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Dropping In on the Past : Career Day at Pacoima School Offers Testimony to a Teacher Who Cared

Times Staff Writer

They were like father and son 30 years ago, a black teacher and his white protege from the streets of Pacoima. They were reunited Wednesday in what was meant to be just a cameo role during career day at a the old neighborhood school.

Even the appearance of a famous actor was hardly a match for the story they told.

Assembled on a playing field, 600 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students of a predominantly Latino school cheered and whistled after a nearly tearful Ricardo Montalban said he would be happy for the rest of his life if he knew that just one or two of them would stay in school because of his advice.

Later, in a classroom of just 30 students, a white commander of the Los Angeles Police Department told of how their black vice principal had taken the place of his father and swayed him away from a life of crime.

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It was an emotional day at Haddon Avenue Elementary School.

The event was part of an anti-dropout program sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program, which in the San Fernando Valley focuses on Haddon Elementary, Pacoima Junior High School and San Fernando High School, seeks to identify and help potential dropouts as early as fourth grade.

Tribute Lends Unexpected Drama

About 150 Haddon Elementary students go to special classes to build self-esteem, said Rosalie Rifkin, the school’s attendance officer.

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The career-day program, staged Wednesday for a second year, was intended as a kind of pep session for the upper grades.

But it developed unexpected drama as a spontaneous tribute to Charles Carpenter, the vice principal.

Carpenter taught at nearby Pacoima Elementary School in the 1950s. Among the panel of community professionals who came to address the students were four of his former students--a teacher, a nutritionist, a utility-company executive and a police commander.

Principal Al Roque asked Carpenter to introduce them.

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“They are from our community,” he said in a sonorous baritone. “They have achieved. They have been successful. They are successful. They stayed in school.”

He described LAPD Cmdr. Frank Piersol as “a young man I met and helped,” and who became the youngest captain in the department.

Actor Tells Students to ‘Train’ for Life

Montalban, star of numerous movies and the television program “Fantasy Island,” then charged the scene with a stirring talk, mostly recalling stories told him by his father, who he said advised him that life would be more difficult than the Olympic Games.

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“Now, you wouldn’t dream of entering the Olympic Games without training,” he told the students. “It would be impossible. You would fail . . . And you are about to participate, already are participating, in the Olympic Games of life, which is much more difficult than the Olympic Games.”

Apologizing for being an actor, not a speaker, he dashed into this conclusion:

“And one day, in the future after I am gone and dead, if just one or two of you remember me and say, ‘you know, that man encouraged us to continue our studies’ . . . my being here today will be so worthwhile, you will make the rest of my life very happy.”

The students adjourned, shrieking, to classrooms, where the visitors were distributed to talk about their careers.

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Offers Self as Example to Follow

The muscular, brown-haired Piersol attracted a large group of excited boys and a few girls.

“Have you ever shot anybody?” one asked.

“No,” he said, laughing self-consciously.

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Piersol began his talk by explaining that he is in charge of the 1,300 officers of the South Bureau, about a fourth of the police force.

“I’m not telling you that because I want everybody to think I’m a great guy,” he said in a soft voice. He had a reason, he said.

“We are examples of the same,” he said. “I was faced with the same decisions when I was a youngster that you are now facing.”

He told them that he, too, grew up in Pacoima, living in the projects with a mother in a wheelchair and no father at home.

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“I don’t bring all these things up to you to make you feel sorry for me,” he said. “I bring them up to you to make you realize I am the same as you,” he said.

“I had to make a decision when I was about your age as to what I was going to do with my life. Did I want to go out and get involved in narcotics? Did I want to go out and get involved in alcohol? Did I want to go out and start stealing other people’s property? Did I want to go out stealing cars and hang around Hansen Dam beating people up?” Piersol asked. “Or did I want to continue to go to school?

“Did I want to listen to Mr. Carpenter so he wouldn’t beat me up? Has anyone been beat up by Mr. Carpenter? He’s tough. He’s a tough guy. I was scared to death of Mr. Carpenter. I respected him. I loved him. I worshiped the man. But I was scared to death of him.”

In other classrooms, students talked and jostled each other, but here they were still and quiet. Piersol stopped at intervals to ask them if it was OK to be in gangs, rob stores and shoot people. “No,” the students said.

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“Like I said, I didn’t have a father, so Mr. Carpenter became my father,” Piersol said. “See, he doesn’t look like me, does he? And that’s all right.

“Mr. Carpenter knew that my mother couldn’t walk, so she couldn’t take me anyplace. He knew I didn’t have a father, so he knew that there was nobody there to help me out. So Mr. Carpenter would take me to football games and he would take me to dinner. And he would take me downtown and I became his son and he became my father and he helped me make this decision.”

Then Piersol digressed.

“I went to Pacoima Junior High School,” he said. “And have you ever seen the big, black marks out in the middle of the field? Any idea why those marks are there? Well, Jan. 31, 1957, an airplane crashed on that school.”

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Piersol was in art class when two students were killed and scores injured on the school field.

“Although that was a very bad thing and it was a bad thing for me to see, it was another thing that helped me make this good decision. You learn from good things as well as bad things,” he said.

Carpenter, who was already rushing about his duties by then, recalled that day too.

“Within 40 minutes, many of my youngsters who had just gone on to Pacoima came back,” he said.

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“Many of them weeped. They had to get this out of their systems.”

He took them to Hollywood--still a nice place to take a kid in 1957--for dinner.

Coming home, he said they asked, “May we please go back by the school?”

And so, under a teacher’s guidance, a future commander of the LAPD came to terms with life and death.

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