Former Torrance Mayor Albert Isen, who died Monday at 79, will be remembered as a man whose vision led to Torrance as it is today, with its malls, upscale residential neighborhoods and identity as a distinct part of Los Angeles County.
"He provided very, very strong leadership during the growth years," said Mayor Katy Geissert, a longtime acquaintance. "He was a flamboyant person, very bright, very dedicated to the city and also very controversial."
"A heck of a guy," said Torrance Police Capt. James Weyant, a former president of the Torrance Historical Society. "He did a lot for the city."
As mayor from 1955 to 1970, Isen held that office longer than any other person and it is not likely that anyone will match his record. After he left office, voters approved a City Charter amendment limiting mayors to two four-year terms.
Isen moved to Torrance in 1913--eight years before it was incorporated--when it had a population of 300. He was the president of the 1924 class at Torrance High School and, according to a City Hall spokesman, the first person to complete 12 years in Torrance schools. He had the first library card issued by the city.
After graduating in 1930 from law school at the University of Southern California, Isen practiced in Torrance and took an active role in civic life, becoming president of the South Bay Bar Assn., the Torrance Lions Club and the South Bay B'nai B'rith Lodge. He was also a member of local chapters of the Elks, Moose, Shriners, Masons and El Toga organizations.
He was elected to the council in 1954 and was appointed mayor in 1955. In 1958, after Torrance decided that mayors would be elected by the public instead of by the council, Isen became the city's first elected mayor. He was reelected in 1962 and 1966.
During his 15-year tenure as mayor, he presided over about 700 council meetings.
The population of Torrance grew by 100,000--it is now more than 135,000--while he was mayor, and the character of the city changed from industrial to residential and commercial.
In 1956, Torrance was honored by a national group as an All-American City. The award was due in part to his hard sell. In an extravagant gesture, Isen provided cushions for the panel that had to listen to long municipal presentations while sitting on hard chairs.
Other accomplishments credited to Isen include the city's annual Armed Forces Day Parade in mid-May, which Isen brought to the city in 1960, and the location of the Los Angeles County Superior Court near the city's civic center.
Many of his efforts were devoted to carving out a separate identity for Torrance as a residential and commercial city.
He single-handedly blocked the sale of Torrance Transit to the Southern California Rapid Transit District, refusing to sign the sale documents after the City Council had voted to get rid of the municipal bus system. The city's new bus facility is named after him.
Isen also successfully opposed plans for a freeway along Pacific Coast Highway that would have dramatically altered the character of the city.
The city's commercial and financial centers, Del Amo Fashion Center and Del Amo Financial Center, were started during his years in office with his blessings.
"If we didn't encourage the original Sears/Broadway deal," Isen said years later in an interview about the start of the Del Amo mall, "they were going to Lomita. Then we would have had all the traffic and other problems without the revenue."
The book "Historic Torrance" recounts one of Isen's most notable gaffes, stemming from a civil rights drive to open Torrance's Southwood tract to integrated housing in 1963.
The drive, which occurred in the heyday of the civil rights movement, attracted actor Marlon Brando for one march from the Del Amo parking lot, and the ensuing publicity drew out-of-town reporters. At one press conference, a reporter asked Isen if Torrance had a problem with blacks.
He responded: "No, because we don't have any."
The remark, which he later said he did not intend as a racial slur, went on international wire service reports and was published around the world. Years later, the book said, Isen was still embarrassed about it.
During his later years, the council was divided on many issues, with Isen frequently in the minority. He and then-City Manager Ed Ferraro developed an enmity that soured relations at council meetings.
In 1970, he lost a mayoral election to Ken Miller, who promised to bring harmony to City Hall and to introduce a charter amendment limiting mayors to two terms. The measure passed.
In 1972, Isen unsuccessfully tried for a comeback as a councilman.
In 1974, the first election since 1955 in which Isen was not running, he said that defeat had been difficult for him.
"When I lost, I was crushed. . . . Being mayor had become a way of life, and it was hard to make the adjustment." He also criticized City Hall for losing warmth and warned that it was becoming too unresponsive.