“The passing of an era” is one of those clichés that tends to accompany the death of a figurehead, but in the case of teacher–career activist Irja Lloyd, who died of natural causes last week at the age of 83, there’s some truth in the adage. Though the kinds of progressive causes Irja championed throughout her life — the rights of women, children, the aged and the working poor, social inclusion, racial equality and equal opportunity — are very much alive and thrashing the tenor of the times, her death marks the end of an era for Sunset Hall, the famed retirement home for elders of the progressive movement, where Irja spent her last five years. I was privileged to know Irja for about three of those years while writing an L.A. Weekly cover story on Sunset Hall that appeared earlier this year.
Irja’s death comes at a time when Sunset Hall is going through financial difficulties and political convulsions — including the recent dismissal of beloved executive director Phil Way — that have not sat well with residents. At her memorial service on Sunday, several residents insisted that the recent difficulties at Sunset Hall hastened the passionate Irja’s decline. All of which puts an ironic spin on the passing of a woman who strove against the very tides of history to be a unifier and populist against the encroachments of profit upon caring for the needy. She signed up the kitchen workers to vote. And when the votes went badly, she advocated taking to the streets. In her wheelchair and with her “Speak Your Peace” sign, she was a media magnet and unofficial Sunset Hall representative, a fixture at rallies for the Bus Riders Union and against the war in Iraq.
One of six siblings and the daughter of a factory worker–union organizer, Irja grew up in Connecticut of Quaker stock. Her son, Hank Steelsmith, survives her. At the age of 40, Irja returned to college for a teaching degree from Cal State Fullerton. After receiving her M.A. in special education from Pepperdine College, Irja taught challenged children and volunteered extensively with the Special Olympics.
For me, Irja became an adopted grandparent, and I continued to visit her after the Sunset Hall article had been published. When I arrived at a critical-care ward at Kaiser Hospital, Irja looked up, exhausted, breathing through a respirator; the first thing she asked was how the war in Iraq was progressing. Most striking about Irja was her political awareness and her laugh — almost as quick as her compulsion to take action. Yet her most remarkable quality was the way she balanced her indignation with compassion. Her arms and her heart were always open. I don’t believe the quality of goodness runs any deeper.