South Pasadena, did you feel it? It wasn’t an earthquake. Nothing pandemic-related. It was more like a “great disturbance in the Force” that surrounds South Pasadena.
Mark Deetjen is gone. Who, you ask? Many of you know. You’ve likely crossed paths.
Mark Deetjen, the son of a high-powered Disney attorney, the son of Cuban immigrants, the husband of Lisa Henderson, the father of Sam and Aubry, one of the founders of South Pasadena’s D.U.D.E.S., a booster, supporter and board member of Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and a newly minted Executive Vice President of Global Channels at Fremantle. That Mark Deetjen. He passed away on January 24 at the age of 50.
He survived a tough life, organ transplants and a couple of heart attacks. Days before he took his last breath, Mark, from his hospital bed, signed purchase papers for his first custom-built Porsche 911, a gift to himself after a job promotion. “It was literally the last thing he did,” Lisa said.
He never got a chance to floor it. But his son did. Mark left lots of gifts like that behind for those he loved most.
Mark lived his life in the fast lane. But he also pulled over now and then to fully enjoy his life with his wife and kids, friends and the South Pasadena community he loved so much.
Every time I asked people to speak about Mark for this tribute, no matter who they were, smiles washed over their faces. Mark had that effect on everyone. We all have our favorite Mark moments. He gave us a million.
Ask anyone about Mark Deetjen and you’ll hear this repeatedly: He was fiery. Competitive. Giving. He was the guy who always showed up when you needed him. And he did whatever job you asked. He was always ready with a bear hug. And did I say very, very competitive?
Mark was a warrior.
He had to be a fighter.
Mark had it tough growing up in San Marino. His big heart and wild mouth placed a target on his back. On his first day of kindergarten, a few rotten kids bullied him on the playground. They tied a noose fastened from a jump rope and hung him from the monkey bars. He made it home with rope burns around his little neck.
“I think they did it because he was so different from the other kids,” his wife Lisa told me. “He got beat up because he was not white to be exact. He was the only Latino in San Marino at the time. He was always the underdog, at school and in life. He was always trying to deal with the anger that came with kids beating him up.” Lisa’s voice drifted off, as she seemed to understand her husband a bit more as she spoke. “That’s why he had to have rules. That’s why he hated when others didn’t follow them.”
Mark was proud of his Cuban roots. He religiously raced across LA to find the best picadillo and buñuelos. Portos should name a croquetta after him, something with spice. He was just as proud of being a business school graduate of the University of Southern California, a graduate of the master’s program in Fine Art in Film & TV producing at USC and a graduate from the prestigious USC Peter Stark Production Program.
If you ran into him on Mission Street or at a LACHSA event, he might’ve mentioned his USC cred. I wouldn’t blame him. The guy was a star on the swim team from 1989-1991 and missed going to the Olympic trials by .001 of a second. He swam until he was diagnosed with diabetes. I am sad that I never heard that story directly from Mark. I am a Pulitzer Prize finalist and missed the mark by a smidgeon, too. I would have loved to have heard Mark tell his tale just to see that patented smile on his face as he told it. Mark loved telling great stories.
They say Mark had a killer breaststroke.
He perfected each move, each flex of the wrist or ankle, each breath intake, over endless hours of work with his favorite coach at San Marino High, Burt Kanner. Kanner helped teach Mark when to cup his hand in the water and how to hold his hips near the waterline.
“That work and dedication is what got him within .001 of going to the Olympic trials,” Lisa said. “To his last day he could remember his times for each split or portion of his stroke. It was all about breaking each stroke down and perfecting it. He and his coach scienced the shit out of it.”
Mark’s body would fail him and he left sports to fully focus on studying business at USC.
Lisa is forever proud of Mark. She met him when she was 22 soon after moving to California from Canada. They’ve been together ever since.
She knew how much Mark loved his father. Mark’s father was a pretty good swimmer himself as a young man in Cuba. He was the one who knew Mark had to channel his aggression and power and he was the one who put Mark in the pool and taught him to fight gravity.
