Mesa Musings: Remembering the 'gem' of the Police Department

Costa Mesa has named its new police chief.

I can't help but think of how fortunate we were with the selection of the city's first police chief, nearly 60 years ago.

Arthur R. McKenzie was his name. He was quite a guy.

Art was affable, good-natured and a friend to all. I was a kid at the time, and the kids of this city loved him. Adults, too. Can you imagine that?

In 1955, I was a fifth-grader at the Lindbergh School. I remember Art coming to our campus and delivering a bicycle safety lecture/demonstration to fifth- and sixth-graders on the playground. We were transfixed.

He also encouraged us to purchase license tags for our bikes (which I did, for 50 cents, I think). I proudly displayed the tag on the rear of my bike, just below the seat.

Following his presentation, the burly, 37-year-old officer lingered for a half hour, informally chatting and answering questions. He possessed an engaging smile and infectious laugh.

That night at the dinner table, I bragged to my parents and two younger siblings that I'd talked with "The Chief" that day. Everybody in this community knew who Art McKenzie was. Often, you'd see him out and about in his police cruiser.

Before coming to Orange County, Art served with the Los Angeles Police Department, but left the department after contracting polio. He recovered, but for the rest of his life found it necessary to sometimes wear a leg brace beneath his trousers.

He was named Costa Mesa's first police chief in 1953, shortly after the city's incorporation. When he arrived, the city had a population of 16,000. His first police department consisted of himself and three full-time officers. The department operated from 8 a.m. to midnight.

McKenzie was Costa Mesa's chief for 11 years, through 1964, and laid the foundation for a highly professional, community-oriented, innovative department.

Art and his wife, Lura, were active in the community. Lura ran a dance studio in town. Both were gregarious and social.

Art often visited Costa Mesa High School to speak to classes or assemblies, or to glad-hand with students and faculty members in the quad. He and my principal, Les Miller, were good friends. Art could be seen at many Costa Mesa High athletic contests.

Chief McKenzie became a huge Orange Coast College football booster. On game nights at LeBard Stadium, he could be seen in his favorite spot, standing on the berm above the southern end zone, next to the locker room.

OCC's founding president, Basil H. Peterson, stationed a permanent bench there with Art's name on it. The chief continued to view games from the bench long after his retirement.

Art was thrilled when Dick Tucker was named OCC's head football coach in 1962. Tucker came from Brea High School, where he'd won numerous titles in 11 seasons.

The Pirates went 9-1 in Tucker's first season as coach and won a bowl game. In 1963, Coast went 10-0, winning the Junior Rose Bowl and capturing the national championship. Art attended the Junior Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena along with 44,000 other fans.

A year after Art retired as police chief, in 1965, OCC named him Citizen of the Year, and honored him during commencement. After leaving the Police Department, he served as Costa Mesa's director of public safety, and later was city manager. He retired in 1970.

Art remained involved in community activities, serving on the board of directors of the Orange County March of Dimes.

The Costa Mesa police station on Fair Drive was appropriately named in his honor and, to this day, is called the Arthur R. McKenzie Police Facility.

Art died of a heart attack in November 1988. Though at the time I thought of him as ancient, he was only 70. We certainly could have used Art McKenzie's dazzling community spirit for another decade or two!

Costa Mesans owe "The Chief" a debt of gratitude. He was a gem!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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