Talking to a homeless man in hospital garb the other day, little did I know he was someone I had done business with years before, as have countless North Hollywood and Valley Village residents.
It was Kent Willard, who owned and operated the beloved Willard’s Florist, which for 12 years did a thriving business at the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Burbank boulevards. The store employed 12 people and provided flowers for countless occasions and romances.
Heading north on Colfax Avenue I passed the Taco Bell at Magnolia Boulevard when I noticed him—a man with a big beard in sky blue hospital clothes and a wool cap. He was quite unsteady on his feet, trying to stand upright but falling back into the bushes, as if he were extremely medicated or drunk. Though many people walking and driving by saw his fall, nobody came to his assistance.
Thinking he may have somehow walked out of a hospital, I parked and went to see if I could help.
When I got to him, he was sitting on the sidewalk, sweating in the hot noonday sun, unable to stand. I helped him to his feet. Over his hospital garb, he was wearing a heavy leather bomber jacket and a wool cap. Asked if he was OK, he answered “no” in a voice both frail and sad.
“Should I call 911—to take you to a hospital?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “The hospital is the last place I want to be. I just got out of the hospital.”
He described a terrible accident in which both of his legs were nearly crushed.
“I was crossing Colfax,” he said, “and got hit by a car. When I was in the hospital they stole everything I had, my money, my clothes, even my shoes. All I got is this jacket.”
He asked if there were any way I could get him a single taco and some water. I did, and he was especially grateful, saying it was unusual for anyone to help him.
Asked if he were homeless, he told me that he owned a nice home for years — and a business—Willard’s Florist at 5600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in Valley Village.
“You owned Willard’s?” I asked. Even before moving into the neighborhood, I knew of Willard’s just by driving by it for many years.
“We were there for 12 years,” he said. “We did a great business. But then I had problems with my wife; and she accused me of a crime I didn’t commit so she could leave me. I lost her and my daughter and my home and my business.”
He said astronomical legal fees he incurred, along with ever-increasing medical problems and bills, resulted in him becoming homeless. He now spends most of his time in North Hollywood Park at Tujunga Avenue and Magnolia, he said, where he asked me to drive him.
Kent ate his taco and drank his water with shaky hands. He followed them with a sip from a tiny bottle of vodka, which he said was his only pain-reliever. I drove him to the park, where he thanked me and very slowly walked off among the trees.
Willard’s Florist remains one of the most fondly remembered establishments in Valley Village and North Hollywood. Opening in 1993 when Valley Village was still part of North Hollywood, it quickly established itself as a neighborhood flower shop with a difference. That difference was the flair and charm of Kent Willard.
“Every woman who walked in got a carnation presented to her upon arrival,” said Melissa Humpheys, a yoga instructor who was a longtime customer. “Talk about feeling special.... I lived close to the store and had passed by several times thinking it was too big, had to be overpriced, etc. After trying several other florists, who turned out to be too big or too small, definitely overpriced and lacking in any customer service, I found the oasis of Willard’s.”
Like many who remember the shop fondly, she emphasized that the best part about it was the warm spirit of Kent and his staff.
“Kent was an artist,” remembered Else Blangsted, 92, a former movie music editor who went to Willard’s for the roses. “His roses were more beautiful and his prices more reasonable than anywhere in the Valley. And he was a man who loved what he did — he loved his customers, his staff and his flowers.”
“He gave more than he needed to give to his customers,” she said. “Which is the definition of a mensch—a person who gives for the joy of giving.”
Humphreys agreed: “I remember [Kent] standing and pacing around, hands in pockets, ball cap, beard, like a lion watching over his pride. The girls who worked at Willard’s were like flower angels.”
Melissa told her then-boyfriend and now husband that if he were thinking flowers, Willard’s was the place.
“He took the subtle hint, and from then on I was gifted with Willard’s arrangements for any and all occasions, and sometimes just because he is the most romantic man in the world," she said. “I still have some of the unique vases they used for their arrangements. Sometimes the vessels were as gorgeous as the flowers.”
Like many who remembered Willard’s, Melissa stated that the florist still had a place in her heart and her home.
“I am using several of [the Willard’s vases] this weekend to fill with fresh flowers to celebrate our 10th anniversary and vow renewal,” she said. “It’s like Willard’s is a part of our journey, even now. They were there at the start of our relationship and they are still with us in spirit and in vases. Willard’s lives on in our hearts.”
She’s but one of many people who were heartbroken when Willard’s closed, and shocked to learn of Kent’s predicament.
“There simply was no other florist like Willard's, then or now,” said Melissa’s husband, the songwriter Mark Humphreys. “The place was downright lush, overflowing with the most beautiful bouquets and plants and stuffed animals — and always decorated for whatever occasion or holiday was approaching.... But the best thing about the place was the staff. Amazing, kind and generous people who remembered my name, remembered that I was married to Melissa and always put together special arrangements just for her.”
Like many, he was disheartened to discover Willard’s was no more.
“I drove there to buy Melissa a bouquet a few years ago only to pull into the parking lot to discover an abandoned space," he said. “I literally cried. I have never, ever found another florist anything like it, anywhere.”
These days former customers of Willard’s can turn to Diana’s Flowers, which is around the corner from the former florist, whose space has been occupied by a series of businesses next door to Papa John’s Pizza.
Though I haven’t seen Kent since first meeting him, people who work near that Taco Bell, which is now , told me they’ve seen him frequently, and often give him bagels and other food items, for which he is genuinely grateful.
“I discovered Kent this morning sleeping outside of my office,” wrote a man in the neighborhood who has known Willard for decades, and who asked not to be identified. “He was in the back where the trash bin is. I hadn’t seen him in about six months. Last time he came asking for money for food. I handed him two nice nectarines. This morning I bought [him] a croissant and went back to work.”
Kent was known to this man not only for his business, but for his baseball prowess.
“Lots of local baseball players know who Kent is,” he continued. “He was a gifted ballplayer. Last time I saw him was about 1979. I was his teammate in over-the-line [softball] and proud to be his teammate. I wish someone could pull him out of this. I think he has a sponsor. I hope someone who reads this has some idea about how to help him.”
That’s the hope of many who were interviewed, that somehow Kent can be helped. He’s long been a successful and admired member of this community, and although successive misfortune has resulted in his current condition, he’s not an old man, and with help could rebound into a productive life again.
He also stands as a stark reminder that the homeless among us, who live and sleep in these streets of our community, are not to be disregarded, and that their tragedy could befall any one of us.
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