A Lesson in Elementary Philanthropy

Times Staff Writer

When Santa Ana's newest elementary school opens this fall bearing Manuel Esqueda's name, it will be the latest mark that the barrio-raised philanthropist will have left on his community.

From the funding of hundreds of scholarships to donating tens of thousands of dollars worth of artwork to a local community center and spearheading literacy efforts, Esqueda's legacy echoes in the city.

Esqueda, 82, says his good deeds are a payback to the many mentors who helped him transform himself from a Spanish-speaking student learning English in a school without heat or lights to a Navy sailor during World War II to a bank executive.

"I just want my people to get ahead," he said. "And the only way you can get ahead is through education."

Santa Ana schools Supt. Al Mijares said Esqueda was an obvious choice when the district was considering for whom to name its new school."He is a leader who is absolutely genuine and a man of integrity," Mijares said. "His sole motivation is for the welfare and education of the children in our school district. He really is the patriarch of this community."

The Manuel Esqueda Elementary School, on more than eight acres at Warner Avenue and South Main Street, will serve 1,200 students from kindergarten to third grade, including many English-language learners from impoverished homes.

The library will feature a mural of Esqueda's wife of six decades, Dolores, who died last year, reading to one of the couple's 12 grandchildren.

Esqueda, who was born in Kansas, moved with his family to Santa Ana in 1924 when he was 2 so his father could work as a laborer for the railroads.

The family settled in the working-class neighborhood of Delhi, where Esqueda attended Delhi Elementary School. The school lacked heat or lights and was run by a British principal with a firm hand, Fanny Bragg. She installed showers for the children and washed their mouths out with soap if they spoke Spanish.

"At first we hated her, but I wouldn't be speaking the way I am" without Bragg's guidance, Esqueda said, noting that such measures would not be appropriate today. "It started a new life for many of us."

Though Esqueda excelled in school, his home life was difficult. His father, who drank heavily and argued violently with his mother, abandoned the family when Esqueda was 11, Esqueda said. He didn't see his father again for nearly two decades.

Esqueda joined his brother Jose toiling in the lima bean fields where South Coast Plaza now is. His brother gave him two options: be a good student or a good worker. Esqueda chose the former, and with his mother's blessing, moved to Huntington Park to attend high school part time while working as a dishwasher, waiter and bolero singer on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

When the United States entered World War II, Esqueda joined the Navy and was assigned to the Princeton, an aircraft carrier that was sent to help retake the Philippines. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, a Japanese plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on the carrier's flight deck. Esqueda was thrown into the ocean and clung to ship debris as the Princeton sank.

"I started praying because I could see the arms and legs and heads of my buddies that had been killed," he said. "I told the man upstairs if he spared my life, I would dedicate my life to helping mankind. I've done that. I've kept my promise."

Esqueda stayed afloat in the frigid water for more than three hours, until he was rescued by the crew of a destroyer. After returning to San Diego and recovering from his injuries, Esqueda married Dolores, his high school sweetheart, and took an entry-level bookkeeping job with Bank of America.

With typing skills he learned from his sixth-grade teacher, Esqueda steadily climbed the ranks and eventually became a bank manager. While working, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in economics.

Seeing increasing gang activity in his Santa Ana neighborhood, Esqueda wanted to make good on the promise he made during the war. He formed the Gemini Club with four friends in the early 1950s to fund scholarships for Latino youths. In the 1980s, the effort gained corporate sponsors and was renamed Serafines de Orange County -- Angels of Orange County.

Through the years, money from corporations, donors and Esqueda himself have funded more than $900,000 in college scholarships for nearly 1,200 Orange County students.

"It's a matter of saying, 'We believe in you. Now you have to believe in yourself,' " Esqueda said.

Among the scholarship recipients are Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido, Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Aguirre and UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Manuel N. Gomez.

Gomez, who grew up in the Santa Anita neighborhood of Santa Ana, received a scholarship in 1965 and majored in history at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay).

The first in his family to attend college, Gomez earned a doctorate in higher education. He recalled being moved by Esqueda's focus on picking students who would return to put their education to work in their communities.

"It was a very impressionable action for a community organization from my own community to provide me with a scholarship to go on to university," he said. "I think it did, in a pretty direct way, mark my continued interest in the Latino community's concerns.... At UCI, I have really dedicated part of my professional interest to building better partnerships with underrepresented communities."

Esqueda still promotes literacy in the immigrant neighborhoods of Santa Ana. Some Sundays, he speaks to church congregations urging parents to read to their children in English.

"So as long as the man upstairs keeps me here, I'm going to work. It's something that my wife would want me to do," he said. "Someone has to do it. Nothing happens unless you make it happen."

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