EDITORIAL: Mehas was powerful force for Fresno education

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly reported that Peter Mehas died Saturday, based on information from a family spokesman.

When Pete Mehas left the Fresno County Office of Education in 2006 after four terms as superintendent, he packed up several boxes of mementos. Among the keepsakes: a toy sword from a friend who said Mehas too often tilted at windmills.

Upon Mr. Mehas' unexpected death at age 73 Friday, friends naturally recalled his skilled mentoring, passion for education, political savvy and love of athletics.

Drawing a complete picture of the man, however, requires notice of the fact that Mr. Mehas regarded defeat as temporary and though, over time, he may have become more of a political realist, he rarely pulled punches when asked his opinion.

Interspersed among the many highlights of his public life were two disappointments: failure to become superintendent of Clovis Unified and Fresno Unified school districts.

Mr. Mehas fell out of favor in Clovis Unified when he bluntly told longtime Clovis Unified superintendent Floyd "Doc" Buchanan that competition among district schools "was out of control." Mr. Mehas' big personality and anti-union reputation likely cost him Fresno Unified's top job.

But Mr. Mehas didn't let such setbacks deter him from working long hours on behalf of students and the San Joaquin Valley that he loved. As superintendent of Fresno County schools, his office expanded migrant education and vocational training. He waded into tough political waters by being instrumental in the state's takeover of the troubled West Fresno School District. For a time, he oversaw the finances of Fresno Unified as it struggled to get out of deep debt in the mid-2000s.

In 2007, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Mr. Mehas, a Republican, to the California State University system Board of Trustees. Six years later, Mr. Mehas headed the search committee that selected Joseph Castro as John Welty's successor as Fresno State president.

Anyone looking to be successful would do well to emulate Mr. Mehas' outlook.

He believed in the Greek ideal: a sound body is vital because it is the vessel of the mind. He gave people second chances -- knowing that not all of them would work out. Most of all, he believed in the transformative power of education.