Tributes continue for former Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who died on Jan. 7 at the age of 67 at his home in Silver Lake.
To many, he was “Mr. Los Angeles,” a consummate public servant for 39 years with a larger-than-life presence, affable personality and the uncanny ability to remember everybody’s name. LaBonge left an indelible impression and a lasting legacy in the city he loved, colleagues and constituents said. He also loved its residents, frequently calling them an “angel in the City of Angels.”
The Los Angeles City Council adjourned its meeting on Jan. 12 in LaBonge’s honor, and many council members expressed condolences. LaBonge’s wife of four decades, Brigid, and children Charles and Mary Cate, attended virtually and thanked everyone for their support.
“On Thursday night when he died here in his living room, the city family showed up and it was unexpected, but it was glorious, it was really glorious. And I thank you for that. I know he was in this room, he saw it,” Brigid LaBonge said. “I too thought I was going to go before Tom and I didn’t know how he was going to age in this world. I want to tell you his giant heart had a lot of chunks taken out of it the night before with the assault on the capitol. It crushed him. What was happening in this world and our country, it crushed him.”
She also described her husband as someone who couldn’t contain his love for Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know how I was going to take him home from City Hall and have him survive. I know now that his life, from a child to this young age of 67, was of service. He loved being a public school boy, he loved being a public servant. I would say to him most recently, ‘please, Tom, slow down, you’re going to kill yourself.’ It didn’t matter what anybody said to him, he was going to keep going. You could see it in his eyes. He was defiant in a very sweet way.”
Brigid LaBonge said on the day he died, her husband walked 13,500 steps, as noted by an app in his phone. She said that illustrated who he was, a tireless individual who hiked in Griffith Park every morning and walked the streets of Los Angeles every afternoon, rejoicing in the sights, sounds and people who made the city special to him.
“He hiked every morning for 50 years to see the sunrise. I know now that he was running because he was running out of time,” Brigid said, adding that she has learned in the days since his death how much he meant to others through their stories. “He left here and we just didn’t know. My family and my friends would say, “where’s Tom,” and I said, “out doing Tom LaBonge things, I don’t know.’ But I knew he was going to come back. He never told us what he did and I am finding out where he was the whole time. He couldn’t help himself. [He] was this guy with this giant, giant heart.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti offered condolences on social media shortly after receiving news of LaBonge’s death. The two represented Hollywood for most of the 2000s and the early part of the last decade as Los Angeles city councilmen, Garcetti representing the 13th District and LaBonge representing the 4th District.
“For over a decade, Tom LaBonge and I worked together, as colleagues and neighboring council members. We often said that while we shared a border, there was no dividing line between us, our work and our districts,” Garcetti said in a tweet. “From the revitalization of Hollywood to the preservation of Silver Lake, there was no better friend or partner I ever had. No one knew more Angelenos, no person gave more waking hours to our city, no one was a greater cheerleader for our town than Tom.”
LaBonge was a native Angeleno and a graduate of John Marshall High School. He served on former Mayor Tom Bradley’s youth council and later held positions with Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power before joining the staff of former Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro in 1978.
LaBonge became Ferraro’s protégé and succeeded the venerable city leader in representing the district after his death in 2001. A member of the Los Angeles City Council from 2001-15, LaBonge was hyper-focused on constituent needs. He rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty, often personally responding when complaints were lodged. He cleaned up illegal dumpsites and made sure potentially dangerous potholes or broken sidewalks were fixed. When a brush fire blackened more than 800 acres of his beloved Griffith Park in 2007, LaBonge joined firefighters on the front lines near the Greek Theatre and afterwards, planted some of the first saplings to aid in recovery. Many cited his deep connections to the city and referred to him as an ambassador, making an impact far beyond Los Angeles’ borders.
“Tom loved L.A. and he always put his constituency first. I found him to be the real deal. What you saw was what you got with Tom,” former Los Angeles City Councilman and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “He loved L.A., and he promoted Los Angeles internationally. He was very active in the Los Angeles Sisters Cities program. I traveled with him and John Ferraro back in 1990 to Berlin, which is our sister city, and he knew more people in Berlin City Hall than I knew in L.A. City Hall. He had a great personality, a larger-than-life personality, and it was never about him. It was driven by a true love for Los Angeles.”
Council colleagues also spoke highly of LaBonge and his service to the city. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, 13th District, offered condolences for LaBonge and his family. O’Farrell and LaBonge served together for two years before LaBonge left the council in 2015 due to term limits.
O’Farrell told a story on Tuesday about the dedication of a new sports field at Hollywood High School. Before a football game, families and school officials packed the bleachers. A former football player, LaBonge told O’Farrell to go long for a pass. O’Farrell ran and caught that pass in the end zone, and said it still holds special meaning for him today.
“No one loved Los Angeles more than Tom LaBonge and we loved him back. No one knew more about the workings and history of our city, its people and its institutions,” O’Farrell said. “We lost a force of nature and goodness. 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. Our city was what he dedicated his life to and for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you Brigid, Charles and Mary Cate for sharing him with us all these years.”
Councilman Paul Koretz, 5th District, expressed sadness about LaBonge’s death.
