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Celebrating one of L.A.'s guardians

The city of Los Angeles is a maze of crevices and cracks, a vast unholy experiment always on the verge of breaking apart but for the work of a few unsung guardians. In my neighborhood, one of those people is a woman by the name of Brigid.

On Thursday morning, Brigid was at Ivanhoe Elementary in Silver Lake passing the baton, giving a tour to the incoming leader of the parents group. Fifteen hours later she was still on the job, sending out pre-midnight e-mails to arrange a photo album for a departing teacher.

And Saturday morning, she was leading her team in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, beginning a 24-hour rally to raise money and awareness for a disease that changed her life in ways she could not have imagined.

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You’ve no doubt heard of her husband, Tom, a Los Angeles city councilman and unabashed city cheerleader who gets plenty of press. But you probably don’t know Brigid LaBonge, who works just as hard. As she moves on now from one unpaid challenge to the next, I want to tell her story.

Brigid, the daughter of a postal worker, grew up in Pasadena and Altadena. She was the seventh of eight good Catholics and she hooked up with Tom, a Silver Laker who was also the seventh of eight kids.

So much for opposites attracting.

If you’ve got seven siblings, you probably have no choice but to learn sacrifice and service. Brigid says she never thought of herself as service-oriented, though, until she met Tom.

“I just had to roll with him,” she said.

Here’s how she describes a typical date back when Tom was working as a political aide:

“He’d say, ‘Get in the car, but first I have to stop by . . . the fire house, the police station’. . . .”

Before running for office himself, Tom worked for several politicians, including City Council President John Ferraro and Mayor Dick Riordan. He knew Brigid was the one for him, as Brigid tells it, when they visited the messy aftermath of a Larchmont Village street fair, and she jumped onto a trash truck to help him clean the mess.

They married, they had two lovely children, and Brigid focused on her graphic design company while Tom did politics. When the kids went to Ivanhoe, Tom’s old school, Brigid got involved now and again but didn’t go overboard.

Everything changed, though, in February 2006. I remember running into Tom around that time. The eternal optimist was walking around the lake like a ghost, his head shaved to the bone.

“Bridgy’s sick,” he explained, telling me his wife was in treatment for breast cancer.

Tom has three brothers who have lost their wives to cancer.

Brigid suffered through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. For a while, she stopped doing anything other than fighting.

“I wanted to just get well,” she said.

By that fall, done with treatment, she felt shaken by the dance with death.

“What do you do with the terror, the fear and the sadness? Life had been very happy, but I was tootling along. I didn’t have a fire in me.”

And then suddenly she did.

I remember seeing Brigid near the Griffith Park Observatory in May 2007 as the park smoldered and flames still flickered. As Tom recalls it:

“I said, ‘Hey, baby, you wanna go to the fire?’ and she said, ‘Yeah.’ She worked the phones up there.”

Brigid put her business on hold and threw herself into her children’s education. She became intolerant of the agonizing grind of bureaucracy and the secretive conspiracy of mediocrity that pervaded L.A. Unified, with its legions of administrators drawing six-figure salaries while students made do with decrepit schools and second-rate supplies.

She became president of Friends of Ivanhoe, a nonprofit parents group that works to get parents more involved, tries to link arms with the greater community and organizes fundraisers to pay for things L.A. Unified doesn’t cover. With help from “so many amazing parents,” Brigid said, the nonprofit has raised close to $500,000 in two years and paid for computers, P.E. teachers and reading and math coaches.

“Nothing’s ever impossible for her,” said Jumie Sugahara, the principal. “She just says, ‘Yeah, we’ll get it done.’ ”

And so the traffic problem got solved with a volunteer valet brigade. And the after-school program now has a food service.

It helps, of course, that we live in a middle-class neighborhood of people who can juggle schedules, write checks and get by on one income. But organizing fundraisers and sending out newsletters is a monster of a job that stretches past dinner and creeps into the night, and it has required nearly full-time devotion of LaBonge and other parents, particularly as budget cuts go deeper.

And now Brigid is done.

Her son Charles graduates from Ivanhoe in three weeks, and Alex and Christian Horner will take over for Brigid as co-presidents. They joked last week that it would take the two of them to do her job.

Although both LaBonge children will be in Catholic school, Brigid will go to work for her husband three days a week as his volunteer education deputy, trying to help public schools solve problems and mobilize parents to demand improvements.

But first, she had the Relay for Life fundraiser that was to begin early Saturday and end this morning. Brigid had assembled a team of 22, and she and other cancer survivors were going to take the first lap in the relay before others join in.

“I’ll be there all night,” she said, explaining that you press on regardless of whether you’re too hungry or tired, too hot or cold.

It’s like fighting cancer; you just keep going.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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