Longtime Carlsbad volunteers Susan Gutierrez, Germán Gutierrez and Bob Nielsen have been named Carlsbad Citizens of the Year. The annual award recognizes community members who have dedicated themselves to improving Carlsbad through outstanding service.
The Citizen of the Year program is more than 40 years old and honors community members who have given their time and energy toward the civic improvement, beautification and betterment of the City of Carlsbad. This year’s honorees, selected by a committee of Carlsbad residents, will be recognized during a ceremony at 4 p.m. on July 10 in the Council Chamber at Carlsbad City Hall, 1200 Carlsbad Village Drive. The public is invited to attend.
Bob Nielsen has been a tireless advocate for Carlsbad Village for decades, pioneering efforts to rehabilitate historic downtown Carlsbad well before it became an established cause. In the 1980s Nielsen and Carlsbad Journal Publisher Archie Hicks formed a downtown merchants committee to help root out such unsavory businesses as dive bars and tattoo parlors and attract businesses that were family friendly.
Nielsen’s downtown activism attracted notice, and soon he was involved in causes that spilled into the city at large. He was one of the first members of the Downtown Redevelopment Committee, which evolved into the City Housing & Redevelopment Advisory Committee in the 1980s. Nielsen later served on the Planning Commission in the ’80s and ’90s and advocated for developing LEGOLAND in the ’90s. Nielsen recalled that while he was on the Planning Commission, the panel approved development of ViaSat, a global communications company that today is Carlsbad’s largest employer.
Nielsen helped establish a downtown village fair in the early ’80s to showcase downtown merchants and lure people into the Village, and was recognized by the late Mayor Bud Lewis for his efforts.
One of Nielsen’s early community projects involved a relatively simple initiative – staging a Fourth of July fireworks display. Nielsen helped spearhead a “Big Bang Committee” that held a barbecue every year to raise money for the celebration. Nielsen worked on the fireworks display with former Carlsbad Parks Director Dave Bradstreet, whom he later approached with another idea – a Christmas Tree lighting in downtown Rotary Park, which was initiated in 1984. Nielsen’s favorite memory of that project was the time the tree died and turned brown before the lighting ceremony. He and Bradstreet solved that problem by painting the tree green.
“That made national news,” Nielsen recalled.
Nielsen’s activism and dedication caught the eye of the Rotary Club of Carlsbad, which tried to recruit him as a member. Nielsen declined to join on the grounds he had no time for another endeavor, as he was involved with his real estate/property management business and volunteer work. Nielsen eventually joined Rotary in 1993 when the club agreed to take on the holiday tree lighting as a community project.
Nielsen’s involvement in Rotary led to him being named Rotarian of the Year in 1995-96, and president in 1998-99. The Rotarian president gets to select a special cause, and Nielsen chose a microbanking project that helps women in Third World countries start and operate small businesses to support their families.
“Some of them became quite successful,” Nielsen said.
Closer to home, Nielsen has long supported Brother Benno’s, a nondenominational charity that has served the poor and homeless in San Diego’s North County for 35 years. Brother Benno’s began as a soup kitchen, but it now provides a wide array of services to help the poor. The Rotary Club has donated thousands of dollars to Brother Benno’s, and Nielsen would make matching grants to add to individual donations.
Nielsen and his wife, Elaine, are also founding members of the Carlsbad Charitable Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has granted more than $760,000 to needy causes in Carlsbad.
Susan and Germán Gutierrez
Susan and Germán Gutierrez have taken their love of community, history and literacy to a higher level, serving for the past 25 years as volunteers on nonprofit and civic programs that benefit Carlsbad residents and teach them about Carlsbad’s storied past.
Germán and Susan have served together on the Carlsbad Historical Society and Friends of the Carlsbad Library, and have served separately on the Historic Preservation Commission. In addition, both serve the city’s youth – Germán by tutoring at the Carlsbad City Library Learning Center, and Susan by serving on the Juvenile Justice Panel and writing about Carlsbad history.
Susan has authored or co-authored four books on Carlsbad history, including “Windows on the Past,” which was released in 2002 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. She and Ann L’Heureux cowrote two children’s books on Carlsbad history that feature a cat named Beckett: “Beckett Explores Carlsbad's Past” and “Beckett Walks Through Carlsbad History.”
Susan and Germán jointly edited and compiled a book filled with local recipes, “A Taste of Carlsbad’s Past,” that explores Carlsbad’s agricultural past, from its early days when sprawling ranchos ruled the day to its more recent period as a flower center.
Both Susan and Germán have served at various times on the Carlsbad Historical Preservation Commission, a group that advises the Planning Commission and City Council on identifying, protecting and preserving historic areas and architectural sites in the city.
They are also active members of the Friends of Carlsbad Library, a nonprofit, volunteer organization that raises funds to support Carlsbad City Library programs. The Friends operate bookstores at the Carlsbad City Library on Dove Lane and the Georgina Cole Library on Carlsbad Village Drive, and host a storefront on eBay. The Friends have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the library over the years to support educational programs, events and technology.
Germán, an electrical engineer by profession, tutors children at the Carlsbad City Library Learning Center, teaching reading and math. He uses his bilingual skills to assist children who are not yet literate in English by helping them translate word problems, so they can do the math. German also assists adults with computer literacy.
Susan is also active with the city’s Juvenile Justice Program, a Police Department initiative that provides intervention and diversion for first-time offenders as an alternative to the formal juvenile criminal justice system. The citizens panel works closely with police and community leaders to hear cases and make recommendations. Offenders must complete their program successfully to erase their record.
The couple is pleased that the Citizens of the Year award is being given to them jointly, because they’ve worked together on so many projects.
Susan said that many people don’t volunteer because they believe they don’t have time, but she views it differently.
“I don’t feel volunteering is taking away anything,” she said. “I feel like it’s a great opportunity. You meet interesting people, you do interesting things and I always feel like I’m getting more out of the experience than I’m giving.”