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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.

October 16, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHESDA, Md. — 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.

*

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.

*

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.

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