Meeting while wrapping Christmas presents changed the lives of Bette Robb and Wylie Aitken
Who would imagine that a part-time job wrapping Christmas presents at the Robert Hall Clothes store in Santa Ana would be the place where Wylie Aitken would meet Bette Robb? With Wylie a freshman at Santa Ana College (SAC) and Bette a senior at Bolsa Grande High School in Huntington Beach, the spark was lit.
They began dating, with Wylie taking Bette to her senior prom and other social activities, and when she joined him at SAC after graduating, he escorted her to homecoming in his cheerleading outfit (“I sure couldn’t play football,” claims Wylie) when she was a homecoming princess.
Gaining the Robb family trust was not an easy thing for Wylie.
“My family were strict Presbyterians, with my father an elder in the church and my grandfather a minister,” Bette says.
“They were a little suspicious of Bette dating a Roman Catholic, and I had to go through an interview process to date her,” Wylie recalls. “In the end, her parents were terrific. I think my Irish charm and personality overwhelmed them,” he jokingly adds.
With the connection made, after Bette received her Associate of Arts degree from SAC, she went to Orange County State University (now Cal State Fullerton), and by this time, Wylie had left OC State to pursue his dream to be a trial lawyer in Milwaukee.
Both Wylie and Bette came from families of modest means. Bette, the youngest of four children to her educator father and homemaker mother, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Wylie, the fourth of six children, was born in Detroit, moved to Chicago when he was two and spent the third through the eighth grade in Wichita, Kansas, where he says he experienced his “Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn” years. His father, an engineer in tool design and his stay-at-home mother let him roam the cornfields, streams, parks and swimming holes.
“It was an idyllic childhood,” he says.
Ironically, both families arrived in California in 1955, with Bette and Wylie attending Garden Grove High School for one year, though never meeting.
Fast forward to 1962, when Wylie received a three-year scholarship to Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he received his law degree in 1965, graduating at a young 23.
While Wylie was at Marquette, Bette worked part-time at the Disneyland Hotel as a switchboard operator and as a billing agent for New York Life Insurance Company. After one year in law school, the two were married in 1963 in a small family ceremony in Dana Point at a judge’s modest home. Their honeymoon was a weekend in Big Bear.
“It’s all we could afford,” Wylie says.
“I loved him so much,” Bette says. “He was so bright. I knew we would have a very good gene pool for having children.”
“I was in love with her,” Wylie says. “She was special. It was an adventuresome time for us.”
Bette stayed in Orange County until the next year, and then joined Wylie in Milwaukee for his last year in law school. Their first child, Darren, was born in 1964 in OC.
After graduation, the happily married couple and son returned to Orange County and rented a house on Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana, with Wylie hired as a law clerk by Adams, Hunt & Martin while studying for the bar.
“Vern Hunt was a prominent lawyer, and I was lucky to have him as my mentor,” Wylie says.
To help ends meet, Bette taught early elementary education as a substitute teacher for several years before devoting her attention full-time to their young family.
In 1969, Wylie and John Bradshaw borrowed $15,000 from Bank of America and opened their own law firm–Aitken and Bradshaw, with Wylie later establishing Aitken* Aitken* Cohn Law Firm in 2011.
Wylie’s business success story is impressive. He credits some significant cases for his success, among them the five-year-old Laura Small/mountain lion attack case in Caspers Park in 1991, and two Disneyland cases involving the 1998 death of a young father and mutilated mother from a malfunction on the Sailing Ship Columbia and a young boy severely injured on Big Thunder Mountain.
“I was blessed because it allowed me to take on some terrific causes for clients that I was passionate about,” Wylie states, “and if I won, I got paid.”
As the law company grew and prospered, the Aitken children–Darren, Christopher (born in 1969) and Ashleigh (born in 1975)–joined the law firm. And, as it turned out, their wives (Laurie–Darren’s spouse, Maureen–Christopher’s spouse, and Michael Penn–Ashleigh’s spouse) are lawyers as well.
Wylie is a nationally-recognized trial lawyer and has received a myriad of honors, too many to mention here. However, listed as one of the “Top 100” lawyers in California and one of the “Top 30” plaintiff lawyers by the Daily Journal in a state of 264,074 practicing attorneys are two for which he is most proud. Appointed by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown to serve a four-year term on the California Arts Council, finishing in 2015 as chair, was another.
The Aitken story took a new turn when the young couple began their journey into philanthropy.
“We were always passionate about the arts,” Wylie says. “Bette loved music and Broadway, and I loved theatre, having aspired at one time to be an actor. So, we got involved.”
Getting involved is putting it mildly–not only making major monetary commitments, but giving of their time. Their arts support began with the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now Segerstrom Center for the Arts) as significant donors for its 1986 opening, where Wylie is a trustee and Bette is an Angels of the Arts member. Long-time South Coast Repertory subscribers, Wylie was board chair and Bette was a two-time gala chair and co-chair of the 50th anniversary gala. Wylie serves on the Marquette University Law School’s President’s Council and Advisory Board, and both of them supported Cal State Fullerton. Most recently, the couple supports The Chance Theatre, which houses the Bette Aitken theater arts Center in Anaheim.
Education is another passion for this erudite couple. “The Muzeo” Anaheim Historical Museum, with Bette the 2006 founding gala chair and board member, is one, as is Chapman University, where Wylie is board of trustees chair and the two have chaired on two occasions the scholarship fundraiser Chapman Celebrates. Bette was committee co-chair for the opening of Chapman’s Musco Center for the Arts, and the Bette and Wylie Aitken Arts Plaza is named in their honor.
Other Aitken philanthropic endeavors involve the PBS Masterpiece Trust, Laura’s House, Aitken Family Protection Center, Susan G. Komen, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation and American Film Institute, among others.
In closing, it seems this predestined couple, now married 54 years, is very happy with their lives.
“We’re both very independent and strong-willed, but it works,” says Bette. “In the final analysis, we are always able to work out a compromise,” to which Wylie quips with a twinkle in his eye, “I say, ‘yes, dear.’”
There is no dissension here. Clearly, the love showing on their faces for one another says it all.
And, I’ll bet they can both wrap Christmas gifts to beat the band!