At the age of 42, Mel Pinkham, successful businessman and former child entertainer, had a massive coronary. Under doctor’s orders, he had to slow down and rest. He re-evaluated his life and, over the next several decades, dedicated the majority of his time toward helping the community, and in particular at-risk youth, through the Knights of Pythias.
The gregarious Pinkham, now 78, has always embraced new adventures. As a child, he loved singing and dancing.
“My parents took me to an audition, and a talent scout there booked me on The Children’s Hour. I was 6 years old,” said Pinkham. “It was a lot of fun. I remember singing “Sunny Side of the Street,” “Less Work for Mother” and “If I Could Love You.” They paid us in war bonds– never cash.”
He sang on the show until he was 14 and performed around the city and in the Catskills off and on until he was 19. By that point, he was ready to move on. “Once I realized it was a business, I didn’t like it as much,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in that.”
He went to Brooklyn College to study business. When he got out, he couldn’t find a job.
“I was around the draft age, and no one wanted to invest in someone who was going to be drafted. But I didn’t get drafted until I was 24. So I went into the beauty business. Some friends of mine had a company that filled bottles for different labeling companies,” Pinkham said. “I ended up in sales. They gave me a car and assigned me to an area in the South. I went from little town to little town like a medicine man selling beauty preparations. That first year I built the territory up from $30,000 in sales to a million dollars. It was exciting.”
He also pitched their products at conventions. He met his future wife, Betty, at a beauty show in Chicago.
“I traveled extensively, so for three years I mainly dated her by mail. I used to send her rose petals in the mail. I couldn’t afford to send a dozen roses, so I’d put one petal in an envelope. I had to do something to compete with those Chicago guys. I guess it worked. We’ve been married for 55 years and have two children, Lauren Ashley Fox and Bradford Adam,” he said.
He was eventually drafted and served two years in the Army, entering just two months after the Korean War ended. When he got out, an opportunity in Long Beach came his way. He remembered visiting his uncle in California when he was a kid and had always wanted to come back.
“I wound up buying into a small beauty-supply company here in town. Then we started to build the company. We owned a couple companies after a while, but the first one was Abbey Warren,” Pinkham said. “We opened up wholesale warehouses, which later turned into some of the first retail beauty-supply stores. It was the first time hairdressers could go to a warehouse and have access to a catalog with 23,000 products in it. We had a store on Wardlow [Road], and then we opened stores in Fullerton, Garden Grove and Los Alamitos.”
He began acquiring real estate in Signal Hill after buying a supermarket nearby and turning it into a central warehouse. Then, he suffered a massive coronary and had to sell his companies. He was in the hospital for four months and spent the next five years recuperating.
“At first, life got lonely. I sat in my yard with nothing to do, nobody to play in my sandbox. Then I went out and educated myself. I took courses in finance. I became more involved with the Knights of Pythias,” Pinkham said. “If I had to say anything about my heart attack, it’s that it taught me how to live life. You have to be pretty deliberate in this world we live in.”
He had joined the charitable organization years before based on its motto: friendship, charity and benevolence. “I also liked that it had nothing to do with business,” he said. “So I decided to become more active in the organization. I began coming up with ideas that would enhance children’s potentials.”
Pinkham helped develop the “Is This Book for Me?” program. The literacy program, named for the question kids would often ask when receiving free books, collects thousands of books each year, often partnering with other organizations to distribute them. Pinkham also started a helmet-safety program. “I gathered funding from different companies, and passed out safety facts in both English and Spanish to parents,” he said. “We’ve probably given out over 70,000 helmets in Southern California.”
One of Long Beach-Lakewood Knights of Pythias’s other big programs is their annual eight-day camping trip at a youth camp at Kings Canyon Park in the Sequoia National Forest. The US government deeded the land to them in 1946 and has been sending kids to camp ever since. The camp has about 10 sessions and serves approximately 50 local children between the ages of 9 and 11. Donations cover the $450 cost per child for camp.
Pinkham believes camp can change a child’s perspective. “In eight days, it is absolutely incredible to see the difference in their attitudes,” he said. “They’re seeing way beyond the corner of their block, and they bring that home. They learn how to dance. They learn how to share. There’s no hitting, no punching, no fighting. You do any of that, you just lose rights. There’s a learning process that takes place.”
For his 30 years of service, which includes program development and fundraising as well as stints in a variety of board positions, he was honored with the Golden Spur Award (and the title “Sir”), the highest honor a Knight can receive.
“I think he’s a fantastic man,” said Pinkham’s daughter, Lauren Fox. “He’s charitable almost to a fault because he has such a huge heart.”