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GOOD WOOD OXNARD MAN'S CARVINGS DELIGHT ALL AGES.

Byline: Krystn Shrieve Staff Writer

OXNARD - After building weapons systems for the Naval Surface Warfare Systems in Port Hueneme for 22 years, Gene West has spent the last six making things of a more merry nature.

The retired engineer now spends hours in the garage of his Oxnard home transforming scraps of wood into carousels, drums, hobbyhorses and mechanical toys, many of which are taken to disabled and handicapped youngsters throughout Southern California.

``I love seeing the children's faces when they play with the toys,'' said West, 69. ``Children never see these kinds of toys anymore, and they're so fascinated. Today, everything is made out of plastic and is battery-operated.''

West's hobby got its start when he began making toys for his 12 grandchildren. The bottom shelf of a bookcase in his kitchen still displays some of the early treasures - many of them characters from age-old nursery rhymes.

``I went to the library and got a Mother Goose book to inspire me,'' West said, holding up one of his favorites, the paint worn thin after years of play by chubby little hands. ``This one is the little old lady who lives in a shoe. And if you open it up, here are all the children with whom she didn't know what to do.''

One grandson, 7-year-old Gabriel Bagdazian of Santa Paula, said he loves playing with all the homemade toys.

``Once he made a Ferris wheel out of wood, and he put pictures of my cousins and my brothers and me on it,'' Gabriel said. ``It's my favorite because it's got my picture on it.''

For the last six years, West has been showing off his creations to visitors at the Creative Living Building at the Ventura County Fair. This year, he's carved a wooden tower with a spiraling track. As a steel marble makes its way down the track, it trips triggers that ring bells, turn on flashing lights, tilt scaffolding and make musical notes on a xylophone.

``He is locally famous for his mechanical toys,'' said Stephen Case-Pall, president of the Conejo Valley Woodworkers Association, who along with West is also a member of a group called the Channel Islands Carvers.

``The enjoyment people get from them is what motivates him. Gene's a very giving person, it's just his way of life.

``The greatest value in what he does is inspiring someone along the way to take up a piece of wood, work with their hands and accomplish something.''

West has taken his toys to more than 300 toy shows and hands-on demonstrations for schools, libraries, senior centers, Boys & Girls Clubs and Scout troops.

West also makes stops with his toys at the Greater Los Angeles Association for the Deaf and the Association for Retarded Citizens - groups that are close to his heart because he has three children who are deaf, one of whom is also severely developmentally disabled.

He also goes to the Braille Institute, where he teaches people how to make TV trays.

``I started volunteering about five years ago by just bringing them puppet toys,'' West said. ``And then we started making these TV trays that they can cut, drill and assemble. They do all the work themselves - it's amazing.''

In between these activities, West has also spent the last four months doing construction on houses in Ojai and Oxnard as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

It is his involvement in so many activities that recently earned him the Community Craftsman Award and a $5,000 prize from Minwax, a manufacturer of wood finishes and wood-care products.

Despite his unending generosity, West said he'll never sell his creations, because it would make his hobby feel too much like work.

But his work can be seen throughout Ventura County. In 1998, he built a large musical chime for the Early Childhood Development Center at Moorpark College. He has also built items for a historical farm house in Ventura and myriad projects such as reptile cages, optical illusions, musical instruments and mechanical toys for the Gull Wings Children's Museum in Oxnard.

``I don't know what we'd do without Gene,'' said Leana Bowman, executive director of the Gull Wings Children's Museum. ``Even though he's retired, he's probably busier now than ever, but he always manages to fit us in.

``It's amazing the variety of organizations he's involved in. Any one of those in itself is a great accomplishment, but he's able to do so much for all of us. We love him.''

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Photo: (color) Retired engineer Gene West of Oxnard is an accomplished wood carver who specializes in toys for families and disadvantaged youths.

Lexey Swall/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 8, 2000
Words:777
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