Is this Redwood City's ultimate power couple?

Is this Redwood City’s ultimate power couple?

in Community

By Jill Singleton

What Colorado coal miner’s daughter launched Redwood City’s Pride and Beautification Committee and City Trees program? Who was key to bringing the San Mateo County History Museum to the city’s iconic 1910 courthouse, kickstarting not just the renovation of this neoclassical beauty, but the revitalization of Redwood City’s downtown?

What local pastor (and former merchant mariner) served 20 years on Redwood City’s Arts Commission, co-founded a countywide mediation service and became an internationally recognized expert on traumatic stress recovery, making more than 40 missions overseas to help survivors of war, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorism and other disasters?

Bonus question: What Redwood City couple (now both in their 80s) remain competitive athletes, having each won gold medals at the World Senior Games in their respective events: power walking and volleyball?

A few hints: One volunteered with the Cub Scouts, Campfire Girls and her kids’ schools before being asked to serve on the city’s Parks, Recreation & Community Services Commission and then to run for the city council, to which she was elected three times and served two years as mayor.

This story first appeared in the February edition of Climate Magazine

The other, after graduating from the California Maritime Academy and serving a year-and-a-half at sea, returned to college at San Francisco State, where he got involved in campus ministry (the highlight—a trip to Nebraska where he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak). As a newly ordained Methodist minister with master’s degrees in both counseling and divinity (he now holds a doctorate in the latter), he discovered his calling when he began helping Vietnam veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last chance: Together, this couple in 2006 received “Citizens of the Year” honors from Redwood City’s Sequoia Awards, which recognize exceptional contributions to the community.

Those who have not yet guessed “Georgi LaBerge and Warren Dale” can be forgiven. For these are two people who, for all their impressive accomplishments, have habitually focused on others and kept their own lives decidedly low-key.

Roots in Similarly Strong Families

As a first-generation American, LaBerge grew up in small-town southern Colorado, with a Czech mother and a Croatian father.

“Mom was a strong force in my life,” she recalls. “My father called her ‘the chief.’ She only went through sixth grade. My father never went to school at all. But we had a really happy home. My mother was a good homemaker and a good volunteer in the community, [and] even for the Democratic Party.

“I learned a lot from her. She said, ‘you can be anything you want to be, if you just focus on it and work on it.’ She gave me the gift of believing in myself.”

Of his own blue-collar upbringing in San Francisco and around the bay, Dale says, “I was very fortunate in that I had a mother who was intellectually challenged but knew how to care for others … and a stepfather who loved me and supported my life detours. He was a mechanic … in and out of work … and we moved around a lot: Bay View-Hunters Point, Vallejo, Napa. … We were on welfare for a time, and because of that I got to go to Jones Gulch YMCA Camp in La Honda when I was 10 years old. I was taught how to swim and later I became a member of the swim team in high school. I learned a lot of things including leadership there, and in the Boy Scouts. I always had leadership skills.”

LaBerge arrived in the land of “Climate Best by Government Test” in 1958. Her husband, Bob LaBerge, was a local man with whom she raised four children until their divorce 30 years later.

Dale, also recently divorced and a father of three, came to Redwood City in 1986. He and LaBerge met in a church singles group. A five-year courtship ensued. Then, Dale says, “in 1992, Georgi said to me, ‘I think I’d like to be married while I am still mayor.’ I responded with, ‘Are you asking me? My answer is yes!’” On October 3 of that year, they were married.

Mayor LaBerge had just created the city’s (and county’s) first childcare policies, which continue today. For their wedding, the couple asked for no gifts. Instead, would their friends please make donations to Redwood City’s newly formed LaBerge-Dale Child Care Fund?

Beyond Mayor

Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association, knew LaBerge back when she did public relations for the College of San Mateo, where the history museum was housed. Postel says it was LaBerge’s vision to move the museum to the heart of Redwood City. He remembers that as a councilmember LaBerge “led the charge” to get $400,000 in city renovation funds to turn the old courthouse into today’s sparkling downtown centerpiece.

