Every once in awhile, you come across someone who you immediately know is gifted. When MySafe:LA directors David and Cameron Barrett met Tom LaBonge in 2003, his enthusiasm, knowledge, and love of Los Angeles were all on display within moments. “I’ll never forget meeting Tom,” remembers David Barrett. “He was bigger than life it seemed, with an immediate welcoming nature, a thousand mile a minute series of stories about almost literally every intersection in Los Angeles, and a huge love of the fire department.”
Tom died at home on Thursday, leaving a huge hole in the history and knowledge of Los Angeles. He served the city he cherished for just under 40 years. It’s a legacy that will not be soon forgotten. As word of his passing spread, the comments from people who know him well or just from seeing him at events were united – he was a good man and he was loved.
Todd Leitz, who served as a MySafe:LA Public Information Officer before moving on to man the public address system at Dodger Stadium worked for LaBonge, and Todd remembers him fondly. “I worked for Tom for two whirlwind years while he was a City Council member. It’s an experience that changed me, and one that I’ll always remember. Tom was a public servant of the old school. He knew it was the job of a politician to serve.” Todd went on to note the loyalty that Tom had for everything Los Angeles, saying, “He lived in the same zip code all his life, and served his beloved city for decades, as happy clearing a clogged storm drain on Wilshire Boulevard as he was hobnobbing with celebrities at a star ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”
Tom wanted to be a firefighter, but when that didn’t pan out, he turned his attention to serving the City in other ways, but his love for the Fire Department never waned. His support for the LAFD, the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society, and MySafe:LA was well known. David Barrett remembered him saying over a dinner conversation, “I became a City Councilman so I could ride on a fire engine every year in the Hollywood Christmas parade.” While that was only one small fraction of his devotion to service, it underlined his love of the Fire Department. Steven Owens, a MySafe:LA Director and a 32+ year veteran of the LAFD, often hosted Tom for dinner at his fire station in the Cahuenga Pass, saying, “a special friend during my time at Fire Station 76 and a treasure to all who were blessed by his presence.” It’s no wonder Tom earned the nickname, “Mr. Los Angeles.”
MySafe:LA Executive Director David Barrett also remembered him for one of his other passions, noting, “I really liked Tom’s photography. He created some great calendars, and his eye when taking photographs was terrific. Some gallery in Los Angeles should create a show based on his stuff – it was that good.”
Tom’s support for public safety was one of the reminders to our founding directors of the importance fire and life safety plays in creating a resilient community. We will miss him dearly, and we offer our deepest condolences to his wife Brigid and his entire extended family.