Vets Hall of Fame picks pair - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Vets Hall of Fame picks pair

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Posted: Monday, November 3, 2003 8:33 am | Updated: 1:13 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Having served in the military during World War II, they’d be considered members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation."

But retired Mesa Community College professor Gilbert Orrantia and former Mesa Mayor Don Strauch Jr. will be welcomed Thursday into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame in recognition of their postwar contributions to society.

Though he had the less illustrious military career of the two, Strauch embodies the philosophy held by fellow hall of famers Sens. Ernest McFarland and Barry Goldwater.

"The best thing you can do is to be involved in your community, and your hometown," he said.

This was all that mattered to either man. Orrantia, now 86, could have had a military career after he overcame ethnic prejudice to become a decorated pilot with 50 World War II combat missions under his belt and a combat tactics instructor.

But all he wanted was to come back to Arizona and finish his teacher training.

"I wanted to do what I wanted to do in life, not what they wanted me to do in life," he said.

Raised in Clarkdale, Orrantia enrolled at Arizona State Teachers College in 1937, when the Tempe school that became Arizona State University had 1,600 students.

"That’s half a high school" by today’s standards, he said.

By the spring of 1941, war with Germany and Japan was becoming inevitable, and Orrantia’s draft lottery number loomed close. Seeking some control over his destiny, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Recruiters weren’t eager to give this kind of an opportunity to "Mexicans" like Orrantia, who was born in Arizona. His response: "I think you should sign me up, and I’ll take my chances with this."

Orrantia went on to fly a combat crew of six over North Africa and Italy during the first year of the war.

"It was very exciting, and I made some wonderful friends from that experience, but it wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world, having your friends get killed, and killing people," he said.

He graduated from the teachers college in 1947 with a triple major in Spanish, French and science — but it took him seven years to land a job in his chosen profession, again fighting the ethnic biases of the time.

He was a state health department inspector in the interim, providing a dubbed Spanish soundtrack for educational films about venereal disease, among other duties.

He finally secured a job teaching Spanish at Mesa High School, calling the district with a twinge of guilt as soon as he heard about the death of an instructor.

He taught at Mesa High, then Westwood High. He was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Valladolid in 1962, and was a professor at Mesa Community College from 1967 to 1983.

In 1971, he and his wife, Sally, who has since died, began awarding Orrantia Scholarships for Mesa High students heading to MCC.

Don Strauch’s military career lasted less than three years. Drafted near the end of World War II, he was supposed to participate in the invasion of Japan, but ended up taking part of its occupation.

If his subsequent years of community service in his hometown of Mesa had anything to do with his military record, "it was because I felt guilty because I didn’t do that much during the war," he said.

After coming home, he went to work in his family’s office supply store in downtown Mesa, and was appointed to Mesa’s Planning and Zoning Board in 1966, "when we had just started to really grow," he said.

"It was about the time Dobson Ranch was being built, and planning and zoning people have to make a lot of decisions that seem to lead into the City Council."

He served on the council from 1972 to 1978, and was mayor for four years beginning in 1980.

Strauch did his part for downtown redevelopment by attracting the Sheraton hotel, and he worked to establish the requirement that 1 percent of every public works project’s budget be spent on artistic elements.

He remains active on both fronts today, raising funds for the Mesa Arts Center now under construction, and at 77 still works part time for his daughter’s computer company in Scottsdale.

"I have no desire to retire," he said.

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