“My dear friend Tom LaBonge was not only a council member, he was the ultimate goodwill ambassador and informal Los Angeles historian. A ball of energy, he was a super-nice guy who would give walking tours of historic City Hall to random visitors he would meet,” Koretz said. “He paid attention to great detail and remembered every council member’s high school, including their mascot. He was the role model for how to provide amazing constituent services. He loved everything Los Angeles, from Griffith Park to historic eateries and hangouts such as Pink’s and Musso and Frank, but more than that, [he] was a man who recognized every human being and exuberantly loved people, making them feel appreciated. I can’t imagine the city of Los Angeles without him. My staff and I are so deeply sorry and send condolences to his family, Brigid, Charles and Mary Cate, friends and the entire city of Los Angeles.”
Former Los Angeles City Councilwoman and current County Supervisor Janice Hahn, also a longtime friend of LaBonge, called him inspirational.
“The 10 years we spent together on the City Council were the best political years of my life. We sat next to each other in the Council Chambers, and Tom just had a way of making everything fun. He was so excited to show up to work every day, and his enthusiasm was contagious,” Hahn said. “Everyone has a story about Tom LaBonge and together, they paint a picture of a man who was on a mission to get everyone to love Los Angeles just as much as he did. He was known for hiking Griffith Park every morning and escorting people he met to the Hollywood sign. I remember him jumping aboard tour buses and taking over for the tour guides. I will always remember his heart and his decency. Every year, he and his wife, Brigid, hosted Thanksgiving for the entire Los Angeles consular corps because he knew so many of them had nowhere to spend the holiday. His idea of being a City Council member was driving around in a truck personally picking up bulky items for his constituents. My mother always said he reminded her of my dad, Kenny Hahn. Nobody loved this city more than Tom LaBonge and I don’t know if anyone ever will. He was and will always be ‘Mr. Los Angeles.’”
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer cited LaBonge’s love for Griffith Park and proposed the idea of paying tribute to him there.
“Tom LaBonge was a force of nature. His enthusiasm and energy inspired generations of Angelenos in neighborhoods across our city. He’ll be remembered for his incredible love for Los Angeles, which he expressed over nearly four decades of public service, including his successful tenure as an effective and popular City Council member. Tom probably knew his beloved Griffith Park better than anyone, and I hope the city will honor his memory by naming one of the park’s iconic locations for him.”[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”3″ display=”basic_slideshow” arrows=”1″ transition_style=”slide”]Newly-elected Councilwoman Nithya Raman, 4th District, praised LaBonge for his service.
“Councilmember Tom LaBonge was a true son of Los Angeles. A native Angeleno with a deep and abiding love for his city, he served L.A. faithfully and tirelessly for 39 years in various capacities at City Hall, culminating in his 15 years as a City Council member serving District 4,” Raman said.
Constituent Julie Stromberg, a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, shared a unique perspective about LaBonge. They first met when she was advocating for renovations at Harold A. Henry Park on Beverly Boulevard. He encouraged her to get more involved in civic affairs.
“One of the things I loved about Tom, and something I think he doesn’t get recognized for, is Tom was a feminist,” Stromberg said. “He supported women being involved in politics. He encouraged people like myself who were interested in running for office or getting involved. That’s not something you see a lot, and Tom was always supportive of that.”
Steve Kramer, president of the Greater Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce, said LaBonge was a friend who knew the city better than anyone.
“Tom truly knew this city. It sounds like a cliché, but it was not just his district, it was all the other districts in the city, too,” Kramer said. “He knew this city and he loved this city. I look forward to finding somebody like Tom, but I don’t know that I ever will.”
Others remembered LaBonge for his generosity and a genuine care for others. He frequently visited the local community’s many iconic locations, including the Original Farmers Market, corner of Third and Fairfax.
“The city of Los Angeles will forever be a better place to work and live because of Tom LaBonge,” said Hank Hilty, president of the A.F. Gilmore Company, longtime owners of the Original Farmers Market. “Tom was a tireless champion of all things community. Whether he was guiding a City Council initiative or leading a local neighborhood cleanup, he always gave his all to every challenge. The A.F. Gilmore Company and the family-owned businesses of the Original Farmers Market could always count on Tom for support, guidance, patronage, warmth and wisdom. He will truly be missed.”
Richard Pink, owner of Pink’s Hot Dogs on La Brea Avenue, said LaBonge stopped by the stand on Jan. 3, shortly before it closed temporarily during the pandemic. He said LaBonge brought three dozen roses for the staff and promised to take them on a special trip to the Hollywood sign once the pandemic is over. Pink plans to name a hot dog in tribute to LaBonge. He hung a banner outside the stand this week in tribute to LaBonge and another L.A. icon who died on the same day, Tommy Lasorda.
“The Pink family and our staff truly loved Tom LaBonge,” he said. “The term ‘Mr. Los Angeles’ truly fit, with his energy, his enthusiasm and his love of this great city. There was not a greater cheerleader for the city of Los Angeles than Tom LaBonge.”
Park Labrea News and Beverly Press Publisher Michael Villalpando said LaBonge was a valued friend.
“We always enjoyed Tom’s unannounced, surprise visits to the office, often bearing gifts of calendars and bread. He regularly sent news tips our way after he left office, and remained a true friend of ours. He will be missed,” Villalpando said.
The Los Angeles Parks Foundation has launched the Tom LaBonge Memorial Fund for Griffith Park. To donate, visit laparksfoundation.org/donate.
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