Chapter 7: Kid city


In 1957, half the city's 74,000 residents was under age 18. Lakewood's recreation traditions began with efforts to focus this ‘kid power.’

The story about the first youth sports sign-up day, which took place on a Saturday in May 1957, has become Lakewood lore. Instead of the hundred boys expected to sign up, 1,500 kids flocked to Mayfair Park.

Former City Council Member Jackie Rynerson recalled that day. “Where were they going to get the coaches? We were a city with a small staff. Those recreation leaders got on the phone and called dads and that became the beginning of the Lakewood recreational program. That led to a tradition of parents volunteering to help with their kids’ recreation.”

Don Denessen was one of the first volunteers who supported Lakewood Youth Sports (LYS) through successive seasons of coaching baseball, flag football and basketball. 

Lakewood kids in 1957 playing sportsThe city provided the parks. Volunteers provided the coaches.

As Denessen noted, "Lakewood Youth Sports fosters strong relationships between coaches and athletes. The same group can stay together through football and basketball, and sign up again for another year of sports."

After his son graduated from park leagues, Denessen went on to coach boys sports and girls basketball for a total of 32 years. His achievements as a volunteer coach earned Denessen a place in the Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame.

Among the earliest coaches were Mike Bassler (Mayfair), Chester Eddy (Mayfair), Joseph Hill (San Martin), Herman McMahon (San Martin), Les Milstead (San Martin), and Ray Smiley (Bolivar).

Lakewood's recreation programs expanded over the years to fit the needs and lifestyles of Lakewood’s families and to provide recreation for everyone, including Lakewood’s seniors and disabled residents.

Lakewood proudly maintains its tradition of free or low-cost recreation activities in which everyone can participate.

Lakewood was named California's Sportstown by Sports Illustrated in 2004.

Lakewood was named California's Sportstown by Sports Illustrated in 2004.

Lakewood resident Brigitte Richard described the important role of recreation in her sense of place. “Lakewood parks and rec is what really helps keep the community very close. It just gets so many kids involved, it gets adults involved, our senior citizens; there’s something for everybody. I love the recreation department and the youth sports and I just couldn’t wait until my kids could participate. I’m so glad that nothing has changed, that the leagues and the formats are the same, it’s still free ... You can’t beat it!” 

Find all the recreation opportunities Lakewood has to offer here.

Playgrounds and tot lots

In Lakewood's early years, recreation programs were provided by the County of Los Angeles and later by the Lakewood Park, Recreation and Parkway District. While working towards the acquisition of park sites, the district organized weekend recreation programs at ten elementary school playgrounds in Lakewood.

Wayne Piercy, who worked as the district's recreation director at Riley Elementary School, recalled how little the district had. “We started off with these metal boxes – yellow boxes with wheels on them – and we used to wheel them out on all of the elementary playgrounds on weekends. And we’d open the box and there were balls in there and other kinds of equipment. And that started the city’s recreation program, because at that time we had only Mayfair Park.”

The need for more recreational opportunities was obvious to new residents. Lakewood Park officials reported that “as many as 100 small children live in a single block of homes” and that 28 percent of Lakewood's residents were younger than nine years of age. Out of a youth population estimated at 35,000 in 1954, only about 4,000 were teenagers. (Video: Growing up in Lakewood)

With so many small children, one of the first projects of the district was the development of “tot lots” – fenced playgrounds for pre-school-age children. The district worked with the Lakewood Water and Power Company to develop water well sites as playgrounds in 1955.

Dave Rodda, former Lakewood recreation director, noted the social function the tot lot program had for mothers. “It was moms getting together to provide a cooperative-type two-hour service so that they would watch their kids on the playground so that the other moms could go shop or do whatever.”

Children playing at Pumpkin PlaygroundPumpkin Playground, the city's newest theme play area, was dedicated in November 2014.

The cooperative approach has been so successful that the Lakewood Tot Lot program still offers safe, parent-supervised play for today's generation of Lakewood youth.

Our wilderness

For Lakewood’s “original kids” (who were pre-teens in the early 1950s), suburban Lakewood represented another kind of frontier. Dennis Lander, whose family moved to Lakewood in 1952, recalled that a favorite destination for the neighborhood kids was "Bamboo Village" along the bed of the San Gabriel River. “Bamboo Village was where the maintenance yard is now on Shadeway and Turner Grove. It was very rural and the riverbed was still wild. There was no cement and there was a lot of bamboo, so a lot of kids would go over there and build these bamboo forts.”

Bud McCain also noted “We used to play army in the Hayter Apartments or hide-and-go-seek while they were being built. I can remember the stucco guys would bring in sand, and dump trucks would put it in big mounds, and we’d run off the roof of the apartments into the sand piles.”

Boys with bikes wait at empty park siteWhen the city took over recreation programs in 1957, park sites were mostly undeveloped.

