For a teacher, honestly, it doesn’t get any better than this. To have your name mentioned in newspaper stories profiling the new mayor of Los Angeles, to be interviewed by television reporters, to be given credit again and again for having made the difference in a young man’s life. The student carries the power of the extraordinary teacher in his heart for the rest of his life; the teacher may only have a hazy recollection of a kid with potential who’d once crossed his path.
For Herman Katz, Friday, inauguration day, was the kind of day that most educators can only dream about. In front of the city, the nation -- and even the world -- he was singled out by his former student, Antonio Villaraigosa, as an exemplar of his profession.
And the irony is that for many years, Katz had pretty much forgotten about a young man named Antonio Villar who he had helped during his long career as counselor at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.
By the time they reconnected, Villar had become Villaraigosa, was working as an organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles and would soon run for a seat in the California Assembly.
“He came to Roosevelt and sought me out, and thanked me,” said Katz. “I remembered him vaguely. I told him that. I mean, it had been 20 years. And he had a different name then.”
One of the things Villaraigosa thanked Katz for -- and has been thanking him for ever since -- was paying for him to take the SAT. But Katz shrugged and said it was no big deal, that he’d done it for many, many poor students. “It couldn’t have been more than $6 or $7,” Katz said. But he’d also seen something in this young man whose life was starting to go off the rails, and urged him to go to college.
On Friday morning, Katz set his alarm early and drove from his Sherman Oaks home to the North Hollywood Metro Rail station. He arrived at the station at 6:15 a.m. with his wife, Beverly, a retired special education teacher. They boarded the Red Line for the Civic Center, heading first for the incoming mayor’s interfaith prayer service at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Then they strolled over to City Hall, where they had a special ticket for a seat at the swearing in. Katz did not know that he would be named by Mayor Villaraigosa, along with the mayor’s mother, as critical influences in his life. Villaraigosa lauded his old counselor as “a great public school teacher” who “made such a difference in my life.”
In a black T-shirt and gray jacket, with a full head of hair and slightly oversized glasses, Katz looks more like a studio mogul than the teacher and counselor he was for 35 years. A modest, low-key man of 73 who has lived in the same home for 40 years, he said he sometimes wakes up surprised by all the attention coming his way. “A friend called and said, ‘You won’t believe this! I saw your name in a story in the Jerusalem Post!’ It would make such a good script -- a poor boy from the slums saved by a Jewish teacher. It’s not exactly true, but it makes a great story.”
He also appeared in Villaraigosa’s campaign commercials, which led some kids at Patrick Henry Middle School, where he is working part time, to ask if he was the new mayor’s father. The attention, said Katz, is “very, very rewarding and I love it, but I didn’t really expect it.”
As Katz and his wife walked from the Civic Center subway stop to the cathedral, he reminisced about his time at Roosevelt, where he not only worked as counselor but also was a student so many years ago.
In his first job after a stint in the Army, he taught English and social studies at Hollenbeck Junior High, and after about seven years, he was asked to become a counselor. It was a time when counselors could really pay individual attention to students, he said, and by the time Katz moved to Roosevelt in 1967, he prided himself on knowing the name of each of his charges by the time they graduated.
He met the future mayor around 1969 when Villaraigosa attended a reading improvement class, which, said Katz, “he really didn’t need.” Villaraigosa “dropped out for a while, then he went to Cathedral [a Catholic school] and got kicked out for something, I don’t remember what. Then he came back to Roosevelt.”
Katz remembers the slightly defiant young man as smart and determined, someone who needed some guidance at a tough time in his life.
At the time, the atmosphere at the school (and everywhere else in the country) was politically charged and volatile. Campuses were rife with civil rights protests, the Chicano movement was blossoming. Katz remembers “hooded police with guns and masks” on campus. There was a student walkout, teachers were demanding reforms. “You talk about your red states and your blue states,” Katz said. “Teachers wore either red or blue buttons, for or against reform. You have to remember, we had some teachers who’d been there since before World War II. The principal brought psychologists in, and we would meet to air out issues. They hired a full-time group counselor who met with the kids once a week, and some of the teachers didn’t like that because everything that happened in those groups was confidential.”
Villaraigosa discovered a passion and a knack for political activism and organizing that would shape his future. And as gratified as Katz has been by Villaraigosa’s praise, he doesn’t think what he did for the mayor was his most memorable moment.
“I’ll tell you my best counseling story,” said Katz, “and it wasn’t Antonio. When I was at Hollenbeck, there was a little girl, a seventh-grader, who was just not ready for junior high yet. So I told her, ‘You come to my office every Friday and let me know how you’re doing. You’ll be my Girl Friday.’
“Thirty years later, a woman brings her little girl into the office at Roosevelt. She said, ‘Hello, Mr. Katz. You don’t remember me, do you? I was your Girl Friday.’ You know, all these kids needed was a little personal attention.”