Surrounded by wreaths of red and white roses and a favorite cowboy hat, the Fresno man known for inspiring others through education and his love for the San Joaquin Valley was laid to rest Friday.
More than 1,000 people celebrated the life of longtime civic and education leader Peter Mehas, saying their final good-byes to a man who many called larger than life. Family and friends packed into St. George Greek Orthodox Church in central Fresno to pay tribute to Dr. Mehas, who passed away suddenly at Saint Agnes Medical Center on Sept. 27.
He was remembered by his daughters as a man who believed in family, by friends as an esteemed educator and by St. George's Rev. Jim Pappas as "an icon."
Dr. Mehas, a four-term Fresno County schools superintendent, served as secretary of education for Gov. George Deukmejian. After he retired in 2006 as the county schools superintendent, Dr. Mehas was appointed the following year to the California State University system Board of Trustees.
The Fresno native worked in education since the early 1960s, starting out as a teacher and coach at Roosevelt High School. He also worked in the Clovis Unified School District, working his way up to associate superintendent by the late 1980s.
Crowds numbering in the hundreds filled the church and fold-out chairs outside and in nearby St. George buildings equipped with projection screens streaming the service.
Pappas led the procession into St. George's sanctuary with bells and incense, followed by Dr. Mehas' closest friends and family members, including his wife Demi and daughters Onna Mehas and Alethea Crespo.
His daughters wiped away tears as they read from a letter Dr. Mehas wrote to them when they were in high school.
"I want you to do something that matters and I want you to stand for something," they read. "Be brave, you have the courage. Be wise, you have the brains. Love and be loved back with all your heart because nothing in life is more important."
During a lighter moment, they recalled Dr. Mehas' love of debate, even if it meant throwing in "questionable statistics" to get his point across. The crowd, quiet and reflective for most of the ceremony, erupted in laughter.
Several local and state dignitaries attended the service, including Deukmejian, California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and CSU Chancellor Timothy White.
Several university presidents, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, and local superintendents and school board members also paid their respects.
After the funeral, friends gathered outside to swap stories about Dr. Mehas.
Longtime friend and former Fresno Unified Superintendent Jake Abbott said he and Dr. Mehas first met at Roosevelt High. Abbott was a math teacher and Dr. Mehas, then 22, was teaching civics to teens across the hall. They became fast friends, Abbott said.
Years later, Abbott was principal at Clovis High and hired Dr. Mehas to join his team.
"I used to call him a great kid-man because all the kids loved him," he said. "He got involved with them and had so many great ideas. He is leaving a wonderful legacy."
Dr. Mehas was an offensive lineman on Fresno State's undefeated 1961 Mercy Bowl team, and more than a dozen of his former teammates congregated outside the church to share memories.
Jay Buckert and the others wore red-collared shirts embroidered with a Mercy Bowl logo to remember their friend. Buckert, one of the team's two captains, flew in from Seattle.
Others remembered Dr. Mehas' dedication to the Valley and his passion for academic scholarship.
Former Fresno State President John Welty said Dr. Mehas cared deeply about teaching, a passion that flowed through most areas of his life.
"He taught me how to be part of a community, he taught me how to deal with failure, he taught me how to always be looking on the positive side and he's one of those people I'll never forget," he said.
To Swearengin, Dr. Mehas always was a "happy warrior."
"No matter the circumstances, he had such fighter spirit but he was so positive in his outlook," she said.
Armen Bacon, who worked as senior director of communications and public relations for Dr. Mehas during his time as Fresno County superintendent, said she looks back fondly on advice he frequently gave his leadership team.
"He'd look at us and say, 'The morning you wake up without passion or fire in your belly, that's the morning you resign and go work somewhere else,' " she said.
"As heartbroken and stunned as we all were to hear of his passing, knowing he took his last breath with that fire still burning strong is somehow comforting and inspiring."
Peter George Mehas
Born: 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 (Note: A family spokesman initially reported that Mehas had died early on Sept. 28.)
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
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.