It's been more than 50 years, but Mike Novich still can recall the day he met Vincent VanDetta at the Covina Plunge. "I was a little kid drowning in the deep end of the pool when this big, burly guy rescued me and gently told me to go to the shallow end of the pool, where I could be safe," Novich recalls. "From that day on, Vincent was my hero."
VanDetta was aquatic director for the giant swimming pool complex in the San Gabriel Valley city of Covina. Over the next two decades, he became Novich's mentor and boss as Novich learned to swim, competed in swim meets and became a lifeguard at, naturally, the Plunge.
"Those summers at the Plunge were the best times of my life," Novich, 59, tells the Weekly. "And Vincent was the man who made it all possible, for me and thousands of kids. He was there every day, from before dawn to well after dusk."
But VanDetta isn't the guy whose name is plastered on the swimming complex today. That honor belongs to someone who had far less impact on Novich and the thousands of other kids who learned to swim at the Plunge. L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich may not be an aquatic enthusiast, but he controls the purse strings. And apparently that's what matters when it comes to naming rights.
Novich learned that the hard way. A few years ago, he took a sentimental journey back to the Plunge. As he walked up to the familiar scene of crowded locker rooms and excited kids running around in swimsuits, Novich did a double take: There was a new sign in front of the Plunge, reading "MICHAEL NOVICH AQUATIC CENTER."
Novich couldn't believe the Plunge had been named after him. "I worked there for a lot of years, but if anybody deserved that honor, it was Vincent. He devoted the prime of his life to teaching thousands of kids how to swim."
It was only when the former lifeguard got closer that he realized the truth was even stranger: A palm frond had obscured part of the sign. The Plunge had actually been named after Antonovich, someone who had not devoted even one day of his life to the Plunge or the kids who flocked there every summer.
Novich's first thought: "Someone else had taken credit for my old boss's work and dreams."
That someone else turned out to be a powerful politician with no sense of shame, an ego bigger than Santa Monica Bay and a multimillion-dollar "discretionary fund" — more than $3 million in taxpayer dollars — to spend as he sees fit without any oversight or accountability.
In this case, Antonovich had given $150,000 to renovate the Plunge's locker rooms. The 1996 resolution by the Covina City Council to rename the Plunge says it was done in recognition of the support Antonovich gave to the city's recreational programs.
What the resolution doesn't say is what one senior city official tells the Weekly: that Antonovich's staff made it clear he expected the Plunge to be renamed for him once he gave the $150,000 from his discretionary funds.
"It was pretty overt," the city official says. "They didn't try to hide what he wanted."
The city official, who was granted anonymity because he fears retribution, was shocked by the brazen nature of the quid pro quo.
"I think it's unethical the way he goes around putting his name on everything he can, but I guess that's the way they do business in the county offices," the official says.
Antonovich refused to discuss the matter with the Weekly. But his spokesman, Tony Bell, says neither Antonovich nor his staff made any request to have the Plunge named after him.
"There was no such arrangement. Our office doesn't do that," Bell says. "In fact, Mike always says no whenever someone wants to name something after him."
Asked why Covina and so many other cities and civic groups would ignore Antonovich's requests not to be honored, Bell says, "I don't know. You'll have to ask them."
Antonovich, who represents the Fifth District, has his name on everything from the $109 million Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse to the 2,326-acre Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park at Joughin Ranch to the 500-acre Michael D. Antonovich Open Space Preserve in the Santa Clarita Woodlands. He even has a San Dimas hiking trail named after him.
In his 32 years in office, Antonovich has become Southern California's king of Monuments to Me, but he's not alone. Taxpayer groups call such monument building the "edifice complex," and the five-member Board of Supervisors has the worst case of it of any elected group in Los Angeles.
There's the Gloria Molina–Para Los Niños Child Development Center, the Mark Ridley-Thomas Constituent Service Center, the Don Knabe Pediatric Program at Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center and the Zev Yaroslavsky Las Virgines Highlands Park.
Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad also likes to put his name on as many buildings as possible — but at least he's using his own money.
As for Antonovich, his self-aggrandizing drive doesn't manifest itself only in memorials. He's also interested in extending his power. In office since 1980, he's set to be termed out in 2016 — but last month he proposed that voters be given a chance to allow supervisors five terms in office, not just three.
It was sneaky. Antonovich's resolution made it sound like term limits would be imposed for the first time, not expanded to allow 20 years in office instead of 12. It also was self-serving: It would allow him to serve two more terms.
His colleagues weren't persuaded. Zev Yaroslavsky, who denounced the resolution, cast the only vote against it. While Antonovich and Don Knabe voted for it, it failed to pass because it lacked the necessary third vote. Both Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina abstained, not taking a stand either way.
Then there is the chairmanship of the supervisory board, which rotates among its members. When it's his turn, Antonovich insists on calling himself the "Mayor of Los Angeles County" — even as the other four members have declined to adopt that title.
On a perfect summer evening in Covina, far from the machinations of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Covina added VanDetta's name to its wall of honor last month. The city recognized his long service at the Plunge from 1949 to 1973 — minus two years off for military service — with a small plaque surrounded by many other small plaques.
Less than 50 yards away was the much bigger, stand-alone sign heralding the Plunge as the Michael D. Antonovich Aquatic Center. "It should have been the Vincent VanDetta Aquatic Center," says Novich, who attended the ceremony and posed for pictures with his hero. "But all Vince had to give was his life's work. He didn't have a discretionary fund."
After the short ceremony, VanDetta, who turns 80 on Aug. 19 and is still trim, thanks to his daily, mile-long swim, said he was happy to be honored by the city he served for so long. And he was philosophical about the Plunge being named for someone else.
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"Life is not always fair," he said. "The important thing is the kids got the new locker rooms."
The only day VanDetta ever missed work at the Plunge, Novich recalls, was the day in 1962 when his daughter, Alison, was born. Today, Alison Siewert is a Presbyterian minister who views Antonovich's hubris in biblical terms.
"There's a story in 1 Samuel about Saul, Israel's first king. He never feels important enough and is constantly trying to puff himself up in front of his people," she says. "You'd think, he's the king; what more affirmation does he need than that? But at the end of his reign he goes out and makes a monument to himself. Samuel the prophet confronts him and says, 'You are small in your own eyes.' "
Reach the writer at email@example.com.