2008/07/17 - San Juan Capistrano, California
[Jean Pierre Lacouague, 84, son of a Basque pioneer family of San Juan Capistrano and Orange County, California passed away on Friday, July 11th, 2008]
He was born Jean Lacouague, and known to many of his friends as John. His wife, Marie, called him Johnny. But whatever name they used, all those who knew the orange grower speak of him in terms of the values he represented and the legacy he left. Jean died of heart failure at his home Friday, July 11. But the seeds he planted—in his orchard and in his community—continue to grow.
“He was a very intelligent, hard-working farmer who cared a lot about his community,” said former Mayor Gil Jones. “It will be a loss to the community.”
Jean was born in 1923, before San Juan Capistrano was an official city. His father bought 260 acres of property in 1920, 10 years after immigrating from the Basque country in France. Jean grew up tending the orange trees that dotted the ranch, toiling hard with his father and then with his son, Dan, until the majority of the ranch was sold in 1986 for development. The Lacouague Ranch today is 5 acres; it sits off San Juan Creek Road and Camino Lacouague, and Marie and their daughters—Michelle, Denise and Renee—still live there. Some orange trees remain, harkening back to Orange County’s glory days, but others were exchanged for avocados—in the last decade of his life, Jean knew the future for oranges was bleak, and he wanted the ranch to live on.
Jean spent his whole life at the ranch, except for the time he left for Santa Clara University. He had plans to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, but they were cut short by World War II. Jean enlisted in 1942, serving in the combat engineers in European Theater of Operations. He returned to his father’s struggling ranch in 1946. The shortage of labor, supplies and fuel was hard on the property, and Jean forewent his engineering plans and took over the ranch.
But his mechanical aptitude never left him; it served him well in his work on the orchard. And it helped him in 1964 to earn the title of one of Capistrano’s first fire chiefs. At the time he joined the department, in 1955, it was a volunteer corps. And by the time he retired, after being chief for about 17 years, Orange County hired full-time, paid firemen and paramedics. For a long time, the fire response system was based on a loud siren that volunteers could hear wherever they were. Jean would hear the siren, even in the middle of the night, and just get up and go, said Marie. She said he loved the work, which increased greatly at the end of his stint.
Jean married Marie in 1951 in the Old Mission Church, to which he had strong ties. He started at the Mission Parish School in the first year of its existence. It’s where he was baptized, had his first communion and was confirmed. And he attended Mass with Marie faithfully all his life. He sent his children to school there, as well. Jean wrote some years ago that one his favorite memories of his son was when Dan, at 5 years old, walked home from the Mission when school was closed—quite a walk for a child. He got sidetracked by construction; Dan had stopped to watch Ortega Highway being built.
Many significant moments in Jean’s life were also significant moments for San Juan Capistrano. His family represents the heritage of the Basque people who had a significant impact in agriculture in Orange County. Capistrano honored this in Jean and Marie by naming them grand marshals of the 1998 Swallows Day Parade. The pamphlet said, “The Basque blood of hard work, perseverance and courage runs deep in the Lacouague family.”
Jean’s parents were from the Basque area; and Marie herself was born a few miles from the spot. But Jean met Marie here, as she had moved to San Juan Capistrano when she was 23. Because Marie’s English was rusty for a while, she and Jean spoke Basque to each other and to their eldest children. It was the one strong language they had in common. The couple both spoke Spanish, but Marie’s was so different from the local Spanish Jean had picked up from working the orchards with Mexican immigrants.
Dan said Jean’s hard work and perseverance continued all his life—even up to his last days, when his heart failed him but his mind was still strong. He always did what was best for the farm, even when it meant replacing orange trees that had been planted before Jean was born.
“I have trouble with that,” said Dan, who recognized the value in the avocado trees, but was sad to see the oranges go. “He didn’t.”
Dan said his father did what needed to be done. He was a man of discipline, wisdom and ethics. “I think of him as a pretty good teacher,” said Jean’s only son. “He taught me not on purpose, but he taught me an amazing amount of stuff.”
And Dan’s son Mark, Jean’s eldest grandchild, also said his grandfather taught him a lot about work ethic and good habits, as well as tough love. “He taught me that you’re rewarded for how hard you work,” said Mark, who was paid for good grades and gophers caught. He and the other grandchildren had chores on the ranch, and Jean taught them about consequences to actions. The cost for wasting the family’s livelihood? A quarter for each orange thrown. “He said, ‘Eat as many oranges as you want, but if you don’t eat it, and you throw it, it’s going to cost you,” he said.
Denise said her father’s tough love turned softer as he grew older. He was always honest, diplomatic and supportive. A staunch provider for the family, he was always in tune with what his family or friends needed. “He took good care of his friends,” she said. “He was loyal down to their final days.”
When he sold the ranch and had more time, Jean traveled. He traveled with his friends, with his family and alone. “He loved to see the country,” said Marie, who told of Jean’s impeccable sense of direction. “He never got lost.”
He would take road trips to visit his friends, even showing up unannounced. Louie Etcheberria, who was Jean’s friend in childhood and adulthood, took a trip to Europe with Jean, Marie and his wife Barbara. “He was as good with a map as anybody I know,” said Louie, who would have breakfast with the Lacouagues most Sunday mornings after Mass. “He was a very good friend of mine. I think he’s a swell guy.”
And others feel the same about the orange grower. He was active for 46 years in the American Legion Post 721, a group of about 200 mostly local veterans. He served as its finance officer, and he had close friends there. “Jean would do anything he could for you,” said Jim Smith, adjutant for the post. “He was a very, very Christian man, and a loyal friend.”
Jean once wrote that he wished to be remembered as “an honest, sincere, hard-working provider that was an independent, loving, family man.” He not only met that mark, but he instilled those values in his children. His influence on his community is tangible, say his friends, and will bear fruit for years to come.
“The world is a better place, the community is a better place, and I am a better person for knowing the Lacouague family,” said family friend Katherine Brail. “Each one has been an inspiration to me. May Jean’s spirit live on through us all.”
There will be a Catholic vigil, including rosary, Tuesday, July 22 at 7 p.m.: Serra Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 23: Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano. Immediately following Mass, there will be a public burial at Ascension Cemetery in Lake Forest. In lieu of flowers, donations in Jean’s name can be made to Mission Parish School.
Text by Lacey Nadeau, The Capistrano Dispatch
Photo: EuskalKultura.com (pictured Jean Lacouague, his wife Maria and daughter Renée Bondi)
Doluminak Maria (Sansinena) Lacouague bere emazteari (ainhoarra); Renée, Denise eta Michelle hiru alabei, eta heien familiei; Grace (Lacouague) Mainvil bere arreba eta senar John Mainvil-i, eta heien familiei [NABOko diruzaina da Grace]; eta gainerako ahaide guztiei. Goian bego.
John-en heriotz-oharra OconnorMortuary
Jean-Pierre Lacouague was born on October 30, 1923, to Pierre and Bonifacia Lacouague at their recently acquired 261-acre homestead in San Juan Capistrano.
The land was purchased from Cornelio and Ysidora Forster Echenique.
John, as he was called, learned to speak Basque with his parents and Spanish, simultaneously, from the Mexicans in the area.
In 1928, he entered Mission School not yet speaking English.
He was baptized at the Mission, attended school there for 8 years, and made his First Communion and Confirmation there. He went to Capo Union High School up the street, graduated in 1940 and enrolled at Fullerton Junior College. After two years, he entered Santa Clara University as a freshman engineering student.
Upon completing the first year at SCU, he entered the U.S. Army in 1942 at the Presidio in Monterey. He took basic training in Ft. Riley, Kansas, and then was enrolled in the University of Missouri at Columbia as an engineering student.
Nine months later, he was assigned to the 1251st Combat Engineer Battalion in Camp Swift, Texas, where, after training inductees for 6 months, he was shipped overseas via New Jersey and New York to England.
Two months after arriving in England, he crossed the Channel to LeHavre, France, and immediately proceeded to the Battle of the Bulge in eastern France, Belgium, and Holland.
The 1251st Engineer Group built the farthest north and longest Floating Bailey Bridge across the Rhine at Wessel.
They bridged the 2nd Armored Division on their way north of the Ruhr pocket to the Elbe River en route to Berlin.
The war ended on May 8th, 1945, and the 1251st was moved to Antwerp, Belgium, to build a redeployment camp for troops going to the Pacific Theatre.
After the Japanese war ended in August of 1945, the 1251st was assigned to Bavaria, Germany, to fix roads and bridges.
John departed for home in April of 1946.
Rather than pursue further education, he returned to work the ranch with his parents and in 1951 married Marie Sansinena in Serra Chapel at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano.
He built a modest home and raised four children: Danny, Michelle, Denise, and Renee, all of whom attended Mission School and later married at the Old Mission.
During his tenure operating 90 acres of oranges, he found time and dedication for the Volunteer Fire Department where he served for 27 years including 17 years as Volunteer Fire Chief.
He also served on the Board of Directors of Consolidated Orange Growers, the Olive Heights Citrus Association, and, later, the Orange Heights Orange Association.
Additionally, he was active in the American Legion Post 721 for 46 years serving most of those years as Finance Officer.
In 1986, the ranch was sold for development with the exception of five acres on the home hill where John later built a new home, retired, and lived the remainder of his years.
It was the same land on which he was born.
Rosary Service, Tuesday, July 22, ~ 7:00 pm at the Serra Chapel on the grounds of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, CA. Visitation after the Rosary. Mass of Christian Burial, Wednesday, July 23, ~ 10:00 am at the main church of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, CA. Interment Service Following the Mass of Christian Burial at Ascension Catholic Cemetery, Lake Forest, CA.