Thursday, September 28, 2023

Obituary: Kim Walker – Spa Industry Pioneer 1930-2013

“A beautiful woman with the most incredible soul. She taught me so much throughout my life … A love of the ocean, of mermaids, and of all things magical. She would play with my hair, laugh with me, and tell me stories.”

Kim Walker

(Rosabella Elizabeth Torell)


CORONADO – Such are the tributes flowing in from family and friends of Kim Walker. She passed away December 12 after a long battle with lymphoma, in her home, surrounded by family. She was 83.

“Kim” was born Rosabella Elizabeth Torell on July 20, 1930, in Los Angeles, as the youngest of three children to Carl and Julia Torell.

Her parents were Scandinavian – he from Sweden, she from Norway. Her father built movie sets and her mother was a successful seamstress. He built the movie sets for “The Ten Commandments.” He helped construct Howard Hughes’ enormous wooden airplane – the Spruce Goose. Hughes would make it a point to greet him every morning and shake his hand. This, in itself, might not sound so incredible until you realize that both of Kim’s parents were deaf, from a flu epidemic in their youth. Hughes too, was practically deaf, also from childhood exposure to the flu.

Kim was blessed with unusual energy and enthusiasm towards everything she did. At an early age she met and married Richard Chaffee. At that time, Olympic skater and movie star Sonja Henie captivated children across the country. Her movies inspired many young girls to learn to take to the ice. Kim took that to another level. She was good enough to join the Ice Follies, and toured with them for a short time.

Kim divorced in 1965 and moved to Seattle. She married Ted Walker in 1966. Together they started a massage and spa business – International Spa. They were on the cutting edge of this new industry, but threw themselves into the business, eventually owning a chain of health spas throughout the Seattle and Los Angeles areas catering to the military and eventually high-end businessmen.

Two years later they started the Los Angeles College of Massage, teaching the trade to young people interested in this rapidly growing business. In 1970 they moved to San Diego where they eventually established another L.A. College of Massage, and opened a small chain of spas.

“My mother was driven,” said daughter Sky Chaffee. “She had incredible energy, she threw herself into her work, but she had this wonderful business sense too. And most of all, she had a heart of gold.”

As the business grew and grew, Kim began to acquire property along the way. The college was located on property in Hillcrest, purchased by their corporation. A small spa continues to operate there today.

“My mother loved the ocean,” said daughter Sky. “She always told me as a young child that we would one day live on the ocean. In 1971 she made good on that promise by purchasing a condo on the beach in Coronado, which became her final home.”

Kim, left, with her daughter Sky and Kim’s Basenji.

In the large glass corner of her condo, facing the setting sun each day, sits a large, glass sculpture of a mermaid. It was originally commissioned for Liberace, but he thought the breasts were too large, as the family stories go. Kim didn’t blink. She quickly purchased the piece of art, and it remains a visual presence in her home, becoming the ultimate conversation piece for visiting guests and friends. She had a fascination for mermaids, the sea and all the magic that folklore that went with that legend.

Often, Kim and her nieces could often be found sitting next to the mermaid, looking down with their binoculars at members of the elite SEAL Team running the beach. She was a lovely woman with a sensuality and curiosity that never faded.

Born in the Great Depression; A student of the school of hard knocks; But Kim Walker greeted every challenge with a smile and an undeniable work ethic. She laughed in the face of every test. Her entrepreneurial spirit soared in the spa industry, and humor was her constant companion. No matter what the current crisis, she would always say, “It’s no big deal. Don’t take it so seriously.”

In Coronado, her passion was movies at the local theatre and dinner at her two favorite restaurants – Miguel’s Cocina and the Brigantine. One of her weaknesses was fish tacos, said her daughter. The other was her constant companion this past 19 years, Tiki a Siamese cat. Kim insisted that Tiki be allowed to live out his final days in her condo.

Kim is survived by her daughter, Sky Chaffee, and first husband, Richard Chaffee, both of Coronado. Two grandsons also survive her – Chris Pickford (Wendy), and Eric Pickford, both of Coronado, and three great grandchildren. Her second husband, Ted Walker, and her son Mark Chaffee predecease her.

A Celebration of Life will be held Sunday, January 5, from 1-2 p.m. at her home, followed by a scattering of ashes in the Pacific Ocean. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Special Olympics, in memory of Kim Walker.

Friends wishing to attend the Celebration of Life are asked to R.S.V.P. with Sky Chaffee at (619) 435-8550.

Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover "Coronado Storyteller." To find out more, write or call [email protected], or (619) 742-1034.