He’s heard it all too often, even downplaying the role, but John Vandercook’s involvement in the community makes him worthy of the designation.
The words “Mr. South Pasadena” go hand-in-hand with the guy, an association so many believe he richly deserves.
“John is beloved by many in the community,” says the town’s mayor, Dr. Marina Khubesrian. “I know him as a very warm human being, always ready with a warm smile, a hug, and a kind word.”
Others know him for his commitment to a cause, whether as a Kiwanis member, serving on the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, lending time to the Oneonta Club, a board of director for the local Chamber of Commerce or any number of commissions he’s provided input over the years.
Vandercook donates countless hours to a host of organizations while running a successful business, supported by hundreds of customers he’s met along the way as the owner of Reimagine Your Home in the 1500 block of Mission Street in the city.
“When I first opened up the store in 1994, I always had the understanding that as a small, independent business operator, it was a very positive thing to be involved in the local community,” explained Vandercook, who grew up in neighboring San Marino, going through the local school system before graduating from Southern Oregon University. “To get to know people, to give back and serve the community as a local business owner was important to me.”
Early on in business, his first civic move was to get involved with Kiwanis, followed by the Chamber of Commerce, the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses, Oneonta Club and the Downtown Redevelopment Commission that looked to develop the Mission Oaks parking lot behind Citizens Bank on Mission Street. The project stalled over time and eventually died.
“It was an opportunity to not only be involved, but I was able to meet a number of wonderful people who have become great friends over the years,” explained Vandercook of his many ties to the city. “It was a way to establish a connection into the community and being of service. It has been to my benefit in establishing relationships with so many people around the city.”
His unconditional love for South Pasadena has earned him the tag, “Mr. South Pasadena” by his closest friends, which Vandercook shrugs off, saying: “I think there are a lot of people who could be called that. When I first heard it, I smiled and thought, ‘What?’ I don’t place a lot of emphasis on that designation. I’m glad to be able to live and work and be involved in the community, develop wonderful relationships and give back any way that I can.”
South Pasadena resident Bill Cullinane, who has worked with Vandercook on committees and organizations over the years, calls him “a fixture in the community,” noting, “We are all better off for having known him. He has held volunteer positions in the community that are almost too numerous to list. His volunteerism always leaves the city in a better place, some with long-lasting effects that will be felt by future generations.”
Vandercook is appreciative of the accolades tossed his way, but insists, “There are a lot of people in town who have done an awful lot,” he said before paying tribute to retired businessman Ted Shaw, recognized for spearheading the city’s initial Festival of Balloons 4th of July Parade in 1982, the Cruz’n for Roses Classic Car Show Classic Car Show fundraiser for the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee 14 years ago, while lending a hand to a myriad of events over the years. “He has been a major contributor to the success of South Pasadena.”
Yet, it’s difficult to overlook Vandercook, who insists the “Mr. South Pasadena” tag doesn’t start and end with him. “There are a lot of people who came decades before me,” he said. “One person who stands out I never met, is long gone, but was an obvious mover and shaker of South Pasadena back in the 1920s. It was a man by the name of Clyde S. Church. He owned a bank where Comerica Bank is currently located (at the corner of Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue). He was very much involved in South Pasadena and built the Rialto Theatre in 1925. He also built the Masonic Lodge on Fair Oaks Avenue and an iconic theater in Highland Park, which, I think, is still operational. So, there are people in every historic aspect of this community who have made a tremendous amount of contributions to this city in making it what it is today.”
What it is today is a better city because of what Vandercook has helped to make it. You can count on him being there, alongside Alan Vlacich, organizing the annual fundraising golf tournament for the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses, flipping pancakes for Kiwanis on July 4th, adding his expertise in support of the Oneonta Club in raising top dollars for three major scholarships going to local high school students and is always at the ready, providing his suggestions when it comes to economic development for the Chamber of Commerce.
“I have enjoyed being involved in many South Pasadena organizations with John, like Kiwanis, Oneonta Club, and the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses,” explained Vlacich, who has known Vandercook since the time the two were elementary school classmates in San Marino. “John and I have been the SPTOR co-chairs of the SPTOR Golf Tournament at the Arroyo Seco for more than 15 years. What I admire about him is when he says he is going to do something, he does it. He is extremely trustworthy.”
The list of Vandercook’s many contributions is seemingly endless. No task is too great.
“I’m honored by people referring to me with that designation, but I don’t put a lot of importance on it,” he said of being called “Mr. South Pasadena.” “Titles are one thing you can’t cash at the bank. They are nice complementary terms, but you don’t do things for that kind of a designation. I think the thing that has always been my motivation knowing is it has been a privilege to live in South Pasadena where you can make a little bit of a difference.”
The man who has made more than a little bit of a difference insists there are many worthy “Mr. and Mrs. South Pasadena’s” in town.
