Remembering Dana Gabbard – 1962-2022

Dana Gabbard - via Facebook
Dana Gabbard - via Facebook

Last Monday, Los Angeles lost one of its most knowledgeable, passionate, and persistent transit advocates: Dana Gabbard.

Gabbard was an activist, urbanist, researcher, writer, self-publisher, comics fan’s fan, historian, and more. He did all these as an amateur – in the root sense of that word – as someone who does what they do because they love it, not because they expect a monetary profit.

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Dana Gabbard was born on April 28, 1962 at the naval hospital in San Diego, California. He was the first child of Dana and Patricia Gabbard, born during his father’s service in the U.S. Navy.

Soon afterward, the family moved to central Washington state, initially to Yakima, then to the city of Selah, a suburb immediately north of Yakima.

Gabbard’s brother Frank, two years younger than Dana, described Selah as a “tiny little farming community” at the time. Growing up in Selah, Dana was a voracious reader – into comic books and fantasy novels, as well as a straight-A student through high school. Frank notes that Dana also listened to late night radio news and interviews that “exposed him to the bigger broader world.”

After their parents divorced and his father remarried, Dana and Frank welcomed two new siblings, Marc and Wendy. Though Dana never married and never had kids, he was a loving uncle to a handful of nephews and nieces.

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Dana moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to attend USC, where he studied film. In the early 2000s, Gabbard wrote that, “Prior to 1981 I had never ridden in a public transit bus in my life,” but it became his primary mode of transportation while he lived in Los Angeles.

My financial circumstances were precarious, so I had no choice but to rely on the bus system to get around. I wasn’t very adventurous – mostly took line 204 up and down Vermont and line 20 along Wilshire. But from time to time I had to take longer trips, like seeing a medical specialist in Pasadena. After graduating in 1987, I found a job in the area (library asst.) and by then had grown accustomed to using the bus (and soon after the train) to get around.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in Cinema/Television Critical Studies.

Right after college, Gabbard moved into the eight-story MacArthur Park apartment building where he would live for the rest of his life. He resided there for nearly 40 years.

Gabbard’s neighbor Alex Farrow related that “everyone knew Dana here.” Farrow remembers numerous conversations with Gabbard in the building’s courtyard, where, among many topics, Farrow recalled Gabbard’s love for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, classic Hollywood films from the 40s and 50s. Neighbors also noted how knowledgeable Gabbard was about the history of their MacArthur Park neighborhood, and Gabbard’s passion for public transportation. Farrow also related that it was “remarkable how active he was… always going to events” from film festivals to meetings.

For many years Gabbard worked as a Library Assistant at Southwestern Law School.

And he continued to ride L.A. buses. “My experiences on board the bus convinced me that things were seriously lacking,” Gabbard wrote. “I began wishing I could do something to improve the situation.”

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SO.CA.TA.’s newsletter The Transit Advocate – via archive

In 1994, he had a bus service critique letter published in a political newsletter. Soon afterward, he received a letter in the mail from Robert Richmond, one of the founders of the advocacy group  Southern California Transit Advocates (SO.CA.TA.) which Gabbard would go on to be heavily involved with for decades. Gabbard wrote:

I wrote the address Richmond provided and soon received the group’s newsletter and information on their next meeting. The newsletter was a revelation. A few times in the past I had thought of starting a magazine for transit users with policy information (I have published a small circulation magazine on Disney comic books since 1980). Here was what I wanted to do, already in existence. What a thrill!

More on that newsletter below.

Gabbard soon began to attend SO.CA.TA meetings:

At that time the group was in its infancy. Meetings were chaotic and a turf war over the issue of rapid transit between two members had become very disruptive and threatened the group’s ability to function. I decided one of my goals as a member was to navigate the group to a resolution of this. […] By December I was Vice President!

He also began attending Metro (at the time, Metropolitan Transportation Authority – MTA) board meetings, while teaching himself the ins and outs of transit advocacy. “I have had to learn [advocacy] with no training (beyond a seminar I attended in early 1999 on lobbying the legislature). All I know has come from attending meetings, talking to people and reading articles, books, newspaper, agency reports, etc.”

SO.CA.TA leader Kymberleigh Richards related that Gabbard would take vacation time from work to attend Metro board meetings. “He devoured staff reports… and was also even more of a policy wonk than I am” she wrote. “He was also a decent human being, which is becoming more and more of a rarity these days. We were lucky to have someone like him during the years when our region’s transit agenda was being formulated.”

