down to earth. He referred to God, she said, as “Arnold.” And somehow, he almost always managed to steer the conversation back to his old mantra: “It’s all bullshit.”