Among his many positions at Orange Coast College, Joe Kroll served as dean of student affairs from 1963 to 1975, when he died a day before his 55th birthday. (Orange Coast College / October 14, 2013)

It seems inconceivable that he's been gone four decades.

Polished and imperturbable, Joe Kroll was an Orange Coast College icon for 22 years. He exuded more charisma than any other OCC leader — ever. Students loved Kroll and labeled him "Joe Cool."

The Michigan native was a high school and college swimmer. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was a swim instructor at the San Diego Naval Training Station.

Following the war, Joe attended UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. He was hired by OCC as a counselor and psychology instructor in 1953. Joe was the school's water polo coach for four seasons and swimming coach for three.

In 1957, Kroll was named OCC's dean of men. From 1960-63, he was associate dean of students, and he served as dean of student affairs from 1963 until his death in 1975.

Refined and urbane, Kroll sported a perpetual glowing tan, even during the winter months. He had distinguished flecks of gray in his hair and was ever the fashion plate.

When working, Joe never looked like he was working. He didn't break a sweat.

He would arrive on campus at 9 a.m. in his white Lincoln and saunter to his uncluttered desk. He'd open a drawer, sit back in his chair, put up his feet and cup his hands behind his head.

That was Joe.

You could walk into his office at any time and talk. He'd give you as long as you needed. But after all other staff members departed for home, Joe remained behind for hours getting his paperwork done.

He savored good food and company and ate out at a favorite restaurant almost nightly. Restaurants liked having him around because he came across as a celebrity.

Joe loved OCC. His favorite saying was, "Everybody has to be someplace." His preferred place was OCC's campus.

"The college was his life," says retired OCC Vice President Sharon Donoff. "He attended all athletic events, which he loved. And he supported many other campus activities, such as plays and musical productions."

Kroll loved to travel. He visited exotic locales around the globe and led several faculty/student trips to Europe.

"Joe made a great contribution to the college," says Dick Tucker, OCC's head football coach for 24 seasons who later served as athletic director. "You talk about a person who was student-oriented and a great all-around guy, that was Joe Kroll. He went out of his way to support student athletes."

Kroll set up the college's "free speech area" in the quad during the turbulent 1960s.

Sharon Jones, who retired in 2003 after 34 years on staff, recalled an incident in 1969.

"One afternoon after Joe had finished his daily handball game, he returned to the office shirtless, a towel around his neck and wearing shorts," she said six years ago. "A ruckus broke out at the flagpole in the quad."

Protesters were trying to take down the American flag, but a group of Vietnam veterans and several maintenance workers who were retired Marines opposed them. They were furious, she said.

"Joe — in his shorts and towel — rushed to the flagpole and got right in the middle of the dispute. I'm not certain what he said, but he was very firm and got things calmed down. The flag went back up the pole."

Joe died of a heart attack on July 24, 1975, one day shy of his 55th birthday.

At the time, I was entering my fifth year — out of what turned out to be 37 — as an OCC administrator. I was in awe of him.

His death stunned the campus community. He was so fit — so exuberant — it seemed impossible that he could be gone. We naturally assumed he'd be with us another decade before retiring.

Kroll is one of those unique individuals who, nearly 40 years after his passing, is still larger than life. A campus building is named for him.

Everybody has to be someplace. Joe Kroll's place will always be Orange Coast College.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.