YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE GIFT OF TIME / Volunteers in Orange County

News Neighbors

When Dolly and Howard Langhans retired to a San Juan Capistrano mobile home park, they had no idea they'd become . . .


Longtime Anaheim residents Howard and Dolly Langhans were ready for a scene change when they sold their single-family home and moved to San Juan Mobile Estates in San Juan Capistrano three years ago.

But the couple never anticipated how their retirement years would be transformed by both serendipity and technology, or how they would help unify their creek-side community.

Although neither of the Langhanses had any publishing experience, Swallows Chit-Chat, the monthly newsletter for the park's 550 residents, was dumped at the couple's door soon after they moved in. It was typed on adding machine tape by a retired printer in his 90s, who pasted it up with graphics cut from old magazines. He viewed a white-out ribbon as a technological advance.

"No one had any direction," said Dolly Langhans, 69, a former office-services manager who wears Birkenstock-style sandals and denim shorts. "In a sense, I felt we could be the backbone."

With the Langhanses' personal computer and their talent for gentle persuasion, Chit-Chat changed from being a soft-focus mix of recipes, events calendar and history to having a harder edge.

It has since become a self-supporting publication of the residents' association, giving the Langhanses the discretion, the headaches and the status of small-town publishers.

"Man, has it changed our lives," said Howard Langhans, 77, who estimated the couple volunteer 80 hours a month on the newsletter. "We can't find time to squeeze in a vacation."

Many parks, whose residents are 55 and older, have newsletters; most are published by park managers or through a contract with outside providers, said a spokeswoman for the Golden State Mobilehome Owners League.

"In every park they are very well read," said Kenneth M. Hodges, editor of Swallow Tales, a newsletter for residents of Capistrano Valley Mobile Estates, also in San Juan Capistrano.

He praised the Langhanses' efforts, particularly for finding topics of interest to readers of all ages. "It's harder to find common interests in an all-age park; but there are more people who can contribute," he said.

It's not that so much needed doing at the largest of the city's seven mobile-home parks, the only one open to residents of all ages. But disputes--such as applying the city's rent stabilization rules or allowing children as residents, which was permitted beginning in 1994--kept surfacing, putting the park's owners at odds with resident groups.

Many residents, on average 65 or older, were too timid to ask managers to enforce rules.

Through Chit-Chat, the park's factions of older and younger residents learned the unwritten rules of park conduct, said Pattie Rothgery, a former assistant park manager at the San Juan Mobile Estates, who now manages a Phoenix park. "The paper helped each understand each other, or eventually we'd be at each other's throats."

Rothgery says the park's neat appearance is partly due to Howard Langhans' column prodding park managers and residents to spruce up their surroundings. "He didn't step on toes too hard," she said.

The Langhanses receive anonymous tips about young people bike-riding on the shuffleboard court and are sought in crises. A former park manager asked the Langhanses for help in alerting residents about a probable evacuation when rain-swollen Trabuco Creek overran its banks last winter.

Howard Langhans, a former salesman, is a self-described electronics nut who owns a shortwave radio and police scanner.

He acquired his first personal computer in 1991 to simplify what had become a voluminous hobby. Over a decade, he compiled a list of 1,000 celebrity birth dates on loose-leaf notebook paper. A computer database simplified the list, which has since grown to 5,400 entries, ranging from baseball legend Ted Williams (Aug. 30, 1918) to rock singer Alice Cooper (Feb. 4, 1948).

Now the couple own two powerful PCs. Their home office has an extensive graphics library with four software packages. They are as conversant about disk space and operating speed as any tech-head. Their newsletter has doubled in size, to 16 pages, and is half paid advertisements. A standing column on upcoming birthdays makes good use of Howard's celebrity trivia horde.

Swallow Tales editor Hodges said that the Langhanses aren't likely to encounter harsh critics. "No one pushes too hard because, after all, they are doing it for nothing."

After being printed at Kinko's in San Juan Capistrano, seven volunteer couriers, including Dolly, deliver 50 copies along their assigned park route. Residents who aren't home find their copy under a "communication rock," a brick or some other paperweight on the carport side of the mobile home, she said.

Alladi Vankatesh, a professor of technology at UC Irvine's graduate school of management, says the Langhanses are exceptional for integrating technology into their lives in a way that has social meaning and moral purpose. He said studies show that older people often reject technology not because they are technophobes but because it reduces social contact, which they crave.

"There is no way they would have done this without technology," said Vankatesh, who has included the Langhanses in a research project studying how technology is shaping people's lives. "It's transformed their existence and made them leaders."

* Know someone who gives the gift of his or her time to help others? Please tell us about those unheralded folks who try to make a difference. Send us your tips--and please include your name and telephone number as well as theirs--by facsimile to (714) 966-7790 or by mail to Gift of Time, Life & Style section, Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

Los Angeles Times Articles