SUMMARY: Hernandez is a man with a mission. His teaching career encompasses all the changes and challenges of men and women of Hispanic origin in the American Southwest. After telling his personal story, Mr. Hernandez branches out into the philosophical and ethical principles that have been at the center of his personal struggle and shares his opinions on the importance of minority groups participating in civil and academic life. David Hernandez has inspired more than five decades of young people to reach for the stars.
Date of Interview: December 4, 2004
Interviewer: Camilla Clayes
Transcriber: Merrilyn S. Ridgeway
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
Camilla: Good Morning, David.
Dave: Good Morning.
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Early Years, Education and Marriage
Camilla: Would you give us a brief biographical history of you and Cleo, of when you moved to Casa Grande?
Dave: I was born on May 23, 1936 in Alpine, Texas, which is in Brewster County. I went to school in Alpine in all the Mexican schools K-8, then went to the high school which was a mixed school. That was the only high school we had. The things I remember most when I was going was that we were separated by the tracks, the Mexicans on one side and the Anglos on the other one. We had two…well, our 1st through 8th grade school, one for the Anglo and one for the Mexican. Then when we went to the high school, we got together.
I graduated from high school in 1954. After high school I went to Sul Ross University which was in Alpine, gave me an opportunity to go to school there. I was there for two years, then went into the service for two years and came back for two years. I had the last two years that school, I had an opportunity to do that.
I met my wife, she’s from Sanderson, Texas, which is 80 miles from Alpine. I met her through her brother. He and I knew each other when we were in high school. She graduated first from Sul Ross and was teaching in Pecos. We got married after her first year of teaching in Pecos. I finished a year and a half later. I graduated from Sul Ross also and I went to teach in Pecos.
I taught 4th grade and my dream was always to be a P.E. teacher--that was my field. In Pecos I taught in an old Mexican school in Chidé (spelling?). Both of us were next door to each other. She would teach some of a subject and I help teach some of her and I was a P.E. teacher in the classes in Pecos. We stayed there for six years. I always wanted a P.E. job--that was my dream. There were a couple of times in Pecos that there were openings in P.E. at the junior high but they never promoted me because the opening was at an all Anglo school. But I was good enough to coach there. But they never offered me a position.The Move to Casa Grande
Finally, we heard that there was an opening in Casa Grande, Arizona. We figured that we’d give it a try. I had never been this far to Casa Grande, Arizona. California had never been one of the places _____________, that’s why I never tried to come this way. We had thought about spending a couple of years in this part of the country and then go to Alaska. We were trying to go to Alaska. We heard about this, my wife and I decided to give it a try, we’ll come down here.
We came here in August. I interviewed with Mr. Benedixon, which was the superintendent.
Camilla: What year was that, do you remember?
Dave: 1967. We taught in Pecos for six years and when we came here it was 1967. We got hired here August 16. I was under contract in Pecos. We went back and I told them that I’d been hired to teach in Casa Grande, Arizona as a P.E. teacher. The secretary told me that the superintendent was out of town and he couldn’t contact me until the latter part of August. But I told her “I need to be released.” At that time they told me that the superintendent would not release me. And I said…well, I gave them my story that I had always wanted to be a P.E. teacher and I had never been offered here. But when I approached the school board member—I knew all the school board members from that school and somehow they’d know what had gone on through the years with me. I told them why I was moving because it was a chance for me to move into the field of P.E. They were upset when I told them that. They went ahead and decided to release me from the contract without the superintendent. So, I thanked them because I really enjoyed the people that I worked with and the people in the community were great for us, but we were all in minority schools in those years. You’d have to go back to Texas to know what minority means to us.
So we packed everything, my wife Cleo and our little ones--at that time there was David III and Dwayne, our two oldest boys. We packed in two vehicles and one of our friends had a trailer that brought all our furniture. We didn’t know anybody in Casa Grande. At that time Mr. Benedixon took us all over town so we could see the community and we found a house that we rented. It was down on Trekell, the second house on the southwest corner of McMurray. You know where the light is? The second house, that’s where we lived for three months, I think. We made it here. Somebody asked me why did I move here and I told them “To become a P.E. teacher.” We don’t have any relatives. There’s only the six of us in Casa Grande. All our relatives are in Texas.
