Deukmejian memorial

Several hundred people attend the public memorial service for former California Governor George Deukmejian at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach on Saturday, June 9. Deukmejian, who served as governor from 1983 to 1991, died May 8 at the age of 89.

It was not an elegy, but an ode — to a life well lived.

Gov. George Deukmejian, who died last month, was remembered in a series of affectionate eulogies Saturday afternoon during a public memorial in Long Beach, his adopted hometown.

Hundreds sat in the wood-paneled Terrace Theater for the “celebration of life,” as Deukmejian’s political colleagues and proteges, as well as his son, lauded the two-term Republican governor — describing him as a self-effacing, but dynamic leader who reshaped California’s judicial system and reined in spending.

But those tasked with summing up Deukmejian’s 89-year life also spoke about a man who cherished moments of calm while away from the political fray; who held to his beliefs but was unafraid to change his mind; and who acted on what was moral, rather than what was politically expedient, even if it meant standing against his political allies.

“He was a good, decent, humble man,” said former Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, “who viewed himself as ordinary, but who did extraordinary things.”

Deukmejian, born in upstate New York, built a 29-year career in California politics, and was highly regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike for his bipartisanship and integrity. He served as governor from 1983 to 1991. But in Long Beach, he was equally known for his decades-long love affair with the city as for his political accomplishments.

During Saturday’s memorial, Foster and four other speakers led the audience through the highlights of the governor’s political career and the less well-known anecdotes of his personal life:

The time he held firm against the gun lobby to sign a bill banning assault weapons, his actions stoked by the slaughter of children in a Stockton schoolyard.

His penchant for strolling down Belmont Shore’s Second Street in search of his beloved ice cream.

His determination to crack down on crime and appoint tough-willed, conservative justices.

And the moment when the “Iron Duke” momentarily went “soft on crime” — slapping his knee, rather than spanking one of his daughters as his wife, Gloria, had urged after the child misbehaved.

The soft on crime moment came, jokingly, from George Deukmejian, Jr., who offered a glimpse into his father’s personal side that the public rarely saw, someone who easily blended in as the average, lawn-mowing American family man.

“His face was familiar, but he was often misidentified,” his son said, recounting the time a museum tour guide discussed how unpronounceable she found the name Deukmejian — with the governor standing in front of her.

There was also the time Deukmejian video recorded his son, 1 year old at the time, sitting under a Christmas tree — with an electrical cord in his mouth (though the filming suddenly halted when Deukmejian realized the child aimed to bite the live wire).

Or the time that same troublesome son performed a splash-happy cannon ball into the pool as the governor snoozed on a raft.

“People say my dad never cursed,” Deukmejian, Jr. said, reminiscing about how his bratty behavior often derailed his dad’s frequent longing for peace and quiet. “But he called me the offspring of a female house pet.”

The audience erupted, laughing and applauding.

The other speakers were:

Marv Baxter, a retired California Supreme Court justice who recalled that Deukmejian set his sites on the governor’s job “because the attorney general doesn’t appoint judges — the governor does”;

Ken Khachigan, Deukmejian’s senior campaign strategist and a family friend, who portrayed how revered the governor became in the Armenian community;

And Steve Merksamer, the governor’s chief of staff from 1983 to 1987, who detailed the tough choices his boss and mentor made as the state’s chief executive.

The trio, as well as Foster, rattled off Deukmejian’s political accomplishments: appointing more than 1,000 justices, boosting the assault-weapons ban, balancing the state budget without raising taxes and persuading the University of California Board of Regents to divest from companies in then-racially segregated South Africa. Nelson Mandela himself acknowledged that California’s policy shifts helped bring an end to apartheid.

“He was a wonderful man,” Baxter said. “And a great governor.”

Merksamer, who once worked in the state Attorney General’s Office, remembered meeting with Deukmejian during his campaign to become California’s chief prosecutor in 1978. Deukmejian wanted to meet with Merksamer and another colleague to learn more about the Attorney General’s Office and how it operated.

“He didn’t ask for contributions, didn’t talk about himself at all,” Merksamer said. “He just wanted to know how the system could be made better. And he picked up the check, too.”

The speakers spoke kindly of Gloria, who at one point received a standing ovation, for her ability to endure the scrutiny of the public eye as the state’s first lady and raise her and Deukmejian’s children largely out of the limelight.

The couple’s son described her as someone who mourned for her husband, but didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve — and being strong for her family.

“Clearly, she’s running the family now,” he said.

And Foster said of Deukmejian: “He married well.”

But the eulogies were not the only moments that provided insight into the governor’s personality.

Members of the Long Beach Symphony performed a medley of George Gershwin compositions from “An American in Paris." The up-tempo, brass-band tunes were some of Deukmejian’s favorites, said Donna Lucas, a former Deukmejian staffer who emceed the memorial.

And there were two videos — “a life in pictures” montages — one for career highlights, and the other of the family man.

The former had pictures of Deukmejian with President Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope, soundbites and videos from speeches, and him dancing with Gloria at his inaugural ball.

The latter montage had photos of Deukmejian with Santa Claus, at his children’s weddings and spending time at home.

The final photo showed Deukmejian’s back as he sat on a bench, on the pier, looking out at the ocean.

It looked as if the governor, so used to the clamor of Sacramento, was at last enjoying a little of that peace and quiet he so coveted.

After the image faded away, the Rev. Michael Fincher, of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Chrurch, stepped behind the lectern to give the benediction and end the memorial.

“We celebrate a man who selflessly gave of himself,” the reverend said, “for the benefit of others.”

And with that, the crowd, in unison, said “amen.”

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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