Yet lifelong Woodhaven resident Leonora Lavan, 79, has always called a two-story home on 91st Avenue where she was born and has lived in since 1932 her home.
Since that time, Lavan—a mother of one adult son, Michael, and married to husband David— immersed herself in local happenings and politics. She served for 10 years as a member of Commu- nity Board 10 and on the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association (WRBA) and was named Woman of the Year by the WRBA in 2010.
However, one of her proudest achievements, she said, was helping several friends and neighbors to co-found the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society in 1981. She has been the president since its inception.
Lavan credited her parents for instilling in her the values of civic pride. She grew up with her sister, Ann McCormack, and her parents, Vito Martinelli, an Italian craftsman, and Katharina Miller of Germany, both of whom immigrated to the Unites States.
“I remember how my father would always have the [US] flag up every holiday,” she said as she recalled her early years. “They were very patriotic, and never missed an election because voting for them was very important.”
Having seen her beloved Woodhaven grow and change over the last few decades—she can still distinctly recall being walked home by nuns for air raid drills during the hectic, war-fueled 1940s—Lavan’s unique perspective made her a perfect fit for the society, which has served as the local keeper of Woodhaven’s history.
Yet, after 20 years, Lavan felt that it was time for a change—which is what led her to step down from her position as the society’s president recently.
“I think 20 years is enough,” Lavan said with a laugh as she discussed her recent retirement from her leadership role in the group, which will now be headed by Woodhaven resident and civic leader Ed Wendell when the society holds its next meeting Jan. 25.
When asked about what led her to pick Wendell, president of the WRBA, to serve in her place, Lavan said she was impressed with Wendell’s previous experience with social media, citing the WRBA’s Facebook page and website at woodhaven-nyc.org.
It is Lavan’s hope that Wendell could use that knowledge to help keep the society growing.
“I don’t really have a lot of knowledge of that sort of thing, but he does and I think that’s what the society needs to keep thriving,” she said.
Wendell, who grew up in Woodhaven, credited Lavan and the society for several steps in preserving the community’s history.
Such steps include publishing several books related to local history such as The Story of Woodhaven and Ozone Park by Vincent Seyfried, and Dexter Park, written by Jane and Thomas Jacobs.
However, Wendell said, the society’s most notable feat was commemorating Woodhaven landmarks, including the erection of numerous signs at the Forest Park Carousel, a factory in Atlantic Avenue once owned by industrialist Florian Grosjean, a house that once housed famed 1930s movie actress and sex symbol Mae West and the site of Dexter Park—where Babe Ruth once played and the site of the first baseball night game in the United States.
“There’s a lot of neat things about Woodhaven that people might not know, and the society was key in preserving those important parts of our community,” said Wendell. “It’s important to keep the history of the area around, and they [the society] were doing it at a time where they didn’t have benefits like internet.”
Looking ahead, while joking that he was “scared stiff ” about taking the reins of the historical society, Wendell said he was considering adding more interactive lectures for their audiences, paid for by the nonprofit New York Council for the Humanities, on different topics, which are yet to be decided on.
Wendell praised Lavan for all of her work through the years with the society.
“To keep any organization alive is difficult, but to stay at the mantle for 20 years is remarkable,” he said, calling Lavan “well respected, well-liked, and perhaps the nicest person you’ll ever come across.”
As she reflected on her time in the society, which she still plans to actively attend, Lavan said, “I learned an awful lot that even surprised me. It’s a unique learning experience.”
The society next meets on Jan. 25 in the meeting room of Emmanuel United Church of Christ, at 91st Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard.
By Jean-Paul Salamanca