The people, noted Vandercook, are the driving force to “what makes this town so great,” he said. “Individuals come into my store who have moved here from the Midwest or East Coast. They will ask me, ‘What is South Pasadena all about?’ And, I will say, ‘The simplified answer would be, we’re very quaint, but we’re not quiet.’ That’s what I love about this community. Everybody is engaged and wants to make it the best community it can be. They love this community so much that they have a voice. They tell you what they’d like to see happen here. They are involved, speak up, and are grateful and want to see the community thrive.”
Conversations with newcomers often weave from the city’s exceptional schools, downtown economic development to the well-preserved 100-year-old Craftsman-style homes, where Vandercook can be of assistance by providing 30-plus years of industry know-how when it comes to the latest flooring and window coverings, while offering friendly, hands-on personal service at Reimagine Your Home.
“When customers come into the store, they already know they have a need to do something in their home or workplace,” explained Vandercook. “They just don’t know what’s available and don’t know how to get there. As a service business it becomes my mission to help them get from their point of need to their result.”
Its name, Reimagine Your Home, was created to speak to the customer. “You’re helping them reimagine what it would look like or what they could do after identifying their need,” he said. “I help them with products, installation and services to get to that end result.”
The store sells unique flooring featuring high quality carpet, area rugs, hardwood floors, laminates, vinyl, linoleum, and window covering items, including shutters, shades, blinds, awnings and drapes – with samples carefully displayed.
Recognizing the world is changing with millions purchasing goods and services online, especially through Amazon, the world’s largest sales company, Vandercook believes he has the remedy to fight off the competition.
It all starts with taking care of customers from the time they walk through the door. “There are products in the flooring and window covering industry that you can buy online,” he explained. “It’s a very limited selection. Fortunately, for me, the kind of products I sell and represent from manufacturers are such that most consumers want to see and touch and feel the product, its texture, look at the color, and have a need to take the samples into their home or workplace to see how it’s going to look in their setting. That’s hard to do with an online sales agency where they just might send out a small sample of something.”
Having a brick-and-mortar showroom the likes of Reimagine Your Home, explained Vandercook, helps people visualize what the finished product will look like. “The reason people would want to do business with me is because of the amount of customer service I am able to offer them,” he said. “I’m basically a dealership representing manufacturers of different floor covering material, whether it’s carpet, hardwood, linoleum or vinyl, and window treatments.”
With a good housing stock in South Pasadena and surrounding cities, combined with that personal touch, the business has worked well for Vandercook, who married Peggy O’Leary, a longtime South Pasadena resident, last May.
“I’m grateful because the store has provided a great livelihood, giving me an opportunity to live in South Pasadena and enjoy the community,” said Vandercook, who has been the sole owner of the business for 2 ½ years after co-owning it with Cristine Ruiz for eight. Today, he operates it alongside Laurie Astle. “It has been a successful vehicle to allow me to enjoy life in this city.”
Right there with him has been O’Leary, who attended the former Oneonta Elementary School in the city, before going to what was once the junior high in town and later South Pasadena High School, then USC. “Marriage is great,” said Vandercook, noting that their combined families have grown significantly following previous marriages. “Between the two of us we have five adult children and six grandchildren.”
Vandercook was asked if his marriage is as great as it appears to others when the two walk arm-in-arm, around town?
“It’s better,” he said, smiling. “I have an expression where I say, ‘Keep your fork, the best is yet to come.’ That’s the way our marriage is. Just when you think you’ve given up on being married again, once you open up your mind and heart to that, and have kept your fork, the best is right there. It’s like dessert – keep your fork.”
It’s a natural rivalry between Vandercook and O’Leary during the fall when one wears blue and white to represent San Marino High and the other orange and black depicting South Pasadena High’s colors in anticipation to the annual football game between the two schools.
“It makes it fun every year,” said Vandercook, rubbing it in a bit that San Marino hasn’t lost the rival gridiron match since 2010.
It’s all in fun, of course, which is a word that seems to suit the good-natured Vandercook just fine. He seems to make life, well, enjoyable.
Seemingly, any conversation with him always reverts back to mentioning the town he calls “special.” You can take Vandercook out of South Pasadena, but you can’t take South Pasadena out of Vandercook.
The place is, indeed, special to him.
“I love this town,” he said. “We live in South Pasadena, my business is in South Pasadena, my kids went to school in South Pasadena. The people are the driving force that makes this community so great.”
Vandercook likes to refer to South Pasadena as “Mayberry – with an attitude,” describing the fictitious community made famous on the once popular Andy Griffith Show originating in the 1960s.
“There are probably a lot of little sleepy Mayberry’s around this country without attitudes, but I’m not sure they get a lot of things done,” quipped Vandercook.
South Pasadena does, getting things done, that is, especially with people the likes of John Vandercook, or, yes, “Mr. South Pasadena,” around.
It’s a tag, they’ll tell you, is well deserved.