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California

Remembering a special teacher

Mr. Conover wasn’t there to hear them. He was old when he entered teaching, and he’s been dead for years.

But this weekend, 52 years after they left his sixth-grade class at Queen Anne Place Elementary School, more than a dozen of Wilbur W. Conover’s former students gathered on the campus playground.

They raised plastic goblets of champagne in a toast to their still-strong childhood bond and their teacher’s passion and skills. Then they packed and hauled away the bottles and cups so today’s students at the school near Pico and Crenshaw wouldn’t know they’d been drinking on campus.

The occasion was a class reunion of students from the elementary school, which was little more than a collection of pink stucco bungalows when they left it behind in 1959. Almost half the 36 students from the class attended, from as far away as Japan and as near as the West Adams district.

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That was a surprise to someone like me, who can’t remember the names of most of my sixth-grade classmates and can’t imagine traveling cross-country to Cleveland to reunite with them.

But this group clearly had a special camaraderie. I joined them Saturday night for dinner, and Sunday at the Queen Anne Place campus, where they draped the lunch tables with butcher paper and recorded their memories with Crayolas.

They are an eclectic group. Almost all are college graduates; several have advanced degrees. Many lived abroad for years. A few are Vietnam veterans; one went to jail as a draft resister. Some followed straight career paths. But more of them dabbled, moving among interests and regions for most of their adult lives.

And they hadn’t seen one another in decades.

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Arthur Zack — a PhD in forest ecology who tends a forest in Idaho — remembers when classmate David Meyer’s letter reached him in Spokane. “I told my wife, ‘They’re putting together a grade school reunion. This guy must have entirely too much time on his hands.’ ”

But memories of that time drew him and his classmates back.

They hadn’t realized it when they were young, but they came of age during an extraordinary period of freedom in Los Angeles — a time of prosperity and promise, of endless possibilities.

“L.A. was exploding,” Zack recalled. “People were coming here from everywhere. People who wanted something more open and free; they were building a new culture here.”

About half of the students in the class were Jewish. But there were two black girls and one boy from Mexico. Three students were the children of Holocaust survivors. There were refugees from Hungary and Sweden, from the Bronx and small-town Pennsylvania. There was a student visiting from Japan and another whose Japanese American mother had spent time in an internment camp. There were working-class children from nearby apartments — including the child of a leftist who had fled McCarthyism — and rich kids from mansions in Fremont Square.

“It wasn’t like we were crashing the party. We were the party back then,” Zack said.

“Back then” was before carpools and play dates, when everybody walked to school, carrying lunch boxes packed by Mom. “We spent weekends and summers in each other’s backyards … our parents knew each other,” said Diana Johnson Roberts, a retired social worker and teacher who lives in rural Oregon.

They credit that for their closeness, and their success.

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But they also credit Mr. Conover.

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You can argue about what makes a good school: a modern building, small classes, teachers with advanced degrees. For these students, it was a World War II veteran who was lavish with praise but would put you in a headlock if you misbehaved.

He doesn’t look like a favorite teacher in the sixth-grade graduation photo, standing ramrod straight in a suit and tie, tight-lipped with no hint of a smile. He was the only male teacher on their campus, and he didn’t start teaching until he was 58, they told me.

“He wasn’t our friend,” Roberts said. “He made us march in military order.”

I asked the group how he disciplined them. Michael Alexander — class cutup then, now head of the L.A. arts group Grand Performances — rose from his seat and mimicked shaking someone. A teacher’s classroom was his kingdom back then.

So what made Mr. Conover so special? The answers came so fast, I almost made them raise their hands to speak.

He came an hour early to school each day to give them lessons on his marimba. He taught them about the Aztecs and the Maya at a time when textbooks made Indians look like savages. He helped them learn tolerance by supporting others’ accomplishments.

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Atsuko Sakurauchi had arrived the year before from Japan, and her English wasn’t the best. “But in painting nobody could touch her,” one of her classmates said. “Mr. Conover made sure we all knew that and celebrated her for it.”

He opened their eyes to a world beyond the classroom, in a time before test prep and scripted lessons. He personified the freedom of the time — and the challenge of cultivating young minds.

“He let us discover our individual strengths,” someone said. “He just wanted to make you better,” somebody else chimed in.

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Today, the bungalow classrooms they recall have been replaced by a new elementary school, an early education center for preschoolers and a ready-to-learn program for parents and kids. The complex stretches for half a city block. It is clean and cheerful and well-equipped.

Almost 90% of the students now are Latino, and half of them are still learning English. But the school’s test scores are going up. Still, someone — who obviously failed spelling — has scrawled “LIER” next to the word “learn” on the metal nameplate at the entrance to Queen Anne Place.

The class of 1959 remembers a school with just a principal, a librarian, a janitor and one teacher for every 36 kids. Now, there are teachers’ aides and intervention teams; program coordinators and attendance coordinators; a psychologist and a physical therapy provider.

The alums spent the weekend trying to figure out what kind of gift they could provide for their school: music lessons, classroom supplies, visits by performing artists. But the new principal’s request was simpler: Come back to our Career Day, he said; introduce these children to the joy of possibilities.

I asked them what message they will leave with this new generation of students. The same message, they said, that Mr. Conover gave them:

Have some dreams. Do them. We did.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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