Frank Meza may eventually be best remembered for all the people he helped over his life as a doctor and activist. But first we will have to get further and further away from the tragic and shocking end to his life earlier this month in Cypress Park.
Those who knew Meza said the retired doctor inspired generations of Latinos to enter the medical professional and was an advocate for low-cost healthcare for underserved communities. The avid, life-long runner was a co-founder of an Eastside area track club and participated in countless fundraisers. He even influenced the art that hangs on the walls of some local clinics.
"I don’t think he ever turned anyone away that wanted to be mentored," his wife Tina said. "He gave his private phone out freely and invited people to call."
Frank Meza died July 4 in an apparent suicide after having been accused of cheating in a marathon. His body was found in the L.A. River channel near the Figueroa-Riverside bridge, not too far from where he grew up in Elysian Valley and where he ran on the track team at Cathedral High.
"He was called a dishonest man to the world," Tina said. "It was an assumed status." He received threatening emails and attacks, with accusations spreading to family members, Tina said. His employers were contacted, and jobs were withdrawn. The running community ostracized him, Tina said.
All this came at the end of a life spent mentoring so many people that Tina said she couldn’t always remember which people were Frank’s colleagues, and which were former mentees who later became colleagues.
“They all kind of grew up,” she said.
One who went from mentee to colleague is Dr. Efrain Talamantes, Medical Director of the Institute of Health Equity at AltaMed Health Services. When he was a medical student in 2003, Talamantes first saw Meza giving a keynote speech at a scholarship dinner.
"I had never really come across a Latino physician with his vision and passion for the community," Talamantes said.
Years later, Talamantes ended up working under Meza at AltaMed, where Meza was chief medical officer.
"He was the first to acknowledge our good work, but also the first to take responsibility when things didn’t go as planned," Talamantes said. "Many of us look forward to being that that kind of leader."
Meza was born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants. His father died from liver cancer when Meza was still a boy. His widowed mother, a garment worker, bought a home in Chavez Ravine. The family later moved to Elysian Valley after much of Chavez Ravine was demolished to make way for what would eventually become Dodger Stadium.
"The L.A. River was kind of our home," said Meza in a 2000 interview. "That's where we played. That was our whole identity, and I never ventured more than about three miles from there, till I left high school."
Meza’s activism in L.A.’s medical community traces as far back as 1969, when he volunteered at the newly opened East Los Angeles Barrio Free Clinic on Whittier Boulevard - a neighborhood service that would ultimately expand to become AltaMed.
He moved on from there to college, eventually getting a master’s degree in public health at UCLA before heading to medical school. Soon, Tina and Frank were two working physicians raising a family. But Meza also took it on himself to coach runners and sometimes even pay training camp fees for kids in the neighborhood - an expense that Tina said she only found out about later.
When Meza became regional medical director at Kaiser Permanente in East L.A., he championed another group: Artists.
Meza hung Chicano art in the office. Cástulo de la Rocha, President of AltaMed Health Services said he himself took that idea and began hanging local art in various branches of AltaMed - "African-American, Asian, whatever community we serve," de la Rocha said.
De la Rocha ultimately brought Meza in as chief medical officer for AltaMed. "We’ve known him as a straight shooter - on anything," de la Rocha said.
So after decades of pressures from medical school, medical practice and medical administration, how did Frank Meza succumb to the stress of online harassment?
"Frank didn’t suffer, as far as any of us knew, from mental health [issues]," de la Rocha said. "There was nothing in his history about this."
The problem began when Meza set an unofficial record for his age group at the 2019 L.A. Marathon. Marathon watchers noted inconsistent times between race sections, and that he left the course at one point. Tina countered that times can be uneven in races with uphills and downhills - and that Meza left the course in order to urinate. Meza accepted a disqualification, but harassment only built up - to the point where critics also accused members of his family of helping him cheat.
Meza talked about running again with a witness, to prove he could legitimately run that time. But he also faced heart surgery, along with the possibility that he would not get his full strength back.
"He’d spent a lifetime building a reputation. It was shattered within days," Tina said.
"Even successful people like him can be overwhelmed," she added.
Frank Meza’s funeral was held at the Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena. A standing-room-only crowd filled the church and its annex, Tina said.
More than 1,200 people attended.