By Emily Jo Wharry
Ann Walnum, a local community activist, public school teacher and music instructor, died on March 3. She was 92.
A resident of Mount Washington for 67 years, Walnum is best known as a champion for the revitalization of the Southwest Museum, the oldest museum in Los Angeles, located in Mount Washington. But her activism on behalf of the museum was part and parcel of decades of energetic advocacy that touched all corners of Northeast L.A. and spanned local politics, history, education, the arts and the environment.
“A single-word description of Ann Walnum would be ‘indefatigable,’ said Eliot Sekular, a longtime resident of Highland Park who worked with Walnum on many projects. “Her persistence, commitment and passion were the stuff of community legend. When not completely focused on her advocacy, she was warm and funny and very good company.”
Born February 19, 1928, the only child of Dean and Catherine Wells, Walnum was raised in Mundelein, Illinois. Mundelein was a small town, but its proximity to Chicago allowed for a childhood spent visiting museums. In an interview in 2019 with Occidental College’s (NE)LA Stories community archival project, Walnum said that her childhood experiences shaped her love of museums and her commitment to preserving them.
In her high school years during World War II, she worked as a volunteer nurse in a hospital near Chicago.
But her future was not in Illinois. She moved to Los Angeles in 1949 to attend the University of Southern California, earning her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. It was here that she met Sven Walnum, a film school student from Norway and her future husband. At USC, she also joined the school’s intercultural club, where she made lifelong friends from across the world and cultivated her love of global learning.
Soon after graduation, in 1953, she moved to Mount Washington, and began her 30-year career as a third grade teacher at Margaret Heath Elementary in the Baldwin Park Unified School District.
She also taught outside of the classroom. An accomplished violinist, Walnum gave violin and piano lessons both privately and in free community workshops. For years, young soccer players in the Anahuak Youth Sports Association in NELA could receive free violin lessons from Walnum. She also played in community orchestras, such as the Rio Hondo Symphony and Mount Washington Symphony, and donated to groups such as the Young Musicians Foundation and The Mesopotamian Opera Company.
Her most profound legacy, however, is her advocacy for the 106-year old Southwest Museum, once the home to a collection of 250,000 Native American and Mexican artifacts.
In the 2019 interview with the (NE)LA Stories project, Walnum said that she and her friends had attended “practically every program” at the museum. She also volunteered at the museum from 1995 until 2003, when the museum officially merged with the Autry Museum of the American West due to financial troubles.
That same year, Walnum co-founded the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, a group of community organizations and individuals dedicated to ensuring that the Autry lived up to the merger agreement, namely, to revive the museum and display the collection there.
The struggle continues to this day. After the merger, the Autry moved the collection to its storage facility in Burbank; the move rescued the artifacts from deterioration but did not include a plan for returning the artifacts. The Autry also upgraded the Southwest Museum building, but not to museum standards. Instead, the Autry has said it would like to sell the building for use as a cultural center or multi-use property.
“Those of us in the community view this as a loss of our treasure and a slap in the face of the community,” Walnum said, explaining the frustration with the merger in a 2010 interview with The NonProfit Network. She remained a steadfast and vocal critic of the Autry’s treatment of the Southwest Museum for years to come, organizing protests that drew from the community’s deep indigenous and artistic roots, writing to raise awareness of the underlying complex financial, legal and political issues and calling for accountability on the part of the Autry.
In a 2013 editorial, the L.A. Times sided with the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, saying that the Autry “should not turn the Southwest into a garden-variety cultural center until there has been a serious attempt to rehabilitate it as a museum.”
Throughout the years of work on behalf of the Southwest Museum, Walnum was also active in cultural preservation, politics and environmental issues.
She served on the board of the Historical Society of Southern California and the Highland Park Heritage Trust and volunteered with the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society. She was a member of the Advisory Board of Debs Park and a director of the Hillside Federation. She held positions on the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council and the Cypress Park Neighborhood Council. She was a founding member of the East Area Progressive Democrats, a member of the Mount Washington Homeowners’ Association, and a supporter of the Californios for Fair Representation redistricting effort, the Blue Line Community Coalition and the Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
Walnum was also a founding member of the Lummis Legacy League, a nonprofit formed in 2019 and dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic history of the L.A. Arroyo Seco region and the archival accomplishments of Charles Fletcher Lummis, the founder of the Southwest Museum.
“This is a woman who had a very broad reach, because she really never stopped being involved and trying to do something positive,” said Hollace Davids, also a founding member of the Lummis Legacy League.
Other friends and colleagues echoed that sentiment, often joking that you couldn’t go to any neighborhood meeting without running into Walnum.
John Nese, owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop and a member of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, said it felt as though Walnum knew everyone — and that, combined with her feistiness, made her good at getting things done. “She was one of those people that continually went forward,” Nese said. “There weren’t too many backsteps. If she believed in something, she was going to go get it done.”
Walnum’s activities won her the respect and admiration of her community. In 2011, she received the “Lifetime Achievement” award from the Arroyo Seco Foundation for her efforts in neighborhood cleanups and beautification. In 2014, she was unanimously selected to receive the first annual “Noisemaker Award,” given by the Lummis Day Community Foundation for her service to Northeast Los Angeles.
Though Walnum was notorious for doing everything by hand, having never owned a computer, hundreds took to the Facebook pages of Highland Park, the Lummis Legacy League, Friends of the Southwest Museum and Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council to pay tribute to Walnum.
“Not many people become the glue of a community this size for so long,” said Carol Teutsch, a member of Southwest Museum Steering Committee.
Walnum is survived by her two children, a daughter, Viveca, of Medford, Oregon, and a son, Gregor, of Los Angeles. Her marriage to Sven Walnum ended in divorce in 1961.
A memorial service is scheduled for Friday, April 24 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Highland Park Ebell Club. For updates on the service’s date and time, visit the Lummis Legacy League Facebook page.