Newport Elementary teacher 'was one of the best'

Ralph Whitford, who taught the "beach kids" at Newport Elementary School from the 1963 to 1993, has died. He was 84.

The Costa Mesa resident succumbed to natural causes Dec. 10 at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, a family member said.

"He just wanted to teach kids," said son Billy Whitford. "They all found him to be the very, very tough teacher at the time. But when they completed their school, then they all looked back and thought he was one of the best teachers they had."

The elder Whitford spent most of his educational career at Newport Elementary teaching fifth and sixth grades. He helped get the grass field in place behind the campus, which extends onto the sandy beach of the Balboa Peninsula.

He even received a lifetime membership to the school's PTA, Billy Whitford said.

During Newport Elementary's 100th anniversary party in 1994, Whitford reminisced about his campus to the Los Angeles Times.

"The school has always drawn [from the families of local] fishermen, cannery workers and sons and daughters of celebrities ... a real diverse group," he said. "But none of that made any difference. They were all beach kids."

Whitford was also beloved for his role as Santa Claus during Christmastime, when he would travel via helicopter to area schools.

"A lot of people remember him as that," his son said.

Whitford was born in 1929 in Orange. In his youth he became an Eagle Scout and was involved in the construction of the 1953 Boy Scout Jamboree site. The 50,000-person gathering took place around where Newport Center is now; Jamboree Road is named after it.

"I dug post holes, 18 inches wide and 3 feet deep," Whitford said in a 2008 interview with the Daily Pilot. "After the event was over, I'm sure you could have flown over the place and seen 18-inch patches of green for a long time."

He attained the rank of master sergeant during the Korean War while serving in the Army from 1950 to 1953. After his service, he attended and graduated from Orange Coast College and Chapman University.

Whitford lived with his family at the Newport Sea Base, a Newport Beach facility that offers marine education, from 1956 to 1969. As its director, he taught seamanship.

He was instrumental in bringing the Argus, a 92-foot square topsail ketch, to the sea base in the early 1970s. The vessel stayed in Newport Harbor until about five years ago, when the Scouts stopped using it. Whitford then started a foundation to renovate the Argus and help it sail again.

Later in life, he aided the visiting flat water kayaking Olympians.

"Everybody in Newport seemed to know him somehow," Billy Whitford said.

In addition to Billy, Whitford is survived by sons Bob and Brian, four grandchildren and his ex-wife, Barbara "Corki" Rawlings.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Newport Aquatic Center, 1 Whitecliffs Drive, Newport Beach.

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