ENCINITAS — It was November 1970 and “My Sweet Lord” was just released from George Harrison’s three-album set, “All Things Must Pass.” It was his first solo effort since the breakup of the Beatles earlier in the year.
A single mother with long, strawberry-blonde hair cruised south, passed Ponto Beach into Leucadia, beneath the canopy of trees that lined Highway 101. Her 1958, rose and cream-colored Chevy Nomad station wagon was packed with two cats, a dog, an 18-month-old toddler, baby toys, a litter box, clothes, bathing suits and swim fins. Finally, she made a right turn and eased into the front of the Travelaire Motel.
“I always thanked God for the kindness of the manager of the Travelaire,” Maggie Houlihan recalls. “He never said anything about me bringing my cats and dog in at night.”
After getting a job at Compass West Printing she was able to rent two rooms in a beach bungalow on Cornish Drive. A few months later she got a cottage near the beach on La Veta.
It was getting hired by Bank of America where she served as a teller in the drive-in window that was a breakthrough. “That’s how I met everyone,” she explained.
Maggie was born June 16, 1948, in Hollywood but was raised in Long Beach, a self-described counterculture surfer who preferred instrumental groups like Dick Dale, the Ventures and The Chantays to the Beach Boys. She traveled to Leucadia often to surf at Beacons and Stone Steps and remembers the area as “absolute paradise,” a perfect rural community in which to raise her son, Chris Theobald. She passed on her love of nature by body surfing with Chris at Beacons, observing birds and aquatic life at San Elijo Lagoon and running through the hills of Olivenhain.
She remembers Encinitas being “a social town” in those days with “lots of variations of pot lucks.” She quickly became friends with other young mothers eager to swap babysitting favors to save money.
“I was well below the poverty level, so I supplemented my income sewing and embroidering clothes for people, baking for different events, addressing envelopes and cleaning homes,” she remembers. “Things improved when I started teaching country western dance at the Stingeree and Belly Up with Jeff Howard. We were cheap, but we had a lot of students.”
The two became so famous that, with the upcoming release of the movie “Urban Cowboy,” the venerable Saturday Evening Post featured the duo in an article.
Maggie studied anthropology for two years at Long Beach State where she was named Woman of the Year before getting married in 1968 and giving birth to Chris the following year. In 1973 she was able to secure scholarships and grants that allowed her to finish up her degree at UCSD in 1975. After graduation she was hired as a cataloger at the UCSD library, and progressed in her career receiving UCSD’s Employee of the Year Award, 1993-94.
Much of her and Chris’ free time were spent with their family of friends like Mike Eaton, Lydna Waugh, Sharon Corrigan, Jimmy Giles and Gerhardt Mosel. New to the group was a quiet surfboard glasser from England named Ian Thompson. Maggie, the extrovert, was intrigued and began chatting him up one night.
“I was horrified at first with the red hair and bright turquoise dress with oversized shoulder pads,” he remembers. “She barraged me with questions for an hour. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. Is this what American women are like?’”
A friendship grew, then romance. Maggie and Ian married at the home of a friend on Sunset Cliffs on Oct. 8, 1983.
Ian not only inherited a son, but a potpourri of two- and four-legged friends she and Chris helped along the way.
They would rescue frogs on the road during rainstorms, turtles, iguanas and, of course, cats and dogs.
Disturbed with the high numbers of animals euthanized at local shelters, Maggie co-founded the Spay and Neuter Action Project, or SNAP, in 1990.
She applied for and was accepted on the Encinitas Mayor’s Homeless Taskforce in 1993.
Later, in 1998, she founded Wee Companions Small Animal Rescue for guinea pigs, rats and hamsters.
“I grew up always sensitive to suffering and injustice,” she explained. “I didn’t like eating meat or people making fun of kids in class who were heavy.”
In 1999 she approached Ian about running for office. He had his doubts, knowing that it would be difficult for someone as idealistic as her, but in the end he supported her.
Maggie was elected to Encinitas City Council in 2000. In hindsight, she admits to underestimating how rough local politics could get.
Ian, a protective husband, is still angered about her treatment.
“After getting elected there were attempts to degrade her,” he remembers. “I watched people bully and berate her. She could feel the saliva on her face.”
He added, “The Red Cross gave her an award and she determined at the end of the day that she would not accept it because of the way it would impact her work environment and how the other (council members) would react.”
Her message resonated with the people and despite the attacks by well-financed opponents, her low-budget, all-volunteer campaign brought in the most votes in the 2004 and 2008 elections. She also served as mayor those years.
Peder Norby recalls the 2004 campaign when somebody with opposing political views hired a clown to stalk Maggie.
“She never fired back and went after (him),” he recalls. “That is such a special character trait. Maggie has incredible sensitivities and incredible broad shoulders. Public service can take a lot out of you. She has gone over and above in her public service to us.”
[Editor’s note: It was later revealed that the clown was hired by David Meyer, a local developer and Paul Ecke’s brother in law. ]
Maggie is credited with creating the Pet Health Expo and Encinitas Garden Tour. She’s worked community events for Surfrider, the Encinitas Chamber, Downtown Encinitas Merchants Association, Arts Alive, Leucadia Art Walk and Taste of Downtown. She also lectures students on local government at San Diego Academy and MiraCosta College. She emcees disability awareness events and helps out at bingo at the senior center and teaching country western dance.
Supervisor Pam Slater-Price has been a friend since Maggie joined the homeless task force.
“Maggie is an amazing and unique woman and she has more enthusiasm and positive energy than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said. “I’ve always loved her. You don’t appreciate how beautiful she is until you think she won’t be here.”
In 2005 Maggie was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, but was told she was cancer-free after treatment. Four years later it returned. The day after receiving chemotherapy in 2009, Ian broke the news he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He is doing well today, but Maggie’s long-term prognosis is unclear.
She views pain and discomfort as an inconvenience, something she works around so she can continue to be productive and serve her constituents.
With life uncertain, Maggie wants people to know that there is no other place she’d rather be than in Encinitas.
“Every day is a gift,” she explained, smiling. “It’s not a cliché. I feel bad that there are people who wake up in the morning and don’t get it. The greatest gift of all is being grateful for that for which you already have.”
[Editor’s note: Please share your favorite story about Maggie in the comments section below.]