On a weekday afternoon in July 2009, I showed up at City Hall for a scheduled interview with Tom LaBonge. A few minutes after taking a seat on a couch in his well-appointed office, he asked if I wanted to go for a ride. I said yes, having no idea what to expect. We took the elevator to the City Hall garage.
A few minutes later I was riding shotgun in LaBonge’s gray Ford Crown Victoria, rolling through the streets of downtown, one of his staffers in the back seat. He pulled to a stop under one of the Los Angeles River bridges and asked if I had seen Grease. When I told him yes, he bellowed “Thunder Road!” and suddenly steered the car into a dark tunnel. A moment later we drove out of the darkness and into the light—we were on the concrete flats of the river.
LaBonge saw my bewilderment, but wasn’t done. He pulled out a phone and said he was calling an old school friend. When there was no answer he left a message, intoning, “Hi Annette. We’re speaking from Thunder Road, where 31 years ago you started the race that John Travolta…”
LaBonge had taken me to the drag racing spot in Grease. He was calling the woman who played Cha Cha, who starts the famous race.
This was not the common political interview, but that makes sense: LaBonge was not a common politician.
This is one of the dozens of scenes that flooded to mind this morning when I learned that LaBonge died last night, at the too-young age of 67, reportedly of cardiac arrest. Social media has been filled with reminiscences from the legions who knew and adored him.
Many share a similar theme—that no one loved Los Angeles like Tom LaBonge loved Los Angeles.
The adjectives fly fast when describing LaBonge: exuberant, ebullient, gleeful, garrulous.
So do the anecdotes and indelible images: his hike each morning to Dante’s View in Griffith Park or the summer “Tour LaBonge” group bike rides he organized. LaBonge was known for handing out loaves of pumpkin bread he obtained from a local convent. Each January he distributed a calendar he had printed featuring photos he took of the city.
LaBonge was ever-present in Los Angeles, a fixture at community events, a champion of the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Sister Cities program. With his beaming smile and unceasing vigor, he was a natural in front of a crowd; I can vividly picture him a few years back at a downtown evening event, cajoling a professionally dressed audience into increasingly louder renditions of the throwback verse created to help people remember the order of Downtown streets.
“From Main we Spring to Broadway, then over the Hill to Olive,” he enthused, working the room of office types like L.A. Phil music director and conductor Gustavo Dumadel did the symphony orchestra. “Oh! Wouldn’t it be Grand if we could Hope to pick a Flower at Figueroa?”
Other times, he did his work in front of a crowd of none. I remember one day sitting at my desk at the newspaper where I worked, hunched over my computer, the sounds of traffic accented by a gravelly crunch. I ignored it at first, then looked out the window to see LaBonge standing solo in the gutter, the shovel he kept in his trunk in hand. He had been driving down First Street and saw some scattered debris that had not been cleaned. So he took care of it.
Where other politicians would have sniffed a photo op, LaBonge saw a responsibility to make the city better.
I heard numerous variations of that story over the years, LaBonge pulling up somewhere, popping his trunk and cleaning the streets, including the time in 2014 when, with his tie still on, he unclogged a flooded storm drain in the Arts District. Where other politicians would have sniffed a photo op, LaBonge saw a responsibility to make the city better.
It may be cliché to say there won’t ever be another Tom LaBonge, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The seventh of eight brothers spent most of his life in Silver Lake. He told me that, as a child, his father made him sweep the street “from the Fitzpatricks down to the Wongs.”
He played football at John Marshall High School, and would later coach the junior varsity team there. In conversation he would regularly reference William Mulholland, Isaac Lankershim, and others who played a historic role in Los Angeles. LaBonge spent almost 40 years in city government, working for giants including Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan, and Council president John Ferraro, before winning the Fourth District seat. He was termed out in 2015 after 14 years in office.
LaBonge didn’t fade away. He continued his daily hikes and remained a ubiquitous presence. He’d still pop by my office every so often, and we’d discuss things like his plan to create an Arts District rail station.
We remained in touch during the coronavirus shutdown. A few months ago he called to say he had found a story I had written about Silver Lake back in the ’90s, and did I want a copy? He mailed it to me.
We last spoke on December 23, for a couple minutes in the morning. LaBonge had called to make sure I had received the article, and just to say hello. We asked about each other’s families and talked about the city.
Before we hung up, we discussed getting together once the pandemic ended. He said he wanted to take me on another drive through Los Angeles.
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