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L.A. Loses a Champion: Tom LaBonge Dies Suddenly at 67

View of Griffith Observatory from Griffith Park beneath a tree | Patrick T'Kindt / Unsplash
Tom LaBonge, a larger-than-life character in city hall meetings and effusive champion of Los Angeles, has passed away suddenly.
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On top of Griffth Park’s Mount Hollywood, an inconspicuous spot with beautiful views of Los Angeles suddenly piled up with flowers, and a lone framed photo of a man in a tie appeared. The site marks part of longtime City Councilman Tom LaBonge’s daily hiking route to Griffith Park, whose cause was one of the many he championed over his decades-long career in politics, and this impromptu memorial of a community only serves to punctuate his effect on his beloved city.

LaBonge, a larger-than-life character in city hall meetings and effusive champion of Los Angeles, passed away suddenly while resting on the couch in his home on Jan. 8. He is survived by his wife, Brigid; daughter, Mary-Catherine and son, Charles.

Hear Tom LaBonge air his support for KCET on its 50th Anniversary commemoration at L.A. City Hall.
Tom LaBonge airs his support for KCET on its 50th Anniversary commemoration at L.A. City Hall.

A native of Los Angeles, LaBonge had the city in his veins. He grew up in Silver Lake playing in Griffith Park and along the banks of the Los Angeles River with his seven brothers. In an interview with KCET, he recalled catching frogs on the Los Angeles River as a child and selling them to people, making $1.20. He was a walking history book of Los Angeles, often providing personal takes on what for many newcomers to the city were just foregone landmarks.

“He was the Huell Howser of L.A. politics, a spirit that was always optimistic and in love with the city.” Councilman Mike Bonin told Los Angeles Times. It would have been a comparison that LaBonge would have relished. LaBonge was an ardent supporter of KCET, whose former Sunset Boulevard facility was within the longtime councilman’s district. In honor of the station’s 50th anniversary, LaBonge rang the bell at City Hall. Watch a video of that moment below.

L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge Rings City Hall Bell

LaBonge’s recollections of this city reach back decades, and so did his approach to politics. “Tom LaBonge was Mr. Los Angeles. He was a true public servant who was never afraid to roll up his sleeves or pull a City worker over if a constituent needed help or a street needed servicing at a moment’s notice. He knew every mascot of every high school in Los Angeles for a reason — so he could engage people and talk to them about their lives,” wrote Mayor Eric Garcetti and Council President Nury Martinez in a joint statement.

Tom LaBonge and Mayor Eric Garcetti at the Hollyhock House UNESCO event
Tom LaBonge and Mayor Eric Garcetti at the Hollyhock House UNESCO Event

While many politicians may come off aloof and mired in jargon, LaBonge had a way of getting one’s attention even in dry council meetings. His plain-speaking language appealed to many and became a refreshing change from the dry proceedings of policymaking. “Tom was the ultimate ambassador for Los Angeles where he brought into sharp focus his zest for life, his tireless pursuit of service, and his firm belief that anything was possible,” said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

Former councilman and now Executive Director for River LA, Ed Reyes, remembered him frequently attending committee meetings and adding his comments when it would have been so easy just to let that opportunity to be heard slip away. “He had the ability to connect his personal stories, his family stories with the work he did in improving the quality of life for the communities in Los Angeles,” said Reyes.

The two actually crossed paths as young men working on the mayor’s youth commission. “Tom would often remind me, ‘We’ve been looking out for the city since we were kids,’” said Reyes.

“Tom was so much more than a councilperson. He was 24/7 working for L.A. with tireless energy,” wrote Gerry Hans, president of the community organization Friends of Griffith Park, to KCET. LaBonge first worked for Mayor Tom Bradley’s youth program in 1974. Two years later, he was hired by Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson and, four years later, he went on to serve Councilman John Ferraro. He ran for city council in 1993 but lost. Instead, he became an aide to Mayor Richard Riordan. In 2000, he was hired by the Department of Water and Power. Eventually, in 2001, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council, where he served until 2015.

“He was passionate,” said Mark Panatier, chair of the Hollywood Sign Trust, an organization that maintains, repairs and secures the Hollywood sign. “He was passionate about his family. His wife and children were key parts of his life. He was passionate about everything Los Angeles — from picking up trash in the city to promoting L.A. around the world through the sister cities program. He was passionate about food. He and I would run into each other frequently at the Farmer’s Market [L.A.] where he would visiting the tenants, grabbing a bite at Bob’s Donuts, having lunch or having coffee.”

It doesn’t take much to see LaBonge’s influence on the city he loved. It only takes a quick glance toward the river, where bright blue signs with a white heron outlined proudly proclaim “Los Angeles River” to see one of his lasting marks on the city.

Councilmember O'Farrell with Ed Reyes, Tom LaBonge, among others, at the opening of Sunnynook Park along the L.A. River | Photo: Rubi Fregoso
Councilmember O'Farrell with Ed Reyes, Tom LaBonge, among others, at the opening of Sunnynook Park along the L.A. River | Rubi Fregoso

LaBonge told KCET that he had always appreciated the power of plaques. In the city, every bridge is adorned with a plaque, which LaBonge has probably perused over his decades of service. “I look at plaques, trying to find the history in everything,” LaBonge says in the video. As he was driving the Glendale Freeway, which crosses the Los Angeles River, he said he noticed a strange thing: it only had one “little CalTrans sign with the words ‘L.A. River undercrossing’ on it.” It was an extremely deficient marker for such a large part of the city’s history.

