It’s safe to say that anyone who met Judge Richard Egan never forgot him.
Soon after Helena Modjeska was introduced to him, in fact, the Polish actress living in the canyons dubbed Egan “The King of Capistrano.”
Others saw him as the town’s alcalde, for he fulfilled the duties of mayor, judge and chief dignitary traditional to that title.
Tall and courtly, Egan had been born in Ireland but served as a blockade runner for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Afterward, he sought out a place of quiet and found it in the little town of San Juan Capistrano.
Stories abound of how Egan supervised the repair of the mission, organized the local school system and even commandeered a stagecoach threatened by bandits.
But these were told by adults.
A different side of Judge Egan can be found in the childhood impressions of Jerome O. Baumgartner, a grandson of cattle baron Richard O’Neill, in the 1989 book, “Santa Margarita Remembered.”
“Whenever the family went into San Juan Capistrano,” Baumgartner began, “we’d always stop at Judge Egan’s house.”
At the time, Egan was in his early to mid-70s.
“I remember him as a very dignified man in a scruffy sort of way. He had white hair that was always longer than most people’s, as if he’d forgotten to get a haircut, (and) a well-trimmed Vandyke (beard) that gave him an air of dignity.
“To me he looked like a character from Huckleberry Finn. He wore an old rumpled brown suit with a white shirt and vest with a big gold watch chain and a mother-of-pearl watch fob hanging out of one pocket. He lived in a red brick house on the main street of San Juan Capistrano. Judge Egan’s house was his office, too. That’s where he held court. He (also) was the telegraph operator for Capistrano.”
In those days the telegraph was cutting edge, and Egan’s operation of it impressed his guests, as did his ability – in modern terms – to multitask.
“We’d sit out on the wooden porch at the front of his house and the adults would talk and I’d listen to the telegraph key clicking in his office. Apparently he could carry on a conversation while keeping one ear on the clicking coming out the window, because sometimes he’d stop in mid-sentence and listen to the telegraph. Then he’d excuse himself and go inside and tap out a reply. When done he’d come out, sit back down in his rocking chair, and continue his sentence just where he’d left off. That used to amaze the adults and they’d always talk about it on the way back to the ranch.”
In addition to his mastery of contemporary technology, Egan appreciated America’s newest form of transportation.
“The main highway ran through Capistrano in those days. On weekends many people would drive down to Tijuana and Judge Egan would count all the cars from his front porch and, whenever we’d visit, he’d always give us the previous weekend’s car tally.”
This last remembrance is especially apt, for beginning in 1910, Egan served on the commission that paved all major county roads. It was Egan’s final public service; he died in 1923, age 81.
Janet Whitcomb is a lifelong resident of Orange County, and has lived in Rancho Santa Margarita for 20 years. Do you know of an old story you want Janet to pursue? Email email@example.com with details.