Two who perished too early get their due from Cal Poly Pomona

Frank Brandt's tribute to his two best friends who died in a plane crash weeks before graduating from Cal Poly Pomona in 1967 inspires the school to honor them.

They were the best of friends, a trio of college seniors just weeks shy of graduating from Cal Poly Pomona and bursting into the world.

First there would be a celebratory trip to Las Vegas.

A flight on a small plane was arranged, and Frank Brandt couldn't wait to take it.

Then he got sick. Terribly sick. It hit hard enough that he told Dennis Midas and Michael Young to go on their own.

Hours later, on a dark tarmac at Ontario airport, Midas and Young boarded a single-engine Piper PA-28. It wasn't long after takeoff before the plane hit sleet, ice and gusting wind, not long before it plunged into the ground near Lake Arrowhead. Investigators said the two landscape architecture students probably died instantly.

"You go through something like that, you don't know why you were spared," says Brandt, remembering that night, 45 years ago, in April 1967. "And all you have to hold onto are memories of people you cared about."

Outside of their families and friends, few would have remembered Midas and Young if not for the fortunate life Brandt went on to live.

He was 28 when the accident happened, older than most of his college peers. Brandt figures now that his maturity helped him cope with depression and shock as the school year marched on and he attended funerals and drove Young's green roadster back to his friend's childhood home in Sunland.

Brandt returned to Honolulu with new motivation: Because his friends could not achieve their professional dreams, he was going to succeed for them. By the early '70s he'd started a firm — Phillips, Brandt, Reddick & Associates —- that would become one of the island's leaders in landscape architecture, shaping the look and feel of resorts, and universities and entire towns.

For all of his success he couldn't escape the past. Because of the tragedy, Brandt always shied from using single-engine planes like the one his friends died on, even in Hawaii, where small planes are often used to hop from island to island.

On jets, though, he would sit in window seats and look at the world below and ponder what happened. He would think of Young's natural talent, the way he could quickly solve design problems in his head; think of the freewheeling trip the three took to Yosemite in the roadster; think of the apartment on Pomona's Dudley Street where they hung out.

Brandt remembered, but the university did not. There were no plaques laid on campus to honor them, no ceremonies or scholarships in their names. As students and professors left, retired and passed away, nobody was around who had ever heard of them.

But in April, Cal Poly's College of Environmental Design named Brandt its alumnus of the year, and he came to campus from Hawaii for a banquet. Since he had not been on campus since graduation, the return left him nostalgic. Voice cracking, emotions swirling inside, the silver-haired 73-year-old rose to a dais and spoke about Midas and Young — both of them young and sturdy and always eager for success in his mind.

"I wanted people to know about them," Brandt says. "These guys deserve that much."

In the audience that night was Michael Woo, Pomona's dean of environmental design. He decided on the spot to take action. "This was a chance," Woo says, "to do the right thing."

Last week, several dozen students and faculty gathered in an atrium on the Pomona campus. Brandt was again on hand and again he spoke of his deceased friends. This time the audience included the few surviving family members whom Brandt had never met and Cal Poly spent weeks this summer searching for — and they were presented with certificates of completion, similar to honorary degrees, for both men.

A close family friend, Janet Hawkins, was there for Young. After the ceremony, she told Brandt that Young's mother, Shirley Shimek, passed away last year at 91; he was her only child.

"Oh, that's a big regret," Brandt said, his voice hushed as he recalled how in the first years after the crash he had kept in touch with Shimek. "I wish we could have done this sooner so she could be here. We were just too late."

Then he stood beside Midas' younger sister, Charlotte Groty, and the two shared memories of where they were when they first heard the news that the plane had crashed.

Brandt cringed. His shoulders hunched. He spoke of guilt and sadness, fighting for words.

"It's OK," Groty assured him. "It was fate. There were other things you were meant to do in life."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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