Lewis Griswold

Three Rivers veteran looks back on lucky life

Greg Meis of Three Rivers poses with a photo of his friend Ronald Reagan.
Greg Meis of Three Rivers poses with a photo of his friend Ronald Reagan. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Korean War veteran Greg Meis of Three Rivers will be on the next Central Valley Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., a trip that brings much of his long life full circle.

Honor Flights bring veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to the nation’s capital to see the war memorials and monuments.

Meis, 86 and in good health, is looking forward to the trip next month.

In 1946 at age 16 – and with his parents’ permission – he joined the Army in Burbank.

When the Korean War began, his unit was sent to Korea, where he was a sergeant first class.

His commander – Maj. Charles Wiggins, who later became a congressman from Southern California (and staunchly defended President Richard Nixon during Watergate) – told him there was a new program by which a first sergeant or higher could instantly become a lieutenant, and Meis gladly signed on.

“We were in a war zone,” Meis said. “It’s quite an honor. I didn’t go to high school or college.”

Meis stopped going to high school after ninth grade, although that grade was memorable in retrospect: “Debbie Reynolds was a classmate,” he said.

After leaving the Army, he made his mark as a salesman, school board member, planning commissioner, city council member in South El Monte and friend of Ronald Reagan.

“I have one school, three city parks and four government buildings with my name on them,” he said, referring to plaques on buildings from his time in elective offices in the 1950s and 1960s.

He bought his first home in South El Monte. “The sign said ‘Homes, 3 bedroom 2 bath, $14,000. $81 a month,’ ” he recalled. “I raised four children there.”

He took a job as a delivery man for a 7UP bottling plant.

One of his stops was a ranch where the television show “Death Valley Days” was being filmed. The ranch was owned by Ronald Reagan, vice president of the Screen Actors Guild. When Meis showed up with a load of 7UP, “he helped me take them off the truck,” Meis said.

Reagan kindly invited him to join the crew for lunch on his next visit.

Two weeks later, Meis arranged his route to arrive for lunch. After the crew went back to shooting scenes, he sat around talking with Reagan.

“I was 25, he was 45,” Meis said. “We were just two guys talking. I liked him because he was humble and an honest guy. He was just one of the guys. I don’t feel ever that he was pompous or better than me. He carried himself that way in the presidency.”

Every two weeks for the next nine months, Meis delivered to the ranch and chatted with Reagan. Sometimes Reagan gave him tickets to fundraisers at which he met Bing Crosby, Red Skelton and John Carradine, among others.

After being elected to the South El Monte City Council, Meis sent a letter to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan letting him know that he was involved in local politics. A while later, two staff members came to visit him and offered him a part-time job as a governor’s field representative interacting with several small cities in the area, he said.

Meis was also active in the Contract Cities Association under which dozens of small cities contract with Los Angeles County for fire and sheriff’s department services.

He got a sales job with the Susan Bates knitting needles company. One day, a retailer in Three Rivers sent a letter to company headquarters in Connecticut complaining that no sales representative had ever visited.

That’s how Meis discovered Three Rivers. He liked the community so much that he and his wife, Barbara, bought a home and have lived there for 32 years.

“It’s been a good life,” he said.

HONORED IN D.C.: Susana De Anda, co-founder and co-executive director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, was honored last month as one of 10 “White House Champions of Change for Climate Equity.”

She went to Washington, D.C., to receive the award.

De Anda is an advocate for rural, low-income communities seeking clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

She and others were selected “for their work empowering low-income and underserved communities to prepare for and adapt to climate change. These leaders have initiated powerful changes to ensure that those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have the resources they need to thrive and build resilient communities,” the White House Office of Communication said.

IN MEMORIUM: Retired Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Clyde Churchill has died. He was 86.

He joined the department in 1953 and served as agricultural commissioner from 1973 to 1990. During his long career, agriculture in the county experienced dramatic growth, from a gross crop value of $250,000 in 1953 to $1.9 billion in 1989.

He played golf three or four times a week after retirement, his son Brent Churchill said: “He said he never met anyone that had more hole in ones than he did – seven.”

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com, @fb_LewGriswold