Former Orange County Sheriff James A. Musick, a one-time professional football player who rose through law enforcement ranks and was elected to office seven times, died Tuesday in Santa Ana. He was 82.
Sheriff Brad Gates, who succeeded Musick in 1975, described his former boss and mentor in heroic terms Tuesday night.
"He was an unbelievable individual who had an aura about him," said Gates, who worked under Musick for 14 years. "Here's a man who played in the Rose Bowl twice, who fought in the Second World War then came back and set a goal of becoming sheriff of Orange County.
"He built three jails during his tenure, put in place the first training academy in the county, but most of all, he really set a foundation for this department that we were able to build on beyond his years. He enjoyed his work very much and he gave his life to it."
Retired Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright, who worked in the district attorney's office from 1966 to 1990, said Musick "was the person who bridged the gap" as the county grew from a rural area with 200,000 people in 1947 to a metropolis with more than 1 million people nearly three decades later.
"He did it all with a lot of style," Enright said. "He ran the sheriff's office with such professionalism. The office today is very good and I think it was (Musick) who set the tone."
Enright likened Musick to John Wayne, who was a friend of the former sheriff.
"He was the typical western person you would see in the movies," Enright said. "He was an honest man who was totally apolitical. When you talked to him, you felt like you were talking to a real person. He was a real class act."
Supervisors Gaddi H. Vasquez and Harriett M. Wieder also talked about Musick's legacy on Tuesday.
"We are certainly losing a legendary sheriff," said Vasquez, a former police officer. "He certainly made a lot of positive contributions to this county during an important period of transition in law enforcement."
Wieder said having the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine named after him made the former sheriff "a living tradition in his own time."
Although remembered by most longtime residents as the sheriff, Musick first gained a measure of local fame as a football player at Santa Ana High School in the late 1920s.
He then went on to star as a fullback at USC, playing in the Rose Bowl twice, and played for the National Football League's Boston (now Washington) Redskins. He was selected to the NFL all-star team in 1934.
After a knee injury ended his football career, Musick returned to Orange County in 1934 and became a sheriff's deputy. He then become the county's only probation officer.
In 1943, Musick joined the Marine Corps, graduating from officer candidate school. He was later a member of the 5th Marine Division, the first American troops to occupy Japan.
After the war, Musick ran for sheriff in 1946, defeating the incumbent on his first try. He was reelected every four years until his retirement in 1975.
In an interview with The Times shortly before his retirement, Musick talked about how much the county changed during his tenure.
"In those old days, we would go for years without a bank robbery, and a murder was a rare thing indeed. . . . There were just not the crimes of violence in volume that we have today. I may sound like an old man, but there seemed to be more respect for the law."
Musick is survived by his wife of 60 years, Martha, two children and two grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending.