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Manhattan Beach's Brigham Remembered as 'Local Hero'

Mar 30, 2019 03:09PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Bob Brigham - photos via Brigham family

Longtime teacher, coach, and Manhattan Beach historian Bob Brigham passed away earlier this month at the age of 91. He was remembered by colleagues and friends for his thoughtfulness, warmth, fairness, and sense of humor. 

He is particularly noted for documenting the history of Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach, which ultimately led to the effort to recognize the location in honor of the Bruce family. 

"He was kind and gentle and a role model to many," his three children wrote in a statement. "He will be remembered for a life well lived, leaving a legacy of love and acceptance. He was admired for making people laugh without trying too hard. Right and wrong was not complicated nor judgmental. He brought people together and made everyone feel comfortable and welcomed with courtesy and civility."

Life in Manhattan Beach

Brigham was born in Los Angeles on May 18, 1927 and moved to Manhattan Beach at the age of 12, where he attended Center School and Redondo Union High School. He was involved in student government and was co-captain of RUHS Seahawks’ CIF championship football team.

After graduating from high school and serving in WWII, he attended Fresno State College where he met and married Mary Ann Forrester. Upon receiving his teaching credential, they settled in
Manhattan Beach where they raised three children, Leslie, Matt, and Allison.

He was on the faculty at Mira Costa High School beginning with the first graduating class of 1953, and continued as a teacher, counselor, coach, sports announcer, and drivers’ training instructor for the next 36 years.

"I remember Bob well," said Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano. "Great guy, solid guy--he taught me how to drive. Back then, the high school provided driver's ed, and so one morning he and I and another student took an old car out from the school that had a brake on the passenger side and we drove around the city. We stopped by his 90+-year-old mom's house and he told us stories about growing up in Manhattan Beach. Great times."

"He had a wonderful sense of humor," recalled local historian Jan Dennis. "He was very involved in the PTA. He acted in many of the plays and skits...He really just wanted the best for the young people and for the teachers."

Mira Costa history/government teacher Bill Fauver said, "He was a good and decent man, one of the finest I have ever encountered in education. He leaves such a positive legacy."

Among a wide variety of local accomplishments, Brigham was a recipient of the Lions International Rose and Scroll Award, helped to establish a Bikes for Kids program, laid all the brick work for the Manhattan Beach Historical Society patio, was an accomplished writer who contributed to a variety of local publications. 

Bruce's Beach

But Brigham was perhaps most widely recognized for his master's thesis on the area at 26th and Highland now known as Bruce's Beach. The land had been purchased in 1912 by Charles and Willa Bruce, who developed it into a resort for African-American families, despite resistance from segments of the community. In 1924, the city condemned the neighborhood, and used eminent domain to reclaim the land.

Brigham's thesis was among the factors bringing recognition to a history that had been seemingly swept under the rug. Following heated debate, the park was ultimately named Bruce's Beach in 2007.

Former Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward recalled a story that Bob Brigham told him about how as a child Brigham once asked his mother why that spot by the beach was overgrown and unoccupied. "Bob explained that his mother would say, 'Folks don’t talk about that.' It was a sordid part of Manhattan Beach’s history some wanted forgotten," said Ward. "But he refused to forget Bruce's Beach and in fact he chose to write a thesis about the resort at his university."

Dennis, who retold the story of Bruce's Beach in her 1987 book, “A Walk Beside the Sea: A History of Manhattan Beach," noted, "Bob was the first one to actually delve in and research the situation that took place. There had been stories about it in the past, but he’s the one that really described what happened."

Dennis added: "He did a service to the community. All of his work, all of his research I feel was an asset to the history of Manhattan Beach. You may not have liked some of it, but he was reporting it and researching it."

Brigham's effort to uncover a history, despite its being uncomfortable, was inspirational to many.

“His tireless work to shine a light on the unfortunate history of Bruce's Beach and encourage Manhattan Beach to confront its past in order to bring healing serves as a yearly reminder of the power of history to change lives and better a community," said Mira Costa's Fauver.

Said Ward: "Bob’s writings and conversations inspired me and touched my heart. So much so that after one visit from Bob, I vowed to do all I could when I became mayor of Manhattan Beach to honor the memory of Charles and Willa Bruce and the haven they created."

"Bob was truly my local hero and a treasure rooted right here in Manhattan Beach," Ward added.

The Manhattan Beach City Council will adjourn its meeting on April 2 in his memory.


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