Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Peter Mehas died Saturday, based on information from a family spokesman.
Pete Mehas, longtime civic and education leader and a former Fresno County schools superintendent known for his commitment to scholarship and bettering the Central Valley, has died.
Dr. Mehas passed away suddenly at Saint Agnes Medical Center late Friday from a ruptured thoracic aortic aneurysm, family friend Mike Woods confirmed.
Dr. Mehas was 73.
Dr. Mehas was a four-term Fresno County schools superintendent and served as secretary of education for former Gov. George Deukmejian. At the time of his death, Dr. Mehas was a member of the California State University system Board of Trustees.
Dr. Mehas, a Fresno native, worked in education since the early 1960s, starting out his career as a teacher and coach at Roosevelt High School. He later worked in the Clovis Unified School District, eventually working his way up to associate superintendent in Clovis by the late 1980s.
People who knew him best said he was a "tremendous motivator" and "fanatic about encouraging people to reach their potential."
For Woods, his relationship with Dr. Mehas started 50 years ago, when Dr. Mehas taught civics and coached football at Roosevelt. Since that time they've made a habit of getting together regularly for gin rummy games, to have lively political debates and travel the globe with their families -- just two weeks ago, the pair returned from a trip to Turkey and Greece.
"We'd go on trips and he'd be the life of the party," Woods said. "He was one of those guys you were proud to know because he was involved in so many good things."
Former Fresno County schools Superintendent Larry Powell, who has also been friends with Dr. Mehas for 50 years, recalled meeting him when Powell was a wrestler at McLane High. Dr. Mehas was a coach and teacher at the time and took an interest in Powell's wrestling talent.
Several years later, when Dr. Mehas was working as the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, he hired Powell to join his team as deputy superintendent. Dr. Mehas was first elected as superintendent in 1990, and was reelected to three more terms in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
"It was a great time in life and he was such a great friend," Powell said. "It's a heart-wrenching loss because he's a huge advocate to the community."
Powell said Dr. Mehas was a known wrestling and baseball fan, who loved both the Dodgers and Fresno State, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1962. He's served as president of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame for almost two decades, was an All-American center at Fresno City College and played on Fresno State's undefeated Mercy Bowl team.
Tom Sommers, who's served on the Hall of Fame board and also played on the Mercy Bowl team, said Dr. Mehas made a point to get all his teammates back together for a reunion every five years. It was that kind of commitment, Sommers said, that really defined the person Dr. Mehas was.
"He kept that group together," he said. "He was a detail guy, a visionary, and made sure things got done."
John Welty said he remembered seeking Dr. Mehas' advice when he first took up his post as Fresno State president 22 years ago. During hard times, Welty said, Dr. Mehas could be counted on to talk things through.
"He was someone that loved kids, was deeply committed to education and the Fresno community, and I think he gave hours and hours of his time to make Fresno a better community," said Welty, who retired from the presidency this summer. "He will be missed by thousands of people because he touched so many lives."
One of Dr. Mehas' closest friends and colleagues, Charlotte Nunn, worked for him at Clovis Unified, watched him marry his wife Demi and asked him to speak at her husband's funeral earlier this year.
"If I asked him for the shirt off his back, he would give it to me," she said. "It was that kind of relationship."
She fondly remembered Dr. Mehas' diligent work ethic, and said she and her colleagues called him the "whirling dervish" when they worked again together at the Fresno County Office of Education.
During his time as Gov. Deukmejian's top education adviser, Dr. Mehas was known as a "true statesman" who was "fiercely loyal" to the governor's agenda, said Rob Saroyan of Fresno, who was on Deukmejian's staff at the time.
Even when the governor's proposals clashed with lawmakers or the state superintendent's office, Saroyan said, Dr. Mehas was dedicated to getting Deukmejian's education policy passed: "Dr. Mehas was in the middle of all that, working behind the scenes and representing the governor very effectively," Saroyan said. "He showed a lot of grit."
Others who spoke about Dr. Mehas on Saturday described him as an "iconic individual" and a "proud Bulldog like no other."
Powell called him a "great community leader."
