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John Ferraro, Longtime City Council Leader, Dies

April 18, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Ferraro, the affable Los Angeles city councilman whose quiet politicking during 3 1/2 decades at the center of city government helped bring Southern California the 1984 Olympics and removed a controversial police chief after the 1992 riots, died Tuesday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. The council's president and grand old man was 76.

Ferraro, the longest serving council member in the city's history, was diagnosed as having cancer of the spleen in August 1999. He disclosed the illness to his colleagues the following February, when he planned to undergo chemotherapy after other treatment failed. He rarely appeared at City Hall after surgery last June to remove his spleen and had been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks. He last presided over the council in December.

His death was announced in council chambers shortly after noon by President Pro Tem Ruth Galanter. Fighting tears, she told a reporter, "We are all sort of his children here. . . . It's really hard to lose your dad."

Mayor Richard Riordan was at Ferraro's side, along with family members, when he died.

"He was a great leader of our city," Riordan said at a news conference a few hours later. "I know of no one who represents the heart and the soul of Los Angeles more than John Ferraro did. He was a big man, he was a strong man, but he was a loving man--a person who put Los Angeles first and his own agendas last.

"John, we will miss you very, very much."

Reelected 9 Times

Ferraro was appointed to the council in 1966, when some current members were in grade school. He was reelected nine times from the 4th Council District, which stretches from North Hollywood and Toluca Lake to Los Feliz and his neighborhood of Hancock Park, and was serving his ninth term as council president.

A politician who often was awkward under the spotlight, Ferraro was more skillful as a behind-the-scenes deal maker. Associates described him as the unsung hero, a role ascribed to him recently by key players behind Staples Center, the downtown sports complex that opened in October 1999, three years after Ferraro wooed back its frustrated developers.

Called "the voice of reason and humor" by council colleagues, he built a reputation as a peacemaker, soothing relations on and off the frequently fractious body. He was pivotal in the private negotiations that finally nudged a recalcitrant Daryl F. Gates out of the police chief's office in 1992, two months after the riots and a year after the police beating of Rodney G. King ignited calls for the chief's resignation.

Ferraro was born on May 14, 1924, in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Cudahy. He was the youngest son in a family of eight children whose Italian immigrant parents ran a macaroni factory before going broke during the Depression.

He attended Bell High School, where his excellence on the football field led to a scholarship at USC. In college he earned the nickname Big John: He stood 6 feet 4 1/2 inches and weighed 240 pounds. When he joined the City Council two decades later, City Hall carpenters had to remove the top drawer of his desk so he could fit his legs underneath.

He was named an All-American in 1944 and 1947 and played in three Rose Bowls. Three decades later, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve, serving on a tanker with Warren Christopher, later U.S. deputy secretary of state under President Carter and secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Christopher sparked Ferraro's interest in politics during long early-morning discussions when they were stationed in the Bay Area.

After the war, Ferraro finished college and married Julia Luckey, the daughter of Democratic state Sen. E. George Luckey, later chairman of President Harry S. Truman's Southern California campaign in 1948. The marriage produced a son, Gianni Luckey, but ended in divorce in 1972.

With a degree in business administration from USC, Ferraro established a lucrative insurance business on Wilshire Boulevard. Through shrewd real estate and stock investments, he became a millionaire, but maintained an interest in politics.

By the late 1950s Ferraro headed Democratic Associates, a moderate group that offered a more conservative alternative to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, he supported John F. Kennedy for president.

He served on the Police Commission for 13 years, starting in 1953. In 1966, he was named by Mayor Sam Yorty to fill a vacancy on the City Council created by the death of Councilman Harold A. Henry. The next year he ran for election and won his first four-year term.

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