by Amanda Egan
photography by Jennifer Contreras
It is 6:30 p.m. on the first Monday of the month, which means it is time to call the monthly La Verne City Council meeting to order. The rookie councilman Steve Johnson slowly makes his way to his seat wearing a baby blue button up collared shirt, a maroon tie and khaki pants, which is unusual for this casual man. His face is sunburned from the Rotary Club golf tournament he participated in earlier that day. The meeting is quickly called into session, and Steve sits comfortably in his chair with an attentive attitude.
The City Council is not the only task that occupies this La Verne native’s precious time. On a typical weekday, Steve wakes up in his 1918 Spanish-style home on Third Street in historic La Verne and drives a few blocks to Arrow Highway and D Street to the Farmer’s Insurance business that he owns. The office is an old renovated house located directly across the street from Steve’s alma mater, the University of La Verne. Inside, after spending some time trying to figure out how to work his new electronic pocket size organizer, he kicks back in his chair and jokes about how busy he is. Then it is time for business. Steve drives to Roynon Elementary School, where he serves as a class volunteer. His working hours are a juggle of community service and maintaining the successful business he has guided for 20 years. When his workday concludes, it is family time.
Arriving home, he sees what is next on the family agenda. His son Trevor, 10, has a Cub Scout meeting. When his wife Lori finishes her shift at Vons grocery store on Wheeler Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in La Verne, she takes Trevor to his meeting where she is the co-den leader. Stephanie, Steve’s 13-year-old daughter asks her dad for a ride to her soccer practice. Later in the evening, he attends the La Verne Rotary Club meeting where he has been a faithful member for 19 years. Finally the day ends, and Steve pulls his white Ford Excursion into his driveway. He remarks that this is a slow day.
Steve Johnson is the fourth generation member of his family to serve the city of La Verne. He was born in 1961 to fourth generation La Verne residents Frank and Nadine Johnson. A year after he was born, his father was elected mayor of La Verne, a position he held for 20 years, 1962-1982. Steve was surrounded by politics his entire childhood. His great grandfather was also a La Verne City Council member for eight years, and the reign continues with his uncle Jon Blickenstaff serving as the current mayor. His grandfather served La Verne as the fire chief for 19 years. “Politics have always been a part of my family,” Steve says.
Politics are not the only thing that surrounded Steve while growing up. His parents kept him busy with other family traditions as well. His father owned 10 acres of citrus groves in La Verne and involved his children during harvest. “I can remember being in first or second grade and being awakened in the middle of the night to light smudge-pots in the groves to keep the fruit from freezing,” Steve says. His older brother Scott still owns 160 acres of citrus groves in Corona and Lake Elsinore. Steve helps out at the groves during the harvest season.
While the three Johnson boys grew up, their father owned a Texaco gas station in La Verne. In 1974, Steve gained his first job washing windows and pumping gas at the station on Bonita Avenue and C Street. He was attending junior high and working for his dad. In 1975, he transitioned from junior high to Bonita High School, graduating in 1979, the same year his dad sold the Texaco property to ULV. (ULV razed the station and turned the property into a parking lot.) Steve decided to stay local after high school to be close to his family and attended ULV in the fall of 1979. He was graduated from ULV with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1983. He served on the Campus Times newspaper photo staff as well as the La Verne Magazine photo staff. He also played football for the ULV junior varsity team, when the team had the opportunity to play at the Rose Bowl, defeating Cal Tech. “Playing at the Rose Bowl was my most memorable event playing football at La Verne,” Steve says enthusiastically.
With a fresh degree in business, he decided to open an insurance company in his native town. Steve says he works in the service industry. “There is no substitute for good service,” he says. That is his key to success. “Owning a business in La Verne gives advantage and flexibility to serve the community,” Steve informs. He began creating a life for himself in the town where he grew up, a town filled with so much of his family’s tradition of service. Steve makes up the fifth generation of his family to reside in La Verne. They are surrounded with plenty of family and life-long friends. Lori is a third generation resident. Her mother Betty lives nearby on Third Street. And Steve’s mother Nadine also resides in the city, in the Hillcrest Homes. Steve’s younger brother Kirk lives three doors down on Third Street and owns an attorney and realtor office in downtown La Verne.
