Lake Havasu City’s founder Robert P. McCulloch was known as Mr. McCulloch to the community, Bob to many employees and friends, but to his six grandchildren he simply was “RP”. His wife Barbara Ann was “Basie”.
RP and Basie married and had four children, Robert Jr. and Richard were born before World War II, and Mary and Barbara after. The girls remained childless. But the boys have six children.
Three recently talked about their experiences while growing up McCulloch.
“Christmas was a big event at my grandmother’s,” said Michael McCulloch, son of Richard, and grandson of Havasu’s founder. “It was very formal. There was a lot of help that worked for her. It was fun. Both of my grandparents were a lot of fun.”
Dinners were served in a luxurious dining room atop a long table near a big bay window in the McCulloch’s Los Angeles, Calif., home. A second table was set up for the children. It was a replica of the larger one when it came to the lavish setting but without the good china or the bell that summoned the help.
“The grandchildren liked going to her house,” Michael said. “It was like a palace, and we could rough house.”
The three have fond memories of sliding down the back staircase – an idea usually instigated by Michael.
“Basie allowed it but my mother not so much,” said Sheila (McCulloch) Press, daughter of Robert Jr., and granddaughter of Havasu’s founder. “She didn’t love whatever Michael did, but, I did.”
“It was always so much fun and exciting to go to their house,” said Jean McCulloch, daughter of Richard, sister of Michael, and granddaughter of Havasu’s founder. “Their house formerly belonged to Lana Turner, and it was a gorgeous two-story house that sat on the golf course.”
With the family dressed up for Christmas, RP would stroll in about an hour before dinner was served. He’d take off his skinny-brand tie and roll up the sleeves of his white-collared shirt.
All three grandchildren agreed it was RP’s work that most often came first. All three also agreed that it was his sense of humor that left the biggest impression.
“Typically, RP would join the festivities after long hours of work,” Jean said. “A lot of my memories of him are of how nice and funny he was, and how he always teased me when he saw me. He would say: ‘Well, hello Helen, or is it Susie or Sally’?”
“He never called us by our real names, it was always Sally, or Harry or Henry,” Michael said. “We thought it was fun. He’d get us into a little bit of trouble.”
“I can remember as a child, he wasn’t home to go to dinner or watch us play, but when he was there he was like a prankster with his grandchildren,” Sheila said. “He would walk in the room and had pre-decided what old fashioned name he was going to call us. I got a lot of Agnes. We never asked why, it was just his way of being playful … he not only called us old-school names, he would entice us to go looking for him. There was a magical side of how he played with the kids.”
“I knew from a young age that RP and Basie were special and maybe even important,” Jean said.
“I would say this is a man who was very driven by his work, but loved his family,” Sheila said.
Michael said he recalls only once seeing RP in Havasu, and it was during his uncle’s wedding ceremony beneath London Bridge in 1975. Mostly, he’d see RP in California.
“He had two units at the Nautical and I remember being surprised at how nice it was,” Michael said. “He always wore the saddle shoes, and those chino-khaki pants, and yellow socks. He always was dressed nicely but that is what he wore all of the time.’
Michael, as a teen, recalled spending Thanksgivings in RP’s home in Palm Springs, Calif., at the Thunderbird Country Club.
“It was more intimate, more casual,” he said. “We all ate dinner at a round table, not split up like at Christmas … and, he liked to keep the pool warm. It was always heated to 90 degrees.”
Jean recalled RP’s inventions at both the L.A. and Palm Springs homes including a poolside rotating Lazy Susan with built-in lounge chairs to achieve an even tan; and numerous electronics considered quite advanced for the 1950s such as rising beds for easy bed-making, electronic sliding doors and frosted glass that would rise for usage at the bar.
“One time on my birthday, RP flew me and a friend to Disneyland in a helicopter,” Jean said. “I was very young but can still remember how excited I was, and how special I felt. RP’s friend and business partner, C.V. Wood, had designed Main Street at Disneyland.”
