By Susie Ling
Sometimes, things are just meant to be. Claudia Heller grew up under the “D” of the Hollywood sign; she now lives near the “D” of Duarte. In her first visit to the Duarte Historical Museum in 1980, she met “Vicki” — that’s Victoria Duarte Cordova who was the great great granddaughter of Andres Duarte, and a descendant of three of the soldiers that accompanied the 44 pobladores that founded the pueblo de Los Angeles. Claudia got hooked, and she has been the president of the Duarte Historical Museum since 1992. She has also been the columnist covering Duarte for the San Gabriel Valley News Group since 1991. She is author of “Duarte Chronicles,” “Life on Route 66,” and now “Curiosities of the California Desert.”
Claudia may have been destined for this. Claudia was the eldest of the seven children of Judge Lewis and Jean Ellen Garrett. Lewis Garrett was an Associated Press journalist while attending law school. Claudia said, “My dad was seldom home because he would travel from Hollywood to build his law practice in San Bernardino. Before the 210 Freeway, Dad was travelling daily on Route 66.” Garrett also had a fondness for local history and was the author of “Postal History of San Bernardino” and “Place Names of the San Bernardino Mountains.”
Claudia was the assistant editor of Los Angeles City College’s The Collegian newspaper when Monrovian author, Richard Singer, was editor. Claudia moved to Duarte in search for affordable housing for their young family. “At that time, we had never heard of Duarte or the San Gabriel Valley,” said Claudia, “but we loved that it had the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, a small town feel, plus immense wild life.” In their annual Bird Walk, members of the Duarte Historical Society counted 70 different species of birds. The leader of the Bird Walk is Kimball Garrett, the ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum — and Claudia’s little brother.
Under Claudia’s able leadership, the Duarte Museum always has a wonderful range of interesting programs. They are finishing an exhibit on Barbie dolls with an exhibit on Depression glass forthcoming. They’ve done presentations ranging from local African American history, Buddhism, and the pioneering photography of Rudolph d’Heureuse. Claudia comes up with all kinds of ideas but she credits her partners, “We have a great team on our Board.” One of her best ideas was to erect a statue of Andres Duarte. Of course it was an “all hands on deck” community project. “We couldn’t decide between the soldier prototype vs. the rancher prototype submitted by sculptor Richard Myer. Vicki sat right here, looked at both, and preferred the rancher. Unfortunately, the 12-foot sculpture was too tall for the original site we had planned,” laughs Claudia. Well, it looks fantastic where it was installed in 2007.
Duarte’s Historical Museum was founded in 1951 and had some illustrious leaders along the way including PCC Professor Ida May Shrode, author Lucille Morrison, Mayor Monty and Dorothy Montgomery, author Irwin Margiloff, Herbert and Margaret Meier, Councilmember Aloysia Moore, and renowned Monrovian and Duarte historian Steve Baker. The Duarte Historical Museum inherited the home of the very colorful 1930s Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts. “It was retired contractor Monty Montgomery that figured out how to cut the house in two and move it to its current position in Encanto Park in 1992. The moving house was followed by school bands and a parade. At that time, the park was mostly dirt and tumbleweeds with visiting road runners,” remembered Claudia. Then mechanic John Strunz left his estate to the Duarte Museum. “We make it happen. All our programs are free,” said Heller.
“I fell into the Museum president position probably the same way Alan became Board president of the Duarte Charter cable station,” laughed Claudia. Husband Alan explained, “Our boys were playing football for Duarte High and I would run around with a video camera, interviewing the players and the coaches… All the parents and coaches wanted a copy of my VHS. That’s how I got a show on Duarte’s cable TV. Mary Somerlott retired as the DCTV Board president, and when I went to the bathroom, the rest of the Board voted for me to replace her.”
Alan and Claudia met in their freshman year at Hollywood High. They’ve always been avid travelers. “When we turned 66, we retired and drove the 2,400 miles of Route 66.” With Claudia and Alan at the helm, the Duarte Historical Museum is a gem along the foothills, near where the San Gabriel River meets Route 66. Officially, the address is 777 Encanto Parkway. By the way, “encanto” is Spanish for charming.