Sandra Jenkins Janich remembered “a lot of horseback riding. We would go over to Spiller’s Stables and we would go horseback riding up and down the (San Gabriel River) flood control channel.” Anne Pechin Emigh recalled chasing jack rabbits and catching polliwogs in the area where the country club homes were later built. “We had our own little wilderness out there.”

Former Lakewood City Manager Howard Chambers, also an original kid, described park activities before the parks were fully developed. “When I was growing up, Mayfair Park was not anywhere near what it is right now – it was basically a large piece of land that was fairly undeveloped – it had the swimming pool, it had a ramshackle shack, it had one basketball court, I think one ball diamond. The ditch was unimproved and in rainy weather, there was always a trickle of water, and we used to go down there and catch tadpoles in mason jars and bring them home. Occasionally some of the braver guys – not me – would try to ride their bicycle down from one side through the bottom and up the other side. It was fairly steep, so many times they didn’t make it.”

Many original kids remember the excitement as Lakewood's parks were developed. Anne Pechin Emigh recalled “I went to Riley Elementary School, and Bolivar Park was built next door. I remember they’d have the pictures of what this park was going to look like and we were just so excited and then to see it built. It looked just like the pictures.”

Lakewood's parks became the place where many original kids spent childhood days. “The park was the main draw, I’d say, for all the kids,” remembered Denis Lander. “In our end of town, it was Del Valle Park. The neighborhood kids would hang out there all the time; there was hundreds and hundreds of 'em.”

Mike Rae, a self-described “park rat," also remembered the place of parks in his neighborhood. “I spent most of my childhood on the Lakewood parks, Del Valle being the closest to my house, and that’s where I learned all the games and how to compete, and it led to an athletic career.”

Rae grew up to star on Lakewood High’s football, basketball, and baseball teams, and then went on to play professional football, notably as a member of the Oakland Raiders’ Super Bowl championship team in 1977.

Boys cheer as equipment clears land for a new parkPlaygrounds and sports fields were built to give Lakewood's active youth a place to grow, learn, and have fun.

Robin Nordee Tweedy recalled “After school, you could go to the park. There was always a park person there that would give you a ball to play basketball or there was a dance two or three times a week. Every park had after-school programs, so a lot of kids would go there and hang out for a couple of hours.” 

Organized programs

Adult instructor and child in poolSwimming lessons for youngsters are still among the most popular city-sponsored recreation programs.

As Lakewood’s youth grew from toddlers to teens, community members recognized the need for organized recreational programs to keep older children occupied. Jackie Rynerson, a member of the park district’s board of directors, helped to administer the first citywide recreation survey.

Rynerson recalled “It started out because we had lots of children here, so then what do you do with the children? ... We sent a survey home through the schools to all the parents to find out what kind of recreational facilities they wanted for their children. We got something like a 79 to 80 percent return—just phenomenal!”

From the survey, distributed through three Lakewood school districts to 10,000 homes, the Citizens’ Advisory Committee concluded that there was a “need for a diversified recreation program under professional supervision.”

In 1957, the Lakewood Park, Recreation and Parkway District, recognizing its limited powers, encouraged Lakewood residents to dissolve the district as an independent agency. In its place, the city established its own Parks and Recreation Department and absorbed the district’s employees.

District board members became the city’s Park and Recreation Commission with Rynerson as its first chair. She later explained the district’s decision to dissolve. “The fact was the taxing ability of the Parkway District was limited. And we had new parks that had to be developed and so on ... We dissolved ourselves because that was the only way it could occur.”

The city's new Parks and Recreation Department oversaw the development of three park sites acquired from Los Angeles County and began to expand recreation programs. Through the remainder of the decade and into the 1960s and 1970s, the city’s annual budget provided more funding for playground equipment, playing field lighting, park activity buildings, wading pools, multi-purpose game courts, and operation of two public pools.

Lakewood Youth Sports

When 1,500 boys turned out for the first sign-up day for the Lakewood Youth Sports baseball league in May 1957, Lakewood’s tradition of volunteer-supported recreation began. Lakewood’s three sports supervisors – Jack Huntsinger, Dave Mills, and Ted Dilly – started calling, asking the fathers of the youngsters to help coach. As John Rae remembers, so many men wanted to be volunteer coaches, that sometimes a prospective coach had no team.

Girls hold their softball team bannerThe city's Lakewood Youth Sports program grew phenomenally after 1957.

Former city council member Wayne Piercy, who worked in the city’s park programs, explained the concept behind volunteer coaching. “They made the decision to stick with volunteer coaches because they knew we didn’t have enough paid personnel, and we never could have afforded to serve the needs of the kids. Because there were so many kids there to play and just no way that our finances or our contract city concept could handle that, we were forced to use volunteer coaches, which as it turned out, once they got the momentum, to be a great decision.”

By 1960, the boys’ sports programs at city parks enrolled 5,000 youth, with 261 teams playing baseball, basketball, and flag football, and 500 parents serving as volunteers. In 1957, Mary Denson became the first female volunteer coach.

The volunteer coaching concept enabled the Parks and Recreation Department to offer these programs free or at a very low cost. That tradition also continues in Lakewood Youth Sports.

The youth sports program continued to grow, until park leagues used every playing field available, including all of Lakewood’s parks, Hoover Junior High, Mayfair High, and Lakewood High, every night of the week and all day on Saturdays. Original Lakewood kid John Buck observed “Drive through Lakewood any night of the week and it’s just absolutely incredible the number of people under the lights out there.”

In 2019 (pre-COVID) almost 2,500 boys and girls joined Lakewood Youth Sports teams.

Getting the whole family involved

Lakewood’s recreation programs provided something for every member of the family. As Dave Rodda recalled “My early impressions are kids and families having a blast and using the facilities. It was a social center. There wasn’t a lot of money, but there were parks and recreation. And everybody came to the parks and everybody participated in recreation.”

Time magazine noted the extraordinary scope of Lakewood’s recreational programs in 1960. “The town's recreation league boasts 110 boys' baseball teams (2,000 players), 36 men's softball teams, and ten housewives' softball teams. In season, the leagues play 75 boys' and 30 men's basketball teams, 77 football teams, all coached by volunteers, while other activities range through drama, dance and charm classes, bowling, dog-training classes, Slim 'n' Trim groups, roller skating, photography, woodcraft, and lessons in how to ice a cake.”

Organized adult sports leagues began in the 1950s in response to the recreational needs survey in which residents had called for “organized adult sports and activities.”

Children play on Giganta the robotGiganta arrived at Mae Boyar Park in 1967 and delighted a generation of Lakewood youngsters.

Men’s leagues played softball and basketball, and in 1955, the park district began offering “housewives’ leagues” for softball, volleyball, volley tennis, and tennis.

Team names included the Del Valle Dish Dodgers and the Mighty Mothers. Not only did the women play ball, they also socialized after the games with coffee-and-doughnut get-togethers and potluck luncheons hosted by the home team. “We called them ‘housewife sports,’” said Rodda.

Held in the morning and afternoon, these programs were extremely popular. “Every park probably had at least two or three teams,” Rodda remembered. “Moms would come down and play softball, and the park directors would coach them, and they would play volleyball and volley tennis, and they participated in tennis instruction and those kinds of things.”

For girls, popular activities at the parks included girls’ clubs (with names such as the Bolivar Belles, San Martin Busy Bees, and Del Valle Debutantes), which participated in dances, games, excursions, crafts, and service-related projects, as well as charm classes and cheerleading for the boys’ teams.

Sports programs for girls were almost nonexistent in the city's early years, but Lakewood became a pioneer in offering girls’ sports. Rodda remembered “For the boys, we had full-on, three-sport seasons that just followed the traditional baseball, football, and basketball seasons. For the girls, we would have girls’ softball and that would be during the summer, coached by a mom.”

It was not until 1960 that the first girls’ softball league was formed. Following the tradition of boys’ sports, volunteer coaches were recruited from the women’s sports leagues, and every girl had the opportunity to play in every game.

women's fitness participants in 1960s.Programs for adults, like women's fitness, became part of the city's recreation offerings in the 1960s.

Rodda described the evolution of the girls’ sports program. “Probably the thing that sticks out the most in my mind is the equality of girls participating in athletics. We were so far ahead of everyone else. Because we sat down one day and said, hey look, we have this great Lakewood Youth Sports Program, everybody calls it the model sports program, but we don’t have the same thing for the girls. We’ve got a little bit, but not much. And so we developed a complete program the same way. Whatever the guys got, the girls got. Maybe some of the sports were a little different, but the awards were the same, everything was the same: same amount of money was spent, same amount of everything. And this was in 1973 or 1974. Title IX for women’s sports wasn’t even a blip. But we were providing these kinds of services.”

Lakewood’s parks also emphasized activities that the whole family could enjoy together. Landscape architect Garrett Eckbo of Community Facilities Planners, the firm commissioned to plan several of Lakewood’s parks, recalled that the city specifically requested that his firm design “family parks.”

Lakewood also began to offer programs for Lakewood’s teens. These activities included day trips, beach parties, and play days. Beginning in 1954, the park district organized and supervised monthly teen dances. Because the teenage population was still small in the mid-1950s, there were often more chaperons than dancers.

In 1967, Lakewood began providing specialized recreation activities for disabled youngsters and young adults. These programs continue today and include the city’s championship Special Olympics teams.

Youth Hall of Fame

The city’s park leagues and high school sports programs turned out generations of young achievers, some of whom reached even higher levels of success in college and professional sports. Lakewood was producing young champions, but hardly anyone knew their story. City parks and Lakewood schools existed in different worlds, one more sign of the fragmented nature of school organization in Lakewood.

The gap needed to be filled. Young heroes of the playing field deserved more recognition, regardless of which school they attended or what school district they played for. The Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame, established in 1981, took on the task of recognizing all of Lakewood’s young athletes.

The Youth Hall of Fame needed a home if these achievements were going to inspire new generations. The city turned to McDonald's owner Ron Piazza, who recalled how then Mayor Larry Van Nostran discussed with him the idea of a permanent memorial for sports heroes in Lakewood.

Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame InteriorThe Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame is located in the McDonald's restaurant on Woodruff Avenue.

“It must have been 1980 that Larry and I talked about how great the parks programs were in Lakewood and what great sports programs we had and the tremendous volunteer effort that we had then and still have today, and we thought there really needs to be a way to recognize all that. We discussed putting (the Hall of Fame) in city hall, but then very few people would be seeing it. So I said, ‘Well, listen, I’ll go ahead and rework one of my restaurants.’”

The Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame continues today to honor sports champions and scholar athletes in more than a dozen individual and team sports. Their achievements are on display at the McDonald's restaurant on Woodruff Avenue in Lakewood.

Sportstown and Playful City

Sportstown Banner In 2004, Lakewood was named California’s Sportstown by Sports Illustrated magazine. The award reflected the enduring values of the city’s sports programs, the city’s commitment to family recreation, and the investment made by the city since 1954 in the expansion of Lakewood’s parks. In 2010, Lakewood was named a Playful City USA by KaBoom!, a national non-profit organization supporting family recreation. Lakewood was one of only 10 California cities to receive the Playful City honor.

Today, the city's Department of Recreation and Community Services still frames its mission as providing management of Lakewood’s park, recreation, and human service programs and reaching out to residents to bring them programs and activities that enrich their lives.

The Playful Cities program has honored Lakewood's recreation programs for their history of including all members of the family and all ages of participants in fun and healthful activities and sports. (Learn more about Sportstown USA and Playful Cities awards)

The department is composed of two divisions: the Environmental Resource Division maintains the city’s landscape areas and facilities; the Program Division offers a wide variety of programs and services for team sports, individual enrichment, and family fun.

There are twelve parks in Lakewood; eight of them provide supervised activities including after-school programs and a comprehensive middle school and high school youth program.

The department also offers hundreds of special interest classes for adults and youth each year.

LYS team with bannerLYS teams gather each spring to begin another year of supervised sports programs.

Lakewood continues to supervise free Lakewood Youth Sports leagues in baseball, softball, flag football, volleytennis, and basketball; offer adult sports programs; give swimming lessons and welcome recreational swimmers at the city’s two pools, provide supervision at after-School Activity Zone programs for youngsters 7-12; hold Summer Day Camps; and offer special interest classes fr youths and adults.

The Weingart Senior Center has its own busy schedule of activities as well as low-cost noon meals. (Learn more about senior activities)

Continuing its tradition of offering activities for the whole family, the Summer Concerts in the Park series, begun in 1987, brings Lakewood families together to picnic on the grass at Del Valle Park and listen to live music performances.

Teen activities and special events are still held at the Lakewood Youth Center at Del Valle Park and the new Teen Resource Center at Bloomfield Park.

The Lakewood Special Olympics program continues to boast multiple Special Olympic champions.

The Lakewood Community Gardens – a participant cooperative founded with the city’s help in 1978 – offers plots for residents to grow and harvest vegetables and fruit for cooking and canning.

Lakewood's kids grow up

Lakewood’s original kids grew up with their community, playing in city parks and attending neighborhood schools. Anne Pechin Emigh described her neighborhood, typical of the early 1950s. “It was just instant kids everywhere. And there were probably five kids my age, and then there were a lot of kids older and a whole bunch of kids a couple years younger. You could just walk out your door and there’s somebody to play with.”

A summertime day for boys consisted of tag or hide-and-seek with other neighborhood kids, an expedition to one of the unfenced flood control ditches, and games at the neighborhood park. Mike Rae said, “Usually, we planned our days playing unscheduled events with our peers. We were allowed a lot of freedom, a lot of creativity, and a lot of craziness and games.”

Boys playing basketballLakewood Youth Sports teams, coached by parent volunteers, still teach teamwork and fair play for boys and girls.

Dennis Lander added that “the one rule in Lakewood was you had to be in the house when the streetlights went on,” remembering the chorus of parents’ voices that could be heard all the way down the block.

Lakewood's original kids developed their own games and their own “community,” a sense of extended family in the neighborhood with other children as surrogate brothers and sisters and the adults of the neighborhood as surrogate parents.

Sandra Jenkins Janich remembered “Everybody knew everyone’s children and mom and dad. You knew that you’d better behave because everybody on the block had the same standards that your family did.” Anne Pechin Emigh echoed “The block was like a family, extended family."