The First Integrated Field Day for CG Elementary Schools
So I started teaching P.E. I was teaching half day, in the morning, at Evergreen and the other half day I would go to Palo Verde. I did that for a couple of years and then…in those years, I can tell you that we called Evergreen the “Everwhite” because it was mostly white. And Palo Verde, which is a minority school, was all Mexican and a few Blacks and one or two families of Anglos. We started our P.E. program. I enjoyed it. With the help of Mrs. Luft (spelling), the [other] P.E. teacher, we had big classes. I had P.E. classes for the boys, and she would teach for the girls. I would have 90 kids at time in one class and she would have about the same, all 4th or 5th grade. Those two schools got the idea, in order to make people to know each other, of having a field day. Some of the teachers at the school were not too happy about it. They told me I was crazy. I said, “No, I’m going to keep trying to make the community get along with each other.”
At that time we had 250 kids [each?]. Now Evergreen is a lot bigger than that. But they all had the P.E. program that was the same. So, what we did, was we combined to have a FULL day. We brought all the kids from Palo Verde--at that time it was East School--so all the kids from East School came across Florence to Evergreen. In those years that was cotton fields surrounded by ___________ [or, possibly, divided by aquaducts?] We got all the kids there. I had talked to the school kids and I told them that the first time that I heard there was a problem I would stop the games. We had about 750 kids on one playground at one time. Got all the teachers together. I assigned activities for them, that they would be in charge. And we played basketball, volleyball, and dodge ball—which we don’t play anymore (Laughter)—and different kinds of games so that every kid from both schools could participate. There wasn’t a kid who did not take part in those activities. And those teachers were involved just being the monitors for those kids. Every 30 minutes, I’d blow the whistle and we would change stations. The first year it went great. We did it all the while I was at both of those two schools. It was easy for us to transport or walk from East School to Evergreen. We didn’t have a cafeteria at East School so they catered and everything [from Evergreen.]
The Transition from Central to Saguaro School
Then, later on because of the growth they changed me to teach P.E. at Evergreen and Ocotillo. I enjoyed the staff at Ocotillo and the kids were great and both schools. You know, people complain now because you don’t have an office. My office was my red car where I had all the balls and the equipment and I would transfer them back and forth. I taught the same amount, half a day at one school, half a day at the other. We did that because, in those years, we Evergreen, East School, Ocotillo and Central School. Those years were enjoyable.
Like now, we were growing. I remember they went for a school bond and it passed. They were going to close Central and started building Saguaro. Both years, I had to give up Ocotillo because they [Evergreen] were on double sessions with Central School kids. I stayed at Evergreen all day with the kids. We had the staff at Evergreen and the staff from Central that became part of Saguaro later on when they finished the school. I was teaching P.E. in those years from 7:30-5:30 with thirty minutes for lunch, maybe. It was continuous all day with the classes until we finished school.
People have forgotten, but we added 6th grade at the junior high and a wing was built behind the cafeteria at Saguaro that was supposed to be the 6th grade wing. I went to junior high to teach 6th grade in the afternoon and continued to teach P.E. at Evergreen. Finally, when they opened Saguaro, they did away with the double sessions and I stayed at Evergreen and taught 6th graders at the junior high.
Migrant Program Duties Added to Hernandez’ Schedule
They passed another bond and built Cottonwood. That year while I was teaching at Evergreen I became the coordinator of the Migrant Program. Mr. Gene Moffett was in charge of that. So I’d teach P.E. in the morning and I’d be with the Migrant Program at Evergreen.Camilla: Was that for the entire elementary school district?
Dave: Yes, correct. So I would run from Evergreen to East School and Ocotillo to Saguaro to monitor the program. When we opened Cottonwood in 1975 I was still teaching P.E. at Evergreen. Then I transferred to Cottonwood and coordinated the Migrant Program [using the same schedule.]
First Principalship Assigned in 1975
I didn’t stay long at Cottonwood long. In December 1975 Lymon Bingham had been sick and I still remember when Superintendent Skaggs came to the school to talk to me. He wanted me to go to East School and take over for Mr. Bingham for the remainder of the year as principal. At that time I didn’t have any administration certification. That had never been one of my dreams. But, before that, I had turned down two principal offers in the district. My wife and I discussed that transfer because she was teaching at East School and a husband and wife can’t work in the same school. I was just supposed to be there ‘til the end of the school year. East School had been her home. (Laughter) Sometimes a superintendent makes some drastic decisions. I reminded Dr. Skaggs “You told me that I would be transferred later on instead of my wife.” But then, I still recall Dr. Skaggs coming in and asking my wife where she wanted to transfer. They transferred her to be a counselor [at the junior high] although she didn’t have any counselor classes at all at that time. Ned Wheeler was at the junior high and had been at East School. He and I were friends. But Cleo stayed at the junior high for two years and I decided to take my chance to see what I could do at Palo Verde.
I stayed at Palo Verde from then on, all those years. In 1995 I moved to Mesquite. I got to know the whole community real well. I have grown so much in this community. I had good relations with my staff and community not only on the east side but with the whole community in general. I know that accomplished a lot of things because of the people that I have behind me. I’m only as good as my people made me.
