“If somebody told me as a child that I’d be La Presidente and the Chair of the Santa Barbara Zoo in the same year, I’d tell them they were crazy,” is what an excited Rhonda Henderson says to me about her current status over cocktails at Intermezzo. Although she’s only days away from presiding at Santa Barbara’s signature commemoration — Old Spanish Days — Henderson is very present and relaxed. She’s been clocking in more than 40 hours a week working on preparations, but her enthusiasm is indefatigable. “We live in such a great community and we all come together to celebrate,” she says.
Rhonda was born in San Luis Obispo; her family is fifth-generation Central Coast. The Hendersons came from Ireland, and at one time they owned the land where Cuesta College is now located. In the 1980s, Rhonda moved to Santa Barbara permanently and started a career in real estate. “I’ve been in the business for over 30 years, from development to management,” she says. About 14 years ago, she started Radius Investments with Steve Brown, Steve Golis, and Bob Tuler.
As a businessperson, there were things that she wanted to get done as La Presidente. Being development-savvy, she was able to raise lots of funds this year (Fiesta is a nonprofit organization with a $1.4 million budget). She also wanted to do an economic impact study of Old Spanish Days and worked closely with UCSB to get this done.
Her earliest Santa Barbara memories are of driving down from S.L.O. to visit the zoo, which she fondly calls “her happy place.” She loves animals. Growing up, she had a horse, and she will be riding a horse in the Desfile Histórico, even though the presidents of Fiesta usually go on a carriage. “It’s been on my bucket list to ride in the parade on a horse,” she tells me. Her dog will also be in the children’s parade. But let’s pause and think for a moment about when Rhonda will make history by presiding over Fiesta’s Celebración de los Dignatarios (DIGS!) at the Santa Barbara Zoo in her dual roles as the top officer of both organizations.
Old Spanish Days’ theme — which is chosen by the presidente — is “Unity Through Community.” The theme resonates deeply with Henderson. She points out how much Fiesta collaborates with other nonprofits. The mercados are run by and benefit nonprofits. The Dignatarios celebration is a 50-50 split with the zoo. And the story of how she arrived at the theme is exemplary of her spirit of collaboration. She gathered 11 past presidentes at her home for dinner to brainstorm — eventually being reminded of Father Virgil’s saying and involvement with Fiesta for 45 years, “Unity Through Community.” Coincidentally, as Rhonda tells me this anecdote, past presidente Joanne Funari passes by and the two friends hug each other warmly.
I ask Rhonda what she will do after Fiesta ends. What vacation or relaxation does she have planned? “Two days after Fiesta I’m going to San Luis Obispo to sleep in a dorm with my daughter Michelle, who’s off to college,” she answers. “She’s my pride and joy — my miracle baby.”
La Presidente Rhonda Henderson answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My husband says I’d be a shoe-in for a gold medal if the Olympics had a competition for multitasking.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m a work in progress — so many to choose from. But lately, to live in the moment, to be fully present.
What do you like most about your job?
Collaborating and working with so many different people; every day brings something new and different.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sunset, a glass of red wine, surrounded by loved ones.
What is your greatest fear?
Sharks — I know, completely irrational, especially for a native Californian ocean girl. Well, until recently.
Who do you most admire?
Pope Francis. He embodies so many traits I admire: honesty, passion, acceptance, compassion, intelligence, modesty.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel. As I get older, I want to travel even more. If I don’t have a trip on the calendar I get antsy.
What is your current state of mind?
Blessed! I’m currently the chair/presidente of two amazing nonprofit organizations (S.B. Zoo and Old Spanish Days); I have a husband who loves me and supports our crazy, busy schedule; I have an incredible daughter who makes me smile every day and friends that are simply amazing. I’m very blessed.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Loyalty. Life is so uncertain; to have friends and loved ones always there with no judgement — it’s a gift.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
Loyalty, a sense of humor, adventurousness.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Sweetie” — my term of endearment for so many in my life. And most recently, “VIVA LA FIESTA”!
Which talent would you most like to have?
To sing — oh, how I wish I could sing without doing damage to others’ ears.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My daughter Michelle. she just turned 18, [is] heading off to college, and I’m incredibly proud of the smart, community-minded, independent, loving adult she is. I can’t wait to see what she does in her future.
Where would you most like to live?
We truly live in Paradise. I feel blessed every day that I live in the most perfect place: Santa Barbara!
What is your most treasured possession?
My memories. I’ve never been one much for possessions — I prefer experiences and adventures over gifts.
What makes you laugh the most?
My puppy, Koda.
What is your motto?
Live — Love — Laugh
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Not sure if I identify, but there are many who inspire me: Ronald Reagan, Amelia Earhart, Walt Disney, Mother Teresa, Peyton Manning, Katharine Hepburn — so many! To quote Amelia Earhart, “The most effective way to do it is to do it.” I find people who believe strongly and take action are incredibly inspirational, and that’s who I like to surround myself with.
On what occasion do you lie?
I love creating surprises for people — there’s a bit of white lies going on to create those special times.