Costa Mesa honors Merl Cornelius, 100-year-old WWII vet who built out South Coast Plaza
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 character Buster Brown, was feted Saturday in an outdoor ceremony at his Tanana Place residence by a retinue of local officials and city 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 — reminiscent of Cornelius’ service in the U.S. Army Ordinance Corps — courtesy of the nonprofit Noble Cause Foundation.
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 Delano Roosevelt, was in the presence of Gen. George Patton on three separate occasions and once bunked with actor Mickey Rooney in Paris.
Mayor John Stephens, and District 2 City Councilman Loren Gameros, shared words with the small audience and presented an official city proclamation to mark the occasion.
Stephens said Monday he’s happy to celebrate the city’s centenarians, especially those whose contributions have helped shaped 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 added. “[And] he’s a terrific guy — he’s a World War II vet, he’s got all kinds of story, and he’s a character, still cracking jokes.”
Scott Williams, president of the county’s Freedom Committee, which historically brings veterans to speak at public schools, joined in Saturday’s event to honor longtime member Cornelius, a personal friend of former Costa Mesa Mayor and Pearl Harbor survivor 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 like the historic landmark Zenith Building on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, a key project was the 1973 expansion of Costa Mesa’s very own South Coast Plaza.
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, according to Nate Wendt who, as a live-in caregiver for the Costa Mesa elder, has had occasion to edit 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.
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 added. “It was amazing — everybody stayed around for a while and shared stories.”
Though he understands the symbolic importance of reaching the personal milestone, Cornelius says being 100 doesn’t feel too much different than being 99 felt a few days ago.
When asked what advice he’d give modern 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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