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School’s Name Provides Lasting Tribute for Tireless Volunteer

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sick in bed last February, 89-year-old Evelyn Gratts heard the official word: For her decades of volunteer education work, a new elementary school just west of downtown would be named in her honor. Although she was very weak, her eyes lighted up and she smiled. Two days later, she was dead.

On Friday morning, under threatening skies, the Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School was formally dedicated. In a joyous ceremony, Gratts was portrayed as a fighter who spent much of her life battling for the children of the Westlake district.

“If she wanted to get something done for the community, she would not take no for an answer,” friend Ada Willoughby said of Gratts, whose countless hours as a volunteer at nearby Belmont High School won her the nickname of “Mrs. Belmont.” “The only answer she would accept was, ‘Yes, it can be done.’ ”

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Gratts’ five children, all of them raised in the Westlake district, were present, watching the array of school and city officials pay tribute to their mother as the Los Angeles Unified School District opened its first new elementary campus in two years.

“I’m flattered, elated, thrilled, and I’m a little sad,” said son Ellis Gratts, 51. “You hear a lot about family values these days, but my mom also taught us about community values.”

Evelyn Gratts’ family values were stained by tragedy. In 1946, she shot and killed her husband, who their children say was abusive. She was arrested and released when the homicide was ruled justified. Gratts began the fight for a school with a large playground on the once-blighted corner of 3rd Street and Lucas Avenue 10 years ago.

“Getting this school built was a mighty struggle,” said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, a former school board president. State officials wanted to build a “New York City-type school,” a high-rise facility with little or no playground, because they were concerned about the price of land downtown. “This school is a beacon of light for this community,” Goldberg said.

Gratts’ most common lobbying expression was simple, friends recalled: “Honey, it’s all for the kids.”

Students began attending the year-round school in July, saving the celebration for September to coincide with Mexican Independence Day. The $9.2-million campus, with a student body of 813, is “hard-wired,” which will enable every class to get on the Internet and add more computers easily. There is one computer per class, with a goal of having 10 computers in each of the 28 classrooms within two years.

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Students at Gratts School had been attending other, overcrowded schools in the neighborhood and were giddy Friday about having a new campus.

Ten-year-old Sandra Cuevas brightened when she talked of the school’s computers. “These computers are fun and fast. The other school’s computers are boring,” she said.

The school includes a small Romanesque amphitheater in which plays and other productions will be held. It is named after Ronald Herron, the architect who designed most of the school and who recently died of AIDS. The amphitheater’s performers will look out at a crowd with the soaring downtown skyline providing the backdrop.

“Look at that skyline and look forward to working there,” neighborhood Councilman Mike Hernandez told the students. “Maybe some day one of you will build a new skyscraper there.”

While the students and speakers praised the campus and faculty, there were mixed reviews on the cafeteria. “The meatloaf is nasty,” said fifth-grader Alicia Rivera.

As the midmorning ceremony ended, the adults went into the auditorium for lunch and the pupils enjoyed the playground. They shot caroms on game boards, played tetherball, handball and sockball and ran races. And the sun came out.

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