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Hundreds Turn Out to Celebrate the Life of South L.A.'s `Papa Lou'

The founder of the Challengers Boys & Girls Club is remembered as `a special guy.'

July 16, 2006|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

In a spirited service punctuated by nearly as much laughter as tears, hundreds of people packed the gymnasium of the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Los Angeles on Saturday to pay last respects to the club's beloved founder.

Lou Dantzler, who started the club with 12 boys in 1968 and nurtured it into a nationally acclaimed organization that has served nearly 35,000 youths, died July 6 of complications from a stroke.

Saturday's gathering for Dantzler, 69, drew the poor and the powerful, youngsters and elders, admirers from as far away as New York and Washington, D.C., and from as close as the hard-knock streets surrounding the club at 51st Street and Vermont Avenue.

It was billed not as a funeral but as a "celebration of life service." And a celebration it was.

Clusters of green, blue, yellow and purple balloons joined the sprays of flowers framing the casket. "Pure Klass," a vocal group of four of the original Challengers members, sang Dantzler's longtime favorite, "So in Love," as part of its snappy a cappella repertoire.

And the choir from Dantzler's Second Baptist Church in Monrovia, dressed in white, delivered a rousing, rocking rendition of "His Perfect Peace." The music brought Dantzler's widow, Ruby, to her feet to dance, and others soon joined in.

"I'm not going to cry, because Lou always makes me laugh," Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said, struggling not to cry.

She recounted how, over the years, Dantzler would invite her to the club to see the latest addition or newest project, never telling her what it was. One time she arrived to find former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in a question-and-answer session with the youngsters.

"Lou always had a surprise up his sleeve," Perry said. "And he did it all for the kids."

Dantzler grew up in a large, poor family on a South Carolina farm. His father died when he was 7, and the love and guidance he received from an older cousin impressed on him the importance of a strong father figure in youngsters' lives.

While raising his own two sons with Ruby and working several blue-collar jobs to provide for his family, Dantzler reached out to youngsters in need. His work at Challengers -- anchored with a combination of caring and discipline -- brought him national recognition and provided a model for other clubs around the nation.

Celebrity donors helped him expand the club, and political leaders rushed to honor him. The first President Bush included Dantzler in his Thousand Points of Light program, recognizing citizens who have made outstanding contributions to the public good.

On Saturday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined several politicians, civic leaders and representatives of Boys & Girls clubs across the country in honoring Dantzler.

"One person really can make a difference," Villaraigosa said. He noted that Dantzler had grown up poor in the segregated South, experienced discrimination and racism, and easily could have become embittered. Instead, the mayor said, Dantzler "chose the route of love."

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who had lived in the neighborhood, said he had known Dantzler from the start of the club, recalling when the onetime school custodian procured a closed supermarket for the Challengers' permanent site and remembering the many fundraising events held to expand the club's programs and build new facilities.

Parks, a former Los Angeles police chief, drew laughter in recounting his turns as a volunteer cook for the many pancake breakfasts.

"You got immediate feedback," Parks said. "You'd know immediately if you'd made a bad pancake. Either nobody would take it, or they'd hand it right back to you."

Outside, taking a break from the three-hour service, some of the club's current members recounted their views of Dantzler, whom they called "Lou," "Mr. Lou" or "Papa Lou."

"If you had any ups or downs, he'd try to support you," said Chrystale Miles, 12.

"He was a special guy," offered Bria Edwards, also 12.

And Shaunice Smith, 13, seemed to capture Dantzler perfectly in two short sentences.

"He took care of people," Shaunice said. "And he was funny."

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