Dennis Lander noted that the neighborhood camaraderie between children was reinforced by the fact that they went to the same school. “We were just starting school most of us, and it was the same thirty kids that you started kindergarten with. You went all the way to junior high with those kids. And we all stuck together.”

Linda Kay Gahan remembered “There were backyard barbecues and picnics and what they now call block parties. And what I remember most vividly is that in those days, in the 1950s, there were a lot of card parties where families would get together and the adults would play bridge or pinochle and the kids would go play their games.” Emigh recalled “Summertime was fabulous. Everybody would come out after dinner. We’d have huge games, boys and girls, kick-the-can, hide-and-go-seek. There was one young married couple that even played with us. It was just really a fun thing.”

John Buck described his “idyllic” neighborhood. “We were very sports-oriented in the neighborhood. There was a cul-de-sac with the diamond painted in red paint down the middle of the street with the perfect batter’s box, and if you hit it into Billy Parker’s backyard – because he had the mean dog – you were out, because you lost the ball for us.”

Margie Lehner Armstrong remembered three-legged relay races, barbecues, and playing baseball in the street.

Safe driving Road-E-O advertisementNew concerns led to new community programs like the safe driving Road-E-O in 1958.

There was a lot of camaraderie among Lakewood’s young residents, recalled Armstrong. “I would have to say the block parties would probably be the thing that I remember the most that brought us together. Seeing everybody playing together, that was kind of neat. I remember my mother saying that the kids all got along so well in the neighborhood, you know, there were hardly any fights.”

Armstrong also recalled that on the first day of school each year, the neighborhood kids, all wearing their brand-new school clothes and shoes, would gather in the street to have their photograph taken together by the next-door neighbor who owned a camera store. 

Suburban generation

“I remember a family across the street, the Hayes family, they came in from Boston,” recalled Dennis Lander, “and it was the first people that didn’t talk like we did, you know, with that Boston accent, and that was big, big news at the time.” But Lander also recalled that regional origins were quickly forgotten, because all of the kids became “Lakewood kids.”

However, Lander and other original kids also recall examples of prejudice and the teasing of kids who were different, particularly Jewish youth, whose families formed a significant part of the community in the mid-1950s.

Teen Zone computer areaThe Teen Zone at Bloomfield Park is a community center just for older youth.

There were differences in socioeconomic class, as well, as Anne Pechin Emigh experienced when comparing her outfits to those of her best friend who lived in the neighborhood near the golf course. “My mom sewed most of my clothes. Her mom was quite the shopper and she would make forays into Beverly Hills and buy things and she would have the latest Bobbie Brooks outfits. And I would go to Cal-Stores, which was sort of like Target. She looked fabulous, I looked fine.”

Many of original kids recounted that they began dating at an early age, sometimes as early as the fifth and sixth grades. When a boy and a girl “went steady,” the boy would give the girl a cross, a ring, or a St. Christopher medal to wear. Robin Tweedy Nordee reported, “We all went steady in the sixth grade. They’d give you a chain with a big ring on it.”

Older Lakewood kids hung out at local hamburger stands. “I remember, in sixth grade, two of my girlfriends and I used to walk every day from Gompers (elementary school) over to the little hamburger place in Dutch Village,” recounted Nordee. “And for ninety-nine cents – and we each had a dollar – we could each get a hamburger, a milkshake, and fries and have a penny left and then walk back and be back to school in time.”

There were also certain places – such as a hamburger stand called Lucky’s Jackpot on Ashworth Street at Bellflower Boulevard – where older kids smoked cigarettes and listened to rock ‘n’ roll and where younger kids recall that they were specifically forbidden to go. That fact made those places seem even more appealing.

Teen years

When Lakewood’s original kids became teenagers, “those were pretty interesting years,” remembered Dennis Lander, “because we were the first group of teenagers to grow up in this town. A lot of that American Graffiti-type thing was definitely happening in Lakewood. Lots of cars, lots of after-the-football game dances.”

Just as they had as children, Lakewood’s original teens congregated in groups. “Everybody belonged to a group. You were plugged into something,” recalled Robin Tweedy Nordee. “They had a lot of clubs in school. All kinds of different interest clubs – social clubs, school clubs, drama and art clubs. And everybody kind of hung around together and it became kind of a sorority/fraternity type of thing in high school.”

Lakewood’s teens developed new interests: cruising in their cars and dancing to rock ‘n’ roll, activities that worried their parents. Although Lakewood’s rate of juvenile delinquency was virtually nonexistent, some teen activities seemed threatening to adults.

When teens got cars, “all hell broke loose in Lakewood,” said Lander. “They weren’t ready for that. The parents weren’t ready, and the kids weren’t ready and the police and the sheriffs, they had a tough time dealing with it.”

Lakewood Youth Center under constructionThe Lakewood Youth Center opened in 1958. 