When Mark turned 34, Lisa surprised him by signing him up for the TV reality show “Overhaulin”, the classic car version which restored old beaters to prime condition. At the time, Mark owned his father’s car, the first new car his father could afford to buy, a 1972 Cutlass Oldsmobile convertible. It was dilapidated. The roof leaked and a good rain filled it up like a bathtub.
When the show finished with it, the car was “minty,” as Lisa likes to call it. The convertible top was painted the color of fine champagne, the edgy body was painted dreamy white replete with an orange racing stripe. It boasted a mighty new engine and Chip Foose custom wheels worth $25,000 each. A burnt orange racing stripe that ran across the car.
“The funny thing is, the show’s producers knew about Mark’s hothead and they tried to capitalize on his anger by punching him,” Lisa said. “They brought fake cops. They arrested a man in the parking lot of Mark’s job after he pretended to try and extort from Mark. But Mark kept his cool, and for good behavior he got his Dad’s dream car fully restored.”
Mark drove that car hard. Especially on weekends. He took home more than a few car show awards, too, including from the South Pasadena Cruz’n for Roses hot Rod and Classic Car Show.
Mark’s father gifted him that Oldsmobile.
When Sam turned 17, Mark bought him a car, too.
“My dad and I spent the summer of 2019 looking for my first car,” Sam said. “We found one in Las Vegas that I liked. My dad rented a motel and we made a plan to pick it up. He even bought tickets to a magic show with Matt Franco.”
But like magic tricks, car plans go awry. The car owner didn’t make the deal and Sam and dad were defeated but not beaten. One of them checked Craigslist and they found a possibility parked somewhere in Lancaster. It turned out to be a real beauty, a 1969 Ford Mustang. Beefy Ford 385 motor. Honeybee yellow paint. Fat racing wheels. And an 8-track cassette player, to boot.
Mark test drove the little monster first. Then he pulled over and let Sam have at it.
“OK, old man,” Sam told his father. He pressed the pedal to the metal and fired off the turbo factory. “It was crazy,” Sam said. “Oh my God, it had so much power. It sounded soooo nice. It even had illegal mufflers.”
The two Deetjen boys gave the car back and drove off. But returned within a week with cash in hand.
The next time Sam would feel that level of thrill from gunning the gas pedal like his old man taught him would be when he returned his father’s new, never-driven gray-green Porsche to the dealer.
“When I first saw it at the dealership, I didn’t want to touch the steering wheel,” Sam said. “The dealer saw me looking at it and he told me ‘You know you can drive it, right?’ That’s when I realized that was going to be his car, this was my Dad’s car right now.”
Sam did what he knew his dad would have wanted him to do.
He lit that Porsche 911 on fire.
“My dad has always been and will always be a huge fan of mine, even in his afterlife. I know that,” Sam said, who began his freshman year in college shortly before his father ended up in a hospital bed for the final time. “He didn’t tell me he loved me as much as he showed me. When I told him I wanted to give up sports after years of playing to become an actor, I was afraid of his reaction. But all he said was, ‘Cool. Want me to find you an agent?’
When we went to New York to see Fordham University, we spent a lot of time walking around and talking to people. At one point he looked at me and said, ‘Sammy, I think this is your school. Seems like your thing.’ I didn’t say much, but later I told him I thought I wanted to commit. And he said … ‘I will put the money down right now if you promise me you will kick ass’.” Shortly before his dad passed away, Sam told his dad that he was a double major at Fordham, acting and set design.
“When I was sitting in my Dad’s Porsche, I heard his voice. ‘Punch it Sammy!’ And I did. ”
The last person I interviewed for this tribute was Aubry.
She has been struggling with life after her father’s death. For her, he is very much alive inside her.
Aubry loves to talk about her drives with her dad, especially when he picked her up from dance class at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown LA.
