Community leader David Stiller dies at 78

David Stiller, seen here circa 2008 with son Eric, left, died at the age of 78 on Sunday. The longtime Costa Mesa resident and Navy veteran served on a variety of city committees, including one for the senior center and Fairview Park.

David Stiller, a longtime Costa Mesa resident known for his decades of service on a variety of city committees, has died.

Stiller had been having health troubles for several weeks and died of natural causes at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital about 1 a.m. Sunday, his family said. He was 78.

At the time of his death, Stiller had been serving on three city groups: the Finance Advisory and Fairview Park Citizens Advisory committees and the Costa Mesa Senior Center board of directors.

Those who worked alongside Stiller remembered him as a highly intelligent, respectful and thought-provoking colleague — even if they disagreed with him at times.

“He’s probably one of the most articulate and intellectual guys I’ve never met, in business and my personal life,” said Byron de Arakal, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, on which Stiller served from 1993 to 2001 and 2005 to 2007.

De Arakal said Stiller, who often managed to stay out of the “claptraps” of certain debates, had refined mannerisms — right down to how he’d leave his full name on a voice mail.

“He had this way of extending his arm and pointing his forefinger when he was talking to make a point,” de Arakal said. “I usually had this visual of him being one of the Founding Fathers during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.... It spoke to his wisdom and how important he felt about how he held his positions.”

Senior center Executive Director Aviva Goelman said Stiller was a big supporter of the center, both financially and through his service on the board since 2009.

She said they didn’t always see eye to eye, but just before Stiller died, he told her he was always there for her.

“I never held it against him because his heart was in the right place,” Goelman said. “He’ll really be missed, and I will miss him terribly. I talked to him nearly every day.”

Councilman Gary Monahan called Stiller one of Costa Mesa’s “pioneers.”

“We were able to debate any topic, and whether we agreed or not, we respected each other’s points,” Monahan said.

Stiller was born in Pittsburgh in 1935 and raised in the Cleveland area. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a commissioned officer from 1957 to 1965. During his service, he attained the rank of lieutenant and traveled the world. He kept in touch with his Navy colleagues through the years.

It was at the American naval station in Rota, Spain, where Stiller first met his future wife, Clarisse, a French-Canadian native and nurse in the U.S. Air Force, said Stiller’s son, Eric.

The Stillers — including Eric and his brother, Braden — moved from Cleveland to Costa Mesa in 1971. The following year, the family purchased a home in the Mesa del Mar neighborhood, where Stiller lived the rest of his life.

Professionally, Stiller spent much of his career, from 1973 to 1996, as a bodily injury investigator and litigation specialist for Allstate. He retired in 1999.

His introduction to public service was his membership on a Costa Mesa transportation commission. He served from 1989 until the City Council disbanded the group in 1993.

Eric said his father’s decades spent in the insurance industry gave him a lot of insight into traffic and roads, and thus, he wanted to make Costa Mesa’s streets a safer place to drive.

“He had a very acute sense of justice,” Eric said, “and a very curious, probing mind.”

Richard Mehren, chairman of the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee, also served with Stiller on the parks commission.

Mehren didn’t know Stiller as well back then — they were occasional adversaries on some issues — but got to know him much better when they both were appointed to the reconvened Fairview Park committee last summer.

“I felt like I really got to know the essence of the man,” Mehren said, “and he was a really fine man.”

Stiller’s friends and family remembered him for his love and encyclopedic knowledge of classical music. His hometown ensemble, the famed Cleveland Orchestra, was his particular favorite, especially under the baton of George Szell.

Stiller contributed research to Michael Charry’s definitive biography of the conductor, “George Szell: A Life of Music.” Stiller is listed in the book’s acknowledgments.

Stiller also volunteered for KUSC FM 91.5. He showed his dedication to the classical radio station every day on his customized license plate — “KUSCVOL” — and he often had the station on even while sleeping.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis commented that Stiller “never stopped serving, whether it was on city committees, youth organizations or on KUSC.”

Stiller was preceded in death by Clarisse, who died in 2007. He is survived by his brothers, Paul and Roger Stiller, and his two sons.

A public funeral service is expected to be held in the coming weeks, though the date and place have not been finalized.