On a recent field trip to Long Beach State University, a student from Lincoln Elementary saw the street sign Deukmejian Drive and wondered how that long word, beginning with the letter “D,” was pronounced.
“Duke-may-j-ee-an,” said the little girl’s teacher phonetically.
“How did you know that?” inquired the third grader.
“Because it’s the name of a very special person,” replied the teacher.
George Deukmejian was the 35th Governor of California, serving two terms from 1983 to 1991. He was known as “Iron Duke” because of his tough positions on crime and his reputation for staunchly vetoing spending bills.
Despite Deukmejian’s statewide reputation, he is also a familiar Long Beach name. His name appears on a street sign near Wilson High School intersecting Park Avenue, and he was a stately figure who liked his routines.
Every day for many years, it was a familiar sight to see Deukmejian walking down Bay Shore Avenue dressed in slacks and listening to music through his yellow walkman headphones. He also loved ice cream and could regularly be seen getting Thrifty Ice Cream from the Rite Aid on 2nd Street.
“He’s always enjoyed the small town community feel we have in Long Beach; he’s made a lot of loyal friends here,” said Deukmejian’s daughter, Leslie Gebb.
Deukmejian, the son of Armenian refugees, settled in Menands, New York with his family near the state capital of Albany. His father, George Deukmejian Sr., worked as a rug salesman and sold paper goods to support his wife Alice and their two children, Anne and George Jr.
After majoring in sociology at Siena College for his undergraduate, Deukmejian garnered the nickname “Duke” while managing the college’s baseball team and went on to get his law degree from St. John’s University. Soon after, he was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned legal duty during the Korean War.
After his military service, Deukmejian moved west and established his own law practice in Belmont Shore in 1955. Two years later, he would meet and marry the love of his life, Gloria, who he was married to for 61 years, until the day of his death on May 8, 2018.
Deukmejian’s political ambitions started when he served as the deputy county counsel in Los Angeles, and in 1962, he was elected to the California Assembly. Deukmejian prompted to successfully run for other legislative positions such as state senator, attorney general, and governor.
Deukmejian had a passion for his local community throughout his governorship and even after he retired from politics. He was involved in the Lions Club, the Community Chest, the Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts, among other organizations. He also was named Long Beach’s “Man of the Year” in 1959.
In addition to his non-profit work, George and Gloria Deukmejian were also staunch supporters of Long Beach State University, especially Disabled Student Services. In 2005, they funded and established the George and Gloria Deukmejian Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.
In 2013, the City of Long Beach named its justice center “Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse” and two years later, Deukmejian received a key to the city.
“He was very touched and humbled when he received the key to the city and the courthouse naming ceremony,” Leslie said. “It really meant a lot to him because he greatly loved this city.”
With all these accomplishments and honors, Leslie says the part of life that brought her father the most pride was his grandchildren. Samantha Gebb, Leslie’s daughter, grew up in Long Beach and went to Wilson High School. Samantha says that her grandpa was a man who had a great wit and a warm heart.
“Even just talking to him casually, you could tell he considered things from all angles to hear everyone’s opinion before jumping to conclusions himself,” Samantha said. “I also remember that he would pull quarters out of my ears; he was very good at the slight-of-hand, I believed it for a very long time. He got a lot of mileage out of that trick.”
In his retirement from politics, Samantha said her grandpa was a content man, always hanging on to his routine. He was very proud of his granddaughter and attended her commencement ceremonies when she graduated from Wilson High School and Princeton University. Samantha is now attending University of California, Berkeley, working toward her graduate degree in architecture.
Ironically, UC Berkeley is the only other public university in California that houses the official documents of a governor, Edmund G. “Pat" Brown, besides Long Beach State University, which has a room in the library’s lower level that is home to the George Deukmejian University Archive. These archives consist of over 3,000 boxes of official government papers from Deukmejian’s administration. It also has pictures of him with Ronald Reagan, whom he knew well, Margaret Thatcher, and a slew of celebrities he met while serving as governor.
George Deukmejian, the man who regularly strolled to the beach wearing his yellow walkman headphones, ate ice cream like it was cereal for the soul, enjoyed life, friends, family, and laughter, and sat in his armchair with a calm, poised demeanor, touched many lives.
In honor of him, there will be a public memorial on June 9 at the Terrace Theatre on Ocean Boulevard beginning at 1 p.m. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the YMCA-Model Legislature George Deukmejian Endowment, the California Science Center, California State University, Long Beach Disabled Students Services, the Ararat Home of Los Angeles or any charity of your choice.