SO.CA.TA’s Jerard Wright praised “Dana’s passion and tenacity on public transit issues.” “I can remember when the TAP card first rolled out how Dana [pressed] Metro staff… to make the TAP card easier to use and more accessible to transit passengers.”

One component of SO.CA.TA advocacy, which Gabbard frequently engaged in, was taking trips on various train and bus lines and then sharing that experience. Fellow SO.CA.TA leader Tony Loui recalled a 1998 birthday celebration excursion:

In 1998, I invited Dana and 12 of my friends for a ride on Amtrak from Los Angeles Union Station to San Juan Capistrano. We had cocktails at the newly opened Traxx Bar in Los Angeles [Union Station] and lunch at the San Juan Capistrano train station restaurant for my birthday. Dana came for the entire journey. He was great to chat with and beaming with positive energy about livability discussions in Southern California at that time. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner was not operating at that time. The San Diegan was the line we used that day, which operated older Northeast Regional One equipment.

SO.CA.TA was, and still is, a somewhat sprawling organization led by a small cadre of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers. Mostly based in Los Angeles, the group tracks, covers, and weighs in on urban transit and passenger rail issues from San Diego to Ventura to the Inland Empire – as well as related state and federal policies. SO.CA.TA and Gabbard pressed for more and better bus and rail transit. Their unabashedly pro-rail stance made for an ongoing conflict with another prominent transit group, the Bus Riders Union, which focused on improving bus transit as a civil right. In the mid-2000s, Gabbard was part of the leadership that brought the two groups together to campaign for – for several years – and ultimately to celebrate the installation of seven miles of bus-only lanes on Wilshire Boulevard.

Over the years, Gabbard served as SO.CA.TA.’s Vice President, President, Executive Secretary, Corresponding Secretary, and was the organization’s Treasurer at the time of his death.

Transit advocate Mark Strickert notes that Gabbard “was a strong believer in transit-related public outreach” often found tabling at events. “I first met him when I encountered the Southern California Transit Advocates booth at the 2000 Fullerton Railroad Days,” Strickert wrote, ” and I would work with him at many such events throughout the years since.”

Gabbard frequently wrote for the organization’s monthly newsletter The Transit Advocate [view online archive]. His contributions included reviews of excursions on various bus and rail lines, and a regular Public and Legislative Affairs update.

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Gabbard’s review of the MTA City NightLine bus service, in the January 2000 The Transit Advocate
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Pretty much every month for more than a decade, Gabbard wrote his PLAC (Public and Legislative Affairs Committee) report for The Transit Advocate.

Gabbard grew to be go-to expert on Los Angeles transit, regularly quoted in the Los Angeles Times. Several of Gabbard’s letters to the editor, weighing in on transportation politics stories, were published in the Times (two examples) and various other Southern California news outlets.

Streetsblog Los Angeles got started in 2008. Gabbard was an early supporter. As a volunteer, Gabbard published more than a hundred pieces at Streetsblog L.A. – more than any non-staff writer. His stories are available at his author page.

Gabbard served as one of the earliest paid SBLA guest editors – during the site’s founder Damien Newton’s first paternity leave in 2009 – but then donated his payment back to SBLA. In 2010, when SBLA transitioned from a national nonprofit to its own California non-profit, Gabbard served on the founding board of directors.

In 2011, Streetsblog L.A. awarded Gabbard a Streetsie Award for his extensive writing for SBLA, and for his decades of advocacy.

Gabbard continued to contribute Streetsblog stories, often highly-detailed, through late last year. For the past two years, he published a series of analyses of Metro’s NextGen Bus Study network reorganization changes – previewing, critiquing, offering recommendations, and reporting on its implementation. His 5,000-word 2020 piece on Metro’s newly-opened Patsaouras Plaza Busway Station includes details of the site, the funding, the politics of its creation – even including never-built project alternatives approved in the 1990s that shaped the ultimate facility.

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Public transportation was not the only thing that Gabbard was passionate about.

The Duckburg Times
The Duckburg Times issue 12 cover

He was also a self-taught expert on comic books, especially the Disney Donald Duck and Duck Family comics of his youth. Dana and his brother Frank published The Duckburg Times – a fanzine dedicated to Disney comics and the people who produced them. Duckburg Times was started by Paul Anderson, who was looking to hand it off. Dana and Frank traveled to Laramie Wyoming to meet with Anderson, and took over the self-publishing reins.

