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Obituaries

Ward Munson, 92; Businessman, Philanthropist

November 25, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Ward Munson, a Southern California sporting goods magnate and philanthropist who helped organize the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri that ended World War II, has died. He was 92.

Munson, who lived in a retirement community in Fullerton, died Nov. 16 of heart failure while flying home from a goodwill tour of China with business and community leaders.

On Sept. 2, 1945, it was up to Munson, then a Navy lieutenant and part of the battleship's small protocol committee, to ensure that every member of the historic assembly -- from Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz to Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigametzu down to the lowest ranking sailor -- was standing in the right place for the peace signing.

"When it was announced that the Japanese delegation was aboard there was a dead silence and all you could hear was the sound of Shigametzu's wooden leg as he climbed the plank ... ," Munson told The Times in 1995, before a 50th anniversary ceremony aboard the Missouri in Bremerton, Wash.

Munson recalled in that interview and in various speeches that the Missouri was preparing for the planned invasion of Japan's home islands in the fall of 1945 when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender.

"We were ecstatic with joy," he said. "Everyone wanted to get the war over with and get home to our families. But we also knew that the dropping of the bomb was going to change the world, as it has."

After the war, Munson collected vintage photographs and wartime memorabilia for 50 years before donating them to the Missouri, which is now a museum.

He was among the honorees at the Missouri's decommissioning and then recommissioning in 1986 and rode to San Diego on board in 1991 before the battleship fired the first offshore bombardment shots in the Gulf War. He also attended the 1999 dedication of the Missouri as a memorial permanently anchored near the U.S. battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

Born in Wolverine, Mich., Munson was 5 when he moved with his family to Azusa, where his father was a rancher, builder, and city treasurer and tax collector. Munson earned a degree in rhetoric at UC Berkeley in 1932. It was the height of the Depression, and the degree failed to attract any job offers.

He drove an oil truck, worked on a construction site, operated a gas station, and then rode the rails hobo-style to Chicago to sell orange juice at the Chicago World's Fair. He eventually landed a sales job with Procter & Gamble, and remained with the company until the war.

In 1946, Munson and his late wife, Alice, started a wholesale sporting goods business in their 400-square-foot Azusa garage. Munson Sporting Goods moved to Costa Mesa in 1972. By the time Munson sold the company in 1981, staying on as board chairman and then consultant, he had built it into the leading wholesale distributor of fishing, hunting, camping, marine and athletic equipment to retail stores in the 10 Western states.

Munson was named Southern California small businessman of the year in 1973 by the federal Small Business Administration, and in 1974 was chosen as outstanding businessman in the Western states by the National Council for Small Business Management Development. Munson also was president of the Southern California Sports Council and the National Assn. of Sporting Goods Wholesalers.

Over the last two decades, Munson devoted his attention largely to philanthropy. Deciding to give away half his wealth, he endowed scholarships at UC Berkeley, built a chapel at Azusa Pacific University and made major donations to Citrus College, Azusa Youth Program, San Gabriel Valley YMCA, Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, World Vision, the Salvation Army and Norman Vincent Peale's Center for Christian Living.

He volunteered as readily as he wrote checks, either donning an apron to serve food in soup kitchens or helping make administrative decisions. As a longtime member of the board of trustees at Azusa Pacific University, he persuaded the board to build -- and made the first donation for -- a new dormitory after students invited him to spend a night and experience their crowded living conditions first-hand.

Munson also served on the boards of the Orange County chapters of the Salvation Army, Council of Boy Scouts of America, Economic Development Corp., Goodwill Industries/Helmsmen and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

He was a former local president and district governor of Rotary International and a benefactor of the Rotary Foundation. Fellow Rotarians accompanying the wealthy Munson on his China trip said he flew coach, commenting that "we can provide the polio vaccine for 12,000 children for the cost of [an] upgrade."

Munson is survived by his second wife, Sandy; two daughters, Colleen and Rosemary; sister, Dottie; seven grandsons; and a granddaughter. Munson's first wife died of cancer in 1995, and their son, Kelly, died of cancer in 1996.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be sent to the Munson Family Foundation, 5753-G E. Santa Ana Canyon Road #199, Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.

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