Steve’s parents raised the family in the Church of the Brethren, and Steve continues his devotion to the Church. He serves as the sound coordinator, a deacon and a Fellowship Committee member. In addition, the family regularly attends weekly services. He met his wife Lori Castellano at the La Verne Church of the Brethren, and they were married in 1984. That same year, Steve joined the Rotary Club because he thought it would help promote his local business. After experiencing the Club, he found out that was not the case, but became interested and wanted to continue his membership because of the service the organization offers the community.
The Rotary Club has been a key factor in Steve’s involvement in the city. He is currently the vocational director and is scheduled to become the president in July of 2004. The vocational director is responsible for the Teen Leadership Camp, the Rotary youth leadership awards, teacher mini-grants, the high school music competition and the Inland Valley All-Star Basketball game. The latter features the local high schools’ top men’s basketball players. He believes this is one of the most successful events the Club hosts.
After getting married and joining the Rotary Club, Steve continued to establish his life in the community. He and Lori had two children and confidently decided to raise them in La Verne. “La Verne is a wonderful place to live and raise a family,” Steve says. “And my intention is to continue that for people.” He involved his children in the community at a young age by signing them up for sports and assisting with coaching their teams. As his children got older, he became more involved with volunteering in their schools. He began to develop a passion for serving children in the town where he has so much history. “I want to make a difference in kids’ lives growing up in La Verne,” he says confidently. His son Trevor attends Roynon Elementary School in La Verne, where Steve is a P.T.A. Board member, classroom volunteer and is also on the school site council. His daughter Stephanie attends Ramona Middle School in La Verne. Steve also volunteers on the Bonita High School Booster Club. “I want to continue to provide opportunities for children,” he says. “The way I was raised is what has inspired me to volunteer my time,” Steve says modestly. His father set a great example by being active in the Church, volunteering at the LeRoy Haynes Center, the David and Margaret Home and coaching his sons’ sports teams. Steve says volunteering is part of being a good citizen, and one can never do enough.
Through his involvement in the community, Steve decided to run for La Verne’s City Council two years ago. He lost the race and believes it was the result of a poor campaign. His mind was elsewhere as his father underwent chemotherapy. Frank Johnson passed away in November 2002. Steve did not give up his quest for a seat on the Council. His drive to better the town and touch people in it gave him strength to try again. He decided to run again with his mind focused on a great campaign, focused on family and community involvement.
“Steve campaigned on his own and did a commendable job at it,” Mayor Jon Blickenstaff says. “He put in lots of hard work over a long period of time.” His strong campaign proved to be successful as he earned a spot on the Council. Steve is the first new face on the council in 11 years. He defeated La Verne City Council veteran Patrick Gatti, who served for 20 years. “I am the new person, and the staff is treating me well,” Steve says.
He would like to make many improvements in the town. An immediate goal of his is to revitalize the K-Mart center on Foothill Boulevard and establish some strong businesses there. He also feels the city should stay on top of road maintenance and make road improvements. “I would like to see the city less reliant on the state, as far as local budget,” Steve says. “ I would like to see the city become more self reliant.” But, his primary goal for La Verne is that it will be as nice in five years as it is today and still a great place to raise a family.
Even with his hectic schedule, he finds free time to vacation with his family. The Johnsons own a cabin in the Sierras and enjoy spending time there. Steve likes to fish, hunt and snow ski. He talks excitedly about the family’s recent trip to the Sierras, and how it was opening day for trout season. He says his family skied in Mammoth and also got its share of fishing in. Although Steve rarely finds time for his scuba diving passion, he still owns all of the latest equipment. He is a busy man who will settle for nothing less than success.
“It is nice to have a say in the community,” Steve says passionately. “I want La Verne to be a place where my kids will consider raising a family.”