LaBerge’s official enthusiasm also helped Postel raise private gifts for the museum. He says, “It was a real contribution for us to be able to tell our donors that Redwood City was behind us.”

Postel believes the renovation has brought tremendous returns. In an email, he writes, “Today, in my opinion, the courthouse square and the museum together [create] the focal point for the city and for the county. This visibility has been key not only to our success, but it’s giving the public greater access to its local history.”

Following three stints on the city council, LaBerge went on to lead the San Mateo County Community Colleges Foundation for seven years, followed by six years as executive director of the Redwood City Library Foundation. Today, she remains an active board member of the historical association and Sustainable San Mateo County, an organization that emphasizes what it calls the “three E’s” of the economy, the environment and social equity.

A Different Kind of Repairman

While LaBerge was working at her job and attending to city business, Dale was called in to rescue several struggling churches around the Bay Area. At the same time, he co-founded the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), a nonprofit that today has 13 staff and 100 volunteers. It contracts with the county court system as well as several cities to help people resolve family problems and all sorts of neighborhood disputes, at little or no cost to those served.

PCRC Executive Director Malissa Netane-Jones counts herself among Dale’s biggest fans. “Warren is an unapologetic mediator,” she says. “He’s a peace-builder. He’s able to help people through really difficult conversations.

“He does not fear conflict,” Netane-Jones continues. “He sees conflict as an opportunity to bring people together to listen deeply to one another and for them to essentially resolve their own conflict. What’s more, he never says no. And I love that Georgi always flanks him. She has his back. She’s always present.”

International Works

As Dale tells it, it was LaBerge’s newspaper reading that tipped him to a group of Muslim psychologists who were traveling to Bosnia to work with refugees.

“I called them,” he says. “None had experience working with trauma. … I’m making $23,000 a year and I said to God, ‘If you want me to go, show me a sign and tell me how.’” The answer came on the radio, through a timely reading of a biblical passage from the book of Isaiah: “Then you will call, and the lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here am I.’”

Dale sent out an appeal to family and friends. Five weeks later he was on a plane, making the first of 40 trips to Bosnia and Kosovo.

Those early missions eventually led him to help people recover from 9/11 in New York City, the devastating 2001 San Bruno fire, earthquakes in California and El Salvador, an Indonesian tsunami, postwar Angola and hurricane-battered New Orleans, as well as domestic violence and human trafficking both in the U.S. and abroad. In conjunction with several international aid organizations, he began teaching his skills to others and recently published a disaster recovery guide.

Now pretty much retired, Dale still leads the First Church of Redwood City, a Congregationalist ministry. Most afternoons, he and LaBerge keep a cappuccino date at a local coffee house. Dale rides a bike twice a week with a group called Senior Spokes, plays volleyball at drop-in gyms and goes for walks with others venturing out from the Redwood City Veterans Memorial Senior Center.

Like her husband, LaBerge considers herself an outdoors person. She enjoys gardening, and when she heard about the sport of race-walking in the senior games—a national and international competition for older people—she quickly took it up. Gradually she moved to power walking, an event that “is a bit easier on the body,” she says. And she still helps plant trees through the community’s City Trees initiative.

Centenarian Inspiration

Dale takes delight in Millie Cole, a 102-year-old member of his church.  “She’s still in the Optimist Club,” he says. “She leads a chair-ersizing group, and her motto is, ‘Take a walk around the house once an hour and every day do something for someone else.’”

LaBerge echoes Cole’s advice almost verbatim, saying, “I would encourage people to think how satisfying it can be to help someone else.”

Few would doubt that LaBerge and Dale have the “do something for somebody else” part down. As for walking around the house, they go it a little better. LaBerge, who turns 87 this month, texted the outline of her biography for this article from a kayak on a Kauai lagoon. Dale, 83, was interviewed just after a 90-minute volleyball game with players 20 to 50 years his junior.

That sort of energy makes others marvel. “Individually, they are absolutely wonderful,” says Paula Uccelli, longtime Redwood City businesswoman, philanthropist and co-founder of the Sequoia Awards. “But as a power couple, they are awesome. They are the best.”