Another story Jean recalled was one the family has laughed about again and again.
“My Dad used to laugh about the German Shepherd ‘Frostie’ that was a gift to Basie,” she said. “Frostie was fearful of men, and therefore not welcoming to RP when he would walk unaccompanied into his own house.”
During one of RP’s attempts to enter his own home, Frostie was standing true to conviction. RP tossed pebbles at one of his daughter’s windows to alert her to the situation. The stones broke the window pane, but RP finally was allowed into his house.
RP passed away Feb. 25, 1977, while in L.A. He was 63. Michael was a senior in high school. Jean was 15 years old, and Sheila was 13.
Barbara Ann “Basie” (Briggs) McCulloch was RP’s wife. The couple married a few years following RPs graduation from Stanford University. Her family was of Wisconsin. She was the heir to the Briggs-Stratton fortune and therefore grew up in high society, so to speak. There is very little known about Basie and even less known about her time in Havasu.
“She was quiet and had a good sense of humor,” Michael said. “She would take us to the circus and get us all the little toys.”
All three grandchildren have fond memories of their trips with Basie, whether it to the circus, the Ice Follies or the Ice Capades.
“She would pick us all up,” Sheila said. “She would drive herself when she’d take us on these little adventures. She’d take us out to eat and get us the light up toys, the noisy toys. She always would let us get these because it was something she knew our parents wouldn’t let us have.”
But, spoiling the grandchildren was the furthest thing from Basie’s mind.
“She was very practical,” Sheila said. “She had all of these high-end catalogs and I remember asking her, ‘why do you have all of these catalogs? Are you waiting for something you ordered?’, and she said to me, ‘I can afford to order all of that, but I’m not going to. It’s not being responsible with money. Those are wish and dream books.’”
With Sheila’s mother being raised a Southern Belle, there were rules and etiquette that trumped all. Despite the opulence and servants at RP and Basie’s house, Sheila’s mother insisted she be raised without sense of entitlement and required she learn self-responsibility.
“When my sisters and I and our cousins would swim and spend the night, Basie’s staff would kind of get angry,” Sheila said. “In the morning, we’d already have our beds made, we dressed ourselves, and we went downstairs and were fixing our own breakfast. The others had breakfast in bed.”
Sheila also recalled how she thought it ironic that while her grandfather used his engineering skills to improve the efficiency of the engines of WWII airplanes, her grandmother volunteered full-time driving an ambulance in the L.A. area to shuttle injured soldiers to and from the West Los Angeles VA hospital for their appointments.
Basie also was known to open her large home for fundraising purposes, or for staging charity events.
“It was a mansion,” Sheila said of her grandmother’s L.A. home. “Upstairs, there were four bedrooms and a special room just for sewing for when Basie needed a little alteration. She was pinned in the sewing room and the staff would tailor it. She was dressed impeccably all the time. After RP passed, she dressed a little more casual, you might see her in a lovely pant suit versus a three-quarter length gown or a cocktail gown … She did a lot of volunteering, so she had a practical wardrobe for that type of work, too.”
Both RP and Basie were thought of as very down-to-earth people.
“It was certainly made sure that in my generation none of us were spoiled,” Sheila said. “There was lots of love, but we were taught that because of our social standing we had even more of a responsibility to be good citizens. You take that privilege and make it into goodness that you can share and impact the world. And, that’s very much my grandmother Basie.”
Jean said she also recalls Basie’s parents, Pops and Tato, as being very nice. The Briggs’ were Jean, Michael, and Sheila’s great-grandparents. They lived well into their 90’s and were very much part of the youngsters’ lives.
Basie passed away Oct. 17, 1994, in Bel Air, Calif. She was 79. Michael, Jean and Sheila were in adulthood.
