Civic Leader Darwin Thorpe Dies

Kirt Ramirez

Darwin Ralph Thorpe, a longtime educator, civic leader and humanitarian, died at his Lakewood Village home Nov. 8. He was 84.

Thorpe passed on while napping in his recliner. His doctor listed the cause of death as cardiopulmonary arrest.

A resident of Long Beach for 54 years, Thorpe was born in Oregon, Ill. on Oct. 8, 1934. His father was a pharmacist and captain in WWII who set up pharmacies at bases. Thorpe traveled quite a bit as a boy because of his father’s military career.

Thorpe’s mother was an accomplished classical pianist and taught piano. She performed background music for silent movies. She gave Thorpe piano lessons and he played up until his death. He loved jazz.

Thorpe turned down a full-ride USC music scholarship to pursue a major in science.

He graduated from Fresno State University in 1956 with a bachelor of science in biology. He played with dance bands on weekends to fund his education.

That same year he married Mary Shelton and the two celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary this past September. The couple had two children, Laura and Barry.

Thorpe earned his master’s degree in entomology from Ohio State University in 1962.

He did additional coursework at schools including UCLA, Long Beach State, UC Irvine and Sacramento State, focusing on topics ranging from birth control to the ecology of phytophagous forest insects.

His résumé from the mid-1980s was six pages long.

Among publications, he wrote and illustrated laboratory guides for students nationwide in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

With an Atomic Energy Commission scholarship, he studied radiation biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York from 1972 to ’73.

Thorpe loved learning and sharing information.

He started teaching biological sciences in the Clovis Unified School District in Fresno County in 1957, working there six years, including four years coaching his passion of tennis.

Thorpe became a professor of biology at Compton Community College in 1963 and stayed until retiring in 2001. He functioned in numerous leadership roles at the college.

He was elected to the Long Beach City College Board of Trustees in 1996 and won a second term.

He served several years on the LBCC Personnel Commission before and after the trustee position.

 “Darwin was very devoted to his family and friends, and very dedicated to Long Beach City College, classified employees, our community and good Democratic candidates,” said friend and current LBCC Personnel Commission Vice Chairman Richard Gaylord.

Gaylord said Thorpe fought for what he believed in.

“I, along with his many friends, will miss him,” he said.

Thorpe was president of the California Federation of Teachers for many years as well as state vice president.

He founded the Western Park Interpretive Association.

Thorpe was a board member for Long Beach Organic, which encourages people to grow their own fruits and vegetables without use of pesticides. He grew food in his backyard.

He served several years on the Restoration Advisory Board regarding the old Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach.

He went to the International City Masonic Lodge.

And so on.

“Darwin was in just about everything,” said wife Mary of her happy-go-lucky husband. “He got involved. He was just that kind of person. He loved all of that stuff.”

The couple enjoyed traveling. They went to every state in the United States, visited Europe, Egypt, Jordan and other places.

They flew to Guatemala nearly 30 years ago to explore a Mayan village near a volcano. But to get there; they had to cross the deep Lake Atitlán. Regular shuttle boats were canceled that day for some reason.

A tour guide found a fisherman with a “rinky dinky” boat and they all proceeded with the excursion. Mary said the lake was “smooth as glass” when they started. But the calm lake turned into a roaring ocean with giant 10 to 12-foot green waves with white caps.

The front part of the boat broke off.

The guide prayed the rosary.

“All of a sudden we got a big crashing wave; water came in the boat. I thought we were going to die,” Mary recalled.

But Thorpe stayed calm. Everyone survived.

“You know what, he didn’t even act like there was a problem whatsoever,” Mary said. “That’s the way he was in life. Something happened and he dealt with it. I hate it that he’s gone.”

Thorpe rooted for the underprivileged.

He followed wheelchair tennis matches on television. He admired the Special Olympics and Paralympic Games.

He had an extensive Olympic pin collection, which he donated to the Olympic Committee a few years ago for display in the U.S. Olympic Museum in Colorado Springs.

Thorpe was down-to-earth, modest and shared his opinions. He loved people, relished conversations and welcomed anyone who came to the house.

“People enjoyed being around him,” said former Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill. “He was a people person.”

Thorpe was generous and gave to numerous causes.

One day a man approached Thorpe looking for a cheap bicycle to use as transportation. Thorpe drove him to Jax Bicycle Center and bought him a good quality one, with a strong lock.

Thorpe had fun.

For years at Halloween, he displayed a talking pirate at the front door. The buccaneer’s arm would come down with fake sword in hand. It pleased the crowd.

He retired the pirate and this year presented trick-or-treaters with a guitar-playing skeleton that sang “La Bamba.”

At Christmastime, Thorpe placed his homemade Saturnalia lamp on the front porch. With a flame made of fluttering cloth and a light bulb, the lamp was to commemorate December’s ancient pagan, gift-giving and merry-making Roman festival, which paid tribute to the mythological god Saturn.

One year a fire official went to Thorpe’s house and questioned the presumed fire hazard. But Thorpe showed the fire wasn’t real and they laughed.

Thorpe liked the historical figure Saint Nicolas of present-day Turkey and gave out coffee mugs one Christmas showcasing the bishop on one side and a Saturnalia lamp on the other.

He found the evolution of holidays and religions interesting. He was Methodist until the mid-1950s and then attended the Unitarian Church. He said he thought the spirit continues after death.

A lifelong learner and avid reader, Thorpe knew a lot about a lot of things.

“He was a jack-of-all trades; but a master of them all,” said son Barry.

Thorpe believed in conserving natural resources and felt unregulated population growth was detrimental to the planet.

Upon retiring from teaching in 2001, Compton College’s commencement program read, “When asked, Professor Thorpe has stated that he considers his main accomplishment to be teaching thousands of students, many of whom went on to the university and achieved their own awards and commendations, including two who currently serve as presidents of community colleges.”

Thorpe is survived by wife Mary, son Barry, grandchildren Charles and Mackenzie, sister Nadine Ambrose and sister-in-law Marty Panelli. Thorpe is preceded in death by his daughter Laura Martinez.

A Celebration of Life will take place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach at noon, Saturday, Jan. 26.


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