Armen Bacon

Armen Bacon: Mehas moved mountains for kids

It seems like just yesterday, but in reality, it was 2006, when after four consecutive terms as superintendent of schools, he entered his conference room and announced to a small group of us that he was retiring. As his public relations person, I had known for some time the day was coming, but nevertheless, convulsed at the thought. Once the actual date was set, we planned a huge send-off, where he received friends, governors, proclamations, and kudos for a job well done.

It was to be a new era of relaxation, but quickly morphed into more high-stakes public service, with intermittent vacations to emulate a life of leisure. He held tight to his Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame meetings, made regular treks to Long Beach for California State University Board of Trustees meetings, and accepted the chairmanship of Fresno State's Centennial Celebration.

In other words, Peter G. Mehas remained in the spotlight and busy as ever, doing what he loved most — changing the world.

Last weekend, without the slightest hint or warning, he passed away, leaving a community in utter shock, ill-prepared to say goodbye. As one of many who adored him, I tried to hear his voice whispering some Zorba-like wisdom, but the silence was deafening.

He had called a few days earlier, just home from Greece, congratulating me on my retirement plans but also asking me to connect with a teacher in Athens who wanted to forge a partnership with American schools. He was always pushing the envelope, raising the bar, building a bridge and bringing people together for the good of the cause.

To soothe my own sorrow, I immediately pored over news clips and photographs, calling up memories, reliving the past.

I had been part of his cabinet, and through the years, we had become his second family. When my son died unexpectedly in 2004, it was Pete who strolled into my office daily, asking, "How you doing, kiddo?" and ultimately embraced me with a bear hug and crying tears of his own. Those of us working close to him often saw the human side of this giant of a man.

His fierce loyalty to those who had stumbled on life's path is a trait that few possess. The rigors of courageous conversations, taking a strong stand for what he believed in, straight talk and results were the rule, never the exception. And he held all of us to those standards.

He had assembled what he often referred to as his "dream team." Never shy about telling us that we could (and would) move mountains for the sake of children, he also confessed there might be a few rockslides. And there were plenty of them during the Mehas era. Media frenzies, editorial board battles, but in the end, the students of Fresno County were the beneficiaries of the wars he fought, whether they were in Fresno, Sacramento or Washington, D.C. A true champion for education, he lobbied to equalize funding for students — insistent that legislators learn about the education needs here in the central San Joaquin Valley, and doing whatever necessary to keep it on the forefront of our community's agenda.

We had a pact. In our weekly meetings, I vowed to tell him the truth, even when the news was not easy to digest. His position, after all, was not a popularity contest. He made an uncompromising promise never to deny access to the press or parents. He took everyone's calls without exception. This made him late to meetings and turned 12-hour days into 14-hour days, but he insisted on hearing from the people who elected him.

Before his tenure as superintendent of schools, the county office of education was barely a blip on the radar screen. Today, it remains a vital resource, providing services to more than 195,000 students in Fresno County.

Our community mourns the loss of a great man who devoted 44 unforgettable years to the children of our county. As an educator, public servant, community leader, friend, husband, father and grandfather, Dr. Mehas gave nothing less than his absolute best to the world.

Whether you considered him an education leader, politician, visionary or Greek warrior, make no mistake, he was a man of great conviction and passion.

Goodbye, fearless leader and friend. You will be missed.

Before Mehas' tenure as superintendent of schools, the Fresno County Office of Education was barely a blip on the radar screen.