Popular destinations were drive-in theaters, beaches, and snack bars. “We used to cruise Len’s, a place that sold hamburgers and stuff,” Anne Pechin Emigh recounted. “And you’d just drive through there to see who was there, go and order a hamburger, and just sit and talk to whoever happened to be there.”

Many teens later recalled that Lakewood was “too quiet” and remembered that they drove to teen hangouts outside of Lakewood.

Dave Rodda reminisced “I was very involved in car clubs. I had a group of friends that were somewhat of the James Dean type. I would go to work in the evening umpiring and doing my thing. Then I would get done umpiring and there would be my buddies, and I would take off this recreation stuff and put on my leather jacket and get in my low-rider car and off we’d go down the street and hit all the drive-ins.”

Bud McCain described the teenage car culture. “One of Lakewood High School’s claims to fame was we were the only high school in the Long Beach School District that could cruise all the way around their school without hitting a main street. And back then, cruising was the main thing. My car was voted two years in a row the loudest car at Lakewood High School. I had 28-inch Mitchells on there with Bellflowers (hot rod exhaust system). We’d cruise the boulevard (Bellflower Boulevard), starting at A&W Root Beer stand, and go down to the railroad tracks. You’d turn around at the lumberyard (Hammond Lumber) down there at the railroad tracks and then come back up the other side. And you’d cruise that all night long. Friday and Saturday nights, boy, it was nonstop.”

Suzanne Henderson Shipp recalled that her mother took away her 1957 Thunderbird, a gift from her father, one month after she got it because she drove it too fast. Bud McCain recounted how the Lakewood High juvenile officer tried to stop teens from drag racing. “I remember the juvenile officer drove one of those little (Nash) Metropolitan cars. And he tried to catch us with our race cars. That was so funny. And you’d just blow him in the weeds. Of course, he knew everybody’s car.”

Chamber of Commerce car show.Some Lakewood teens grew up to be nostalgic about the hot rods of their youth, like these at the Chamber of Commerce car show.

Lakewood High football games were especially popular. Anne Pechin Emigh described the school spirit and pep rallies. “We had a great football team with just tons of spirit. We had such school pride, and oh my gosh we had pep rallies coming out our ears, you know, everybody was just really pumped, and it was fun.” Shipp remembers that “People were into (the football team) 100 percent and they couldn’t wait for Fridays to go to the pep rally, everybody wore red and white to school on Fridays to support our team.”

High school girls competed in the annual Lakewood Pan American pageants, one of the featured activities of the Pan American Festival. Sandra Jenkins Janich described her star status in 1958. “I was treated like a queen. (My coronation) was just like you see in the movies. I got a robe with the fur collar and then the crown. Being Pan Am Queen and everybody knowing it, it really gave you a status.”

Emigh, who competed in the contest in the 1960s, recalled “It was really fun. You dressed up and they would have a dance and there were dignitaries there and that was interesting to meet them and you felt special.”

A place for teens

Teen Center under construction in 1958The Lakewood Youth Center at Del Valle Park was built with funds raised by community members.

The community soon recognized the need for a separate recreational facility where teens could congregate under adult supervision. In 1955, Lakewood embarked on a three-year campaign to raise $45,000 to build a youth center at Del Valle Park.

The fundraising campaign was organized by the Lakewood Women’s Club and involved 15 service organizations. Fundraisers – 500 teens supervised by 56 adults – walked door-to-door soliciting donations, and several other community organizations contributed to the project.

When the Lakewood Youth Center was dedicated in 1958, it became the place to go, sometimes featuring big-name performers, including Ike and Tina Turner, and the Righteous Brothers.

The youth center was governed by a teen board with adult advisors and an adult director. It also featured a Teen Forum in which delegates from Lakewood traveled to other cities to discuss a variety of topics with teen delegates from other youth centers.

“That place was a big social center then,” recalled Dennis Lander. Hundreds of kids would gather, especially at “Friday Nighters,” dances held after the Lakewood High football games.

Youths become veterans

For many Lakewood residents, the Vietnam War shattered the pattern of suburban life. The late Dennis Lander, who was a Vietnam veteran, remembered that Vietnam “was just a current event” discussed in abstract terms in civics and government classes. After graduation, Vietnam suddenly became a real issue for many of Lakewood’s sons.

“A lot of my friends took an academic road and some of us went in the service and some of us got drafted,” noted Lander, “but your choices were pretty limited in 1966 and 1967 as far as what was going to happen.”

In 1967, the city established a Vietnam memorial as an addition to the city’s Korean War monument at Del Valle Park. By 1972, more than 30 names had been placed on a memorial plaque at the monument, a sad reminder of the war's cost to Lakewood’s second generation.

