Dan Kirby, 1930-2022

By Lola Babalon

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Dan Kirby, 1930-2022
Above, Roberta and Dan, who seems to have had two loves in his life: his 1957 Cessna 182 two-seater propeller plane (below), and his wife, Roberta, who encouraged him to follow his dream. They flew all over the country and sometimes slept under the pane. Quite a love affair.
On August 8, 2022, Topanga lost a longtime local maverick. Samuel Danbourne Kirby, who went on his last big adventure and joined his wife Roberta on the other side. There is an old saying among pilots: “To fly west, my friend, is a flight we all must take for a final check.” Dan was born on Sept. 28, 1930 in Santa Monica. His dad was a traveling salesman and died early of alcoholism. His mom went to work for Douglas Aircraft, then a big industry in Santa Monica. One of Dan’s uncles was a pilot who took him flying at an early age, which later became a longtime passion. At 18 he joined the Navy and served in the East Pacific. Dan was a patriot and felt military service was useful to teach young folks about life. And discipline! After his release from the army Dan considered becoming a firefighter. But then he reconsidered, started to work as a lineman for DWP and did that job for 30 years. When he wasn’t climbing on poles to fix things, he spent much of his time at the beach. Swimming, surfing and diving for abalone. He’d ride his bike, and later motorcycle up the coast to his buddies at Nicholas Canyon beach. By then, his mom had remarried and moved to Old Canyon.
At first Dan didn’t have much luck with the ladies, until he met Roberta, a match made in heaven. She was from the mid-west and a charming, adventuresome traveler. After WWII, she had spent time in post-war Europe and later worked at Yosemite State Park. One thing led to another and the two of them settled in Topanga for the rest of their lives.

Roberta was a teacher at Topanga Elementary. Whole generations of local kids adored her. She’d wear colorful outfits with matching hats, loved freebies, and had an uncanny ability to find them. Her husband also had a pronounced fashion sense, favoring Carhartt’s western wear and aviator caps.

Roberta encouraged him to follow his dream to get a pilot license, and then a 1957 Cessna 182 two-seater propeller plane, which he kept at Santa Monica airport and later in Camarillo. After his retirement from DWP the two of them would take off and fly all over the states, and even into Mexico.

Life was good. They’d sometimes sleep under the plane, or take the “jittney” into town to meet the locals. Roberta was frugal, friendly and could sniff out a senior center for bargain lunches. They chose not to have kids, but Roberta loved the children at school, along with her flock of chickens and Mr. Macho, the rooster. The Kirby’s owned various houses in the canyon, and lived on Colina for many years.

Dan and Roberta were on the board of the Historical Society and had an active social life. She was seven years his senior and died in 2012 at home. In 2007, Dan had a knee operation that went awry and made him dependent on an elbow cane, a.k.a. the “gimpy stick.” This impaired his movements but he never complained about pain. “Nobody likes a whiner,” he’d say.

In 2014 he had a minor accident with his van and decided to give up driving. I was Dan Kirby’s driver from 2014 to 2020. Dan loved going up and down the coast, and say, “Let’s go to Santa Barbara for a beer”.
He loved jazz, oldies, and going places. We went to the Newport Beach Jazzfest, museums, air shows, the LA car show, the Nethercott collection, and Casey’s Tavern.

But first and foremost, we drove to Camarillo airport, where we spent countless hours in a dusty hangar, right next to the landing strip. His beloved Cessna was being overhauled. It got a new engine, propeller, radio, seats, and padding. The complete renovation took over a decade and thousands of hours to accomplish. His partner, Jeff Easom, did the lion’s share, while Dan would shoot the breeze and add his input and expert opinions. These trips included regular stops at Nicholas Canyon Beach, where he remembered times past, chatted with his longtime friend, Sandy, the lifeguard, and we’d watch the sunset.

Dan was a moderate drinker. He’d have Miller Lite and V-8 over ice in summer, and sweet, red wine in winter, buying gallon jugs at the historic San Antonio Winery.

He also loved to eat and buy people lunch, coffee, and ice cream.

But his favorite thing was hatching plans for the next big adventure. In June of 2014 we went on a one-week California tour. Camping up the coast all the way past Napa, then into the mountains and down the 395. Jerry Simer drove Dan’s big Ford pickup with a camper shell on top, while towing his van. I did all the cooking in the camper, slept in my tent and fed them three square meals a day. We had so much fun! I also joined him and Cristy Collins, his full-time caregiver on a trip to Bear Valley to visit his favorite niece. That time we took the van and stayed in motels.

Dan was quite the talker and could chew your ear off, given half a chance. He was apt at starting conversations with strangers by asking a question. And then hijacking their attention to lecture at length on one of his many favorite topics. In later years, he developed dementia, so his stories became more repetitious and circular.

Dan lived to get his plane flying again, which finally happened on Dec. 2, 2020. Getting him into and out of the Cessna was a chore, but it happened. It made him so happy. This triumph gave him a profound feeling of accomplishment and completion. He wished to have his ashes spread from his plane, along the coast.

Two wisdoms I learned about life from him and Roberta. She would hand things over to spirit. “It’s all in the hands of the Lord,” while Dan believed in doing the best you can: “Give it your best shot!”

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