“It’s amazing,” Michael said of McCulloch’s vision of Havasu coming to fruition. “I was in third grade at a small private school in L.A., and I remember a teacher, the principal, and the headmaster tell me: ‘you know, you’re grandfather just bought the London Bridge’ and I said, ‘the one in the song?’”
Michael was 5 years old when he first visited Havasu in 1964. He and his parents stayed at a small apartment at Site Six.
“It was 115 degrees, and my mom was not too thrilled,” he said.
All three McCulloch grandchildren recall the homes at Smoketree and Cliffrose, which were owned by Robert Jr. and Richard. The homes were right next door to one another. It is here they’d stay while visiting Havasu.
“Landing on the island in Lake Havasu for the first time, and feeling the warm air on my face when the plane door opened, was a memory I will never forget,” Jean said. “The lake water was so beautiful and warm, and represented so much fun in the sun.”
Like Michael, the majority of Jean’s memories of RP and Basie were while in L.A. and Palm Springs.
“When I visit Lake Havasu today, I am amazed and impressed by how RP’s numerous visions are prospering today,” Jean said. “When I am on the Lake, and look at the city, I always think that RP would be smiling at how the city has grown, and how the residents have embraced the town. The Havasu residents treat us like celebrities and are always very enthusiastic about the city’s history and my grandfather.”
Last year, Oct. 8, 2015, Michael was awarded the Freedom of the City award in London, England. Michael said the British dignitaries involved told him that it had been overlooked that the award had never been bestowed on Robert P. McCulloch. On that note, it was presented to Michael in his honor.
“It was a tremendous honor,” Michael said.
Sheila recalls spending lots of time on her grandfather’s planes to and from Havasu because her father was very involved with McCulloch Properties, Inc.’s chainsaw division.
“I have a real sense of coming home,” Sheila said of visiting Havasu nowadays. “At the same time, pride is not a great enough word … it just felt like, it’s pretty cool, if it weren’t for my grandfather. Now, look at the city. It’s grown and businesses are investing, and it’s the continued success of the city.”
There was something that RP inspired in others, so they’d take a chance on themselves, on the prospect of a life in this desert city, that Sheila still looks for in the faces of Havasu’s residents.
“When I see it, it’s very interesting,” she said. “I try not to use my maiden name at all when I’m in Havasu. I want to interact with the community as a tourist, feeling that warmth, that sense of family that I felt as a kid. It’s still there … It’s amazing to me it’s still there. How many people in the old days, how many held onto that kernel, or that little seed, that my grandfather, the genius, helped to plant so long ago. It’s humbling but fills me with pride.”
Such a great article – so many of us here are transplants and aren’t as familiar with the early days. It’s so great to hear more about this amazing family. Thank you for the story!
What a great story. It is such a wonderful place to visit. Thank you RP. Your legend lives on strong!
Such a great article here I feel inspired to share a little of what is was to grow alongside the McCulloch family. I worked in the lab. RPM Industries. That is where we retooled the Palm Springs house and the Bel Aire house. I was personally responsible to repair the lazy susan lounge in Bel Air. No one wanted to touch it as it was from the 50’s and they said it couldn’t be repaired. We were not allowed to accept never for an answer so I restored that relic and it was amazing to see the engineering for a one of a kind project.
With the extreme heat of Palm Springs in the summer we would get a call from security stating the drapes and doors were alive. They were fashioned to coordinate automatically to open and close shading the windows from the sun and the relay system would start firing at whim. I worked alongside Alan Bell and Ollie Heck. Alan was handpicked from the engineers in Milwaukee and he would tell stories about working with Henry Ford. We were the research and development side of the business and RP was next door to Jim Caron cranking out ideas for new endeavors to put into production. The property that the RPM Ind. was on was an arrangement with Howard Hughes. RP was the last of the famous industrialists. It was exciting to be part of that lab. I remember RP’s office and the elephant tusk across the back desk. Cheetah skinned chairs and red rawhide walls in the bathroom. Everything so exotic.