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Studying the Lessons of Steven J. Frogue : Profile: The teacher and Saddleback trustee does not retreat from controversy that his views generate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His supporters call him a friend of the teacher, a benevolent caretaker of local schools, a loving father and family man. His opponents call him a demagogue, an eccentric, a flake. Too often, they say, he articulates the marginal and irrelevant.

His most vocal detractors accuse him of being an anti-Semite who often takes aim at Jewish organizations and who questions the severity of the Holocaust--charges he denies and labels as “scurrilous.”

To the casual observer, Steven J. Frogue, 54, looks like everybody’s favorite uncle or the high school teacher we all remember. For three decades, this curly-haired, bespectacled man has been an instructor at Foothill High School in Tustin.

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He’s also an ex-Marine, a Presbyterian deacon and a recently reelected member of the Saddleback Community College District Board of Trustees.

In the Nov. 5 election, Frogue was the top vote-getter among the seven trustees, receiving 128,361 votes for a decisive 60.7%-to-38.7% win over his opponent.

More than any facet of his public life, however, Frogue is a lightning rod for controversy. And while the criticisms he’s received would offend almost anyone, Frogue seems to relish the notoriety.

“I try to tell the truth. I try to teach the truth,” he said during a recent interview, as his students filed into class. “If that’s controversial, then so be it. Mark Twain said that if you tell the truth, you will gratify some and astonish the rest. That could be the epitaph of Steve Frogue.”

Frogue has been accused of denying the Holocaust, according to a former board member and several former students who say his comments about Jews and those who died at the hands of the Nazis cross over a line of ethics, propriety and recorded fact.

In 1994, complaints from parents at Foothill High led to Frogue’s being transferred from his history class to a one-year assignment managing a roomful of students serving detention, according to a source close to the case. A tenured instructor, Frogue appealed to the school board, which voted to return him to teaching. School officials declined comment, calling it “a personnel matter.”

What triggered the complaint, according to the source, were comments Frogue had allegedly been making in class--including skepticism about the Holocaust and derogatory references to Asians and African Americans.

Frogue vehemently denies the charges and said transfer from history class to detention occurred “only because it was my turn to do it.”

Roy Bauer, chairman of the department of humanities at Irvine Valley College--one of two that the Saddleback board oversees, Saddleback College being the other--calls Frogue “an odd, Neanderthal presence on the board who’s expressed an interest in Holocaust denial. He’s made, and continues to make, a nuisance of himself.”

Last year, Frogue incurred the wrath of several board members and a number of professors at Irvine Valley Community College when he questioned the teaching of a course on the Holocaust by criticizing the professor’s ties to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

It is that group--the ADL--that seems to be a cause celebre for Frogue, who perceives the 83-year-old human-rights organization as nothing less than a criminal violator of civil liberties and personal freedom or, as he said in an interview, a “group of spies that actively keeps files on people . . . people like me.”

Frogue’s critics wonder why he’s taken up so much time at numerous trustees’ meetings attacking the ADL, which even his supporters admit has virtually no relevance to the otherwise mundane tasks of a community college board in Orange County.

Frogue’s high school students voice a similar complaint, saying his lectures are often angry diatribes against the ADL, revisionist views of this or that chapter of history or passionate speeches about who actually pulled the trigger on President Kennedy.

Frogue’s theory of who killed Kennedy weaves some of the key threads in a tapestry that many say is unique--or, in the words of one adversary, “truly Frogueian.”

“I believe Lee Harvey Oswald worked for the ADL,” Frogue said in a half-whisper during a recent interview on the Foothill High campus.

Asked to repeat his assertion, Frogue said, “That’s right. . . . I believe the ADL was behind it.”

The assassination not only transformed U.S. history but also the timeline of Steven Frogue, who says he “then and there” abandoned his intention to join the Peace Corps in favor of the U.S. Marines.

Born in Oak Lawn, Ill., to a Chicago railway worker and his wife, Frogue found himself stationed at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in 1964 and “immediately fell in love” with a county he’s never left.

He and his wife, an elementary school teacher, raised two sons in their Lake Forest home and with two teachers’ salaries backing them paid both boys’ expenses at affluent, private USC.

“I told them, ‘No girlfriends,’ ” Frogue said sternly. “I didn’t want to be paying their way if I knew they had girlfriends or had them living in their rooms. My commitment was to pay their schooling.”

Frogue was elected to the Saddleback board in 1992 and soon underwent quintuple bypass surgery. His term proceeded uneventfully until early last year when he began his attacks on the ADL in the context of challenging the course on the Holocaust.

Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Orange County and Long Beach chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said Frogue has been “blasting the ADL for no good reason.”

“Let’s face it,” Greenspan said, “he’s hardly objective. From where I sit, he has a big agenda--which has nothing to do with a college board. If I were a voter who didn’t do my homework and voted for this man, I’d feel betrayed. As a matter of fact, I’d feel like a real sucker.”

Despite of the political storm that followed, and the charges that Frogue is both anti-Semitic and a “denier” of the number of Jews slain in the Holocaust--both of which he denies--Frogue has remained popular with voters, a corps of pay-raise-minded teachers and a majority of fellow board members.

