Manuel Edward De Leon was born on the USC campus in Los Angeles, CA, where Heritage Hall stands today. He attended 32nd Street Elementary school, also on the USC campus, where he later taught and teacher-trained. In 1938-39, Manuel would walk his sister Gloria 1-2 miles to and from her elementary school and home. Later that year, the De Leon family moved to 37th street. Manuel vividly recalls the activity of Exposition Park during those years, where they played around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Shrine Auditorium, the Rose Garden, and swam in the park’s Olympic swimming pool. In one of his first jobs, Manuel and his brother Rudy (because Rudy, at the age of 13, could drive a car) awoke at 3:00am to deliver the Los Angeles Daily Journal. At another job selling the Los Angeles Herald for 3 cents a copy at USC football games in the LA Coliseum, Manuel fondly recalls his regular customers, who included Tom Mix, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe, and George O'Brien.
At the start of WW2, his family moved to Gage Avenue, where Manuel attended Edison Junior High Schools before moving on to Fremont High School. At Fremont HS, Manuel's musical talents (percussion) were honored with his inclusion in the All-City orchestra. With his artistic skills becoming quite evident, De Leon began taking classes at the Art Center School of Design. In 1942 with his brother Jesse, Manuel attended the Otis Art Institute, where among other disciplines, he studied watercolor under a budding artist named Norman Rockwell.
After only two years of Freemont High School (March 1943), Manuel entered the Army Air Force, attending basic training in Amarillo, Texas. After basic, he attended radio school in Sioux Falls, ND, and radar school in Chanute, Illinois, and finally, pre-flight training in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he trained on the P61 aircraft. By the war’s end, he’d attended additional flight training in Boise, Idaho, played in the Army Air Force Band, and was assigned to special services in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Army exploited his drawing and musical abilities. Special to Manuel was befriending one of his North Carolina barracks-mates, actor Donald O’Connor. As was normal at that time for war-themed movies, the entire cast of the film “Winged Victory” stayed on his NC base, promoting the movie and entertaining servicemen throughout the country. Also present during Manuel’s NC military deployment was actors Lee J. Cobb, Gwen Carter, and classical singer Mario Lanza.
Discharged from the military in April, 1946 at Camp Beale, California, Manuel returned home to the Los Angeles area and enrolled at Compton Community College, where he played football, winning back-to-back JC National Championships in 1946-47. His team’s first national championship victory was over Kilgore, Texas, and the second over Tyler, Texas. As a lineman, Manuel and his lifelong friend Volney Peters proudly never allowed any defensive rushers through their stout line.
After graduating from Compton College in 1948 with an Associate’s degree in General Education, Manuel enrolled at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. Transferring to USC on his birthday (January 25, ), De Leon played Trojan football in 1948, 49, and 50. Manuel loves to tell the story of introducing a young tailback recruit to USC football, Frank Gifford, with a hit Gifford wouldn’t soon forget. As a USC football player, Manuel also performed as a football extra in movies such as “Jim Thorpe All-American”. While attending USC in 1948, he worked part-time doing copy work for Disney Studios.
After graduating from USC, Manuel began teaching in LA City schools. He did his teacher training at 32nd Street School, in the same classroom where he spent two of his own elementary years on property that is now part of the USC campus, across the street from the Shrine Auditorium. His first solo teaching assignment was a 5th grade classroom at Russell Elementary school. In a later assignment at 259th School in Lomita, Manuel got to know the great Jim Thorpe, who lived in a trailer across from the campus, on Echelon Street.
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