But when Lander and the other Vietnam veterans returned home, there was none of the fanfare that his father’s generation had received after World War II, and even his family did not talk about his time in the military. Years later, when Lander asked his father why he had never brought up Vietnam, his father responded that he didn’t know what to say about it. 

Lander reflected “You have to remember, our dads were all GIs from World War II. It must have been quite an ordeal for them to see their kids going off and doing something like this.”

Marine Corps jet at Del Valle ParkThe Marine Corps jet at Del Valle Park was dedicated as the city's memorial to those who died in the nation's wars on Memorial Day in 1964.

Times and attitudes finally changed. On Veteran’s Day in 1992, nearly 250 Lakewood residents, most of them family members of Vietnam veterans, gathered around the Del Valle Park memorial for the dedication of a plaque inscribed with Lander’s poem, “The Boys of Del Valle Park.” The poem, which is still read at Lakewood’s Memorial Day program, recalls that the boys who played on the park’s Korean War-era jet later went off to fight in Vietnam.

The dedication became an emotional community event as families, high school friends, and young and old veterans reunited with people they hadn’t seen for 20 years or more. “It wasn’t really about the poem anymore, although that was the catalyst for it,” Lander later noted.

The outpouring of emotion acted as a catharsis after years of silence about the Vietnam War. “That day was kind of the first time the community really got together to recognize those guys, it was just something you didn’t do back in the 1970s,” said Lander. “The poem started a dialogue. It gave the community permission to go ahead and talk about (Vietnam) or go ahead and feel bad about it or go ahead and feel happy about it or feel something about it.”

Veterans Memorial Plaza

In time, all veterans were included in the Lakewood's remembrance of those who had served their nation. Over 2,000 people gathered for Memorial Day ceremonies in 2015 to rededicate the Lakewood Veterans Memorial Plaza at Del Valle Park to all veterans in all the armed services. The memorial, designed to replicate the deck and superstructure of an aircraft carrier, matches the history of the carrier-based Douglas F-3D jet fighter that is the centerpiece of the plaza.

Jet fighter lighted at night

The Lakewood Veterans Memorial Plaza

The plaza prominently displays the insignias of all branches of the military and the text that has traditionally been part of the memorial, including the names of Lakewood’s fallen Vietnam-era service members and “The Boys of Del Valle Park” poem.

Around the memorial plaza are more than 1,500 engraved bricks remembering the names of veterans, Lakewood community members, and civic groups.

The city’s annual Memorial Day observances continue to be held in conjunction with American Legion Post 496, Disabled American Veterans Chapter 19, and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 756.

Lasting traditions

Lakewood continues to offer free or low-cost family activities and youth sports with an “everyone plays” philosophy.

There have been some additions to Lakewood recreation, such as new fitness programs for senior citizens and sports programs for the disabled, to keep up with the changing needs of the community. Today, Lakewood residents can access recreation program offerings online, using the city’s popular eCatalog service.

Dave Rodda, who was among the earliest Lakewood recreation employees, noted how traditions begun in the 1950s still formed Lakewood’s recreation programs when he became the recreation department’s director.

“It started with parks – neighborhood parks. Volunteerism was planted in the minds of everybody through the Lakewood Youth Sports Program. And, really from the Youth Sports Program, the free activities that we have on the parks, the special events – many of the things that we had back in 1957, 1958 – we still do. The Lakewood Youth Sports program, which was free nearly 60 years ago, is still free, and we still run after-school programs. Our parks are still open with activities that kids can come to if they want, and they’re free.”

Kids dressed in Halloween costumesHalloween Carnivals are a Lakewood park tradition.

Rodda also saw the continuity of recreation traditions through the 1970s and 1980s. “So, it’s tradition: ‘I remember when I was in this program and I’m going to be in this program now and my kids are going to be in this program.’ I also think that Lakewood recreation boosted the quality of life and has provided the opportunity for families to create a sense of values, a sense of togetherness.”

Among these community traditions is the Lakewood Pan American Festival, which celebrates the friendship between Lakewood and the peoples and cultures of Latin America. (A closer look at the Pan American Festival, Lakewood's oldest community tradition)

History of volunteerism

Volunteerism and community participation are traditions that drive many other Lakewood-sponsored programs for youth, seniors, and families in need. Volunteers serve as Neighborhood Watch block captains, park league coaches, tot lot parents, Meals on Wheels drivers, hospice volunteers, and in many other roles that lighten some of the burdens of everyday life. The partner and supporter of Lakewood volunteers is the city in programs that include:

  • Lakewood Meals on Wheels. A Lakewood success story, Meals on Wheels is a nonprofit, community service program founded in 1975 by Soroptimist International of Lakewood/Long Beach. Volunteers deliver a hot, noontime meal and a sack dinner to each client. Meals on Wheels makes it possible for members of the Lakewood community who can no longer cook for themselves to remain in their home and in familiar surroundings. Since Meals on Wheels has no age restrictions, the chronically ill and the disabled also are welcome as clients. The need may be permanent or temporary. The nutritional meals are important, of course, but frequent contact with a caring volunteer is just as important.

