John Bryson returned to Pasadena’s Polytechnic School last week as a proud father and a dynamic figure in state and national politics. His own daughters had graduated from the highly regarded school. Now he had been invited to deliver the commencement address, with a remarkable story to share — the ascent of the son of a sawmill operator to the elite ranks of both the environmental movement and big business, then confirmation as President Obama’s secretary of Commerce.
On Thursday evening, in front of more than 1,000 people, Bryson urged Poly’s 91 graduates to stay curious and to be good stewards of the world. But his passion and eloquence was tempered by mistakes and lapses, students and parents said. Several times, Bryson, a polished public speaker, appeared to lose his place in his remarks. He mispronounced words without correcting himself.
Some parents ascribed it to nerves. Some students concluded that it was just a middling graduation speech. But it may have been something quite serious — the onset of what officials described as a series of seizures, leading to two hit-and-run car accidents. Late Monday, the White House announced that Bryson, 68, will take a medical leave of absence as “he undergoes tests and evaluations.”
Bryson lost consciousness behind the wheel of his Lexus on Saturday after striking two cars, one of them twice, authorities said. Bryson was not seriously injured, but hospitalized overnight, then returned to Washington to undergo medical tests. Obama wished Bryson well on Monday, and said White House officials were still trying to sort through the details.
“It sounds like it was health-related in some way,” Obama said. “We’re going to make sure, obviously, that he gets the best care and we’ll be able to make a determination from there.”
According to a statement from law enforcement officials, Bryson was driving through San Gabriel, not far from his family home in San Marino, shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday when he rear-ended a Buick whose driver was waiting for a passing train. Bryson stopped briefly to speak with three men inside the Buick, then returned to his car and left, striking the Buick a second time.
The driver followed Bryson for two miles, while calling 911 seeking help. In Rosemead, authorities said, Bryson crashed into a Honda Accord. He was found a short time later, alone in his car — he was not working and not accompanied by security, officials said — and unconscious.
There were no serious injuries, officials said, though three of the five people who were in the cars Bryson struck told paramedics they were in pain.
A Commerce Department official said Bryson had not suffered a seizure before. Medical professionals said he will probably require a battery of tests, including blood analysis, a brain-wave test and EKG monitoring.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are two main types of seizures — “primary” seizures involving both sides of the brain and partial seizures involving smaller regions of the brain. Sometimes seizures indicate epilepsy, but not always; other causes could range from the relatively minor, such as a sleep disorder, to the critical, such as a cardiac problem.
“What was described sounded very concerning,” said Dr. Sean Hwang, a neurologist at the Cushing Neuroscience Institute, part of North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. “We always worry about what could be the possible underlying causes.”
Bryson was cooperative with investigators and voluntarily took a Breathalyzer test after the accidents, which detected no alcohol use. He was given a felony citation for being involved in a hit-and-run accident, but authorities also took a blood test, and if that confirms the absence of drugs or alcohol, criminal charges are unlikely, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker said.
Medical issues have trumped criminal charges in several high-profile traffic incidents.
In February, the city attorney’s office said the Dodgers’ James Loney would not face charges after he sideswiped three cars in Sherman Oaks, then tried to flee. Tests detected no drugs or alcohol, and Loney’s attorney, Dmitry Gorin, attributed Loney’s erratic behavior to a head injury.
“A driver has to be aware of the incident to be held accountable for not stopping,” Gorin, a former prosecutor, said Monday. “If, due to the seizure, he was dazed and confused, he may not know what happened.”
Bryson grew up in Oregon and graduated from Yale University Law School in 1969. Inspired by the original Earth Day the next spring, Bryson helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1990, he was named chief executive of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison.
Before the commencement speech, Bryson met Poly’s graduating class in the gym, and amiably chatted and posed for photos, students said. His speech was stirring at times, attendees said, with calls for students to pursue “something with a higher cause,” said Connor McKnight, 18, who graduated and is headed to Harvard.
The stumbles added up, however. Bryson mangled words and did not appear to notice, one parent said. He repeated himself and rambled at times.
“It definitely seemed as though he lost his place at times — that he wasn’t sure what he was saying,” said Brad Olson, 18, a graduate who will attend Southern Methodist University in the fall.
Now, said McKnight: “It all makes sense, with everything that unfolded over the weekend.”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau and Times staff writers Rene Lynch, Sam Quinones, Richard Winton and Rosanna Xia contributed to this report.