“He would come and pick me up every single Monday and Wednesday and Friday,” she recalled. “I would get out late at night. We would be driving on the 110 freeway, the scariest freeway in all of Los Angeles in my opinion, and we would just talk about life.
He didn’t treat me like a little kid. He talked to me like an adult. When I asked him about his day, he would always tell me straight up. He told me about this meeting with that person and stuff about demographics. I had no idea what any of it meant, but he taught me stuff. And I was happy just because he always talked to me like I was smart and I knew things about the world.”
Mark told Aubry about his life as a teenager. He made fake IDs for friends. He would host big parties. Those parties got so popular that Mark charged $5 at the door for all-night access to kegs. “He told me that’s how he learned his business sense,” Aubry said. “That’s so cool. I have told all my friends about it.”
It’s so hard to impress a South Pas teenager. Mark managed it often with his own kids.
He loved video games and was tickled to find out that Aubry played, too. The first-person shooter game brought daughter and father to the brink. “He would come in and basically take my controller. Once he started playing video games, he became addicted. He would sit on the couch next to me and I would just watch him. It was the coolest thing ever.”
Aubry says he father earned a reputation for being the parent that drove fast. “Some said he was scary,” Aubry said with a giggle. “He always made me laugh.”
What words would you use to describe your dad, I asked Aubry.
“He was resilient,” she said. Then she got more real.
“My father was a color, he was really strong deep rustic orange. Like a rusted gold,” Aubry explained. “He was a true fireball. I don’t know how to put it all in one word, but he really left his mark on people.”
Within hours of Mark’s passing, more than 50 people showed up for a makeshift vigil hours later. They held candles. Shared their stories of Mark beneath the light of a three-quarters moon. Even the bluish moon and stray clouds seemed sad. Lisa and Sam stood near each other to take it all in.
The vigil befitted a local statesman. And a great man of his people.
It was held on hallowed South Pasadena grounds, a grassy knoll known as Camden Circle.
On this field of dreams is where Mark and his gang of fellow fathers known colloquially as The DUDES hosted annual beer-infused Olympic-like games better suited for the gray-haired athlete, pot-bellied athlete. Those were pre-Covid times and the games included variations of Dodge Ball, Egg Tosses, Paint Ball Shootouts and one I will call the Beer Keg Run, in which contestants had to swig beer and maintain a hand on the keg whilst running circles around the keg as fast as possible for as long as possible. As legend has it, Mark ran around his keg 200-plus times, earning a massive amount of bonus points.
Soon after, the D.U.D.E.S. passed a No-Mark Rule banning bonus points for excessive keg runs. The truth is, nobody wanted to face-off against Mark from across a keg of anything again.
Mark worked tirelessly to make the DUDES what it is today.
That’s why so many of them showed up to his vigil.
Ed Donnelly, another founder of the D.U.D.E.S was one of them. He told me how Mark hosted a friendly Friday night poker game at his house for years. At one point, Mark offered to host a small tournament as a fundraiser for the D.U.D.E.S. “It was a fun Saturday night of cards and camaraderie,” Donnelly said. “So much fun that it eventually evolved into the annual Main Event Fundraiser that has to date raised over $50,000 for the South Pasadena Middle School Boosters to fund after school intramural sports. This is just one example of how Mark used his passion for our community.”
One of Mark’s best friends, Martin Albornoz, likes to talk about all the times Mark showed up to help the local schools. Some of those ventures included sneaking on a campus at night to repaint windows and painting walls, the kind of work it would take a school district years to get done. Mark also volunteered to help clean out the rat-infested basement of the South Pasadena Middle School.
“He was that kind of guy,” Albornoz said. “He showed up. He did the dirty work and he never complained.”
Friends and family far and wide: Due to Covid restrictions, the family of Mark Deetjen will host a virtual/live event with only a few close family members and friends in person.
Please see the information below to help us celebrate Mark.
I hope you can join us. ❤️