William 'Bib' Bibbiani 1941-2013
Community mourns loss of straight-talking former school board member
By André Coleman 05/08/2013
A fter listening to an answering machine message left last week, it was painfully obvious that former Pasadena Board of Education member Bill “Bib” Bibbiani did not have long to live.
“This is your last news scoop from me,” said the sometimes gruff but hugely personable Bibbiani, an ex-Marine who before being elected in 2004 had spent more than 30 years as an administrator in the Pasadena Unified School District.
Bibbiani, or Bib, as he was known to most people, had already successfully battled colon and pancreatic cancer. But now the disease was back, and it was everywhere.
“They did confirm every possible worst suspicion,” Bibbiani continued in the message. “I definitely only have six months. My wife and I have made a decision to decline all further treatment other than palliative care. The care they would give me to try and treat it may add a few weeks or a few months, but would make them [family members] miserable. I am sure I will talk to you again, but I am over and out. I love you dearly and I appreciate you.”
Unfortunately, Bibbiani did not have six months. He died at 2:20 a.m. Saturday at his North Hill Avenue home in Pasadena. He was 72.
Bibbiani is survived by his wife, Janet; sons, William, 31, and Andrew, 39; Andrew’s wife, Mayumi; and granddaughters Elizabeth, 9, and Katherine, 10. His remains will be cremated, Janet said. At press time, the Bibbiani family was in the beginning stages of planning a memorial service.
Bibbiani and Janet, avid motorcyclists, took their last trip together — a 150-mile ride to Frazier Park and back — on March 17. Bibbiani told this reporter that his latest medical diagnosis had been made a few weeks following the trip, after he had passed out while standing in line at the Automobile Club of Southern California office in Pasadena. Doctors later found that cancer had returned and spread to nearly every organ in his body.
Born Jan. 31, 1941 in Chester, Conn., Bibbiani, in his early years, personified in many ways the rebel image of the late 1950s and early ’60s. According to Janet, Bibbiani was the first person arrested during a riot that broke out during spring break in Fort Lauderdale in 1959. The event made national headlines, and Bibbiani’s picture ended up on the cover of Life Magazine.
A judge later gave Bibbiani two choices: Join the military or go to jail. Bibbiani joined the Marines and served for four years, at one point heading off to Vietnam.
“He was in the air over Vietnam for four hours shortly before the war escalated,” Janet recalled. “There was a coup or something and they decided not to put troops on the ground at that point. That was the closest he got.”
Although he didn’t see combat overseas, Bibbiani waged his share of battles in Pasadena, mostly over public education.
Shortly after retiring from the district, Bibbiani jumped into the 2004 election for the Board of Education against heavily favored Christine Soto. The campaign was one of the district’s most expensive up to that time, with the two candidates collecting well over $127,000 in contributions. Bibbiani raised just more than $42,000 to Soto’s $85,000. Making matters worse for Bibbiani, Soto had the support of a number of sitting school board members and members of the Pasadena City Council.
In fact, support for Soto, an attorney, was so strong that Bibbiani had no expectation of winning.
“On election night, Soto was so confident of victory she had a huge party and everyone expected Bibbiani to lose,” political consultant Martin Truitt, who helped Bibbiani in that campaign, wrote in an email. “That night, I called Bib from the City Hall vote-counting room and told him that he was going to win and that he should come down and give interviews. Bibbiani responded in a deadpan voice, ‘Crap, I only wrote a concession speech,’ and we laughed and laughed. Bibbiani had character and nobility. He was a dear and trusted friend to many. He was a stand-up guy.”
Truitt learned something else about his client during their time together.
“For decades during the summer,” he wrote, “Bibbiani would tutor mostly black kids who had failed to graduate from high school in order to help them meet graduation requirements and get their diplomas. He never really talked about it. In fact, during his school board campaign in 2003, he didn’t even tell me about it until I discovered it myself.”
Bibbiani served on the school board during the administration of beleaguered Superintendent Percy Clark. Along with former Board member Esteban Lizardo and current Board member Scott Phelps, Bibbiani became a thorn in Clark’s side by constantly criticizing the bureaucratic top-down administration of the school district, which Bibbiani claimed was failing its students under Clark’s leadership.
After it was learned that Clark had plagiarized a column that he had submitted to the Pasadena Weekly, Bibbiani led a charge among board members in calling for Clark to resign in the wake of the scandal. Clark was eventually fired by the board, replaced by former Superintendent Edwin Diaz of Gilroy.
“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bill Bibbiani,” Diaz told the Weekly. “He was definitely a district supporter with strong opinions, but the best thing about him is when he was presented with new information that conflicted with his opinion he would examine it with an open mind. This is a huge loss for the community.”
“I just love the guy tremendously,” Phelps said. “He was like one of my surrogate fathers. He recruited me for the school board. I just loved the way he cared about people. He believed in helping people. He was a very practical guy. He was just a sweetheart.”
Bibbiani lost to Bob Harrison in his 2008 re-election bid. Since then, he continued commenting on local politics. Last spring, Bibbiani came out against Measure A, which called for switching from at-large to district elections in order to comply with provisions of the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racially polarized elections.
Bibbiani argued that changing the way board members were elected would not guarantee more Latino representation, as intended, but instead dilute the political strength of stakeholders in the education system, who, at that point, still had “seven potential advocates on the board, as opposed to just one representative, who could be less than functional as policymakers and may or may not racially represent families in those increasingly ethnically diversifying neighborhoods,” Bibbiani wrote in a guest column for the Weekly.
The results of the latest school board elections in March bore out many of Bibbiani’s contentions, with white incumbents easily winning re-election and Latino elected representation being completely eliminated from the board.
“Bill Bibbiani was highly dedicated to creating successful public schools and was prepared to speak loudly and sometimes in disagreement with the majority about what that goal would require,” said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. “All of us will remember Bill Bibbiani and I hope be inspired to continue his commitment to public education.”
“Bib had some great stories,” recalled Randy Ertll, head of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena. “I still remember him walking around the Ed Center with a cup of coffee. People would see him as a protector when he was on the school board, since he stood up for teachers and students. He had zero-tolerance for bullies.”
But perhaps the ultimate tribute to Bibbiani — a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast — came Sunday morning. Seventy-five fellow riders on British motorcycles buzzed the family’s house, revving their engines in unison.
“[It] brought a tear to my eye,” Bibbiani’s son, William, posted on his Facebook page. “My dad would have particularly loved how close they all came to being arrested.”