A Powerful Pair : A child's accidental death brought Thelma Sibley and Ann Brown together. Out of tragedy, a bond of activism and friendship was born.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This could be the story of the bureaucrat and the bereaved mother. Except that neither Ann Brown nor Thelma Sibley comes close to either stereotype.

Brown is a mother of two, grandmother of three and full-time advocate for children. As vice president of the Consumer Federation of America, she was such a thorn in the side of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that many staffers feared her name. Imagine their reaction in March, 1994, when President Clinton named her to head the agency she so relentlessly watchdogged.

Sibley and her husband, Bob, live on a small farm in Michigan, where for 20 years she has worked as a color and soft-trim designer in the automotive industry. At 46, Sibley is a devout Baptist and projects the kind of calm that bespeaks solid, sensible values. She is probably one of a handful of Americans who refer to Hillary Rodham Clinton as "the First Mom."

On Jan. 4, 1994, Sibley's 5-year-old daughter, Nancy, was killed when the drawstring on her winter coat snagged on a spiral slide at her school playground and strangled her. The paths of Brown and Sibley were tied together by that drawstring. Both women see the friendship and collaboration that has blossomed between them as something organic, something vital and something that was probably preordained.

In her office here on the outskirts of Washington, Brown explained, "We're both strong women, determined women and women of faith. We're also both extremely pragmatic."

With a perfect poker face, Sibley--a full head taller and 12 years younger than the small, compact Brown--remarked, "We're twins. But we were separated at birth."

In Sibley's case, ridding the children's clothing world of the slender string that claimed Nancy's life became a crusade. She remembers all too well how after Nancy's death, her own words--the words of so many parents whose children succumb to tragically preventable accidents--kept pounding in her ears: "If I'd only known."

If she'd only known, she would never have bought a coat with a drawstring. If she'd only known, she would have ripped out the drawstrings on every item in Nancy's wardrobe. Never mind that it was January in Michigan--if she'd only known, she wouldn't have bundled Nancy into a hood that closed tight with a string.

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After the death of a child, two extreme reactions are common. In one scenario, mothers and fathers descend into a paralyzing miasma. Even the most ordinary of daily activities drains them. Conversely, some parents spin into a maelstrom of action. Psychologists call the latter response agitated depression.

That description captures the flurry of energy Thelma Sibley experienced after Nancy died. For a full seven months, her grief manifested itself kinetically. She ran on high speed but felt nothing. "I believe God put me in a numb chamber because he knew I had a job to get done," Sibley said.

The job began when, reviewing a report to the school board of Ann Arbor, where Nancy's accident occurred, Sibley came across the name of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "I had never even heard of the agency before that," she said.

While it made sense to Sibley that the school board and possibly her own state might investigate Nancy's death, she had no such expectations from the federal government. She viewed Washington as remote and alien, too tied up with politics to care much about people. "I was very surprised there actually was a federal agency, and that they were actually going to do a report," Sibley said.

She was also stunned to discover that drawstrings had been removed from children's clothing in Great Britain in 1976. In the same report she learned that the Canadian province of Ontario, just across the border from Michigan, had taken similar action in 1988, following the drawstring strangulations of five children. Her research also revealed that Nancy was one of a dozen American children to succumb to drawstrings since 1985. The strings were associated with an additional 27 nonfatal accidents.

"I thought, wait a minute, I live in Ann Arbor, Mich. We're not talking Upper Yukon here. How come I didn't know this?" Sibley said.

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Sibley did what she always does in crisis. She prayed. The next thing she knew, she was writing to "the First Mom." She and her husband were not blaming anyone for their daughter's death, Sibley wrote, but rather were seeking the voluntary removal of accessories on children's clothing that might cause harm. Since Nancy's accident occurred on an old, outdated slide that was subsequently dismantled, the Sibleys also wanted their child's death to help raise awareness about playground safety.

The White House wasted no time in forwarding Sibley's entreaty to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the same agency to which Sibley was referred when she contacted the Consumers' Union and Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's organization. This is where the tale takes on a Twilight Zone quality not normally found in stories concerning the federal government, for Brown, newly installed as chairwoman of the agency she once loved to hate, had already taken steps both to ban drawstrings from kids' clothes and to contact Thelma Sibley.

"There was a confluence," Brown said. "Both of us are convinced it was meant to be."

In Michigan, the inquiry into Nancy Sibley's death made headlines in April, 1994, three months after the girl's death and just weeks after Brown began her government job. Although it was a Sunday when Brown came across the Sibley file, she instantly picked up the phone and called Nancy's parents.

Sibley was amazed, but Brown saw nothing irregular about the gesture. "The reason I call parents when something like this happens is, that's the humane thing to do," she said, apparently unaware that not everyone believes humanity to be part of a federal job description. "My mother told me that when there's a death, you call."