Frank recalled that when he and Dana traveled to Oakland to a comic convention celebrating Donald Duck artist Carl Barks, people there “were shocked” that Duckburg‘s publishers – Frank and Dana Gabbard – were two teenage boys, and not a married couple.

Writer Joel Thingvall praised Duckburg Times as “a lovefest for the fandom of Carl Barks and ALL the other people associated with the anonymous world of Disney produced comic book fare.”

Early Disney comics, like many early comic books, were mostly published anonymously – with no credit to any of the creators who wrote and drew them. For example, the uncredited Carl Barks was long known solely as “the Good Duck Artist.” Gabbard was one of the super-fans that tracked down and documented these unknown artists, giving them the credit that their publishers had not. This was all in pre-internet times, where research work entailed writing letters, digging through files and piles, requesting inter-library loans, and the like.

Gabbard often traveled to comics conventions, interacting with other fans, comics professionals, and retailers.

Frank acknowledged that Dana did most of the work on Duckburg Times. He praised Dana for hunting down obscure articles to share them for more fans to read. Frank recalled that Dana had heard about an airline’s in-flight magazine article on Banks, so he tracked down a copy of the ephemeral publication, and then sought and obtained permission to reprint it in their fanzine.

Duckburg does not have a lot of content written by Dana Gabbard; he served more as curator than as author. Some early issues do include pieces he wrote.

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Dana Gabbard’s Disneydom column in The Duckburg Times #7, 1980. Scan via John Lustig
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Second page of Gabbard’s 1980 Disneydom column. Via John Lustig

Comics fandom social media is full of praise for Dana and sadness at his passing.

Thingvall termed Gabbard “a Giant in the fandom.” Comics writer Mark Evanier posted a remembrance calling Gabbard “a really great guy with a great sense of humor and a true love of funny comic books and the folks who made them. We need more people like Dana Gabbard, not less.” Contemporary Disney comics artist Pat Block called Dana “one of the gentlest, sweetest human beings one could hope to meet. He loved without conditions and held no grudges nor hated, coveted, gossiped about anyone or anything. If the world was full of human beings of his disposition, there would be no wars and we would all share with one another without conditions.”

“Several decades ago when I was making my first attempts at writing Disney comics, I wanted to know everything I could about the ducky comic book stories created by the brilliant Carl Barks,” wrote comics scribe John Lustig.

So I contacted Dana who… became my friend and my initial tour guide and adviser to all things Barksian. Through Dana, I met a slew of Disney fans – several of whom I also became friends with. Dana was the first though and we stayed in touch when many others wandered off.

Dana was funny, kind and loved humorous comics at least as much as I did. And, man, was he knowledgeable.

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Gabbard struggled with his weight, and had endured years of declining health.

As he gained weight, Gabbard’s walking became more labored. He began walking with a cane, and sometimes used a walker. His neighbors recalled often encountering him sitting and resting to catch his breath. Neighbors noted that Dana was always eager to strike up a conversation on various subjects he was passionate about.

Gabbard’s friend and neighbor, bicycling advocate Jennifer Gill, related that she would often run into Gabbard – on the bus, at the bus stop, and walking. Gill recalled one such conversation, “we were sitting on the 20 bus going downtown” and Gabbard was elaborating on problems with transit buses arriving late and passing by people waiting. Gabbard, so passionate about his strong opinions, would end up talking so loud that it “let everyone on the bus know.”

Gabbard would joke about his health issues. His neighbor, Farrow’s uncle Rodger Attwell, laughed recalling that whenever he asked “how are you doing?” Dana responded “terrible.”

According to Dana’s brother Frank, a couple of years ago, a severe health problem forced Dana into the hospital for a couple weeks, followed by a couple of months in a rehab hospital.

When COVID hit, Gabbard remained active online, but became increasingly isolated. Frank related “he didn’t leave his room” for fear of contracting the virus. Neighbors helped with deliveries, and a caretaker attended to many of his medical needs.

His neighbors feared the worst when Fire Department crews carried Gabbard into an ambulance last Monday evening.

Frank Gabbard received the doctor’s call around 11 p.m. that Dana had been in respiratory distress when his heart gave out.

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If there is heaven, Dana is probably there. If he’s not chatting with Carl Barks about his line quality in some obscure Donald Duck panel that Gabbard spotted in a heavenly fanzine, he may be asking to speak with Archangel in change of heaven’s bus system, to let her know about some tweaks that could make the heavenly bus rider experience a bit smoother.

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