Michael Lao Passes: Instructor With Compassion Transformed Many Lives


GRATITUDE, GIVING AND COMPASSION: Michael Lao, right, with Anthony “Genio” Villena, on a field trip to the Gavina Bakery.

Derek Stowe, staff reporter

Michael Lao, department chair and instructor for the hospitality and tourism management program, died while traveling in the Philippines this summer. He was 61.

Faye, his wife of 23 years, said he passed away in his sleep of heart failure in his Manila hotel room on Aug. 16. He was 11 days into the three-week business and leisure vacation.

“I’m sure he’s really happy off in the beyond since he has no more classes to plan,” she said.

Faye, 45, who was at their home in Diamond Bar when she got word, caught the next flight out and conducted services and a cremation ceremony with family and friends in Manila.

He had just returned to the city from a beach resort town with his older brother Johnny and some friends where they had stopped for fried chicken at one of his favorite restaurants: Savory Chicken. He used to eat this style of chicken over 40 years ago, Faye said.

Lao was a connoisseur of every kind of exotic food. “If it moved slower than him, it was fair game,” she said.

Faye said he would not want people to be sad over his departure. “As a spirit, he lived his life and left this earth on his own terms and in the way that he wanted.”

One of his frequent sayings was, “Life is short, be happy, enjoy yourself.” Instead of a wake, there will be a party to honor him on Oct. 9, which would have been his 62nd birthday. All who knew him are invited to attend.

Lao, the youngest of six siblings, is survived by brothers Peter, Johnny, Robin, and sister Vicky. His brother Freddy passed at 50 of cancer. His father lived to 92 and his mother to 78.

Lao began teaching at GCC in 2001. He was a success-minded professional with a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant administration from Cornell and bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Philippines, where he was born and raised by his Chinese parents.

He had over 30 years of experience in the hotel and food service industry as owner of two Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, and director of international and domestic franchise operations for 52 Tony Roma’s restaurants.

He quickly became known as a very dedicated instructor who cared deeply about his students, his fellow faculty, and the Glendale College Foundation.

Lao exerted a powerful influence over the hospitality and tourism department and believed in reaching out to the community for help in providing exposure and employment to GCC alumni.

He had just been awarded a Foundation grant to do a lecture series designed to bring together his students and successful businesses in the community, said executive director Lisa Brooks.

Andra Verstraete of the job placement center said Lao was extremely innovative with ideas for the hospitality internship program, ultimately running an extremely successful program where students had wonderful experiences in the industry.

The hospitality department’s 11 classes include internships and courses that cover event planning, banquets, and hotel and restaurant personnel operations. A glance at fall semester’s schedule shows Lao as the teacher of five different courses plus one class at Garfield.

Vestraete was shocked and saddened by the news of his death, “He shared with me how excited he was about his trip this summer,” she said.

Since then, condolences began pouring into Faye’s email address by the dozens.

“Professor Lao had a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” wrote Garfield student Cindy Chang in an e-mail. “It was obvious that he enjoyed sharing his knowledge about the [hospitality] business.”

“[Lao] opened my mind to a whole new world and gave me the confidence to pursue what I love to do: hospitality and culinary arts,” wrote Derek Flores, a former credit student.

“He was very patient and gave examples of behind-the-scenes [conduct] to teach the things that can make or break you [in the industry],” wrote Garfield student Michael Devries.

For example, as manager, never fire someone whose father is an important person, or a waitress who is sleeping with your boss, said Faye. Otherwise, expect to be fired next.

Faye and Lao were married on Dec. 11, 1988.

With his demanding schedule, they never started a family of their own other than their “adopted” students in the hospitality department and at various schools. However, they have had a string of cats in their lives, with their current four cats: Lucy Goose, Pumpkin Bumpkin, Bengal Spice-Girl, and Yoda Gouda, the “foster cat.”

Their backyard reflects their love of fruit trees including figs, lemons, peaches, guavas and nectarines. He would always come in bearing fruit to the college, said Faye.

Lao gave generously of his time to the underprivileged. Not only did he teach free courses at the Garfield campus but he would also even buy hotel room nights for homeless people to provide them a shower, a square meal, and a fresh start.

“He lived his life in service and giving to others,” said Arlene Fung Lapin, former Garfield student. Her most lasting impression of Lao was the help he gave the young people at Homeboy Industries.

“It is because of his vision that I was encouraged to help a homie of my son’s. I was successful in helping him find a job. He is doing well and we are proud of him. Mr. Lao’s introduction to Homeboy Industries inspired my goal with this young man. Mr. Lao’s positive energy and motivation will be missed.”

Lao’s passing marks the end of an era.

Student worker and department assistant Susie Keyvanian, who was by his side for the past year-and-a-half, held the department together in his absence by making sure no classes were cancelled.

Five instructors came to the rescue to teach his heavy course-load including Faye Lao, now teaching the introduction, personnel management and internship course.

Internships are the most vital component of the program because they smooth the link between theoretical study and actual implementation of management skills in a local establishment.

Lao taught Keyvanian how to teach others by preparing her emotionally and psychologically. He gave her the confidence and know-how to teach her fellow students about how to succeed in the hospitality industry.

Keyvanian said Lao’s motto is a play on acronyms: “We go to GCC but we live by GGC: gratitude, giving and contentment.”

She explained the three rules.

“Be grateful for what you have because so many others are not so fortunate; make sure to give back [either monetarily or instructionally] to whomever or wherever you learned from, such as your school, organization, or mentor; be happy with where you are — try to see the good in any situation — for example, if you’re unemployed, go volunteer somewhere and God will reward you in time with a job [that pays].”

“It’s all about planting that seed,” said Faye. “The seed that students are often too impatient to watch grow.”

In other words, approach life with a winning attitude, take the right actions, and believe in miracles but be patient.

What Lao truly shall be remembered for are the many lives he had a stake in changing for the better.

The Michael Lao memorial birthday celebration will be held on Oct. 9 at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. A formal announcement with further details will be released shortly by Faye.