A handsome couple celebrating 63 years of marriage, Gay and Owen Johnston have made their home in the Santa Ynez Valley for more than three decades. Bearing a friendly demeanor common among long-time locals, the pair embraces a venerable Valley ethic that celebrates both community service and respect for the land.
Residing on a remote hill above Happy Canyon Road, the Johnstons make regular treks into town for mail, supplies and doctors’ appointments, yet even after so many years, they still marvel at the neighborly nature of the Santa Ynez Valley.
“It’s so delightful to go to the grocery store or post office,” Owen smiles, ”because you always bump into somebody you know. And everybody stops and talks.
“It’s a friendly, laid-back life-style,” he continues, “and I think that’s probably why we chose the Valley to begin with.”
The Johnstons discovered the region’s charms in the early 1970s, while living in Santa Barbara. On weekends, they would bring their three children over San Marcos Pass for country picnics, and dream about someday living amid the Valley’s rural reaches.
Raised on her father’s cattle ranches in Arizona and New Mexico, Gay loved to ride horses and wrangle stock. Her father, who brought the first Mexican longhorns over the border at the behest of the Hearst family for their San Simeon operation, instilled in his daughter an abiding delight in open spaces, and the Valley forays piqued happy childhood memories.
“We were both country rats,” Owen laughs, “and in 1974 we got lucky. We bought this land, a beautiful, native canyon. We were the first people.”
With two water wells and 270 pristine acres, the Johnstons began searching for a suitable building site. They visited on weekends, camping out in a small trailer and wandering the property in vain, until, after two years, they finally talked to a local realtor.
“He told us to find where there were animal beds,” Owen explains, admiring the sun-dappled hills outside his front window. “He said, ‘that spot will be the coolest in summer, warmest in winter.’
“Sure enough,” he grins, “there was about one acre in the sagebrush that was obviously the place where animals hung out. They’d figured it out!”
Determined to build an adobe home, the Johnstons met resistance from officials who claimed the material lacked “structural integrity.” Owen cited centuries-old missions that had withstood plenty of earthquakes, and after providing carefully engineered plans, eventually prevailed.
With their eldest son, Owen Jr., now 61, acting as contractor, they erected an inviting, low-slung home featuring 18-inch thick walls made of adobe bricks imported from Fresno.
“I’d always wanted to make a mud house. I thought it’d be fun,” Owen chuckles, his blue eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “When we were figuring out the mechanics of building in a fire area, we decided, hey, why not adobe?”
“I loved the idea,” declares Gay, a petite woman in dark slacks and blue Oxford shirt. “Our younger son, Brad, was in high school at the time, and he helped figure out a lot of things, too.”
Brad, now 51, got so involved in laying out the plumbing plans and delivering water to the house, he later became a geologist. He also named the ranch La Sonrisa (“smile” in Spanish), for its allusion to both the Happy Canyon location and the generous, jovial people who live there.
The family used the adobe home as a weekend getaway until 1981, a year after Owen retired as CFO of Sambo’s Restaurants. With their two sons grown and their daughter, Kathy, teaching school in Australia, they moved to their Valley nest, started a small cattle operation and promptly planted a huge garden.
“It was a hot summer day, about two years after we got here,” remembers Gay, her hair neatly coiffed and shining silvery in the afternoon light. “We were up to our ears in tomatoes and I said, ‘we have to find something else to do!’”
A short time later, she and Owen met the treasurer of the Santa Ynez Valley Hospital auxiliary, who was eager to recruit volunteers.
“She called about a month later,” Gay laughs, “and I was treasurer! I eventually did scheduling for the thrift shop and the hospital, too.”
Still an active member of the auxiliary, Gay continues to volunteer three days a month at the hospital’s front desk and the New-to-You Shop, a non-profit thrift store that helps fund new equipment for the renamed Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital.
Also an avid volunteer, Owen has served on the boards of several county institutions, including Wood Glen Hall retirement community and Santa Barbara Rehabilitation Hospital (now Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital). He spent 27 years on each of those boards.
