Twenty years ago, Bela Palagyi, an architectural drafting instructor at Reseda High School, lost out on a summer job to a teen-age girl.
Some might have considered it insult added to injury that the young woman was a former student who had just graduated. But Palagyi was as happy as if he'd gotten the job himself.
"I felt great," he said. "Why not? One of my students got a job."
Palagyi is still able to parlay that life experience into a lesson for his students. "I went to another place and found another job. If you go to one place and don't get a job, go to another place," he tells them.
For 32 years, Palagyi has been cajoling and inspiring his drafting students toward excellence and, along the way, helping them land jobs with an admirable success rate.
Palagyi's pragmatism--along with some good-natured hollering and storytelling--have catapulted Reseda High students to about 100 local, state and national awards in the past 25 years. For 15 years in a row, his students' house and landscaping plans have won at least one of three top prizes in an annual San Fernando Valley-wide drafting contest among high school students.
As recognition of his dedication, the school recently nominated Palagyi, 56, for the governor's Citation for Excellence in Vocational Education, which is awarded in April.
Palagyi, a modest man, said there is no particular secret to his teaching success.
"I don't think I'm unique in any way," he said. "I do my job. I'm not here for a popularity contest. The goal for me is for the kids to do better than I can. Then they're going to come back and show me how to be a better teacher."
Palagyi is full of stories about former students: the undercover narcotics agent who became a drafting ace, the boy who hovered on the edge of gang activity but got a drafting job after studying with Palagyi, the graduate who became one of the state's youngest licensed general contractors.
Michelle Pettit-Williams, the upstart student who took the job from Palagyi 20 years ago, is a partner in a Santa Ana architectural firm.
"He's strict, yet he cares about what happens to you," she said. "He's the only teacher I ever had that I still send a Christmas card to."
Palagyi's Christmases have brought other good tidings from students. Just before he began building a house in Canyon Country eight years ago, a card from about 15 gung-ho former students read: "You supply the materials and food, and we'll build the house for nothing." They ended up building the garage; Palagyi designed his house, which is still under construction.
"His students maintain contact with him," said John Shaw, vice president of Ebbe Videriksen AIA Architects and Associates. "If somebody's 25 years old, looking for a job and is having trouble finding one, he'd call Mr. Palagyi up because he's got a lot of dedication to his former students as well."
Of about 25 student trainees the firm has hired in 15 years, Shaw estimates 20 have come from Reseda. Looking at Reseda for student drafters has almost become a company tradition. It started 25 years ago after owner Videriksen declared drafters weren't getting proper training and Palagyi, fond of issuing challenges, dared him to visit the high school.
In a field where college graduates are unable to get jobs, Palagyi estimates that in the past 25 years 80 of his students have been hired part time during the school year by firms in the construction industry and 100 have been offered jobs right out of high school. There's a Palagyi hiring network and what he jokingly calls a "vicious family circle": Alumni hire Reseda students, sometimes "stealing" them from other Reseda graduates.
His track record has created envy among other drafting teachers, who have accused Reseda's students of copying from professional plans and Palagyi of doing the drawings himself, according to Palagyi and his students.
But Don Runyan, drafting instructor at Cleveland High School and adviser to the state Board of Education, said the criticism is "a cop-out from teachers that don't have the ability to compete."
"Palagyi sets a standard for the competitions," said Runyan, whose students have won about 16 awards in the past seven years. "If you compete against Palagyi's students and you really win, you've accomplished something. He's probably the top architectural drafting instructor that I've seen. And I've seen some good ones across California and the country."
Although Palagyi encourages high expectations and competitiveness, he also fosters a sense of camaraderie among students so they feel they've all won when a classmate wins, students said.
He treats students as if they're professionals in the field, giving them five or six projects at a time, relishing his role as a demanding homeowner, out for what he--and not the architect--wants. "There are too many egotistical designers, and they're good designers," he said. "But I want my idea, I'm going to be living in the house."
Behind the all-business facade, students said, Palagyi cares about them and their futures. A number of drafting students said few teachers and counselors make special efforts to ensure they make it--in class and in life.
"I wasn't here for a while and he asked me if I had a problem," said Michael Mulverhill, a senior who had set a personal record this semester for being in class two weeks straight. "No teacher has ever asked me if I had a problem."
Now set on an architectural career, Mulverhill credited Palagyi with setting his priorities back on track. The teacher was surprisingly understanding about family conflicts and school problems, Mulverhill said.
Palagyi's own childhood was not particularly troubled. He was an average student and affectionate son, he said. After moving to California from New Jersey, his Hungarian parents told him: "Go to school, go to school," but never told him what he should become.
Drafting was an elective he took in high school, but it wasn't until college that he realized he was good at it. Unaware of scholarships and financial aid, he had to attend less-expensive colleges that didn't have architectural programs. Palagyi became a teacher, thinking it was his best way to stay in drafting.
It's a path he does not regret. And the fact that he likes what he does is manifested in his classroom and his insistence on working personally with each student.
The class is "like a safe haven; it's where we can be ourselves," said 11th-grader Aditya Chatterjee, who was placed in Palagyi's class three years ago by computer error and since has decided to become an architect. Chatterjee drew the plans that doubled the size of his family's house. He also bought a car with earnings from drafting jobs.
Although Palagyi tends to remain businesslike in class, students said they've seen him in tears when his proteges win awards. And even the businesslike Palagyi admits a little levity never hurts.
"The kids have their own personal problems that might be bothering them," he said. "It can get rough at this time of the semester when you have tests and finals."
Proving the point, Palagyi on a recent morning stepped on a wooden board atop a wooden cylinder and rocked from side to side. With the students cheering him on, he balanced himself, showing the young hotshots who was really hot.
"I don't want all these kids to be draftsmen or architects," Palagyi said. "What I want them to do is learn the subject and feel they can use that later. Who knows, they may end up teaching school and wind up on a bongo board."