Laura Elizabeth Kath | Credit: Courtesy

Laura Elizabeth Kath: 1960-2020

A smile so wide that it seemed to go on forever. The Laura I knew had a smile and a kind word for everyone, be that person a close friend or a total stranger. In that smile was gathered a life of giving, while also masking a life of pain. Laura Kath, the consummate professional communicator, left us just shy of her 60th birthday, but her legacy will light up Santa Barbara County for years to come.

A native of Michigan and a proud Michigan State alumna, Laura made Santa Barbara her home for more than 35 years. Sole owner of Mariah Marketing, she pioneered and championed many Santa Barbara institutions, making them better than they would have been without her exacting care. No newspaper or TV station ever doubted that Laura’s press releases were accurate, timely, and full of colorful detail: No fact-checking needed.

Laura was always there, following up to make sure the 4 a.m. press conference for the Amgen Tour of California time trials in Solvang were as carefully executed as the red-carpet debut of Sideways. She saw the tourism potential of the Santa Ynez Valley before many others and made sure her beloved Los Alamos was included in what became the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association, now VisitSYV. For many years, she was the editor of the Solvang and Santa Ynez Valley Visitor Guide. Her “radio voice” articulation and folksy humor were lent graciously to announce numerous Solvang parades and the annual Los Alamos Old Days parade. Representing Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Valley, and Solvang at tourism trade shows throughout the country, her unflagging, energetic presentation of our county earned her a deep respect and gratitude.

It was perhaps in her enthusiasm for her clients that her work reflected her personal values. Bringing light to darkness would be a lifelong mantra, and she always went to the most amazing lengths to make sure that her information was clear, accurate, and interesting. And she would correct anything that was wrong: She was relentless in making sure partial closures of Highway 154 did not cut off the Santa Ynez Valley from the north; she knew how to get to Caltrans better than anyone.

Laura’s clients included the Santa Ynez Valley Hospital Foundation, Circle V Ranch, St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church, and the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, among others. For her clients, she always went the extra mile to make sure that their events got the coverage she felt they merited. For Santa Barbara’s unique Car-Free program, she made sure that Amtrak and the local cycling community, as well as the local hotels and restaurants, were well and truly represented.

Over the years, her Rolodex morphed into her online media list, which was always up to date and personalized. Along came blogging, Twitter, and Instagram, and Laura was right on top of the best, latest way to communicate her clients’ messages to diverse audiences. The full measure of her professionalism was only matched by her winning personality, a dynamite duo in one tall bundle of energy.

Her lifelong struggles with arthritis encouraged her enthusiastic embrace of the Arthritis Foundation Central Coast Chapter, which she served as a boardmember. She received their Mary G. Kendall Award for Outstanding Service in 1998 and in 2005, a Community Hero designation. Other volunteer efforts were directed to the Los Alamos Men’s Club, the Santa Barbara Book and Author Festival, and other county organizations. A prolific author, Laura penned 19 books, including The Upham Hotel: Celebrating 125 Years of Santa Barbara Hospitality; San Ysidro Ranch: A Century of Legendary Hospitality; and Elvis Presley’s Graceland: The Official Guidebook.

At the celebration of Laura’s life at St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Los Olivos on February 29, family members and the Reverend Dr. Randall Day spoke eloquently of Laura as an aunt, sister, partner, member of the congregation, and friend. Her 10-year-old great-nephew Eli Kath recited with his father, John, a poem he’d written, which seemed to sum up Laura’s life and moved many to tears.

A Lifetime of Rough
Life is full of many things
Some are bright and some are dim
Times that are great and others we call rough
Those are the things that make us tough.
Holding your backpack is always a pain
Getting lost on a dark and scary lane
A birthday party and no one will arrive
Having a loved one struggling to survive
Leaping off a wall into a prickly bush
Facing a bully and getting a push
Having a needle stuck in your thumb
Being so cold your face feels numb
The lesson we seek from this list of pain
Is that oysters make pearls and flowers need rain.
Learning from things in life that are rough
Help make us shine and help make us tough.

Laura celebrated with each of us, for whatever length of our relationship with her, sending “Natal Anniversary” greetings each year on our birthdays, making sure we knew of the arrival of each full moon (and its precise name), and of the spring glory of wild flowers on Figueroa Mountain. Knowing the pain she was enduring through her final years, it was a source of amazement to all that her indomitable spirit never seemed to waver. She relied on the constant support of her partner, Jeffrey Marsh; her family and faith; and a steady contingent of medical personnel, whom she never ceased to praise.

A final spiritual hymn at the Celebration of Life summed up what many of us will remember about Laura, and what she would want us to remember:

Let the life I’ve lived speak for me
Let the life I’ve lived speak for me
When I come to the end of this road,
And I lay down my heavy load,
Let the life I’ve lived speak for me. 

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