Ethnicity, Language and Special Education
I still remember at East School, my first year as a principal, I made a few changes. I learned that you don’t make changes overnight. I finished that year, but I didn’t make as many changes as were needed. One of my biggest concerns was that more than half of those kids at East School were in special education. Two hundred or more in special ed! Not all Mexicans are dumb and justified in being special ed. I know that all of us feel that because we are Hispanic, because of the accent—and I tell people “I have a strong accent and I’m proud of it.”--just because you are Black or Mexican are we going to put you in special ed?
Do you know how they are in following procedures in the special ed classroom? There are forms the teachers get together to fill in. The first change I made in that year was that every referral [for special education] had to come through my desk. That made it a little bit tougher for staff. They didn’t feel that I should get too involved. But I told them “I am because I don’t feel that all these kids need to be in special ed.” I believe that once you label a kid special ed, they’re labeled forever. You could put the label on their forehead.
We got it down from—we used to have three special ed teachers, which was a big percentage--and I just hated that with a passion. By the time we moved to Mesquite [from Palo Verde] we were down to probably fewer kids in special ed than ever before because of my procedure, everything through me. And some people say “You like to have control!” I say, “Yes, I’m responsible for it. As long as I can justify what I’m doing I’m going to continue to do it.”
Camilla: How did you deal with kids the staff identified as special ed that you didn’t believe…
Dave: We would hold tests. They had to justify to me that it actually wasn’t just the language. Some did qualify, but not just because of the language.
Camilla: And you think it was primarily because of the language?
Dave: Yes! [An interruption due to a phone call.] I would go through the tests and really talk to the parents. Then I would tell the parents “yes” or “no” your kid belongs in special ed. And the staff began to accept it. It ended up I didn’t find more and more [referrals being submitted.] And also, through the years, Palo Verde grew so much. I think maybe I’m not following a pattern, but it’s hard to follow a pattern with what was going on. By 1995 we had four hundred and fifty kids. So we had a more well balanced school than it was before. One of my purposes was to balance the ethnic breakdown of that school. I still believe to this day that we have to balance the ethnicity. I know in those years when Palo Verde was just a Mexican and Black school, and even to this day—what is it, 2004?—we still consider that.
Ethnically Balancing School Populations
I feel we need to do something about it but I probably won’t see it. I thought I was going to see that at one time when, you’ll recall, we went for a school bond and were talking about closing that school [Palo Verde]. They wanted to close East School and make it an administration office, not a school. Some board members disagreed with the superintendent [Dermody] and myself. I wanted people on the east side to have a better facility for the future. That way we can see the other side. We can see more involvement. People taking care on the east side.
I feel we didn’t do a good job in selling [the school bond] to the people. When it failed, I said to people, “I will tell you that, if this school [Palo Verde] remains open it will always be a minority school. You’re not going to have a chance to put together a new school.” We looked at other options, and the other option was to build Mesquite School. It wasn’t my choice. I feel people got a second hand house. They said, “Well, we get a remodeled school, a new school.” I said, “No! Mesquite is the new school. They will transfer the kids there for a couple of years while they remodel Palo Verde, and I will guarantee you that 3/4ths of the kids will be going back.” They said, “Well, we’ll like it.”
To this day, people tell me “You were right! We didn’t get what they said.” And I say, “But that’s what you wanted. Don’t complain about it.” But I believe something needs to change but how we’re going to change it? I would not know. If you look at the schools being built, Mesquite is the only school south of Florence Boulevard. No others have been built there and, before that, they weren’t building there. Everything was north of Florence. We need to get it distributed around the community. I still feel that way. We need to figure out a better way to gerrymander this minority school. Mrs. Underwood [the principal at Palo Verde] feels that they are doing a good job and I don’t say anything against that. That’s great! But I would like to see it more well balanced.
I stay involved with the school and I know and enjoy the families on the east side. During the holiday season I get so many tamales and cakes and everything! I enjoyed it. They became part of my family. I tell people, “I feel a lot safer on the east side than anywhere in the community. I could walk there at 2 or 3 o’clock at night without worrying about shootings or anything. I knew the people. I used to go early in the morning and get kids out of bed to be in school, walk with them or pick them up or whatever, and I used to breakfast with them. I never refused anything. And I did a lot to prove to kids that they needed that education.
Remember the canal? The canal was a pain in the neck for me. That canal—so many things could have happened. We were lucky that nobody got drowned in that area. I walked that canal three or four times a day to make sure my kids, when they were dismissed, didn’t play in the canal. It took us a while to get the City to cover the canal with the help of San Carlos [Irrigation.] It really helped. Len Colla was involved. We got that done.