Playful City bannerLakewood has been designated a Playful City USA for its family-oriented recreation programs.

  • Project Shepherd. A joint program of the city and the Rotary Club of Lakewood, Project Shepherd provides holiday meals and emergency assistance to Lakewood residents in need. (A closer look at Project Shepherd)
  • Teens in Lakewood Care (TLC). City staff members coordinate the volunteer work of Lakewood teens who are learning that volunteering is a core Lakewood value. The TLC program began in January 1999 in response to the needs of a growing number of older residents with unmet home maintenance tasks.
  • Volunteer Day. Lakewood Volunteer Day, begun in 1997, assembles teams of volunteer workers to do landscape maintenance and simple home repairs for senior and disabled residents.
  • Lakewood Special Olympics. The Lakewood Youth Center is home to a year-round Special Olympics program for the developmentally disabled. City staff member Chuck Martucci was recognized by the Special Olympics of Southern California as the 2003 Coach of the Year. Lakewood Special Olympian Dustin Plunkett was the 2003 Special Olympian of the Year. 

























A closer look at Project Shepherd

Christmas in 1973 loomed bleakly for Lakewood families with little money and no resources for a holiday celebration. A coalition of community and civic organizations turned to city council members and the pastors of Lakewood churches to come up with a Lakewood solution. Together with city staff, they created Project Shepherd, a volunteer program that continues to give families in need a basket of holiday food items, children’s gifts, and something equally precious – the concern of their caring neighbors.

Many of the gifts come from the wishes pinned to Project Shepherd’s Teddy Bear Trees at Lakewood Center, other Lakewood businesses, and city hall. School students compete to collect thousands of canned goods and staple items each year.

In 1979, the Rotary Club of Lakewood began providing volunteer staffing and coordination for Project Shepherd. In 1982, Rotary helped form the Project Shepherd Extension Program to assist needy families throughout the year.

Lakewood’s outpouring of generosity includes cash donations solicited through the city’s utility bills and the work of volunteers from many community organizations. The city helps with warehouse space at the Lakewood Youth Center and with application assessment. Applicants must be Lakewood residents (determined by mailing address or utility billing) and meet certain income restrictions.

A closer look at the Pan American Festival

The Pan American Festival, Lakewood’s annual celebration of friendship with the people and cultures of Latin America, exemplifies Lakewood’s traditions of neighborliness and volunteerism. At the end of World War II, two Lakewood Village neighbors and fellow Lakewood Lions Club members – Walter Montano and Jesse Solter – shook hands over their backyard fence, pledging to begin a community program that would foster good relations with Latin America.

In 1945, as a result of negotiations between the Lion's Club and the county Board of Supervisors, Pan American Park on Arbor Road near Clark Avenue was dedicated.

An olive tree was planted to symbolize the friendship between the United States and the members of the Organization of American States. In 1946, the Lakewood Lions Club invited the Latin American Consular Association of Los Angeles to a picnic in Pan American Park to celebrate the first anniversary of the park’s dedication.

Pan American Festival folklorico performersThe annual Pan American Festival celebrates the friendship between Lakewood residents and the peoples of Latin America.

In 1947, a flag exchange with the Consul of Costa Rica and a cultural festival for junior high students marked the observance of Pan American Day. The flag-exchange ceremony was begun by Inez Lehman, a ninth-grade social studies teacher at Bancroft Junior High School (known as Lakewood Junior High School until 1955).

In 1948, the newly organized the Pan American Festival Association held the first Pan American Festival. Mexico was the honored country. In 1982, the festival began honoring all of the countries of Central and South America jointly under the theme of pan-American friendship.

In 1956, the United States Information Agency presented the Pan American Association and the Lakewood Community with a special recognition award for their contributions to President Eisenhower's "people-to-people" goodwill program.

During the 1960s and 1970s, weeklong Pan American festivities kicked off with the El Comienzo luncheon, bringing together residents, business leaders, city officials, and the Latin American consular corps. The week’s events included the Pan American Hostess and Queen contest and a consular banquet sponsored by the Lions Club and honoring the Latin American consuls.

As the 1967 Pan American Hostess Mary Jo Wagner recounted “Every organization had something going on. And that’s what made it unique, I think, was all that participation.”

The festival concluded with the Saludos Amigos parade, with dignitaries from the honored country leading a parade of floats, dance groups, equestrians, and marching bands. In 1979, the festival highlight became a Pan American Fiesta.

Today, Lakewood’s tradition of celebrating Pan Americanism continues. The annual Pan American Festival still kicks off each May with the El Comienzo Luncheon followed by the three-day Pan American Fiesta at Mayfair Park. The festivities include amusement rides, music and entertainment, and food, craft, community and cultural booths.