Thu, May 08 2014 04:15 PM Posted By: Robert Moreno
People in the South County may have known Richard Peña for his tireless efforts promoting the Bonita-Sunnyside branch library, performing with the Merrie Ukes or through his weekly column in The Star-News, where for decades the Bonita resident crafted gems detailing his travels with family, the lives of interesting people, and his affinity for “real” chili.
But his life could have easily been learned about in a history book.
“He was a World War II hero, he was a Pearl Harbor survivor,” said Max Branscomb, a Southwestern College journalism professor who’s known Peña for more than 40 years.
Mr. Peña died May 3 while visiting family in Washington D.C. He was 95 years old.
Born on Nov. 28, 1918, in San Antonio, Texas, Mr. Peña was the oldest of four children.
Mr. Peña’s 20-year Navy career started in 1937 when he was accepted to Texas A&M University. While he had the scholastic aptitude to attend college, the young man from Texas did not have the money, so he instead chose a career in the United States Navy.
His military service forever changed his life.
The Navy took him out of San Antonio, eventually settling him down in Chula Vista.
“He did his basic training in San Diego. Ultimately that is the reason why he’s lived in San Diego, fortunately, all of his life from that point forward,” said his oldest child David Peña. “He’d never been outside of Texas at that point.”
During his active service, Mr. Peña was stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the morning Japanese bombers attacked Navy vessels, including the USS Detroit, to which he was assigned.
In addition to serving in World War II, Mr. Peña also fought in the Korean conflict before retiring as a chief warrant officer in 1957.
But it was while he was stationed in Mobile, Ala., that, perhaps, the Navy played one of its most significant roles in his life. It was there where Mr. Peña would meet Zula Mae Breland, a secretary at a naval shipyard and the woman who would become his wife of more than 60 years.
In his life after the military, Mr. and Mrs. Peña returned to San Diego where he obtained his teaching credential and eventually became a teacher and principal at schools in southeast San Diego.
After he retired from education in 1978, Mr. Peña remained active in the South County. In addition to his work with community groups and business associations, he was also a founding member of the Retired Educators Golf Association.
His contributions to the community were endless, said Branscomb. Branscomb said he thinks Peña’s greatest community accomplishment is preserving the history of Bonita.
“Probably his most important contribution was that he and his wife were the founders of the Bonita Historical Museum,” he said.
David Peña said his father was able to live a long life because he remained active.
Mr. Peña first started writing for The Star-News when it was the National City Star-News and he took over the duties of Maxine Clark who wrote Sweetwater Valley Views.
“When I went to The Star-News, the editor asked if there was someone who could write a column about Bonita and I thought he was the obvious choice,” Branscomb said.
His weekly column, David Peña said, gave Mr. Peña something to keep his mind occupied.
“Writing a column for The Star-News up until he was 95 years old is pretty remarkable,” he said.
Equally remarkable was Mr. Peña’s love for Zula.
Toward the end of Mrs. Pena’s life she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Peña looked after her until she died on Christmas Eve in 2011. David Peña said this showed the type of man his father truly was.
“Dad, in her final years, took care of her and loved her dearly,” he said. “Dad demonstrated the last full measure of devotion.”
Mr. Peña is survived by his son David, daughter in-law Teresa McKenna, daughter Margaret and son-in-law Gregg Zak, daughter Coni and son in-law Frank Johnson and two grandchildren, Travis and Kristin.
A funeral mass is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 14, at Corpus Christi Church, 50 Corral Canyon Road, followed by burial at Glen Abbey Memorial Park.
A vigil is scheduled for Tuesday, May 13, from 5 to 8 p.m at Glen Abbey Memorial Park, 3838 Bonita Road.
In lieu of flowers please make donations to the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center, 4355 Bonita Road.
© 2009 The Star-News