Palo Alto Weekly 25th Anniversary

Margaret Ann Niven
'The way we were'

by Bill D'Agostino

One morning in the 1960s, Margaret Ann Niven's husband was leaving for work when he peered into one of his small children's bedrooms and saw an extra head.

Johnny Libertore, 2- or 3-years-old, who lived a few houses down, was unexpectedly sleeping in the bed.

"Johnny had woken early," recalled Margaret, a 70-year-old retired homemaker and child care director. "He knew he wasn't supposed to awaken anyone in his family, so he toddled down the street and came into our house. We never locked our doors. He climbed into bed with two of the kids. The Libertores didn't know he was there.

"That was the way we were. We spent a lot of time in one another's houses. Then the kids all got to be teenagers and our lives went in different directions."
"We're not close like we used to be," Margaret explained. "When we all moved in in 1959, we all got to know one another. There was lots of coffee klatches -- we would go to one another's homes and have a cup of coffee in the morning. But we don't do that. Our lives have changed so much."

On July 4, 1959, four days away from having her fourth child, Niven and her first husband moved into their newly built Eichler on Greer Road.

The young couple used a GI bill to buy the $24,000 home, and their monthly payments never exceeded $200. She stayed home and raised the four children, while he took numerous jobs to pay the bills.

They picked the neighborhood because they liked the diversity of the adjacent Laurence Lane, one of the first multicultural subdivisions in Palo Alto.

"This was a time when the whole nation was interested in breaking down the barriers," she said. "I guess we were one of those people -- rabble rousers, out to change the world."

Later in life, Margaret and her second husband, Andrew, adopted Margaret's grandson Bo after his father died at sea. But he's grown up too, and Margaret now lives alone (Andrew died 10 years ago). She spends her time quilting, volunteering for various civic groups, like KARA and AAUW, and seeing friends.

"I figure I have nine to 10 years of mobility left," she said "Then I'll move into a life care facility."

Niven worries her neighborhood is heading for change. Every time nearby homes sell, she frets that a "monster home" will finally move in, disrupting the quietness and quaintness of her block. So far that hasn't happened.

One three-bedroom residence across the street, 3029 Greer Road, sold three times in the last decade. Its selling price doubled from $345,000 in 1994 to $689,000 in 2003. But new owners never razed the old to build anew.

"They came in, they put a new roof on, they made some changes ... and it was a family who moved in there," Niven said. "It's nice."

She sees a big difference between herself and her older neighbors and the new families moving in.

"The demands of many of the companies in Silicon Valley are so much that the families just don't have a lot of time to themselves," she said. "When they're not working, they're being with their families because the time is limited. Getting involved in community is probably not their top priority."

Despite her passion for social issues, and her deep involvement with some nonprofits, Niven, herself, never got involved in the local political scene.
"People involved in politics, I feel, they want to change things radically and they want it to change now and they get very upset when it doesn't," she said. "And that's not the way human beings are. It takes time to make changes."

Still, she's "very upset" with President Bush, and jokes about stealing a neighbor's pro-Bush sign.

"In the middle of the night, could I sneak down there and yank that out?" she asked with a laugh. "I was surprised that they had the courage to put it up because boy, most of us, all the good people of Palo Alto" are Democrats.
Niven doubts that the small-town feel of Palo Alto, there when she moved in in 1959, will ever return.

"I think once that's gone, you don't get it back," she said.

Age: Margaret Ann Niven, 70
Income: "I have sufficient income to live comfortably but not to do things like people who live on the lottery do."
Kids: Four, all grown.
Years in home: 45
Price of house: $24,100
Community involvement: Volunteers for civic groups, including AAUW and KARA
Car: 1996 Toyota Previa
Where'd you grow up: San Jose
Profession: Retired
Do you consider yourself rich? "No. No. I consider myself middle-income. ... I don't consider myself rich in anything but my personal life."
Mortgage payment: Never more than $200 a month.

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25th Anniversary • 1979-2004




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