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

April 26, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | 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."

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