ROYNON ROYALTY: Karen Huigens Is Ready to Rake, Rattle and Roll

November 8, 2017
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Karen Huigens will travel with rake.

LA VERNE, California, November 8, 2017 — There are many reasons to welcome the return of fall — sweaters, pumpkin-spiced lattes, fall-scented candles, tights, tailgating, the fall television season, and carrot ginger soup — but perhaps the best reason to celebrate autumn’s return is Karen Huigens comes riding back into town.

From April through October, Huigens lives in Ashley Lake, Montana, at the doorstep of Glacier National Park, a pristine paradise carved with wild meadows, glistening rivers, stunning waterfalls and dramatic mountain peaks.

In spite of all that natural beauty, she returns to La Verne every November. You can set your clock to her return, like switching back from Daylight Savings to Standard Time.

While La Verne lacks Montana’s big sky, crisp mountain air and plenitude of wildlife, it’s still Huigens’ home, where she has a history that not even a Glacier National Park grizzly could scare out of her.


Huigens attended Roynon elementary, her mother attended Roynon and her two children attended Roynon. The school, in fact, was named after her grandfather, John Marion Roynon, who as superintendent in 1947 desegregated what was then Lincoln school. That was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, so she is part of a pioneering family.

A University of La Verne graduate who had majored in biology, she started teaching in our local schools in 1971 and didn’t stop until 2010. The last 19 of those years were spent teaching kindergarten at Roynon.

So she has made an indelible impression on hundreds of young minds, helping them master letters, sounds and words and grasp math fundamentals, providing them with a pathway and a platform for a lifetime of learning. She was also known for taking them for walks through the woods (there’s a redwood grove, believe it or not, near the Las Flores city pool).

That legacy would be enough for most people, but not for Huigens. For the seven months she is back in La Verne, she is as active and relentless as a roiling creek rushing out of the Rockies. Her main thrust is heading up Roynon’s Beautification Committee, which she has done pretty much since the turn of the century.

Before she took over, Roynon didn’t look much better than a prison yard — an educational barracks without any landscaping that housed kids six hours a day.

“There was dead grass and no shrubs,” Huigens said, sitting under a shade tree that she had no doubt planted. “I thought our kids might not be rich, but they deserved better. Roynon is a good school.”

And as a teacher, she knew your surroundings matter.

“I think the way something looks affects people’s perceptions about how good it is,” she said.


To her students, she might have epitomized the loveable, mild-manner Norman Rockwell-esque kindergarten teacher, but if you were caught in her soliciting sights to help transform Roynon’s ugly landscape, she was a fundraising firebrand.

“I was a lot less mellow in those days,” said Huigens, who also was instrumental in founding SOLVE (Save Old La Verne’s Environment), when local developers were running amuck plowing under La Verne’s orange orchards and replacing them with tacky, stucco-clad housing tracts, with minimal city oversight.

The idea that a little beautification committee was somehow going to transform Roynon’s two sprawling campuses into a lush gardenscape was greeted with broad skepticism.

“When we decided to do this,” Huigens recalled, “the person in charge of facilities at the time said, ‘You can’t do that, you don’t have the manpower to maintain that kind of landscaping.’

“He never believed we could do it, but we did!”

The committee did it via bake sales, babysitting on Friday nights, holding concerts (Rockin’ for Roynon) and hosting other fundraising activities.

“We made a thousand here, a thousand there,” she said.

Pretty soon, the committee amassed $60,000.

Local licensed landscape architect Phil May got involved, as did Jonescape in Claremont, and little by little, phase by phase, Roynon started its transformation, first along E Street, then along 8th.

Every contribution moved the landscape needle in a positive direction. One Roynon parent knew a contact at Monrovia Nursery, which allowed the committee to get wholesale pricing. Another La Verne resident, Dave Zylstra, owner of West Covina Nurseries, offered his plants at a discount, although none of his kids attended Roynon. The city hooked up Huigens with a redevelopment grant.

“Once people saw what was happening, it was easier to raise the money,” Huigens said. Today, the Beautification Committee raises most of its funds through recycling efforts, earning about $200 a week.

“We’re scavengers, we go to every park,” Huigens said.

Meanwhile, Huigens and her volunteers have been tireless in their digging, mulching, planting, weeding, raking, pruning and constant planning for the next improvement — a gazebo, concrete benches, a pathway lined with river rocks, a picnic area shaded by market umbrellas, vines masking the rusting chain link fence along D Street.


It’s too bad that Huigens has divided loyalties between La Verne and Montana. After all, she was here first, but it’s not as though Montana has no claim on her. When she and her future husband, Rex, were students at La Verne College (now ULV), they took off summers for Montana to fly fish.  

“We fell in love with Montana, and after we both got jobs (Rex coached football alongside Roland Ortmayer for 40 years among his many athletic administrative duties), we bought a crappy little cabin that was full of mice.”

Today, in Ashley Lake, their living quarters have considerably improved, but their life is different. It’s slower and quieter, punctuated with long walks in the woods with friends, who chat incessantly to keep away the bears.

By the time November comes, Huigens is raring to return to her La Verne life and resume her countless landscaping and fundraising chores at Roynon.

Rarely a day passes without her pulling up in front of Roynon in her white truck, her gardening gloves in hand.

“This is a big campus to take care of,” she said.

Typically, she works two-to-four hours a day on campus.

Not every hour, however, is spent gardening. Another of her passions is working in ceramic clay with kindergarteners.

“It’s selfish because I still want the kids to know me,” she admitted.

Her kindergartners also serve as good character witnesses, especially when parents question them about the strange lady rooting around in the bushes, thinking she might be homeless.

“Oh no,” the children explain, “that Mrs. Huigens. She makes snowmen with us.”

For the next seven months, La Verne has Mrs. Huigens all to itself. Whether she is making snowmen or planting a new pepper tree, one thing is clear, she is a force of nature worth celebrating.


Reporting sponsored by longtime La Verne Realtor Colleen Bennett, Sotheby’s International Realty (DRE#01013172). For all things real estate, Call Coll, 626.344.0907. Also read her real estate updates on The Real Dirtt.

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