By Emily Rasmussen
If you spent time in one of San Juan Capistrano’s favorite watering holes and eateries, you more than likely shook the hand of Stephen Armond Nordeck.
Born Sept. 26, 1941, Nordeck died at age 76 of cancer on Monday morning, June 25. Nordeck was a staple of the San Juan Capistrano community, a longtime resident and business owner, known in town for his philanthropy and involvement in San Juan’s business and equestrian communities.
Nordeck, who also served as the 2017 grand marshal of the 59th annual Swallows Day Parade, was the managing owner of the Swallow’s Inn for 25-plus years and the managing owner of El Adobe de Capistrano for 15 years, and a managing partner of Mission Promenade for 24 years. Nordeck was also a riding member of El Viaje de Portola since 1989.
A graduate of Loyola Marymount with a degree in business, as well as obtaining his master’s degree from the University of Southern California School of Business, Nordeck was elected to the Manhattan Beach City Council and also served as mayor.
Nordeck first visited Mission San Juan Capistrano with his parents more than 60 years ago and later moved south for the cowboy lifestyle. Nordeck became legendary for taking historic landmarks, making them earthquake safe, while preserving their authenticity.
A resident of San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Mission Viejo and Coto de Caza since 1984, Nordeck was passionate about his horses, golf and USC’s Trojan football team. Most of all, Nordeck cherished the time spent with his niece, nephew and their children.
Nordeck will be dearly missed by his extended family and friends, including: Karin Hollway, beloved partner; sister Vicki Panko and brother-in-law Pat; niece and family, Samantha and John Buchanan; nephew and family, Patrick (L.P.) and Elizabeth; grandnephews, Braden Nordeck Buchanan, Tate Edmund Buchanan, Patrick Stephen Panko; grandniece Catherine Isabella Panko; cousins Richard Alter, Melinda Garroway, Shannon Alter Yerkes and Dori Nordeck.
When speaking to Nordeck’s peers in the San Juan Capistrano community, many retain the sentiment that although he seemed rough around the edges, his heart was made of gold.
“(Nordeck) was a little rough on the outside, but very soft on the inside. He was sometimes misrepresented by his outward personality, his demeanor could be scary at times to certain people,” said Cal Grimes, general manager for Swallow’s Inn. “But once you sat down and talked with him, you saw past the hard shell and had a soft heart, very caring and very giving.”
Grimes, who began working at Swallow’s Inn in 1994, said overtime he became Nordeck’s “right-hand man.” Nordeck, Grimes said, kept his word to the former owner that he would keep the bar as it has always been and Nordeck kept his word—as he did with most everything.
“If he gave you his word on something, he kept that word,” Grimes said. “He wanted to always have his hands on, even though his services weren’t always needed. So a lot of the times, when we were really busy, the bar area’s not very big. Maybe for two bartenders. When we got busy, he’d jump back there and help us and wash dishes. So we’d be packed on a Friday or Saturday night, we’d be in the midst of a big rush slinging drinks and ringing stuff up, he’d feel the need to come back and help.”
Grimes added that Nordeck wasn’t involved on-the-ground just behind the bar, but within the bar.
“A lot of people came into the bar (on June 25) just to reminisce and the look on people’s faces were of shock. Just because knowing Steve, how he was and how strong he was, how healthy he appeared, all of a sudden he’s not here anymore—if he wasn’t in the office doing paperwork or checking email, he’d be socializing with patrons and getting to know them; exchanging stories and life experiences.”
Nordeck had been battling cancer for the past eight months and although he wasn’t physically in the community, he still contributed to it, including bringing the Chili Cook Off back.
Grimes added, “Now to come in knowing you’re not going to see him with a half-glass of wine and a good story, it’s still sinking in. There’s like a big void when you walk in now. Even though he hasn’t been around for eight months, it’s the thought that he won’t be here anymore, it’s tough to accept right now.”
Grimes said that he plans to continue the Chili Cook Off as one of Nordeck’s legacies.
Grimes said that Nordeck died in his sleep, with family in his home in Rancho Mission Viejo.
Jim Taylor, president of the Fiesta Association, echoed Grimes and said that Nordeck’s death has left a hole in San Juan Capistrano.
“Whenever we ran into a situation where Steve Nordeck was able to help, he always said yes,” Taylor said on the Swallows Day Parade. “If I wanted to use his parking lot for TV crews, or put TV cameras on top of Swallows he always said ‘no problem, here’s a ladder.’”
Taylor said that the Fiesta Association feels that they’ve lost a family member.
“He had a big heart, maybe some people didn’t realize that,” Taylor said. “When I first met him I didn’t know who he was, he was just a nice man who shook my hand. I was impressed that the guy who ran the El Adobe and the Swallow’s Inn took the time to say hi to me, of course he said hi to everyone, but I still felt special.”
Taylor said that the Fiesta Association will be honoring Nordeck at the 2019 Swallows Day Parade with an empty saddle for him and Fiesta Association member James Valgean, who also died of cancer this year.
“When (Nordeck) passed, it felt like we’ve been punched in the stomach. We’ve had two deaths in the past few months, so all I can really say is ‘F’ cancer,” Taylor said. “There is a big hole in San Juan right now and it’s going to be tough to fill that.”
Nordeck’s kind heart and generous spirit will be missed. The Funeral Mass will be celebrated at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano at 11 a.m. on Friday, June 29.
In lieu of flowers, Nordeck’s family encourages contributions to: Heart of Jesus Retreat Center, 2927 South Greenville, Santa Ana, CA; City of Hope (Attn: Cheryl Sannes), 1500 E. Duarte Rd., Duarte, CA (note: gift to City of Hope in support of Dr. Joseph Chao.) Please write “in honor of Stephen Nordeck” in the memo on the check. Online donations can be made at www.cityofhope.org/donate.