The residents are getting frail, and many express frustration at their ebbing energy. But their familiarity with international affairs and the artwork along the corridors are hints that Westminster Gardens in Duarte is no ordinary retirement home.
Former missionaries live here, each brimming with often-heroic stories about how they survived wars, built schools and churches and learned about foreign cultures.
"Most people that visit expect fuddy-duddy" folks in rocking chairs, said resident Marabelle Taylor, 74, who spent 41 years as a nurse in the West African country of Cameroon. "We're a rugged bunch of individuals."
The 30-acre estate of lodges and cottages was acquired by the Philadelphia-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1951 with a $1-million gift from a Chinese businessman who had attended a Presbyterian mission school in China.
Originally intended just for missionaries who had worked on for eign soil, the Gardens was eventually opened to other ministers over age 65 with at least 20 years of church service. Still, the majority of its 225 residents have worked overseas, many for a lifetime.
Wednesdays are activity days at the Gardens, when residents gather in the main hall for everything from dramatic readings of Tennyson to music by the residents' choir. Of course, there is time for reminiscing about serving God in exotic lands.
Murmurs of admiration and some amusement rippled through the audience last month as residents watched a film of the Rev. Rodger Perkins as a young man four decades ago when he was a flying missionary in Brazil.
Perkins, a 75-year-old Gardens resident, had been telling the audience of 180 how as a preacher near Rio de Janeiro he had traveled from village to village on a mule.
The church finally gave in to his pleas for a plane. With the single-engine Stinson Voyager sent down in 1947, he could distribute medicine and strew religious pamphlets over hamlets without touching down.
The presentation by Perkins, who is writing his autobiography, is part of a fledgling project to record the adventures of the residents of the Presbyterian retirement community.
"We're the last of a vanishing breed, and we discovered our people were dying before we could get their stories," said Jeanne Carruthers, a resident who spearheaded the effort to capture the livelier anecdotes of residents on tape six months ago.
The material will supplement an oral history project of the church, which already has brief biographies of all its missionaries.
Residents Dr. Frank Newman, and his wife, Betty, are preserving their life story in another form--a television script with 50 scenes so far. Missionaries in China for 15 years, the surgeon and nurse fled into the hills with medical supplies when their Hunan hospital was destroyed during World War II. Later they were placed under house arrest as American spies when the Communists came to power.
They left the country in 1951 because their activity had become so restricted ("People would be given the third degree for talking to us.").
The Newmans belong to a 15-member writers group in the Gardens, launched two years ago with a six-month artist-in-residence program underwritten by the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Actress and writer Osanna Phyllis Love, who has continued to be their writing coach, said the church has purchased at least 35 of the group's stories about their exploits for Sunday School literature, while some are being considered for commercial publication.
Ralph Stewart, 98, has been writing all his life, but about plants rather than himself. Stewart, who was a botany teacher in a mission school in India from 1911 to 1960, received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1916, writing his dissertation on specimens gathered in Kashmir and Tibet.
He later spent 14 summers at England's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, researching a book on the flora of Pakistan.
The itch for classifying greens hasn't let up. Even while recovering from a hip replacement, Stewart wanders around the grounds daily, identifying 700 specimens so far.
"I haven't put labels on all of them yet," said Stewart, who has already published the beginnings of a botanical guide to the Gardens. "Don't think I'll live long enough," he added with a chuckle.
Many others continue to be active locally.
Betty Wilmot, who served 37 years as a nurse in Colombia, uses her Spanish ability to teach classes in English as a second language at an El Monte community center. She enjoys the camaraderie she finds at the Gardens, saying that often friendships cultivated among missionaries abroad are stronger than blood ties. At the Gardens many have been reunited with people they worked with in the field. She is also grateful that her neighbors, because of their backgrounds, feel a part of international affairs.
"Most places there's a lack of global interest," said Wilmot, 66.
Marabelle Taylor serves as secretary of the Duarte Rotary Club and received the senior citizens community service award from the Duarte Chamber of Commerce last month.
Dorothy Kaufmann, director of nursing at the Gardens' health center, described Taylor as "our right hand."