The Elgorriaga family settled in a farmhouse in the forest outside the French coastal town of Hendaye, two miles northeast of Irún. A year later, a forest fire caused them to move into the town. In 1940 the Nazis swept through southern France and occupied Hendaye. It was in that small town, on Oct. 23, 1940, that Hitler met Francisco Franco in an attempt to get the Spanish leader to cooperate in the capture of the British bastion at Gibraltar.
"I remember that day," Elgorriaga says. "Everything was closed. All the windows were shut. They did not allow anybody to go to town. After the meeting, Hitler said he would rather have his molars taken out without anesthetic than talk to Franco again. Hitler did not get a thing."
José's parents wanted to enroll him and his sister, Maria Dolores, in the local public school. As foreigners, Spaniards who knew no French and whose papers had been left behind in the haste of their departure from Irún, there was no assurance that the children would be accepted into the school. But the principal, Jean Carricaburu, looked the other way when José and Maria Dolores arrived without documentation.
"Jean Carricaburu was an incredible man, practically self-taught," Elgorriaga says. "He was one of the gentlest men I have ever met and very much concerned with the kids.
"He had an uncanny way of presenting a complex problem very simply. What also made him a good teacher was the fact that you wanted to do things for Him, not only because he was the principal, but also because he was such a caring person." From the time he met him, José wanted to be like Carricaburu.
After Elgorriaga finished school in Hendaye in 1944, he worked for a time at a factory that made sacks for materials like sugar and cement. One of his uncles, Ben, had emigrated to California's Central Valley in the early '20's, and it was arranged that José could work weekends with his uncle as a sheep rancher in Madera, 20 miles northwest of Fresno, and attend Fresno State.
"The deal was that he came to get a business degree, and he was going to work in the sheep camp," says José's son, Chato, 24. "But my father didn't want that. From day one, he wanted to be a professor. He took business and language classes just so he could do that. He loves to teach."
Elgorriaga got his B.A. in business in 1953, then went to UCLA and earned a master's in Spanish and then his doctorate in 20th-century Spanish literature. He taught for four years at Colgate University and in 1962 returned to Fresno State, where he has been ever since.
Elgorriaga is often described as a Renaissance Man, which seems an almost cautious characterization in an age that has cheapened the concept, slapping the title on anyone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not associate it with the Lone Ranger. But actually Elgorriaga evokes an earlier and, perhaps, even grander tradition than that of the Renaissance.
"I think of a Renaissance person more in terms of someone who's versed in a broad range of the arts," Haak says. "I think José is a very well-balanced person who is more in the classical Greek tradition. By that, I mean the tradition of body, mind and spirit, the whole person. I associate the importance of physical activity more with the Greeks than with the Renaissance."