Summer in town: Monrovia’s Welcome Wagon – won’t you be my neighbor
By Susie Ling
If you’ve moved to Monrovia after 2003, you may know about Monrovia’s unique Welcome Wagon. Over the last fifteen years, John Watson and Hal Leavens collate information packets and plan their driving itinerary to go say “welcome neighbor” to new homeowners. They visit about three dozen homes each time, 15 times per year, for 15 years. That’s about 10,000 doors for the Welcome Wagon.
The John and Hal partnership is quite special. They exude love for Monrovia and Monrovians. John said, “We have no goals. We are not sponsored by any group. We just want our neighbors to appreciate the unique qualities of Monrovia. We just want to say hello.” Hal and John, 84 and 81 years young respectively, are involved in a lot of community efforts and they can answer questions ranging from Monrovia’s water source to the history of the Monrovia airport. While working on his yard one day, John’s neighbor joked, “It’s about time you put a little work on your home.” John answered, “This is just my house; Monrovia is my home.”
John moved to Monrovia in 1989. Born in rural Kansas, John was selling trucks parts and had gotten into competitive dancing as a hobby. He met another competitive dancer, and it was this bride, Katie, that brought him to Monrovia. John and Katie have been teaching ballroom and swing dancing for years. They were also co-presidents of Monrovia Historic Preservation Group (MOHPG) in the 1990s. It was in January 2003 that John and Katie thought to visit new homeowners to encourage the protection of Monrovia’s architectural heritage. But Katie often had to work on Saturdays at the hospital, so John needed a new partner.
John chose Hal, a 42-year veteran salesman that can talk to just about anybody. Hal said, “I was born in Boston. My Northeast Yankee roots can be traced back to 1640. I didn’t even know where Los Angeles was when I was sent by my company to California in 1958. I didn’t know about the oil wells, the palm trees…” Hal met Liz and they wanted to buy a little home for their growing family. It was their real estate agent that introduced them to Monrovia. “We could barely afford the house. It was $16,500! That’s $77/month including insurance, taxes, and interest.” Hal retired in 1999 and “the floodgates opened.”
You see Hal and John volunteering just about everywhere in town. People stop them and say, “Hey, you came to visit me years ago when I first moved here.” John reported, “In 2008, a young couple had just moved into East Walnut and there was a shooting. The couple thought moving to Monrovia might have been a big mistake but then our Welcome Wagon came by. Today, they are proud to still be Monrovians.” Hal tells another story, “One time we went to this house and it was the new home of our City Manager, Oliver Chi, and his young family. We went through our packet with him and he learned a lot too.” John and Hal have had a lot of adventures.
Hal and John obviously enjoy being part of the community even as it changes. John said, “I am worried about rising property costs. Who can afford to have children these days? But we need young families. Who will take over the community work? Our goal is to get people involved in the community so we can all be stronger.” John and Hal received the Chamber’s Iris Award in 2007.