"He was a strong advocate for education, kids and minorities," he said. "He was just a very unique guy in that he believed in doing the right thing even when it wasn't the politically expedient thing."
A former Fresno State student and vice president of the university's student government said he remembers sitting next to Dr. Mehas during CSU trustee meetings. "He was one of my biggest mentors," Russel Statham said. "He was a humble servant leader who set a tremendous example for all of us."
According to the CSU system website, Dr. Mehas earned a master's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and his doctorate in education from the University of Southern California.
Dr. Mehas was appointed in 1991 by former President George H.W. Bush to the advisory commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. He's served on several university advisory boards and is the recipient of numerous local and state awards, including the Fresno Public Education Fund's Gold Star Alumni Award and the 2001 Rose Ann Vuich Ethical Leadership Award, named in honor of the former state senator from Dinuba.
He was named a distinguished alumnus by the Fresno State alumni association in 2002 and enshrined in the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Peter George Mehas
Oct. 1, 1939, the only son of Greek emigrants George and Sylvia Mehas (they ran the Fresno Malt Shop and Athenian Restaurant in downtown Fresno)
Died: Sept. 27, 2013
Education: Attended Fresno schools; graduated from Fresno High; attended Fresno City College, San Jose State, Fresno State; earned his masters from the University of California at Los Angeles and his doctorate from the University of Southern California.
Career: Taught civics and coached football at Roosevelt and Edison high schools; assistant principal, then principal at Clovis High; associate superintendent of instruction for Clovis Unified; Gov. George Deukmejian's adviser on education; superintendent of Fresno County schools; executive director of the Fresno Business Compact at Fresno State; California State University trustee; outgoing president of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.
Survivors: Wife, Demi Mehas; daughters Onna Mehas and Alethea Crespo; son-in-law Roberto Crespo; twin grand-daughters Andreanna and Isabella Crespo; sisters Tulla Chrisman and Georgia Golling
What they said
Joseph Castro, Fresno State president:
"Mary and I are deeply saddened by the news that Dr. Mehas has passed away. He was an incredibly talented man who used his gifts to serve others every day of his life. I was fortunate to get to know and work closely with him as the head of my search committee and a member of my transition team. I will miss his wisdom, warmth and unwavering Bulldog spirit. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mehas family."
John Welty, president emeritus, Fresno State:
"I worked closely with Pete Mehas for 22 years and never met an individual more loyal to his alma mater and his community. Pete always put the needs of others first in his life and served with great passion and enthusiasm. He often remarked that he owed so much to Fresno State, but it is we who love the university and the community who owe so much to him."
California State University Chancellor Timothy White:
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of such an iconic individual. Dr. Mehas committed his entire life to everything positive through education and his work and efforts touched education at every level. The entire California State University family is diminished by his loss."
Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified School District superintendent:
"Fresno Unified School District has lost a tireless educational advocate this weekend and it is with a heavy heart that the Board of Education and I send our condolences to family of Pete Mehas. On behalf of the faculty, staff and students of this great city, our heartfelt sympathies are extended at the passing of this courageous leader.
"Mehas served the students of this community for more than 16 years as Fresno County superintendent. He will be remembered as a strong voice for all children as well as a proud historian of Fresno Unified. He was a valued member of this community and a person I called a mentor and a friend. His work, his legacy, his dedication to the students of this city will live on for decades to come."
Jacqui Glasener, executive director of the Fresno State Alumni Association:
"Pete Mehas was a proud Bulldog like no other. From being a member of the Mercy Bowl football team as a student, to returning to his alma mater to chair the Centennial Celebration and most recently heading the committee that brought Dr. Joseph Castro to Fresno State as our new president, he was always involved. We were pleased to present him with the Distinguished Alumnus Award for his tireless support of Fresno State and the community in 2002."
Russel Statham, former Fresno State student body vice president:
"I served with Dr. Mehas on the CSU Board of Trustees when I was a Fresno State student, and in fact sat next to him at meetings. He was one of my biggest mentors, providing me good advice on leadership and how to manage through difficult times. He was a humble servant leader who set a tremendous example for all of us."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, email@example.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.