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Irja Lloyd, 83; Activist Long Battled for Myriad Causes

August 23, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Irja Lloyd, a longtime social activist who was using a wheelchair when she organized fellow residents of her assisted-living home to join her at antiwar rallies and labor union demonstrations, has died. She was 83.

Lloyd, who suffered from heart disease and emphysema, died Tuesday at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood.

The activist is featured in the new documentary "Sunset Story," along with Lucille Alpert, whom Lloyd met at Sunset Hall, a retirement home near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Alpert died in 1999. The film about aging activists is being screened for Academy Award consideration at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

"Irja moved through old age by staying engaged in life," said Laura Gabbert, who produced and directed the documentary. "She was out there fighting for social justice. She didn't have a pet cause. You name it, she was involved."

Friends of Lloyd recalled her attending protest rallies against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, MTA bus fare increases and racial profiling of Arab Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She also joined United Farm Worker laborers in demonstrations calling for new contracts.

"Irja sympathized with populist groups fighting against big government machines," said Phil Way, who was executive director of Sunset Hall when Lloyd moved in five years ago after suffering a heart attack and being diagnosed with cardiopulmonary disease.

The home was incorporated in 1923 as a haven for aging social activists by members of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. Lloyd belonged to the church and served on its and Sunset Hall's boards of directors.

A retired special education teacher who was presented the "Teacher of the Year" award by the Baldwin Park Unified School District in 1989, she earned her college diploma when she was in her 40s after her only child, Hank Steelsmith, graduated from high school. After receiving a degree from Cal State Fullerton, Lloyd went on to earn a master's in special education at Pepperdine University.

She had a teacher's knack for reducing complex problems to easily graspable concepts. At the bus-fare protest, she waved a sign that read, "MTA Took Us for a Ride." At antiwar demonstrations she carried a bowl of grapes and a sign that read, "Speak Your Peace."

Lloyd was born and raised in Avon, Conn., and first got involved in social causes as a teenager. Her father, a union organizer, worked at an ax factory. When metal dust started damaging the employees' lungs, he helped organize an effort to improve working conditions.

Lloyd moved to California in 1950 with her first husband. They divorced in the late 1970s. Her second marriage ended when her husband died in the early 1990s.

In recent years she was a member of numerous social activist groups, including the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, which was formed as a response to 9/11.

She also belonged to Coalition L.A., a group concerned with economic justice, and she was involved in the community outreach activities at her church.

She is survived by her son, a grandchild, four great-grandchildren, a brother, a sister and several nieces and nephews.

A service will be held Sunday at 1 p.m. at First Unitarian Church, 2936 W. 8th St., Los Angeles.

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