*Okay, actually, there was a funny moment when the scissors failed to cut the ribbon. Councilman LaBonge ended up just lifting it up for people to get through. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
Tom LaBonge at a ribbon cutting ceremony where the scissors did not cut through. | Zach Behrens

Working with “L.A. River’s first friend” Lewis MacAdams, LaBonge went straight to the city’s signmakers and had signs made, installing the first of these signs personally with MacAdams on Glendale Narrows, according to Joe Linton’s book “Down by the Los Angeles River.” Linton’s recollection suggests there was also a matter of alcohol involved in this unusual, guerilla ask, but LaBonge counters the story by saying he only provided signmakers with pumpkin bread made by nuns at the Monastery of Angels — a gift he never seems to be without. Today, the signs are peppered along the Los Angeles River, big and bold, proclaiming that indeed Los Angeles has a river.

This kind of hands-on, no-nonsense approach is evident in how he tackled issues, even the smallest ones, such as the one time when the scissors provided at a ribbon cutting ceremony just wouldn’t slide through. Notes from former KCET editor-in-chief Zach Behrens said the councilman simply raised the ribbon to let attendees through.

In city council meetings about Los Angeles River projects, his remarks would often remind Reyes, who headed the committee at the time, and anyone else in attendance “of what had been the different perspectives of stakeholders,” said Reyes. LaBonge, who worked under former councilman John Ferraro, helped to create one of the first bike paths along a stretch of the Los Angeles River, according to Reyes. “The lessons the city learned from that project were extended throughout the [Los Angeles River] corridor,” he said.

But perhaps LaBonge’s most publicized advocacy was for his beloved Griffith Park. Every day, LaBonge could be seen dressed in sweats and hiking Mount Hollywood, often stopping to pick up trash or greet visitors along the road. His presence on the peak was so consistent that he became part of the sights at the vast park.

In a Facebook post, Casey Shriner, author of “Discovering Griffith Park” and the man behind Modern Hiker wrote, “If you couldn’t find Tom hiking up to Mount Hollywood in the mornings, you could find him at Griffith Park Advisory Board meetings arguing about the future of the park. Sometimes in those meetings I found him a little too car-focused for my taste, but he genuinely cared. I can’t tell you how often I’d hike through Fern Dell and spot him deep in the brush, alone, whacking away at invasive plants and hauling out trash for restoration efforts.”

LaBonge had been a chief volunteer at Dante’s View, a three-acre arboretum on a Griffith Park hillside, taking over from Charlie Turner in 1993, according to the Los Angeles Times. The unpaid work entails picking up trash, watering bushes and welcoming hikers, all of which LaBonge seemed to already do naturally.

Unknown to many, Hans said that LaBonge was the first to suggest closing the interior roads of Griffith Park to private vehicles. LaBonge and his boss, then-Councilman John Ferraro, initiated the idea in 1991, and it was eventually implemented in 1992. “Both roads, Mt. Hollywood Drive and Vista del Valle, are now meccas for passive recreation, including families pushing strollers and bikers, and hikers, young and old,” wrote Hans, “Closure of those roads was one of the best things to happen to the park in the last 50 years!”

A hike to the Hollywood sign is one of those classic L.A. to-dos, and many also don’t realize that they should include LaBonge on their list to thank for preserving the views on that spot. LaBonge led a drive to purchase land above and to the west of the Hollywood Sign, to prevent any development and keep the views clear for hikers. “Tom really drove the ultimate purchase of the land,” said Panatier, “Of course many people were involved in that effort, but Tom was that city representative that made sure it happened.”

Cahuenga Peak was purchased from Howard Hughes decades ago and left fallow. In 2002, a Chicago-based company bought it for $1.7 million with plans of selling it again. Having learned of the land’s availability, LaBonge made it his mission to purchase the land for the public, fearing private owners would build mansions or a large estate that could clutter the landmark. LaBonge compared Cahuenga Peak to Paris’ Eiffel Tower, London’s Big Ben or Sydney’s Opera House, with its 360-degree views of the Los Angeles basin and San Fernando Valley. LaBonge’s crusade eventually proved successful, eventually cobbling $12.5 million in public and private funds to purchase the land from Fox River. His drive added 138-acres to Griffith Park.

LaBonge was by no means a perfect politician. His personal approach prompted critics to say he lacked a wider perspective in politics. He also drew controversy when, termed out of his office limits, he had more than 100 boxes of material destroyed, leaving the incoming councilman David Ryu with nothing to work with. LaBonge has denied any wrongdoing, but this incident prompted the city to enact new schedules for retaining and disposing of records for City Council offices.

Despite these shortcomings, it can’t be denied that LaBonge was a true champion for Los Angeles and had a deep love of its history. “I love the place and I love making it nice for other people,” said LaBonge about taking on the unpaid volunteer role at Dante’s View, “If each of us has a little something extra to give, it will make Los Angeles the great city it really is.” And it can’t be denied that LaBonge gave more than a little something to Los Angeles.

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