"Les" is more when it comes to honoring local students.
Last week the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce distributed its annual Les Miller Outstanding Student Awards. The stirring, 33rd annual ceremony was at the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa hotel.
Awards and scholarships were presented to several dozen Costa Mesa high school and college students.
I love the Les Miller awards. For many years, while I served as an administrator at Orange Coast College, I witnessed the awards being presented to deserving students and student-athletes. Over the decades I talked with many recipients. They were, without exception, deeply touched by the honor.
I've also had a special appreciation for the awards because of their namesake — Les Miller. Les was my high school principal and, for many years thereafter, my friend.
He was a prince of a man!
Les was Costa Mesa High School's first principal and a Costa Mesa civic leader extraordinaire.
A native Kansan, he graduated from Baker University, a private liberal arts university in his home state. He taught and coached for a time in the Midwest, then came to California in 1943 with his wife, Jo. They settled in our community and raised three children.
Les was hired by Newport Harbor High School to teach civics and history. He taught there from 1943-58 and served as varsity football coach for three seasons, '43, '44 and '45. He also coached varsity baseball. He later coached lightweight football at the high school for a number of years.
In 1958, Les was selected as the first principal of the second high school to be established in the Newport-Mesa District: Costa Mesa High. From 1957 through the summer of '58, we Costa Mesans watched eagerly as the concrete pillars and walls — and the space age-looking dome in the campus' quadrangle — materialized along Fairview Road, across from OCC.
That first year, Mesa High had only freshmen — about 600 of them. The students came from Costa Mesa and Santa Ana Heights. Newport Beach freshmen also attended the school, but transferred to Newport Harbor the next year as sophomores.
That first year, I swear, Les knew the name of every single student on campus. He'd call us out by name as we passed him in the hallways.
During the 1959-60 school year, we had freshmen and sophomores on campus. In 1960-61, freshmen, sophomores and juniors were onboard. A full complement of freshmen through seniors was accommodated in 1961-62.
The first class — my class — graduated in June of '62. We'll celebrate our 50th reunion this summer. Les was proud of all of his students, but it's my observation that he always held a special place in his heart for that first Mesa class. He attended many of our reunions.
Les continued as Costa Mesa's principal through 1963, then went to the district office.
Active in the Costa Mesa-Newport Harbor Lions Club for decades, he served as president in 1946-47. He played a major role in establishing the Fish Fry, which donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to charity and youth organizations. He also served as the Lions' district governor.
OCC named Les its Citizen of the Year in 1991 for his work on behalf of local students. I ran into him frequently at community functions and saw him regularly at OCC football games.
In the early 1990s, I sat with him at Mesa's first CIF football game in eons. The Mustangs won, and he was thrilled.
Les passed away in the fall of 1995. He was 81.
In 1999 he was inducted into the Daily Pilot Sports Hall of Fame for his dedication to Newport-Mesa students and athletes. The following year, Mesa named its administration building in his honor.
I'm thrilled each and every year at this time when I spot my former principal's name in Daily Pilot headlines announcing the winners of the Les Miller awards.
Our community owes him a huge debt of gratitude!
Published May 21, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.
(Another fine article by Class of "62 classmate, Jim Carnett)