Discipline in Schools
I really believe in discipline. I was a strong disciplinarian. I believe if you’ve got discipline you can teach anything. But you have to be consistent and fair. I probably was the last person who swatted a kid at school. When the Board made that policy, I probably swatted a kid two or three hours before that. I swatted the kid, but I always had a witness. My belief was “I gave you a swat because you needed it.” My question was then “Tell me why you got that swat?” And they would tell me why.
You may recall once I had a list in the newspaper of all my paddles. I always gave the kids a chance to pick the paddle. Their choice. And sometimes, when I swatted, I’d give them just a tap. I knew when they needed a swat. I had an old saying with the kids, “I’m not going to give you a swat today. I’m not in the mood to swat you. You owe me a swat.” To this day I have kids remind me “You never gave me that swat.” And I tell them, “I know, but that wasn’t my purpose!” You find ways to discipline kids. But they all feel that I was fair. Now they see it. Did I keep everybody happy? Nope! My first year I thought I would have 100% support with everything I did. That’s the biggest mistake you make. I learned later on that I can keep you happy today, but I won’t keep you happy tomorrow. 50% will be happy either way. So I learned that I will do what is best for the kid, not for me. I could deal with any parent.
We had some tough kids. But we had a good superintendent, Dr. Skaggs, and the Board. We worked together well. They didn’t get too involved. The superintendent let us run our schools unless we messed up, which we very seldom did because we knew what we needed to do. And the community has grown. You can see the number of schools we have. I feel that we need more minority teachers, but they are hard to find. I used to go recruiting all over for the district. Dr. Skaggs would send me and make sure I had an opportunity to hire minorities if I could find them. But there were very few. I think the last year, when I left Mesquite in the year 2000, I think I had about half my staff who were minority. But you had to be qualified and believe in my philosophy that you teach all kids the same—I don’t care who they were or what they wore, they’re all human.
Education as a Key to Upward Mobility
I didn’t want people to have to go through what we had to go through when we were growing up. Right now you can see that two of my boys in education. The oldest is David and Carlo, the baby, is in Coolidge coaching in the high school. And we have Dwayne, the second one, who works for the University of Phoenix, and George works for a bank. My wife and I are real proud that we got our four boys out of college. We feel that was really important for us. My parents were not educated. They could not read or write in either language. Second or third grade is as far as they were able to go. In my family, three of us graduated; my brother, my sister and me. My sister is a school teacher and my brother worked with _______________, I think he probably made so much he could own the company. With my wife, she has a brother who finished college and he was a principal. So, we have a lot of family in education.
For Casa Grande, I know we need more buildings, more schools. Where we’ll get the money, I don’t know. We are looking at building a new elementary and a new middle school which they hope to open in the next two years. They’re still going to be behind. They say they’re not, but I think we are because of the way this community is growing.
People in this community have been great to our family, especially to my wife and me. I eat and sleep good. (Laughter) And I hope with what I’ve said helps. I don’t know whether I’ve covered everything you wanted to. There is so much in those 38 years that I’ve been in education—32 here and 6 in Texas. I’ve seen some great kids and I’ve seen some that I could predict when they were little what they would be. When you’re involved with kids you can see what’s going on. But I feel we still need to strive for more.
I know we discuss about the AIMS test [Arizona’s statewide testing system]. It isn’t a particularly good test. I don’t believe the test is the answer for everything. I don’t think testing can give you a good picture of each individual. But for every child to be tested, to pass the AIMS test, or “leave no child behind,” there’s always somebody left behind! I believe that. We don’t live in a perfect world. We’re a long ways from that. By testing the kids all the time, we get kids frustrated. I’m a firm believer in P.E. I believe teaching P.E. to kids is as important as reading and writing. You’ve got to keep the kid happy to get him to do anything for you. But because of the regulations we’ve got right now, it’s so hard for teachers and administrators. I’m glad I retired when I retired. There were so many new rules to follow that we didn’t have to follow in those days. We did what we thought was best for the kids in our community. We didn’t have to listen to those who want to dictate from Phoenix or Washington, D.C.
The Importance of Minority Participation in Government
I hate to say, even now days I look around to see how many minorities we are on any committee or anywhere we serve. There are very few. And I get frustrated and angry with some of the people. They don’t want to get involved. Especially minorities, I keep encouraging them to get involved.
The old man can be around too long. I’m staying away from some of the organizations. But I still get involved. I say to them “You can have better ideas than what I had.” How are we going to get them? I don’t know. That’s the only thing that really bothers me about the young. They don’t have the time or what?