As Brown knew from decades of activism, personal contact with parents is often a first step toward enlisting them as catalysts of change. Nearly 30 years ago, Brown took up her mission when her daughter Laura, then 2, began chewing on what looked like a piece of cherry candy--but turned out to be a potentially poisonous paint pellet. Brown and Sibley were soon brainstorming--and later, barnstorming.

By then Brown was well aware of the hazards that drawstrings posed for children. She knew about the steps taken in Britain and thought American children were "just as valuable as British children." In addition, Brown said, "There was already an existing memo about drawstrings, right here, but nothing had been done."

She also understood the perils of bureaucratic blockage. Legislating compliance was an invitation to inaction, Brown maintained. In a congressional setting, a children's issue was likely to be marginalized, watered-down and tacked on to some unrelated measure, she thought.

So Sibley and Brown called upon a secret weapon known by parents to be fearsome, and usually foolproof. "Peer pressure," Sibley said, nodding knowingly. Brown called a manufacturers' summit conference. No pressure, she said to representatives of the 33 leading makers of kids' clothes who came to her office soon after she brought Sibley onto her team. No threats, Sibley added; "no lawyers bugging them."

With no opposition, drawstrings were quietly removed from virtually all of the 20 million children's garments manufactured annually in this country. The low-key, collaborative approach avoided legislative logjams and eliminated any sense of government coercion. "It's the way I prefer to work, cooperatively," Brown said. "Industry will generally do the right thing if encouraged."

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A quick tour of kids' or discount stores shows that where one year ago there were drawstrings, now there is Velcro, elastic or safety flaps to secure a hood or hat.

Compliance was basically a "no-brainer," said Deborah Siegel, general counsel for Baby Guess/Guess Kids in Los Angeles. "I'm not sure how many companies were aware of what had happened [to Nancy Sibley and other children]," she said. But once the problem was pointed out by Brown and Sibley, "it was fairly simple" to make the necessary design changes.

At Oshkosh B'Gosh in Oshkosh, Wis., vice president Michael G. Donabauer credited Sibley for capturing Brown's ear and for helping to make the children's apparel business aware of the risks of drawstrings. Donabauer called Sibley "a remarkable woman."

Sibley and Brown agree that the move toward safer children's clothing was a fitting memorial for Nancy. But it was by no means the end of their teamwork--nor, they hope, their triumphs. Sibley has channeled her determination into a push to improve playground safety.

She and Brown have taped several video spots showing how parents can monitor classroom and playground equipment that may have been produced or installed before current standards were enforced. Much of this equipment is poorly maintained, and a great deal of it is too high off the ground. In many areas, children still tumble onto hard concrete rather than softer wood chips. Tattered old swings can collapse if a child pushes toward the sky.

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In the course of working together, Sibley and Brown have developed a remarkable relationship. They are girlfriends, and both know this form of friendship to be as mighty as any corporate conglomeration. When Sibley is in Washington, she stays at Brown's house. They work a full day together, then go home and throw on their bathrobes. Over a glass of wine, they settle the problems of the planet while Brown's husband fixes dinner.

"I want you to understand," Brown said, "I do not invite everyone I work with at this agency to come and stay at my house."

But here's where the girlfriend connection tugs hard, and where the link of motherhood builds fierce bonds. Ann Brown never met Nancy Sibley. But she knows that the brown-eyed girl Bob and Thelma Sibley adopted in infancy was a long-awaited gift. She has heard how Thelma Sibley did the vacuuming with Nancy in a backpack. She knows how much the Sibleys miss Nancy's zeal, her passion and her empathy for people. She instinctively reaches over and clutches Sibley's hand as Sibley recalls how Nancy used to brag that she looked just like Mommy. At this disclosure, both women's eyes cloud up.

In the pyramid of Washington, Brown's agency is nobody's idea of a powerhouse. The Consumer Product Safety Commission narrowly escaped extermination in recent cutbacks, and its current budget remains close to what it was more than a decade ago. Until Brown took over, the commission was widely viewed as moribund.

"Wrong," Sibley corrected. "Dead."

But Brown and Sibley feel certain that a heavenly cheerleader is breathing life into their efforts. Their work is not just in Nancy's memory, Sibley said, "it's in her honor."

Parents who have not lost children often nod approvingly when mothers like Sibley take up a cause. Catharsis is a word you often hear. But parents of dead children know that true catharsis is elusive, if it is attainable at all. The hole in your heart is there forever. Still, said Sibley, who has kept her day job in the auto industry while pursuing her unpaid work with Brown, "You don't cling to 'if only I'd known' " forever.

"That's fine for a few months," Sibley said. "But for me, that's not inner healing. Inner healing is doing something."

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