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Retired judge pays homage to his late wife every week

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                                Former Judge Lance Ito attends to the grave of his wife, Margaret “Peggy” York, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.


    Former Judge Lance Ito attends to the grave of his wife, Margaret “Peggy” York, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Lance Ito drove slowly up the hill under the hazy light of a Los Angeles summer morning, past rows of graves, hoping to run into some of the regular visitors he’s gotten to know in the past two years at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Nobody was around, though, so the retired judge — who presided over the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson — parked and walked over to inspect his wife’s resting place. Margaret “Peggy” York died on Oct. 17, 2021, at 80, after an illness. A knee-high U.S. flag is planted at the corner of York’s gravestone, which features raised etchings of her likeness and of the LAPD badge she wore.

York had been a radio dispatcher first, then entered the police academy in 1968 as a single mother of three. Higher ranks were off limits to women at the time, but those restrictions were later lifted, and York became part of a female detective team that inspired the TV series “Cagney & Lacey.” She then climbed the ranks and ended her career in the Los Angeles Police Department as the first female deputy chief before moving to a county law enforcement job.

From the trunk of his car, Ito retrieved the first of several tools — an orange Black & Decker weed trimmer. The cemetery has groundskeepers, but Ito likes to give a bit of extra care.

“I go through my ritual,” he said, hitting the trimmer button. The whacker whirred, manicuring a blanket of short-cropped grass.

Ito then grabbed a short- handled brush, knelt on a foam gardening pad, and swept clippings and debris off his wife’s bronze gravestone. Next he took hold of a small, white-haired brush and a container of liquid.

“This is bronze tablet oil,” he said, methodically swabbing the plate and delivering a golden shine to the words “leader servant mentor friend resting in the arms of Jesus.”

When that job was done, Ito brought out a bowl of white and pink flowers freshly picked from the garden his wife had planted at their home.

“She was always happiest when she was there,” he said, kneeling to arrange the flowers in a vase. “She loved these little roses. But the downside … is that the deer like them.”

On cue, two deer appeared a hundred yards away. They descended from the slopes of Griffith Park and paused at a grave to enjoy a breakfast of fresh flowers.

Ito’s last task was to grab his watering can out of the trunk and fill up at a nearby tap.

“Today I’m hitting this with Miracle-Gro,” Ito said, pointing out how the grass was a deeper shade of green where he regularly sprinkles.

He showered a nearby gravesite as well. At times, Ito said, he’s noticed fresh flowers at the neighbor’s grave, and some of those same flowers have been laid at his wife’s plot.

“They’ve been good neighbors.”

This weekly ritual has been somewhat therapeutic, said Ito, who contacted me after I’d written about the epidemic of loneliness that is a constant companion for so many people as the population ages. He said he’d lost most of his relatives, some of his best friends, and several colleagues on the Superior Court bench.

But nothing, he said, “comes close to the soul- crushing impact of losing my wife … the pain, darkness and emptiness intrude upon each and every day.”

Ito brought out two lawn chairs and we took a seat as work crews dug new graves around us. He told me that he and York met at an Eagle Rock murder scene in the middle of the night, when he was a 30-year-old prosecutor and she was a detective, nine years older.

“I show up wearing Levi’s, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt,” Ito said. “Peggy, she’s wearing a skirt, a silk blouse, pearls, high heels.”

Ito was smitten. He saw York a short time later at the police academy watering hole and walked her out to her car.

“My exact words to her were, ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider having dinner with me.’”

They were engaged three weeks later, married within a year and were together more than 40 years. She was a devout Ohio-born Christian and law-and-order Republican, Ito said, and he was an L.A. native and moderate Democrat. The differences made for a few “interesting conversations,” Ito said, but their lives were busy and rich. They enjoyed traveling and volunteering for their favorite charities, including the Salvation Army.

York was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was sick for about a year, Ito said. This was in the middle of the pandemic, and he tried to be with her in the hospital as much as possible, sometimes arguing with security guards when visits were shut down.

A few months before her death, Ito and his stepdaughter picked out the spot at Forest Lawn, and Ito will be in the space next to his wife one day — the plot where his feet rested on dark green grass.

Having had a front-row seat to decades of tragedy and loss, Ito thinks he developed “an emotional armor to protect myself.” But he says he didn’t expect the depth of the darkness he now confronts.

“It’s an up and down process,” Ito said of the grief that moved in when his wife left. “There are some days where you see the positive of it — that you had 40 great years and you had a wonderful ride together.”

The memories are both comforting and haunting.

“I see her in every room,” Ito said. “I see her in the garden.”

He tries to stay busy, to move forward.

“I have this project of searching through her memorabilia,” he said, showing me a copy of a recruitment advertisement York saw in 1966. “Be A Policewoman,” it said, offering a starting salary of $624 a month.

Ito spoke with pride about how his wife provided for her children as a single working mother, how she broke barriers.

He spoke, too, of his regrets.

“I could have been a better husband. I could have been more attentive. I hope I made up for it in the last couple years of her life,” Ito said. And he wishes he’d been a better friend “to my fellow widows and widowers.”

The sun had broken through. Jets took off from Burbank Airport and swam across the Valley sky like giant sharks. Chairs were arranged nearby for the next funeral service — the next set of mourners confronting the trick of time, holding on, letting go, wondering at the meaning of it all.

“I think I’ve actually made a lot of progress in the last year,” Ito said, telling me he’s trying to learn Spanish and might pick up one of his many guitars again to play some of the classic rock ‘n’ roll he loves. But still, “there’s something missing … there’s an emptiness that just won’t go away.”

Ito got up and went to check on the nearby grave of the late Councilman Tom LaBonge, longtime public servant and tireless civic booster, who died several months before Peggy York.

“He was a force of nature,” Ito said. “I miss that guy.”

The grass was a bit shaggy, obscuring some of the words on LaBonge’s bronze plate. Ito climbed back up the hill to his car, returned a moment later with his weed whacker and brush, and went to work.


Steve Lopez, an award-winning journalist and four-time Pulitzer finalist, writes about aging in the column “Golden State” for the Los Angeles Times.

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