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Costa Mesa honors 100-year-old World War II vet who built out South Coast Plaza

Well-wishers gather around Merl Cornelius during his 100th birthday celebration.
Members of the nonprofit Noble Cause Foundation pose Saturday with Merl Cornelius during a 100th birthday celebration at his Costa Mesa home.
(City of Costa Mesa)

For many, turning 100 years old may be a quiet event. But not for Costa Mesa’s Merl Cornelius, who was never the quiet type to begin with.

Cornelius, who goes by the nickname “Bus,” after the early 1900s comic strip character Buster Brown, was honored Saturday in an outdoor ceremony at his Tanana Place residence by city officials and employees, who turned out to celebrate a World War II veteran and local legend.

Members of the Costa Mesa Police and Fire departments joined in the festivities, and a shiny red fire engine was joined by four vintage jeeps — a reminder of Cornelius’ service in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps — courtesy of the nonprofit Noble Cause Foundation.

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From 1941 to 1946, Cornelius kept vehicles and equipment running like well-oiled machines. During his service, he reportedly adapted a jeep for use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was in the presence of Gen. George Patton on three occasions and once bunked with actor Mickey Rooney in Paris.

Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens and Councilman Loren Gameros spoke to the small audience and presented an official city proclamation to mark the occasion.

Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens, left, with Merl "Bus" Cornelius.
Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens, left, presents a proclamation to 100-year-old resident and World War II veteran Merl “Bus” Cornelius on Saturday.
(City of Costa Mesa)

Stephens said Monday that he’s happy to celebrate the city’s centenarians, especially those whose contributions have helped shape Costa Mesa into what it is today.

“He worked for South Coast Plaza, and he’s been a member of the Orange County Freedom Committee for decades, so he’s been very involved in the veterans community,” he said. “He’s a terrific guy — he’s a World War II vet, he’s got all kinds of stories, and he’s a character, still cracking jokes.”

Scott Williams, president of the Freedom Committee, which arranges for veterans to speak at public schools, joined in Saturday’s event to honor longtime member Cornelius, a friend of Pearl Harbor survivor and former Costa Mesa Mayor Jack Hammett.

In addition to his military service, Cornelius has deep ties to Southern California landmarks.

In his decades overseeing the construction of large-scale structures, including the landmark Zenith Building on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, a key project was the 1973 expansion of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza.

The street outside the Costa Mesa home of Merl "Bus" Cornelius, who turned 100 on Saturday.
The street outside the Costa Mesa home of Merl “Bus” Cornelius, who turned 100 on Saturday.
(City of Costa Mesa )

An associate of the Segerstrom family, Cornelius was employed by C.L. Peck and tasked with completing the work on a tight timeline. When planning the center’s signature stained-glass dome, a European firm estimated the gravity-defying work would take a year. But that wasn’t an option.

“I said, we don’t have a year to give away — we’ll do the plaza, the dome and the fountains all at the same time,” recalled Cornelius, who would go on to become operations manager.

Doing the math himself, Cornelius found another subcontractor and personally guaranteed the work, said Nate Wendt, who, as a live-in caregiver for the Costa Mesa elder, has edited endless pages of autobiography recounting Cornelius’ rich life.

“He got it done in six months and under price, and that dome is still the cherry on top of South Coast Plaza,” Wendt said.

Costa Mesa police officers give centenarian Merl "Bus" Cornelius a gift.
Members of the Costa Mesa Police Department present centenarian Merl “Bus” Cornelius with a gift during an outdoor celebration Saturday.
(City of Costa Mesa)

Daughter Bette Bell, 70, started organizing her father’s celebration well in advance of his Dec. 4 birthday, working with city officials to pull off the big day and organizing a birthday card campaign that netted more than 100 greetings.

The event went off without a hitch, she said Monday.

“He absolutely had a blast,” Bell said. “It was amazing — everybody stayed around for a while and shared stories.”

Though he understands the symbolic importance of reaching the personal milestone, Cornelius said being 100 doesn’t feel too much different from being 99 a few days ago.

When asked what advice he’d give youngsters today, given his long and varied life experience, the ordinarily talkative Costa Mesan answered matter-of-factly.

“Work hard,” he said.


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