Although having a contentious relationship with the faculty senate at Irvine Valley College--which Frogue once called “an intellectual Spur Posse"--he consistently votes large pay raises for the district’s teachers, which Roy Bauer says “makes him a darling of the unionists . . . and always wins their endorsement. In other words, they vote their pocketbook, not their conscience.”

Frank Marmolejo, staff diversity officer at Irvine Valley College, says he resigned his labor negotiating position four years ago, fearing the union was “shameless and corrupt. . . . It doesn’t seem to matter to them that this man routinely makes anti-Semitic comments and exhibits behavior that is, at best, egregious. He gives them anything they want. In return, he’s petty and paranoid, and the voters of Orange County have given him a bully pulpit in the form of that board.”

Donald Smith, a teacher in the Tustin school district from 1970 to 1991 and president of its teachers association for some of those years, contends that Frogue is more “eccentric than dangerous. . . . There was an allegation that he was not prepared, or organized, and seemed to be distracted. I liked him personally, but he’s kind of a flake, kind of far-out. He’s not what you’d call a mainstream educator. Everybody thought he was a bit of an odd duck.”

Even so, Frogue enjoys a loyal following that says he’s resented because he speaks his mind and doesn’t care who he offends.

“Steve is a great guy who, for the most part, is both maligned and misunderstood,” said board member John Williams, one of Frogue’s chief allies. “I admire and respect his intelligence and the fact that, as a fiscal conservative, he’s a vigilant protector of a citizen’s best interests.”

But Richard Prystowsky, who last year began teaching “Understanding the Holocaust” at Irvine Valley College, said he was “shocked” when Frogue raised questions about his course and his brief involvement with the ADL. Prystowsky once assisted the ADL on an oral history project of the Holocaust.

A corps of professors came to Prystowsky’s defense, claiming Frogue’s comments were a violation of academic freedom. But Frogue’s soliloquy on the course was merely a launching pad to what followed.

His tirade against the ADL took up hours and hours of open-meeting time. Harriett Walther, a former board member who clashed repeatedly with Frogue, accuses him of being motivated by anger or antipathy toward Jews. Walther, who is Jewish, said Frogue’s comments about the ADL and Prystowsky’s course “were and are extremely hurtful” to the Orange County Jewish community.

“So be it,” Frogue said. “Let the chips fall where they may. Some people confuse the ADL with Judaism or say the ADL represents Judaism. Hey, it just isn’t true.”

At one meeting, Frogue passed out a list of organizations on which the ADL allegedly keeps files--a list taken, Walther says, from an underground magazine called Covert Action. He also made a public statement at the same meeting implying that the ADL was responsible for the slaying of a Middle East peace activist named Alex Odeh.

A prominent Palestinian American activist, Odeh was killed in an explosion in his Santa Ana office in 1985 after a television appearance in which he condemned terrorism and defended Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as “a man of peace.” The Justice Department in August offered a $1-million reward for information leading to the killers.

Asked if he believes 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, Frogue said, “Of course. It was an absolute total disaster . . . one of the most appalling acts in history.”

But when asked about comments made last year in the Irvine Valley student newspaper, in which he made favorable remarks about the Costa Mesa-based Institute for Historical Review--assailed by academicians around the world for saying the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is exaggerated and claiming that no Jews died in gas chambers--Frogue said, “Well, I hear that they have raised some interesting questions.”

Mark Weber, the institute’s co-director, said Frogue had shown up at one of the court hearings involving a legal dispute between the institute and its aging founder, Willis Carto, who was recently ordered to pay his former partners more than $7 million. The Anti-Defamation League once called Carto “the No. 1 anti-Semite in America.” Although longtime adversaries of both sides in the dispute, ADL officials see Carto’s opponents as the lesser of two evils.

Weber said Frogue had never belonged to the institute and that he and his colleagues were suspicious of Frogue’s motives.

“He seemed so sympathetic with Carto,” Weber said, “which set off alarm bells with us. He kept saying, ‘Don’t let anyone know I’m here. I might get in trouble.’ I don’t know. . . . He seemed like kind of a strange guy to me. Kind of flaky and weird.”

In the interview in the Irvine Valley College Voice, Frogue said of the institute, “Maybe they’ve uncovered some stuff . . . the public should know. Should they be able to enter the debate?”

It was his use of the word “debate” that infuriated Prystowsky.

“Debate? There is no debate,” the professor said angrily. “The issue they’re trying to make debatable is the homicidal gassing of the Jews as the byproduct of the ‘final solution,’ but there is no debate. Jews were gassed, purposely, in a program of extermination.”

Said Walther: “His eight-month-long attack on the ADL had nothing whatsoever to do with the work of the Board of Trustees or the community college district.

“He is clever. He makes outrageous statements that lead people to inevitable conclusions, then steps back just in time to avoid being held accountable for his words.”

Frogue said he chose the public life because certain questions need to be asked, and, he vowed, he’ll continue to ask them, no matter who it offends.

“I don’t go seeking controversy,” he said, “but I’m sure not afraid of it either. People criticize me for asking too many questions at board meetings. Well, if the Orange County Board of Supervisors had asked a few more questions, maybe we wouldn’t have been bankrupt. They just sit there, like potted plants. Steve Frogue is no potted plant. Steve Frogue is a leader and a doer, and my constituents are better off for having him.”


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