Deborah Szekely gracefully scales dual worlds: She’s 88 yet outpaces people half her age. She’s served on fitness councils for four American presidents and worked with the poor in dozens of developing countries. She resides in Mission Hills and travels weekly to Tecate, Mexico.
Most Tuesdays, Szekely speaks at Rancho La Puerta, a garden-bejeweled oasis of casitas, pools, palms and organic gardens she co-founded with her late husband 70 years ago. She arrived to the stark land as an 18-year-old newlywed. Back then, Szekely and her husband had headed south to escape his draft into WWII.
They grew vegetables and grapes, raised goats and bathed in the Tecate River, 45 miles southeast of San Diego. Other natural health buffs were magnetized by Edward Szekely’s charismatic philosophy on natural living and Deborah Szekely’s ability to make things happen. A 1949 San Diego Union article likened them a “health cult to end all health cults.”
Since then, she has grown Rancho La Puerta into the first destination fitness and health spa in North America — ranked the world’s best destination spa by Travel and Leisure Magazine this year. In 1958, Szekely created the Golden Door spa, which still attracts the likes of Barbara Bush and Oprah Winfrey to Escondido.
The essence of Szekely’s lived philosophy is holistic health and fitness, living in harmony with the natural world, growing and eating its bounty and giving back.
The ranch’s Fundación La Puerta has helped buffer the rapidly developing border town of Tecate by establishing a city park, cleaning up the river, preserving wild lands and educating students about culture and ecology.
I sat down with the cookbook author, New Americans Museum founder, former congressional candidate, philanthropist and grandmother in her Mission Hills home.
People associate you with these luxurious resorts you’ve founded, but you’ve not always had creature comforts. How did you and your late husband live when you first settled in Tecate?
When we got to Tecate in 1940, we were in an odd way refugees from World War II. We had no money, so we rented a little adobe house, and little is really little, where they had stored hay. And we started a health camp, $17.50 a week, bring your own tent. People were fed and got exercise classes. They got three meals a day, health nut meals.
The Hollywood set joined you. Burt Lancaster was a regular. What was life like for guests in those early years?
I was the chief chef and bottle washer. They paid $17.50 a week, but they helped. Their day was not that different than the day today at the Ranch or the Golden Door. In the morning we climbed the mountain. We went in the river because the river was pure and wonderful in those days. Now it’s a dirty creek, but we’re working on rehabilitating that creek so it can be a beautiful river again.
But in any case, they swam and gardened. A lot of these things are still going on. You would garden for an hour. You would help in the kitchen. We were milking goats within three years and making cheese. It was more like a commune.
What kept you there well after the war?
We were doing good. It’s a pleasure doing good. It’s very rewarding helping people live more in harmony with the laws of nature. The emotional and spiritual rewards are great.
But we really thought this would be for months, a year, you know, two years or three. Five years later, when the war ended, we were established.
Today your guests have several thousand dollars to spend on a spa vacation and the people of Tecate might make that kind of money in half a year. What has this duality between San Diego and Baja taught you?
The magic at the ranch is partly the staff. The Mexican people are somewhat different from the average American in that they’re very family-oriented. They see people as family. I’ve watched the town develop from 400 people to 125,000 and an enormous number of them are family. We have several three-generation families working with us.
Our foundation works to teach them about the environment, to protect the community, to clean up their river. We have wastewater projects. We have a park and a wonderful building for the kids. And 80 percent of the children in Tecate know a lot about the environment. Most of them have planted seeds and watched them grow. They know what’s it’s like to pick a radish or a carrot.
On Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 you’re having a 70th anniversary gala and symposium “The Sun, the Butterfly and the Dove,” at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront to benefit Fundación La Puerta. How are you celebrating?
We’ve been 70 years in business under one management all these years. We’ve seen San Diego and Tecate and Tijuana grow. I just wanted this feeling of unity. I decided to do this celebration here in San Diego so San Diegans get an understanding of what the Ranch is, what it means to our economy. Our people come from all 50 states and European countries and a lot of that money rolls back into San Diego.
And I wanted to raise money for the foundation because we’re working very, very hard. And literally the ranch tithes to support the foundation. The need is so great. There is so much more we can do.
What will you do in Tecate?
We have created wetlands, and they will get larger. We have one large community garden. We would like to have them in each what they call a barrio. We would like to develop community gardens so that most everything they eat they will be growing themselves like they used to. Everyone had a backyard garden. But now the soil is yucky and they don’t have the water. With a community garden you can amend the soil. You put in the proper irrigation and people have little garden plots. That was a system that was begun after World War I in Europe. So we would like to have Tecate be the example of the best kind of community.
So there’s many projects. We have a leadership program, training the youth. They don’t have the kind of leadership training programs like we have in the States. And the more we invest in our youth, whether its Tecate or San Diego, the more we reap benefits. They are our future.
At 88, you work out with a former Navy Seal, do pilates, serve as creative director of Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door, travel to Alaska with your grandchildren and are working on a nutrition-based curriculum for fifth graders. How do you keep up this pace?
On my to-do list as a must for next year is a book called Too Young to Get Old. I really don’t believe that you need to be old during 60 to 90. You have to invest, put some plum in the plum pudding if you’re going to have a plum. So you have to say, “There’s a lot I want to do and I don’t really feel like getting old.”
Interview conducted and edited by Rebecca Tolin, who can be reached directly at email@example.com.