I spent an hour on Monday going through two sources of local history: The 1957 “Owl,” Fresno High School’s yearbook, and the 1956 Fresno Bee archives.
I wanted to get a taste of the senior year of Pete Mehas, the teacher and football player who died on Sept. 27.
Edwin C. Kratt was Fresno Unified’s superintendent when Mehas entered his last year at FHS in September 1956. Arthur L. Selland was president of the school board. The FHS principal was Jack Mulkey.
Fresno High in 2013 has a beautiful entrance, but it can’t compare to what FHS students saw in 1956 as they walked onto campus.
Clubs were a big deal. There was the Cafeteria Committee (Mehas was the spring cafe chairman); the Grounds Committee (nothing but big, strong boys, and lots of them); the Social Affairs Committee; the Card Tricks Committee (halftime entertainment at football games); the Purple and Gold club (“maintain the trophy case, Lions Club Toy Drive, Christmas decorations, assist parents on Back to School Night, arrange weekly schedules”); Silver Spoons (school service); Usherettes (school service); Portia (debate club, co-sponsored the Mr. Touchdown Dance); Quid Nunc (helped support Mario, the Italian war orphan and sponsored the Roman Banquet); and the Radio Club.
Academics were a big deal, too. The “Owl” had six pages devoted to photos of teachers. The “Owl” staff, to give readers a sense of what these teachers taught, ran a six-page line of subjects and topics: “History; 4 + 4 = 8; English; saw; amoeba; moderato; softball; a x b = ab; amigo; H2O; verbs; dictation, family living; nein; history; protoplasm; on stage; pronouns, a + a = 2a; gerunds; protozoa; Beowulf; crustacea; appositive; arthropoda; plane; basketball; civics; food; conjunctions; a-s-d-f; puella; push-ups; Webster…”
Other seniors in the FHS Class of 1957: Jim McKelvey, Dennis Metzler, Mike Noakes, Roger Nuttall, Carol Seaver (Tom’s sister) and Dick Val Galder.
Part of the FHS alma mater goes: ‘When in future years we’re turning leaves of memory/Then we’ll find our hearts returning Fresno High, to thee.”
Mehas was a center on the varsity football team. The team went 2-6 in the fall of 1956. The Warriors beat Kerman 38-7 and Madera 9-0. They were blanked in their final three games, losing to Mt. Whitney, Edison and Roosevelt by a combined score of 76-0.
Perhaps the Warriors never recovered from a tough mid-season 21-14 loss to the powerful Bakersfield Drillers in Bakersfield’s Memorial Stadium. The Drillers went 10-1 that season (losing only to Madera) and won the Valley Championship with Bob Schmidt (who went on to play at Notre Dame and USC) at quarterback.
Mehas’ jersey number was 45. Ollie Bidwell was the Warriors’ head coach. The quarterbacks were Van Galder and Jim Maloney (a junior).
The 1956 local high school football season opened, as it always did in those years, with the Football Carnival. There were only three public high schools in town — Fresno, Edison and Roosevelt.
The three schools played each other in a round-robin format. Each game was two quarters in length, 12 minutes per quarter. There was standard scoring, but each first down was worth a point.
Edison won the 11th annual Football Carnival in 1956. The Tigers beat FHS 17-5 and Roosevelt 9-0. FHS beat Roosevelt 12-3.
Vestee Jackson and Henry Stennis were Edison’s key players.
Fresno High had a solid rushing attack.
“Jerry Schillings, Richard Gunner and Jim Albracht did the running in short ground gainers,” The Bee reported in its Sept. 21, 1956 issue.
The carnival was held at Fresno Recreation Park on Kearney Boulevard. Many high school football games were held at this park.
Edison beat FHS 33-0 on Thursday, Nov. 8 in front of 5,000 fans at Recreation Park. One of The Bee’s headlines was: “Edison Tigers Pulverize Inept Fresno Warriors.”
The Little Big Game — Fresno High vs. Roosevelt High — was on Nov. 15, 1956 at Recreation Park. The two teams totaled just 313 yards in total offense (111 by FHS). There was a total of 165 yards in penalties. A 25-yard penalty, moving the ball to the FHS 1-yard line, led to one of Roosevelt’s touchdowns.
Final score: Roosevelt 12, FHS 0.
“Roosevelt never alternated from a slow but sure ground game which proved proper winning procedure but something less than interesting to watch,” The Bee reported.
The crowd — estimated at 5,500 — was deemed the smallest for a Little Big Game in many years.
The Roosevelt coach was Walt Byrd Sr.
Mehas was born Oct. 1, 1939, a month after the start of World War II in Europe, and came of age in a Fresno on the cusp of a golden age of sport.
He entered Fresno High School in the mid-1950s and rubbed shoulders in the hallways with future Major League baseball players Maloney, Dick Ellsworth and Pat Corrales. Fresno High vs. Roosevelt High in any sport was the city’s biggest rivalry.
Mehas was a standout center on the Fresno City College football team. He played at San Jose State, then came home to play for Fresno State.
Mehas never had a year quite like 1961. The Bulldogs went 10-0, the school’s second (and, so far, last) undefeated, untied season. He was a lineman on a team that included outstanding lineman such as Sonny Bishop, Doug Brown and Monte Day.
On Nov. 23, 1961, the Bulldogs crushed favored Bowling Green 36-6 in front of more than 33,000 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum in what was called the Mercy Bowl. Proceeds from the game went to survivors of the deadly 1960 crash in Toledo, Ohio of an airplane carrying the Cal Poly football team.
Shortly before the Mercy Bowl, Fresno was ranked third in the Associated Press Small School football poll. The teams in front of Fresno State: Pittsburg (Kansas) and Baldwin-Wallace.
Fresno State athletics would soon soar far beyond such environs. Mehas watched and encouraged such ambition.
He became a teacher in 1963, getting his started at Roosevelt. Athletic Director Walt Byrd Sr. got Mehas to coach football, too.
Mehas soon left for Edison High, which was predominantly African-American.
“I want to learn more about teaching at a black high school,” Mehas told The Bee in 1987.
Charle Young, who would go on to a great football career at University of Southern California and in the National Football League, was among the players coached by Mehas at Edison.
Mehas was president of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame from 1990 to 2013. He is a member of the HOF, both individually and as part of the 1961 Mercy Bowl team.
Mehas on the day before he died made what was probably his last public appearance. He and several other community leaders went to a Fresno City Council meeting to ask elected officials to designate the portion of Echo Avenue in front of Fresno High as Tom Seaver Lane.
The council did so.
But before the vote, Council Member Sal Quintero briefly addressed Mehas.
Quintero is a sports buff who played a tough game of basketball at San Joaquin Memorial High in the mid-1960s. As a council member, he represents southeast Fresno and the Roosevelt High neighborhood. Quintero knows well the delicious intensity of the Fresno-Roosevelt rivalry, especially among those of Mehas’ generation.
“Hey, Coach,” Quintero said with a smile to Mehas. “Next time, I want you to wear a shirt that’s half purple and half green.”
Purple is one of Fresno High’s colors. Green belongs to Roosevelt.
Mehas smiled and raised an arm, the athlete’s traditional signal of triumph.
Ever the diplomat, Mehas didn’t say for which school.