In the shade of oak and sycamore trees, Lydia Kennard spent part of her childhood fashioning make-believe metropolises out of mud, stones and sticks outside a home her father had chiseled into a hillside near Griffith Park.
When she turned 14 she started working at her father's business, the West's oldest continuously operated African American architecture firm.
"I started running the copy machines," Kennard recalled. "Every summer I would work there, and [my dad] never coddled me; I always worked for someone else."
Today, the 52-year-old Kennard is one of the most formidable officials in Los Angeles: executive director of Los Angeles World Airports.
A lawyer and urban planner with degrees from Stanford, Harvard and MIT, she was hand-picked to run the world's fifth-busiest airport, as well as facilities in Ontario, Palmdale and Van Nuys -- all essentially mini-cities with their own police and fire facilities, transportation dilemmas and aging buildings.
"She's very meticulous," said her older sister Gail, who now runs Kennard Design Group, the Los Angeles firm founded by their late father, Robert. "So I wasn't surprised at all that she went into planning, because she really inherited an appreciation for spaces and ordering things."
And she is still fond of construction materials. On her desk at Los Angeles International Airport sits a 2-pound chunk of concrete, a memento carved out of the southernmost runway, which is being moved in the first major project at LAX since preparations were made for the 1984 Olympics.
Like a big-city mayor, Kennard is often in the spotlight, as LAX garners headlines about security bans on carry-on liquids, close calls between aircraft on runways or temperamental air traffic control equipment.
At a recent luncheon, she recounted how employees at her local dry cleaners recognized her even before she gave her name.
" 'Oh, you run the airport,' " she recalled them saying. " 'We've seen you on TV.' "
Soft-spoken and self-effacing despite her $298,315 annual salary, Kennard also has Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ear, and with it an opportunity to make changes in the airport system that have eluded officials for decades.
There's a story the mayor is fond of telling, about a call he placed when Kennard was a stay-at-home mom who somehow also found time to serve on numerous boards, including the Rand Corp. and California Air Resources boards:
"My first call, my absolute first call, before I was even sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles, was to Lydia," he's said repeatedly.
"I said to her, 'I need you. This airport is an engine for Southern California's economy. I need your leadership, your communication skills. I need your ability to build consensus.' "
Villaraigosa knew Kennard held an educational pedigree matched by few other city executives. She earned a bachelor's degree at Stanford, then moved to the East Coast and studied for a master's in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a law degree from Harvard -- at the same time.
The mayor also knew Kennard had experience, having previously held the post of executive director of airports under former mayors James K. Hahn and Richard Riordan. She was little known outside City Hall until Sept. 11, 2001, when she kept LAX's central terminal closed to private vehicles for five weeks, despite pressure from politicians, her own deputies and airline executives. Her stalwart position won praise nationwide.
Her tenure was interrupted, however, in mid-2003, when she resigned, saying she wanted to spend more time with her children, Marlyse, 11, and Bryson, 4, and her stepson, Sean, 26.
"I failed miserably," Kennard recounted in a speech earlier this year. "It's far easier to manage 3,000 people than it is to stay at home with a 3-year-old. My children didn't appreciate me when I was there every day, it was all about 'Where are my Cheerios? Where is my orange juice?' Now, they rush to the door when I get home."
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