Loreen EliasonSouthern Humboldt lost one of its most colorful and outspoken residents last week, when Riverwood Inn owner Loreen Eliason succumbed to lung cancer. A fourth-generation resident of Humboldt County, she lived a vibrant life that included turns as a record-company secretary, police officer, clothing-store owner, professional whale watcher, bartender, auctioneer, and roadhouse owner.
Born Loreen Laverty at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, she had deep roots in Humboldt County. Her greatgrandparents on her father’s side, the Dourins, were among the founding families of Blue Lake. When a fire on Dec. 5, 1911 swept through the business district, Loreen’s grandmother knocked down the water tower to flood the town. Carl L. Christensen, Jr., the district attorney after whom a span of the Samoa Bridge is named, was her godfather. “Her mother was the secretary to the chief of police, and when she was working late she’d have a police car pick Loreen up from St. Bernard’s,” husband Gary Eliason said with a laugh. Her mother’s side was just as colorful: her grandmother, who lived in Honolulu, counted Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller, and Art Linkletter among her loves, and her great-grandfather was Duke Kahanamoku’s personal physician.
Loreen attended St. Bernard’s Catholic School until third grade, before being “yanked away kicking and screaming to Marin County,” Gary said. After graduating from Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo in 1966, she worked for McGraw-Hill before landing a job with a record producer. It was a fortuitous turn: she met the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they arrived in San Francisco, and befriended a number of legendary musicians during the heyday of rock ’n’ roll — including Huey Lewis and her future roommates, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. “She still has several of Janis’s purses and dresses,” Gary said. “She was a tiny little thing!” “I tried to squeeze into one when I was younger,” Loreen’s daughter Aimee added mischievously.
After leaving the record company, Loreen started inching her way back north in 1970. In Sonoma she met Aimee’s father, “wandering photographer” Robert Ewasko. From there she migrated to Glen Ellen, where she owned a clothing store, Moondance, frequented by the likes of Robin Williams. Perpetually restless, she enrolled in the police academy at Santa Rosa Junior College; after graduating she spent 10 years with the Santa Rosa Police Department as an evidence technician and reserve officer. In 1986 she and Aimee moved to Caspar, on the Mendocino coast, where Loreen worked as a waitress and bartender before buying two local bars. She also fell in love with auctioneering, and after attending the Missouri Auction School, “became Colonel Loreen Laverty,” Gary said with a laugh.
Loreen would go on to serve as an auctioneer for numerous non-profit organizations for the remainder of her life. “If you just promised her a room and a glass of wine, she’d do an auction for any and all,” Aimee recalled. They included the Napa Valley Wine Auction and KCBS Wine Auction, and — once she moved back to Humboldt — a number of events all over the county, including for Heart of the Redwoods Community Hospice.
Known for her passionate letters to local newspapers about a variety of issues, “she was always writing about something or donating money to something,” Aimee recalled with a smile. “Save the wolves, save the whales, Richardson Grove, picking up trash — she hated trash!” Loreen often cleaned up the Avenue of the Giants, and Aimee and Gary plan to adopt a section to keep doing her work. She was also the secretary of Humboldt H.E.R.O., which raises funds for the Sonoma Developmental Center, Eureka HCAR (Humboldt Community Access and Resource), and Special Olympics.
Loreen loved the outdoors — “camping, fishing, whale-watching,” Aimee recalled — and often rode a motorcycle. In 1995, during the County Line Run, she stopped in at the Riverwood Inn and fell in love with it. She and her then-husband, Dick Hamilton, mortgaged everything they had, borrowed some money from her Aunt Peg, and less than a month later bought the inn. Built in 1937, it needed extensive repairs, which Loreen enthusiastically set about to performing. When the marriage ended, she stayed — and apparently, found her true calling. After renovations, she recruited Hector Llamas, whose former wife Carmela owns the eponymous local restaurant chain, to open the El Rio at the Riverwood. Their daughter Lupe now runs the restaurant.
Loreen had a lifelong passion for music, and made the Riverwood one of the premier blues venues in northern California. “We were listening to Sirius XM, and nine out of 10 musicians on ‘B.B. King’s Bluesville’ were people who’ve played here,” Aimee said. They include Candye Kane — who is battling cancer herself — Guitar Shorty, and John Lee Hooker, Jr., among many others. Guitar Shorty has called Loreen every year to sing her “Happy Birthday,” regardless of where he is. Hooker first came to the Riverwood in 2005, and kept returning even after earning two Grammy nominations. Having transitioned to gospel, he no longer performs the blues, but has only great memories of Loreen. “I left the blues for the good news, but while I was in the blues she treated me real good,” he recalled. “She always opened her house to you, fed you, and was like a mother and sister to you.”
Loreen and Gary met in Elk in 1969, but “were always attached to other people,” he said. In 1998, when he came to the Riverwood for the Redwood Run, they finally became a couple. They married in 2000, at the grand opening of the Harley-Davidson dealership in Carson City, on the back of a motorcycle. “Our wedding video is great,” Gary said with a laugh. “There are hundreds of people in it, and when the camera pans out you can see [Hell’s Angels co-founder] Sonny Barger — who had nothing to do with it, but it’s still fun!”
Loreen was warm, but tough. She was proud of running “a tight ship” at the Riverwood: “No trouble with law enforcement or ABC,” Gary explained. “I saw Loreen pick up bikers by the back of their pants if they were giving anyone trouble. … When the Hell’s Angels came, they left their vests outside on their bikes. They know this place is a neutral zone, and they really respected her.” The Riverwood boasts a wide variety of clientele — locals, car tours, motorcycle tours, and tourists on the Avenue — and many people from out of the area have kept returning year after year.
Running the inn will now fall to Gary and Aimee, who has largely followed in her mother’s footsteps. Having grown up on the Mendocino coast, she worked for both the Fort Bragg Police Department and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office before relocating to Southern Humboldt. They will have excellent help from Aimee’s young daughter Cienna, “the light of her [Loreen’s] life,” Aimee said. “She’s a tough act to follow, but I’m going to do my best. And we wear the same size shoes, so the world had better look out!”
Loreen lived life on her own terms, and left on her own terms. She spent her last days reminiscing, listening to the blues, and spending time with family, including two sisters. “She wanted to have ‘Last Call’ engraved on her headstone,” Aimee said. “I think that’s why she waited until late in the evening to go.” That, and she wanted to hear Cienna laugh one more time. Gary was dozing with Loreen when he heard her say, “Gotta go!” Then she slipped away.
“Even in passing, she was a large presence,” Aimee concluded. “She’s not gone. She’s still hanging around here someplace.”
A celebration of life for Loreen Eliason will be held in the spring. In lieu of flowers, Gary and Aimee ask that donations be sent to either Heart of the Redwoods Community Hospice in Garberville or the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.