John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
But Mr. Appleseed has nothing on Long Beach’s John Royce.
Those trees you see when driving through California Heights? You can thank Royce for helping to plant many of them. And the trees on the sidewalks along the Atlantic Avenue business district? Royce, again. And along Wardlow Avenue? Well, Royce had a hand in getting trees along that corridor, too. In fact, according to Royce’s computations, he is responsible for having almost 1,000 trees planted around the city.
If you haven’t heard of Royce, then he is fine with that because Royce is one of those people who enjoys flying below the radar. He doesn’t need, or want, the recognition.
“I never found it necessary to be recognized for the work that I do,” Royce says.
“My parents taught us at an early age that personal responsibility mattered and that’s why I think I got involved in volunteer efforts. There were things around me that needed to be done and they weren’t getting taken care of and I thought, ‘well, why don’t I try?’”
But before he started planting trees — after all, his father was a horticulturalist in Idaho — Royce’s first effort at getting things done was modest: picking up litter while living in Alamitos Beach in 1991.
“When I moved to Alamitos Beach, it wasn’t quite as pristine as Belmont Shore,” he says. “There were definitely things in my neighborhood that I thought needed to be taken care of. In order to unwind after driving from Irvine every afternoon, I would go for a walk and so I started picking up pieces of trash. Because my parents instilled in us that sense of personal responsibility, I didn’t feel like I should walk past this every day. It was in my neighborhood and I just thought, ‘well, I’ll just pick this up.’”
After he got a dog, the walk wasn’t just to pick up dog droppings; there still was litter to be picked up. And often he needed more than just one bag.
“Once you get started with that, it’s tough to stop,” Royce says. “I’ve been an avid litter picker ever since.”
Not long after moving away from the beach and into California Heights, Royce got drawn into the neighborhood association meetings. He volunteered for projects including a ReLeaf program that involved planting trees in that part of the city. With the assistance of TreePeople Los Angeles, 85 trees were planted. About half the trees died in that first effort. But Royce didn’t give up. He suggested to the association that the program be reduced and that way if people didn’t take care of trees in front of their residences, it would be easier to take care of the smaller number of saplings.
Royce says that the ReLeaf program has been his most satisfying volunteer effort.
That program continues and because of his success, Royce has given advice to other neighborhood associations that have asked for his help on how to develop a tree planting program.
“It is very satisfying to drive down the streets in many parts of town and say, ‘oh, I had a hand.’ Of course, I didn’t do it alone, but that’s always a very satisfying thing,” he says.
When Royce isn’t busy planting, picking up litter — Cal Heights has a clean street program that celebrating its 10-year anniversary — or helping others with their landscaping issues, you can find him at the Historical Society of Long Beach, where he is the membership coordinator.
“I knew his work with the California Heights Neighborhood Association,” says Julie Bartolotto, the Historical Society’s executive director. “I had interacted with him previously when I invited him to do a talk about the Heights.”
“My work here at the Historical Society is very important to me,” says Royce, who has worked with HSLB since 2015 and helped created the latest project, Water Changes Everything. “I’ve always been interested in our local history.”
As a Long Beach resident for almost 30 years, Royce has had a problem with one thing: saying no. He admits that friends tell him he needs to learn to turn away requests, but people come to him with issues that interest him and he values the fact that others are doing something; that they are not indifferent.
“I never understood what the sense of community meant until I started living in Long Beach,” he says. “I’ve made wonderful friends through this whole process. Those are immensely satisfying friendships.
“One of the things I can do every day is pick up a piece of trash that isn’t going to go down the gutter and land on the beach or in the ocean. With some help, we can engage people to take part in improving the community that we share. If we all just took 30 seconds to pick up those things that are in front of our shop or our garage door or down the street, that is a problem that is immediately solved. We all need to pitch in. There’s a whole lot of us who can give a little bit more and fix things that are affecting our quality of life.”