Jess Gilman, a retired Costa Mesa police officer who spent years working as a local school resource officer, died Thursday. He was 56.
Gilman died unexpectedly in his sleep, according to family and friends.
The 28-year police veteran started his career at the Baldwin Park Police Department in 1986. Two years later, he joined the Costa Mesa Police Department, where he stayed until he retired in October 2012.
Gilman first began working with children during Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, training at elementary schools. In 2012, he told the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board about his first day in the program at what was then Davis Elementary School.
"I walked in and I introduced myself and this little kid walks up and goes, 'Hi, I'm Colby, like the cheese,'" Gilman said. "I thought, 'Boy, was I in the right place at the right time,' and it just took off from there. This has been the greatest run. My career's been absolutely blessed."
He spent 12 years in Costa Mesa as a school resource officer, or SRO, watching over elementary, middle and high school students, according to his LinkedIn profile.
After his retirement, the Police Department announced it didn't have enough staff to fill the SRO slot, so in 2013 Gilman again assumed the role at Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools until 2014.
Those who knew him said his love for the community was obvious.
Phil D'Agostino, Newport-Mesa's director of student and community services, who worked with Gilman when D'Agostino was Costa Mesa High School's principal, told the Daily Pilot in 2012 that "there are a lot of things big about Jess, but in my years of working with him, I have found that nothing is bigger than his heart."
Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack said in a statement that Gilman was a "gentle giant" who stood out as a mentor to youngsters throughout the city.
"Jess was a husband, father and loyal member of our department," Sharpnack said. "We are sincerely thankful for his contributions to the organization and community as a whole. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gilman family. RIP, Jess."
Gilman is survived by his wife, Rhonda Wager Gilman, and children Aaron, Rebecca and Nathan.