John Dever, a former combat Marine, was a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy who is credited with bringing stability to Long Beach as city manager following a tumultuous period in the city four decades ago.
Dever has been largely forgotten by many of today’s younger generation, but older political observers remembered him last week as a smart city manager who turned the city around financially and brought more strategic planning to City Hall.
Dever, who had been living in Laguna Hills, died March 29 after an unexpected bout with pneumonia, according to his daughter, Linda Omdahl, who lives in Littleton, Colo., a suburb of Denver. Dever and his wife, Jean, had both come down with pneumonia and were both being treated at the hospital when he died. He was 95. His wife of more than 72 years is back home.
“He was a really good city manager and a marvelous change for the city during a difficult time,” said Tom Clark, who was the city’s mayor, at a time when the City Council appointed that position from among themselves. “He was the right guy at the right time,”
Jim Hankla, who replaced Dever as city manager, said his predecessor set the city on a good financial footing and, overall, was “good for the city.” John Calhoun, former longtime city attorney, said Dever was “one of the sharpest, most capable city managers I ever dealt with.”
Dever was hired as city manager in January 1977, a somewhat chaotic time in the city’s history. Dever’s predecessor, John Mansell, had been forced to retire, the city’s planning director had been convicted of accepting a bribe and Long Beach was in an economic decline. On top of that, the financial picture became even tougher when voters approved tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978.
Dever developed plans to cut city services, increase fees, and change and consolidate management positions.
“He was known inside City Hall then as ‘Dever the Cleaver,’” said Robert Paternoster, the city’s planning and building director during Dever’s tenure. But slowly, the financial picture of the city became brighter and the city budget showed surpluses.
Dever’s time as city manager was not without controversy. There were times when some councilmembers felt that he was not as forthcoming with information as he should be. In fact, there were two efforts to fire him, but they failed. His detractors later said they had grown to respect Dever, despite their differences with him.
In his letter of resignation in 1987, Dever said his job in Long Beach had been mainly completed. He pointed to the adoption of a long-range strategic plan and said the city was experiencing “the greatest period of residential, industrial and commercial development in its history.” He said it was time for him to seek a new challenge.
Dever was born on May 27, 1923, in a Chicago suburb. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines during World War II and fought during the invasion of Iwo Jima. After the war, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and his master’s degree from Syracuse University.
He began his municipal administrative career in 1951 when he became assistant to the city manager in Eau Claire, Wis. He then became city manager in Two Rivers, Wis., and Decatur, Ill., before moving west and taking the job as city manager in Sunnyvale, in Northern California, before moving south to Long Beach.
After leaving Long Beach, Dever did consulting work, with the International Executive Service Corps, helping with management training in Russia, the Czech Republic and Panama.
He served as president of the prestigious International City Management Association and was once called by one executive as “the most respected city manager in the United States.”
Even though he left the city years ago, Dever always had “fond memories” of Long Beach, said his son, Todd, who grew up in Long Beach, graduated from Millikan High School and continues to live here, working as an artist and video producer.
“My dad remained friends with several people in Long Beach, and he was always interested in how the city was developing,” he said. “He was especially pleased with the Aquarium of the Pacific and other improvements.”
Todd said his father was in Long Beach as recently as a month or two ago.
“We had a bite to eat, drove around the city a little and just had a good time,” he said. “That’s why it was such a shock when he became ill. I was so lucky to have him as a dad.”