Redevelopment has not only helped Signal Hill grow through residential development and increased the city’s population, it has also substantially boosted sales-tax revenue through construction of major retail centers that are now anchored by Costco, Home Depot and numerous car dealerships. Without redevelopment, the small city on the hill might have remained a ghost town of oil derricks.
Marjorie Grommé was there at the beginning, as city treasurer, when Signal Hill received its first redevelopment check in 1975.
Born Marjorie England, she grew up on an Ohio farm with two brothers and two sisters.
Having been a “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II, she was subsequently employed by Westinghouse and, in 1946, traveled to Arizona, where she worked on B-29 and B-47 modifications.
In 1955, she and her husband, Al Posner, moved to California and settled in Signal Hill. They moved to a rental home at 20th Street and Dawson Avenue on April 1, 1955, just in time for their daughter Neena to be born the following month. (Neena is now the publisher of the Signal Tribune.)
Not only has Grommé been active in city government and community activities, she was living in Signal Hill during a number of significant events, such as a plane crash in the city and the Hancock Oil Fire, both in the late 1950s.
Grommé spent an hour with the Signal Tribune for an interview about her time as city treasurer, the resistance to redevelopment in its early days, the Hancock Oil Fire and what she thinks makes Signal Hill an interesting place.
Tell me about when you became Signal Hill’s city treasurer.
I became city treasurer when Neena’s father, Al Posner, died. He was in his second four-year term as the elected treasurer when he took his own life, and somebody suggested to me that I apply. So I picked up the phone, and I called Bill Mendenhall, who was on the Council and was influential. He said, “Well, why not?” So, he took it to the other council members, and I got the call and [they] said, “Come in. We’d like to talk to you.” And I was appointed. Just as simple as that.
You mentioned in your book that there was an application process you had to go through.
Tell me about that.
I don’t remember details. I really do not. They made it very pleasant for me.
How long was it after Al passed that you applied for the position?
Very shortly. Very shortly after.
And why did you apply for the position?
Well, I guess because it was suggested to me that I might qualify. I had just retired from Los Angeles County… working in the Department of Public Social Services, known as DPSS, and I wasn’t ready to quit working. The recompense– is that the proper word?– was very little, but that had nothing to do with it. I was very proud to be accepted and to be working with the Council and the City and the treasurer’s department, which was very well staffed and taken care of.
How long did you hold the position?
Well, to this day, I’m somewhat embarrassed, but I had good cause. I held the position for a couple of years, and I don’t remember precisely [how long], because I remarried. And I married a man [Norman LaPorte, who had been] a long-time friend. He and his deceased wife and I and Al Posner had been good friends and had done a number of things together as couples. [After his wife’s passing], he was lonely, up in Yucca Valley, where they had only lived a short time, and so he was coming back to Signal Hill to participate with some activities that he had been a part of down here. And so we did some things together, and went to a couple of my family’s activities, and he was made so welcome, we just gradually became a couple. It was just a nice thing to do, and we liked each other. As it happened, although he seemed in good shape at the time we married, it soon came out that he had cancer, and it was far advanced, and he didn’t survive. So, we had 15 months together married. We enjoyed the companionship. When he got sick, I had no choice but to resign. [She later married Justus Grommé.]
In your book you say that some of the “old-timers” were against redevelopment. Why did they put up such a resistance to it?
They didn’t understand what it was all about. Whether I was sitting up at the front or sitting in the audience, I attended Council meetings. Period. And the big story was they said, near as I can quote, “We want our money to stay in Signal Hill.” They didn’t want anybody else, outside, telling them how to spend their money. And that was exactly the thing.
Did they eventually come around and change their point of view about it?
It was just a few people, and they were outnumbered when it came to the vote.
Where were you and your family, and what were you doing, during the Hancock Oil Fire in 1958?
We were renting a home on 20th Street and Dawson Avenue. I don’t remember the hour, but I remember having heard some noises that were not correct, and, because we on the southwest side of the hill, and the fire was on the north side of the hill, it wasn’t really until the flames– the smoke started coming up that we could see from in front of our house. And of course that was frightening because we had no idea what it was at that time. So we didn’t know whether we were going to have to evacuate or what. In the meantime, it was, I believe, the latter part of the work week, and we were getting ready to leave that Friday night for a weekend trip to Tucson, Arizona, and we didn’t know whether we were going to have to cancel our trip or not, because [we wondered,] “Were our houses going to be caught on fire? Might it be coming over the hill?” Of course, we soon found that it was being handled.
How did you find that out?
Well, I don’t recall. I know, of course, like everybody else, we had to drive over the hill to see where it was actually coming from, but we saw that there was nothing around at that time to catch fire that would make it spread over the hill. We were satisfied that it was okay for us to leave. But the devastation was pretty bad. Very frightening for those that were having to work with it, because, how long was an oil fire going to take to extinguish?
Do you remember how long it took to put it out?
No, I don’t.
Do you remember a certain smell in the air?
Oh, there was a certain amount of smell of oily substance. However, the winds tend to come in that area, because of the hill, from the northwest, and kind of blew it away from our area.
Tell me about the plane crash you heard shortly after moving into the Raymond Avenue house.
It was early morning, about the time you think about getting up to go to work, and we heard this plane go over, and it was very, very low. I’d been around aircraft enough to be familiar with it. It sounded as though it was a small plane. As it turned out, it was. But it crash-landed across Cherry Avenue in what was then pretty much open area and used by the telephone company for some of their rig storage and so forth. I think there were some deaths involved.
What do you think makes Signal Hill an interesting city?
Signal Hill is interesting in interesting ways. The location– the fact that back there in 1924, ‘25, that some of the residents had the foresight to make it into a city because the oil had been discovered on the hill. Otherwise, it would have eventually been swallowed up by Long Beach. And the citizens that lived there (in Signal Hill) had enough cohesion among themselves to keep it separate. That’s the way that I have gotten the story. And they had some people who had foresight. When Al and I moved there, the people were “old-timers.” There were a lot of the “old-timers” left, people that had lived there a long time. And I can’t rattle off names anymore. I can pick out a few if I stop and think about it. But we liked the small-community part of it. We had lived in Tucson, Arizona, before coming to Long Beach-Signal Hill area, [where] Al, my husband, had been very active. They used to accuse us of working for the chamber of commerce because I worked downtown, and my husband did too. Me, doing secretarial work, such as it was, got the ranchers and the big hotel owners together and started the Pima County Sheriffs Posse. So, I was already involved in doing civic things when we came to Signal Hill, and it just seemed the right thing to do– to get involved.
Rachael Rifkin helped Grommé write her memoir in 2009 and assisted with the research of this article. To read more about Grommé, go to lifestoriestoday.com/stories, and scroll down to find her book.