Sitting in a San Clemente City Hall conference room, Ben Villa looks back on his life and says he does not know why he succeeded when most of his childhood buddies failed.
But as Villa, the city’s development engineer, wraps up another day at the office, he knows he is an incredibly lucky man. “Most of the guys I basically grew up with are either dead or in jail,” he says.
Were it not for the fact that his father found him with a knife when he was 8 and moved the family out of the Oxnard barrio, Villa believes he might have ended up a gang member.
And had he not decided to drop college football and concentrate on engineering courses, he might have died in a 1960 plane crash that killed 22 team members four weeks into the season.
Though his own choices were made by happenstance, Villa, 49, now visits area schools to tell youngsters they can control their own destinies.
“I tell kids, ‘Don’t be afraid to make decisions,’ ” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with failing. Make a decision, go for it. If you fail, you know you can go somewhere else and make another decision. Nine out of 10 times you are going to fail, but eventually, you are going to hit it.”
As a youngster, Villa started out on the road to failure. He carried a knife, he told his father, because “you had to belong to a gang or else you did not survive. Everybody beat you up.”
About the time the family moved away from that environment, Villa says, his father also forbade him to speak Spanish at home because his inadequate English skills were becoming a handicap in school.
“The only time I could speak Spanish was when I went to visit my grandparents,” he says.
Villa did not consider himself a brilliant student, but he decided to go to college because all his friends were headed in that direction. After earning a civil engineering degree and serving in the Army for two years, Villa eventually made his way to San Clemente.
For the last 23 years, he has watched the city grow. Beginning as a surveyor, he helped build most of the streets located on the western side of the freeway that runs through the seaside community.
Now, as the city’s development engineer, he reviews plans for every house, business park or commercial center built in San Clemente to ensure that they meet city guidelines.
When he is not working, Villa helps coach sports teams, from Little League to high school football and basketball.
Through a recently formed gang-prevention program, Villa hopes to persuade kids to stay out of trouble and to appreciate life. Today’s teen-agers, he says, think too much about their possessions and do not realize how lucky they are to be living in Orange County.
“They have everything, down to the weather,” he says.
“If you were to take the kids from Orange County and put them in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, they would not survive,” Villa says. “If you take kids out of Alabama and put them in Orange County, they would think they had died and gone to heaven.”