Ex-Council Chief John S. Gibson Jr. Dies : Crafty, Folksy Politician Wielded Power in L.A. for Four Decades

Times Staff Writer

Former Los Angeles City Council President John S. Gibson Jr., a crafty politician who used a folksy approach to wield considerable power in the city over four decades, died Wednesday at his San Pedro home. He was 84.

A spokesman for his successor and longtime aide, Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, said that Gibson had been in poor health for years and had suffered a broken hip last year. Gibson underwent hip surgery about two weeks ago, the spokesman said.

Flores, who served Gibson for 25 years as his secretary and later as his chief deputy, went to the Gibson home and was not available to comment.

Mayor Tom Bradley, who served several years on the council while Gibson was president, ordered that flags on city buildings be lowered to half-staff today. "He was a great public servant who will be sorely missed," Bradley said. "He served not only the harbor area very well, but also the entire city. . . ."

City Council President Pat Russell, who staged an unsuccessful attempt in 1975 to unseat Gibson, said that she was "startled and saddened," adding that "he was a dear friend and mentor to me."

Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, a Gibson ally, said, "I think John Gibson was one of the most honorable men who ever served on the City Council. One thing that one could always know was that (he) would stick by his word once you got a commitment from him."

Gibson's political career spanned four decades and set several records. His election as mayor of his hometown--Geneseo, Kan.--in 1923 at the age of 21 made him at that time the youngest mayor in the United States. His 29-year tenure on the Los Angeles City Council is unmatched. Another record--his total of 16 years as council president (1953-1961 and 1969-1977)--led his colleagues to designate him president emeritus, a title he alone held.

In 1927, Gibson and his Long Beach-born wife, the former Mina Workman, moved to California and he worked in her father's dairy business for a year before moving to San Pedro.

Before he was elected to the City Council in 1951, Gibson worked as a general contractor and became active in community organizations, including the first Boys' Club of California, which he founded in San Pedro in 1937.

A self-described conservative Democrat, Gibson loathed laws and regulations that he felt hampered free enterprise, and his pro-business, pro-growth views often angered environmentalists and tenants seeking protection through rent control and condominium conversion ordinances.

During one council debate, he summed up his philosophy in his characteristically plain-spoken way: "We've just passed too many ordinances in the last couple of years . . . we're just cutting down on people's chances."

Diverse District

Gibson concentrated on service to his district, a 20-mile strip stretching from Watts to the harbor area that is made up of about 45 ethnic groups. He built parks, senior citizens housing and streets, with many of his works bearing his name. He also worked to bring service programs and jobs to the economically depressed parts of his district.

He prided himself on his accessibility, having a listed home telephone number, holding weekly open houses in his district offices, sending staff members to help constituents with problems and even occasionally writing the district newsletter himself. His regular weekend meetings with constituents made him unique among council members.

A Baptist, Gibson once told a reporter, "I never go into a council session without saying a prayer that it will work out all right."

Religious Views

He carried his religious views into his public life, feuding openly with a national organization of Protestant churches over social and church policies. He opposed the city's recent gay rights ordinance because he believed homosexuality was wrong.

Although Gibson had his spats--with former Mayor Sam Yorty, the late Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, the Harbor Commission and the Planning and Recreation and Parks departments, among others--he was noted for his easygoing, affable manner and his folksy sense of humor.

Yorty's frequent absences left Gibson, then council president, in charge of the city during some of its most troubled moments, notably the 1965 Watts riots and the 1973 energy crisis. His calm handling of those crises won him respect--and an unofficial title as the city's "panic mayor"--the one who was there when trouble struck.

Gibson made several unsuccessful attempts to climb the political ladder, running for mayor, congressman and even county tax assessor before deciding to be content with his councilman title. His long tenure and friendly, fatherly manner brought him one of the most devoted, fiercely loyal staffs in City Hall.

'Like a Family'

"We don't just work together, we're almost like family," said a longtime aide in describing the frequent staff barbecues and parties at Gibson's home, with the councilman himself--who loved both cooking and eating--acting as chef.

A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Gibson each year sponsored a John S. Gibson Junior Fishing Derby, in which youngsters in his district competed for prizes at the harbor.

Gibson's declining health had caused his staff to become more and more protective recently. He suffered a heart attack in 1974, but, observed those who knew him best, it was his wife's death in 1978 that seemed to take the biggest toll.

After a long illness, Mina Workman Gibson died the day after the councilman's 76th birthday. The Gibsons had been married for 55 years.

"There are three things that are important to Mr. Gibson," one of his closest aides once said in explaining why her boss was thinking about running for another term in 1981: "His religion, his family and his work as a city councilman.

"Since his wife has been gone, the council has become even more important to him. It's a large part of what keeps him going."

Gibson leaves two daughters, Marlyn Buehler and Dixie Blackwelder, and 10 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World