All across Los Angeles, residents have stories of how late City Councilman Tom LaBonge went above and beyond to make Los Angeles a little more beautiful. I clearly remember a sunny afternoon when I was at the desk in my newspaper office on the cusp of downtown. I was focused on the computer screen in front of me, oblivious to the traffic speeding by on First Street.
At first the scraping sound outside the ground-floor window barely registered. It persisted, a sort of coarse cut across concrete, and when I looked up, there was LaBonge, standing in the gutter. He was in office clothes but had a shovel in hand, and he was scooping up leaves and unsavory detritus that had accumulated, and that city cleaning crews had not picked up.
I walked outside to greet LaBonge. He asked me to pull over a nearby garbage can and hold it open while he scooped the muck inside.
It was not the first time I saw LaBonge do that, and it wouldn’t be the last. Nor was I the only person with such an experience. The former District 4 councilman would pull over his Ford Crown Victoria, pop the trunk, grab the shovel, and begin cleaning something or doing some other task to make L.A. a slightly better place. That included the time in 2014 when, with tie still on, he unclogged a flooded storm drain in the Arts District.
LaBonge died on January 7 of a heart attack. This Saturday, his memory will be honored at the inaugural Tom LaBonge Day of Service. At five locations across the city, from his beloved Griffith Park to North Hollywood to the Watts Towers, teams of volunteers will spread out and clean neighborhoods. The happening takes place three days after what would have been LaBonge’s 68th birthday.
“He was helping people until the day he died,” said his widow, Brigid LaBonge, whom he was married to for 41 years. “After he left office, he said to me often, ‘I miss helping people.’ He didn’t miss the job. He didn’t miss the office. He missed helping people. He would say that specifically.”
A cascade of city officials and community leaders will appear at the events, with many speaking about LaBonge, the work he did, and the legacy he left. Participants include Mayor Eric Garcetti and District 13 Council member Mitch O’Farrell, who will speak at the Silver Lake cleanup. City Attorney Mike Feuer, Controller Ron Galperin, and current District 4 Council member Nithya Raman will appear at the Griffith Park happening.
Dante’s View in Griffith Park was a favorite spot for LaBonge, and he hiked there nearly every morning.
“On his last day on Earth he was working in Dante’s View and in Fern Dell in Griffith Park. He was gardening on the day he died,” said Brigid LaBonge. “It kept his mind going and it kept his body going.”
The clean-up events, which run from 8:30 a.m. to noon, are cohosted by the city Department of Public Works and the Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department. Cleaning tools and water will be provided at each location (masks are required). Participants are asked to register in advance at bit.ly/LaBonge.
“Tom gave so much to this city, and we couldn’t let his birthday go by without honoring him and his legacy,” said Capri Maddox, executive director of the Civil Rights department. “Tom LaBonge Day of Service is not just about cleaning neighborhoods, it’s a way for everyone who knew and loved Tom to be together, support one another, and love Los Angeles like Tom did.”
LaBonge was the seventh of eight brothers who spent most of his life in Silver Lake. As a child, his dad made him sweep the streets in the neighborhood. He played football at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. Later he would coach the school’s junior varsity football team.
He was a cornerstone of local government, working for the city for nearly 40 years. He had posts with Mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, and he worked for Council President John Ferraro. LaBonge won the District 4 job in 2001 and served 14 years.
Although he reached the upper echelons of city government, he remained connected with the community. Brigid LaBonge recalled that, when he first ran for office, he didn’t want to be called a “politician,” believing people had negative associations with the term, and that it deflected from the idea of public service. Even on family outings with her and their daughter, Mary Kate, and son, Charles, LaBonge would often pull over to clean things up or remove items from the street.
Brigid LaBonge said that, as her husband finished his time in office, he grew embarrassed at the awards regularly bestowed on outgoing elected officials, feeling they were “fancy.” However, she thinks he would have smiled at the idea of a day of service in his name.
“He’d be highly honored and so jazzed to see the city come together. Seriously,” she said. “He just wants to get people to join the party—that doesn’t mean music or dancing. It’s just a group effort to work for the good of the city.
“He’d be out of his mind with it, thinking, ‘It’s fantastic.’”
The Tom LaBonge Day of Service takes place at five locations on Saturday, Oct. 9. The speaking program begins at about 8:45 at each location and the clean-up will start around 9:20. Participants are asked to register in advance at bit.ly/LaBonge.
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