Profile: A TV Host in a Celebrity World : Putting Education in a Good Light

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her Saturday morning show, which spotlights California public education, points to Dina Ruiz Eastwood's down-to-earth background: graduation from a state university and a father who teaches high school math.

But the big-time celebrity interviews she scores for the modestly produced show also offer a glimpse into a more glamorous world.

Eastwood is the anchor of "Quest for Excellence," a feature show that the California Teachers Assn. pays to have produced and aired on stations around the state.

She's also the wife of actor Clint Eastwood.

The show combines the 33-year-old's interests as the product of a modest middle-class upbringing with the celebrity world she entered when she married Eastwood, 68, in 1996.

Two years ago, she quit her news position at a Salinas TV station to spend more time with her family, but she quickly took the job with "Quest," which she found pleasingly ideological, yet less time-consuming.

"It's important to show there are positive things happening in these institutions where parents send their children every single day," she said. "If it makes one teacher feel good about being a teacher, I'm thrilled."

One bonus of being married to a celebrity was easily booking his appearance.

"It's a worthy cause to put emphasis on education today, which some people think is sorely lacking," Clint Eastwood said. "Dina cares about education because of her background. And now she has a child of her own . . . and she wants to look out for [our daughter's] future."

In his appearance on "Quest," Clint Eastwood shared a story about how his high school English teacher in Oakland gave the then-introverted young man the lead role in a school play.

"It was a fun experience, even though a little petrifying at the time," he remembered.

And, Clint Eastwood has also helped his wife in gaining other celebrity interviews--such as ones with George Clooney and Kevin Costner, both of whom talked about their school days.

Aside from that slight Hollywood touch, the real celebrities to Dina Eastwood are the teachers, administrators and students who tackle the daily challenges of public education.

She cites a recent show on the Gonzalez Unified School District, in a farming town south of the Bay Area, where a few teachers and administrators helped start a breakfast program to feed children who came to school hungry.

It was a breath of fresh air for teachers at Gonzalez, who say their profession is more frequently the subject of negative stories.

"For once I felt appreciated," said Diane Cadei, a math and social studies teacher at Fairview Middle School.

The show described how some of the poor children come from homes where, ironically, their parents are the ones who grow the crops in the agriculturally rich farm belt but who often cannot afford to properly feed their own families.

The breakfast program, which started at Fairview and at La Gloria Elementary, was eventually expanded to Gonzalez High, the town's only other school.

"We felt really pleased that someone came in, looked at our school and noticed we had a program," Cadei said.

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If Dina Eastwood seems to have a soft spot for the hard-working, perhaps it's because of her family history. Though she has a Latino maiden name, Ruiz does not speak Spanish beyond the few lessons she has taken over the years. And, technically, she is not a Latina.

Her biological grandfather, Marcus Grant, was a part African American and Hawaiian soldier stationed in Hawaii during World War II. He had a child with a woman named Lilian, who was part Japanese and Hawaiian. The infant boy--Dina Eastwood's father Michael--was given up for adoption and taken in by a Latino couple named Ruiz.

Papa Ruiz, as Dina Eastwood calls her adoptive grandfather, was Portuguese. Mama Ruiz was Puerto Rican.

Dina Eastwood was born in Castro Valley in the Bay Area, where her father had moved at age 10 and later married her mother, Mary Lou, part Irish and German.

Eastwood bounced around among half a dozen junior colleges and universities until she graduated with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from San Francisco State in 1989.

Putting herself through college by working as a waitress turned out to be useful, because her first news job at the Flagstaff, Ariz., NBC affiliate paid $4 an hour. She worked at a Mexican restaurant to supplement her income.

"I ended up serving the county supervisors I had interviewed that day," she said.

But her fortune would soon change.

By 1993, she was working closer to home in Salinas at KSBW, an ABC affiliate, for $10 an hour.

That February she interviewed Clint Eastwood at his Pebble Beach ranch, and the two stayed in contact. They kept bumping into each other at charity functions. Finally, at one event, they were seated together and ended up holding hands under the table.

She took the job with "Quest," based in the Monterey Bay area, after her daughter was born in late 1996.

The show, in its second season, has turned out to be a good working arrangement for Eastwood. She participates widely with a staff of 20 in shaping the program's editorial content, but she performs the bulk of her work during a few hours of taping in the studio every two weeks.

"I think she really enjoys being involved in a show that is ultimately about making life better for kids," said Rose Dean, "Quest" managing editor. "If she [were] not a journalist, she would be a teacher."

Because the program is funded by a teachers union, some of the producers initially worried about negative reaction, Dean said. But, she says, except for a few cases in which teachers had questions about the intent of the show, it has been welcomed by its audience of mostly educators.

Another recent show featured a program at Rosewood Community Education Center in Bellflower, where teens on probation are assigned to do community service as tutors and aides to special-education youths.

The teachers at Rosewood remember Dina Eastwood's follow-up phone calls and personal interest even though she hadn't come to the campus for the field work. She sent a video of the "Quest" show as well as pencils and pens--not big items, but meaningful.

"We've been featured on other programs, and they just dump you when they're done," said Sandy Osborn, a Rosewood teacher. "She went the extra mile."

The show has also showcased inspiring students.

In a segment on the hands-on science programs at Los Osos Middle School near Morro Bay, the producers found Hannah Gray, a then-seventh-grader interested in plankton.

Hannah first studied on her own, borrowing a microscope and then raising money to buy a motorized boat. Later, she became partners with the U.S. Coast Guard in a program taking other young people on ocean trips to study plankton. "It was neat to be on 'Quest,' " said Hannah, now a sophomore, whose current project is researching the amount of sand that blows off sand dunes each day. "It gives credit to those who don't fall under the negative public school stereotype."

Such stories are particularly satisfying for Eastwood because they spotlight the work of people like her father, a lifelong public school teacher now working at an alternative school.

And by that standard, her father would say the show is a success.

"We're not into teaching for the pay," Mike Ruiz, 55, said. "We're here to help the kids now and in their later lives--and I think Dina portrays that very well."

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