Public open space and human rights advocate Lester Mickey Denevan was the proverbial thorn in the side of the City of Long Beach, the State of California, and U.S. government officials. Born in Long Beach in the old Seaside hospital, he was the son of Lester William Denevan and Wilda Alicia Maxfield Denevan. His paternal grandparents' families were homesteaders in the 1880s in the Dakota Territory near DeSmet, survivors of terrible blizzards that killed many.
His father was born in 1903 in Palouse, WA, became a lumberjack as a teenager, and later was an insurance agent in Long Beach. He loved to compete with his four sons at poker and fierce "shinny" games, and he engaged his sons in Socratic talks about religion, history, and politics.
His mother, born in 1909 in a log cabin at her parents' ranch adjacent to the confluence of Sweetwater Creek and the upper Colorado River near Gypsum, CO, was raised in the mining towns of Victor, CO, and Grass Valley, CA. She was a devoted homemaker, resolute in the face of adversities. At age three, her father, William A. Maxfield, Jr., was murdered by a railroad bandit. He had played his violin at local dances, and many decades later that violin was donated to the Long Beach Jordan High School music program.
In early 1942, nine-year old Lester, Mickey as we called him, watched in amazement as the night sky was alive with search lights and a torrent of anti-aircraft tracers and explosions. Air raid sirens wailed. Panic resulted from a perceived Japanese air raid that never happened, the so-called "Battle of Los Angeles." The next day he picked up shrapnel from our North Long Beach street, a piece of which was found in his keepsakes. During World War II he took part in paper, scrap metal, and war bond drives, and later he worked a newspaper route.
Studious, Lester graduated from Jordan High School, Long Beach City College, and the University of California, Berkeley where he was a business major with a minor in geology, an unusual combination. Over the years he worked for the planning departments of Long Beach, Los Angeles County, and the City of Los Angeles. He was the author or co-author of reports on seismic safety, the Los Angeles River Greenbelt, and the Los Angeles Master Plan for Bikeways. Also, he was briefly employed by the California Coastal Commission. An environmentalist, he had been a member of Beach Area Concerned Citizens, the local Coastal Program Committee, the original Southeast Area Improvement Plan Committee, and the Advisory Committee for the Los Cerritos Wetlands Plan.
Tenacious, disciplined, armed with photos, maps, and other evidence, Lester frequently campaigned to protect public open spaces. He testified before the Long Beach City Council, the City Parks and Recreation Commission, the City Planning Commission, the California State Lands Commission, and the California Coastal Commission, with varying results. He helped write and finance a lawsuit, only partially successful, challenging the City's decision to use Public Trust Tidelands for non-conforming private developments, including a multiplex movie theater, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Another lawsuit against the City by Lester is one reason Marina Green Park is not now the site of a motel and parking lot.
Lester's leadership helped save three majestic trees from West Beach redevelopment, trees now nearly 100 years old. He led the successful campaign for State of California protections for coastal zone Victory and Santa Cruz parks. These form a mile-long ribbon along the seaward side of Ocean Boulevard. Dating from 1889, the parks were intended to grace the City's grand thoroughfare. They were being paved over in places for non-park uses, cluttered with illegal signage, and turned into de facto front yards for adjacent office and apartment buildings, thus discouraging public use. Later when a developer paved part of the parks, Lester complained to the Coastal Commission staff. As a result, the developer took out several thousand square feet of new sidewalk at considerable cost and replaced it with inviting lawn
that later was replaced with sterile gravel and plastic turf. Before he died Lester was dismayed that park benches, that he and twelve civic groups had fought for in the early 1980s, were removed by unknowns from the Santa Cruz Park area in front of the Arco Center office towers. He would have been pleased, though, to know that finally the "PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING, VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED" sign has been removed from Victory Park and that benches will be installed there.
He once wrote: "I win a few, lose many, suffer outrageous fortune, stunning victories, scrapes and abrasions, psychic contusions."
Lester, a former Army radar repairman, launched a personal campaign against the use of torture, including water boarding, by U.S. personnel during the Iraq War. He sent over 150 cogent letters, with damning documentation attached, to major newspapers and to members of Congress and other leaders.
Between jobs, Lester enjoyed nine months of travel in Europe, including the Soviet Union, observing historic architecture and the layouts of ancient cities, at times hiking and biking. Being one-quarter Irish, Ireland was special. He also spent months restoring his grandmother's Victorian house in Grass Valley. His retirement was a difficult time, years patiently caring for his ailing mother followed by years of his own failing health.
A mostly lifelong resident of Long Beach, Lester died suddenly at home from natural causes at age 86. Approaching death, he said: "I have no regrets." He is survived by his brothers, Bill of Sea Ranch, Terry of San Jose, Dave of Long Beach, and dear friend and caregiver, Monica of Torrance.
Lester described himself as "obstinate," and he was rankled by injustice. More often he was easy going, soft spoken, and unassuming. He was brilliant, well read, an excellent writer, a caring person, and a man of principle. Lester Mickey Denevan was a fan of Irish writer Lord Dunsany, Hobbits storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien, psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung, activist and mystic Bishop James A. Pike, novelist Jack London, actor Mickey Rooney, and Mickey Mouse.
Published by Gazette Newspapers from Oct. 15 to Oct. 23, 2020.