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Faith to Move Mountains:

Lisa Smith Wengler on Achieving Your Dreams

The Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts at Pepperdine University presents unique and diverse performances and exhibits that “make you laugh, cry, think, wonder and dream,” Managing Director Rebecca Carson tells patrons in the center’s 2021-2022 program directory. The power of the arts to deeply move the human spirit and inspire viewers to “think, wonder and dream” plays an essential role whose importance cannot be understated for many, including the namesake and founder of Pepperdine’s Center for the Arts, Lisa Smith Wengler.

As a child struggling to survive in war-torn Germany, Smith Wengler found solace from her grim circumstances by escaping to the local movie theater.

“I lived by books and movies. In Germany, we saw American movies about California,” recalls Lisa, eyes sparkling as she described her favorite scene—“a girl wearing a shawl and glasses riding in a glamorous car coming down the California Incline with the sun shining and the blue ocean.” Smiling, she shares how she replayed that movie scene in her mind through many years of hardship during her youth.

Early Days

Born in the small town of Bamburg, Germany, to a prominent businessman in the oil and paint industry and his wife, Lisa and her seven siblings were raised Catholic, attending church on Sundays, even after World War II shattered their lives.

Her earliest memories include huddling with her family in the basement while they listened to bombs exploding.

“When the bombing stopped, my brother went to the attic and saw the house next door had burnt down,” Lisa recalls. Shortly after, her father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, passed away, leaving her mother and the family alone.

“All the kids went in different directions; Mom worked as a housekeeper—she’d had a fur coat…” says Lisa, who at 7, was sent to live with an aunt in the country.

“After the bombing, I was shell shocked,” says Lisa. “I kept waiting, hoping maybe my mother would visit me. It was a lonely childhood. There was no love…growing up, alone, struggling for my next meal—I was a skeleton and so scared.” Told that her family had all been killed in the war, Lisa was surprised to learn they were actually still alive when her Godmother called her home for Holy Communion. Despite these hardships and feelings of rejection, sadness and loneliness, Lisa never gave up hope.

“I never made waves,” she says. “I lived in the library—books kept me alive. Even though I didn’t have money to buy a book, I found a way. I wanted to read, I found books. I wanted to eat, I found food,” Lisa says, displaying a determination developed as a child that has served her throughout her life.

Faith in the Future

Lisa credits her will to survive and enduring hope for a brighter future to her belief in a higher power.

“I started reading any Bible I could find, and that gave me hope,” she explains. “I needed to know God will take care of me and that helped me to be strong and believe that a better future is coming.”

At 17, Lisa married an American man she met while babysitting for an American family. They moved to Los Angeles, and by 21, she had two children, and found herself in an abusive marriage.

“I wasn’t safe. I had two kids, no money,” she says, sharing how she once again drew upon her immeasurable will and faith to overcome the odds.

“During my longest days, I just knew God was walking beside me; worried about a job, no car, feeding my kids, I was always strong enough to take care of myself—divorce the abusive husband, get fired from a job and have to find another one,” she says.

Securing an attorney willing to help her pro bono, she learned to speak English and found a bank teller job at Bank of America. Taking the bus to work, she decided to save $20 each month—it was $90 for a babysitter, $110 for rent…

“I decided I needed to make money,” she says.

Lightbulb Moment

As if by divine intervention, Lisa’s life turned a corner at the site of Pepperdine University in its early days. Driving down Pacific Coast Highway one sunny day, Lisa spotted three empty lots that caught her eye.

“There was a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says, adding, “I don’t know where it came from, but after I saw those lots in front of Pepperdine, I thought 'I could build a house'.” True to character, Lisa figured out a way to raise the money for the project, splitting the profits with the bank and earning “enough money to buy my next house.”

“I’m very creative. I had no choice!” says Lisa, whose petite frame houses a huge spirit, making her a force to reckon with—an attribute that contributed to her success in negotiating a land deal with the board of directors at Southern California Savings, as a woman, more than 20 years ago.

Stumbling across an article in The Wall Street Journal about a bank investing in the area “by accident—pay attention when something comes your way,” she advises, Lisa did her homework and secured the life-changing deal.

“I knew what I was talking about; I had my lot plans,” she recalls, noting that the bank manager told her, “You sold me, now you have to sell them.” Presenting at the board meeting, Lisa successfully secured a partnership with the bank to purchase and develop the first three lots at Pepperdine, adding that the deal enabled her to feed her children.

“I prayed a lot,” Lisa laughs, noting she’s sharing her story in hopes of inspiring others who may be struggling against the odds. “If I can do it, you can do it too! Anyone can do it,” Lisa humbly adds.

Joining forces with Pepperdine, Lisa endowed The Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts in 2002 to promote and share the arts, acknowledging their importance in shaping the human experience. As a member of Pepperdine’s President’s University Board, Lisa aims to make a positive impact on others.

“I’ve been so lucky and so fortunate, and so I have to give back,” she says.

Philanthropic Foundation

Committed to helping others in need, Lisa endowed The Lisa Smith Wengler Foundation House in Santa Barbara with the Turner Foundation in July 2021. The Foundation House provides housing and support services for 12 underprivileged youth and two resident assistants while they pursue higher education and a more positive future.

This first-of-its-kind home in Santa Barbara brings hope to youth ages 18 to 24 who may otherwise sleep in their cars or on the street. Many of the youth are aged out of the foster system or are experiencing homelessness. The Turner Foundation works with the YMCA's Youth and Family Services Department to provide case management for the participants; additional services include academic support, employment and financial advising, and a sense of community with weekly house meetings and house events.

“I like what they do,” says Lisa, who hopes these supportive services and a place to call home will help young adults succeed.

Avid in her desire to give back and help others, Lisa continues to help support charitable organizations and good causes. She looks forward to the development of Pepperdine University’s new Switzerland campus, located in an historic chateau.

When it comes to overcoming challenges, Lisa advises, “Keep going; use your intuition. I learned God will run the show. Just keep going. God will take care of you.”

In her free time, Lisa enjoys gardening, reading (her favorite author is W. Somerset Maugham—“the way he describes people”), being near the ocean, and spending time with her loving husband, two sweet dogs Ming and Victoria, friends, and family at her favorite place—home in Malibu. Lovingly filled with treasures from her heart—a fireplace from England, wall-sized art from Germany and a one-of-a-kind stunning stained glass Church window—Lisa’s home reflects her life well-lived. Her life pays tribute to her indomitable faith and trust that God will make a way.

“All along it worked out—God took care of me,” she says. Reflecting on her journey, she feels fortunate to be living the dream.

“The name of Malibu is magic. Malibu presents a fantasy—you make your own fantasy, to me it was,” says Lisa, adding, “I got myself a shawl and re-lived that scene with the car coming down the California Incline.”

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