'Mr. Gibson': A Councilman of Deep Faith, Hard Work

Times Staff Writer

He was a man who wasn't embarrassed to pray aloud at City Hall, who shunned a private office to work elbow-to-elbow with his secretaries, and who thwarted efforts to bring urban planning to his harbor-front district.

John S. Gibson Jr., the former Los Angeles City Councilman who died at his San Pedro home last week at age 84, was a down-home Kansas-born politician who friends and colleagues say ruled the city's 15th District with a compassionate and folksy style that earned him such nicknames as "Honest John" and the "Will Rogers of City Hall."

But Gibson, who represented San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City, Harbor Gateway and parts of Watts and South-Central Los Angeles for 29 years, was mostly known as "Mr. Gibson," the man who paved the alleys in Wilmington, founded the first Boys Club of California in San Pedro and brought a new shopping center to Watts after the riots of the 1960s.

"It became more of a nickname than anything else," said Bernie Evans, who served as one of Gibson's deputies and continued to socialize with his former boss after Gibson retired in 1981. "He was extremely folksy and informal, but nevertheless he was somebody who generated a lot of respect. Everyone called him Mr. Gibson."

Gibson, who lived for the past 35 years in the house at 1604 Sunnyside Terrace that he built when he was a contractor, was a devout Baptist who made no attempt to separate his religious beliefs from his politics. Indeed, Gibson, a great admirer of Billy Graham and a self-described religious fundamentalist, often prayed in his council office and once told a reporter that he never attended a council meeting without first saying a prayer.

City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who worked in Gibson's office for 25 years as a secretary and later chief deputy, said his deep faith was an intregal part of his character. Gibson served on the boards of the First Baptist Church of San Pedro and World Opportunities International, a Hollywood-based Christian missionary organization that distributes food in Los Angeles and has outreach programs worldwide.

Many Into Religious Field

"He established the first Boys Club in California, was very involved in the YMCA, and used to take kids downtown in buses to the Church of the Open Door," Flores said. "Many of those young people went into the religious field."

Flores, Evans and other former aides said Gibson was known for his generosity and attention to the problems of individual constituents. He often answered his own phones, responded personally to most of his letters and, Flores said, was the first councilman to establish regular office hours, a community advisory committee and a district office.

Betty Oster, who served as Gibson's personal secretary for 50 years, said "all kinds of people" borrowed money from the councilman which was never paid back. Gibson often sent his staff to buy groceries for families that called the office for help, and he regularly hauled sand bags to residents to use against flooding during violent winter storms.

One time, Flores said, Gibson got a call from a woman in Watts who complained that city sanitation crews had ruined her trash cans. After sanitation officials said the department couldn't afford to replace the cans, Gibson bought the cans himself.

Diane Sallee, a Gibson aide for 14 years, said her former boss paid his first field deputy in San Pedro with money out of his own pocket until he could convince city officials that funds should be budgeted for council deputies so that the district could be better served.

"Those are the things that never made the news, and he never got any credit for on his tax returns," said Flores, who along with Sallee started as a secretary in Gibson's office and gradually rose through the ranks. "He was a very compassionate person who was always known for his openness, honesty and responsiveness to people."

Support of Free Enterprise

Aside from his personal style, Gibson was probably best known for his unconditional support of free enterprise, which often meant a hands-off approach by government. Gibson, who described himself as a conservative Democrat, blocked implementation of the San Pedro community plan for nearly 20 years because he opposed government-mandated controls on growth.

Gibson often said that he considered Houston, known for its sprawling, patchwork development, the ideal city because of its lack of zoning.

It wasn't until Flores succeeded Gibson in 1981 that the San Pedro community plan was adopted.

"John Gibson did not believe in zoning, and as a matter of fact, I was his planning deputy, which was as much of a concession as he would make" toward planning, Flores said. "He said plans weren't fair to people who had bought property thinking they could use it for one thing, only to have the city tell them they couldn't."

Gibson's opposition to planning played well in his district for many years. But as large apartment buildings sprang up next to single-family homes in San Pedro, and factories were built near residential neighborhoods in Wilmington, mounting opposition to his build-as-you-will philosophy began to erode his popularity.

The planning issue forced Gibson into a runoff election during his last bid for reelection in 1977. Flores said it also contributed to his decision to retire four years later.

"The mood of the community was that they really felt the plan should be adopted," Flores said. "I disagreed (with Gibson), and he knew it. We kind of skirted that subject when we were together."

Bad Feelings Renewed

Nonetheless, Flores said, Gibson made sure she would run before announcing his retirement.

The planning issue was also one that renewed bad feelings between Gibson and the late Vincent Thomas, the state assemblyman from San Pedro who ultimately had the last word in the feud when he pushed legislation through Sacramento in 1978 that forced Los Angeles to make its zoning code consistent with its more restrictive community plans.

Thomas, who feuded earlier with Gibson when Thomas suggested the harbor area should secede from the city, sought the law to block some apartment developments that Gibson supported. The developments exceeded the density allowed in the San Pedro community plan.

Gibson's aides said the councilman also had numerous run-ins with city planning officials, including former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton.

"He just thought that planners were dreamers," Sallee said. "He couldn't understand what they were trying to do. I used to always tell (Hamilton) that it wasn't you personally, it was what you represent."

Evans and Sallee, who both now work for Flores, and the councilwoman formed what they called the Dinner Club with Gibson after he retired. They met once a month at restaurants to talk politics and fill Gibson in on City Hall happenings. The Rev. George Hansen, the pastor at Gibson's church, said the former councilman relished the monthly meetings. Sallee said the sessions gave "the family" a chance to get together.

"Even during our dinners he always said that someday you are going to regret tampering with people's property, that planning would come back to haunt you," Sallee said. "He really believed too much government regulation wasn't good."

Best for Residents

In an interview with The Times in 1985 regarding complaints from Wilmington residents that his opposition to planning left the community with a mishmash of industrial and residential properties, Gibson said he thought freewheeling zoning was in the best interest of residents.

"I thought a good many people would not be able to afford to purchase the property if it was rezoned, and I felt the industries were already there and they were providing employment for the people," he said.

During retirement, Gibson read magazines and books--he was an avid fan of Louis L'Amour westerns--followed his financial dealings and participated in religious functions.

"The last time I saw him was on Easter Sunday," recalled Flores, who said Gibson was like a father to her. "I told him about the church service I had gone to in Wilmington that day. We talked about it being Easter Sunday and the joy that we should feel."

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