In 1985, Owen joined the Santa Ynez Valley Hospital Foundation, which ran the community’s hospital, an independent, but financially strapped institution. Ten years later, he was among those who forged an affiliation with Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital to keep the local facility open, and he eventually sat on the Cottage Health System board as the Valley’s sole representative.
“That was a fulfilling nine years for me,” he declares, “and that was an exceptional bunch of people. The affiliation with Cottage Hospital turned out far better than we had imagined.”
Born in Taft, Owen earned a degree in business administration from Stanford, and was immediately recruited by Douglas Aircraft. As the sole surviving son of his family—his brother died while on a military test flight—and thus ineligible for the draft, Owen spent the war years in the aircraft industry in Los Angeles.
During that time Owen’s roommate and college buddy, Tony Gunterman, asked his cousin, Gay, who was attending Pomona College, to bring a girlfriend to the city for a visit.
“It was the war and gasoline rationing,” Owen remembers, “so they had to meet us in L.A. When people asked how we met, I always said, ‘I picked her up in the Greyhound depot!’
Gay admits it was love at first sight.
“I was engaged at the time,” she reveals, “and I thought, “Oh no, THIS is the one. It was close.”
When the war ended, wanderlust struck hard and Owen set out to see the world before he married. He hired on as a purser with the Maritime Service and spent nine months at sea.
“All they would tell us was we were going to the Orient,” he says. “We had a deck cargo of lumber, gasoline, stuff like that, but down below, we had a cargo of money.
“China couldn’t print money at the time,” he continues, still amazed at the memory, “so we pulled into Shanghai and unloaded the currency for China.
“We ended up going clear around the world,” he smiles. “It was a trip that I’ll never forget.”
Married on March 10, 1946, the newlyweds visited one of Gay’s uncles in Santa Barbara, and after seeing the moon rise over the ocean, decided to stay. Owen found work as a cabinetmaker at Bohnett Inc., which was owned by Newell Bohnett, future co-founder of Sambo’s Restaurant.
Following the lead of his former roommate, Gay’s cousin Tony, who also had landed in Santa Barbara, Owen became a CPA. He studied “moonlight nights and Sundays” before passing the exam and co-founding Gunterman and Johnston.
“It was a successful practice,” Owen says modestly. “We had some pretty good clients.”
Among them were Newell Bohnett and Sam Battistone, who combined their names in 1957 when they created the first Sambo’s Restaurant, an eatery that still thrives in Santa Barbara. Shortly after the company went public in 1969, Owen sold his portion of the CPA practice, and became CFO of the restaurant chain.
“It was a magic time in my life,” Owen muses. “Just to think any small town yokel would have the opportunity to talk to investment bankers in Zurich and London.
“I loved every minute of it,” he beams. “You travel that way, you go first class.”
After Owen’s retirement in 1980, the Johnstons continued to wander the globe, exploring Asia, Africa, Australia, Scandinavia and even the waters around Cape Horn. They’ve golfed in Hawaii, ridden snowmobiles over glaciers in Iceland and roamed South Pacific islands on a moped.
Today, the Johnstons stay fairly close to home and let Owen Jr. run the ranch. He and his wife live on the property, making it possible for the Johnstons to remain on their beloved country spread.
“He’s foreman of the place and takes care of everything, including our longhorns,” Gay says. “We lease pasture out to a fellow who runs a breeding operation for rodeo stock, and he handles all of that.”
Owen and Gay enjoy frequent visits with their extended family—all of whom consider the ranch a special place—and consider themselves lucky in life.
“I don’t know why,” Owen says, gazing at the western artifacts adorning his adobe walls, “but it’s like somebody’s kind of looking after ya’ here.”
For fun, Owen tools around the property on his tractor, while Gay tends to her prized roses and plays classical music on her piano. Occasionally, they head into town, where they run errands, keep appointments and inevitably meet up with friends.
“The Valley’s nice,” Owen says, “because you know a lot of people and they make the time to be known. And if you don’t know them, well, they’re not strangers very long.”