To this day, Peter Apanel treasures his prize for winning a fourth-grade "mystery land" quiz--a book dated April 10, 1960, by his teacher Daryl Anderson.
After winning "Atoms, the Core of all Matter" at the Ralph Waldo Emerson School in Rosemead, Apanel went on to become a college graduate and eventually the organizer and perpetrator of Pasadena's popular and offbeat Occasional Doo Dah Parade.
More than 28 years later, hoping to show that anyone can have a similar impact on children's lives, Apanel gave a dictionary to each of the 96 third-graders at his old elementary school.
Because of Anderson and the Emerson School, Apanel said, he developed an early curiosity and satisfaction in researching and discovering facts. He keeps a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference books in his home and office.
Guest of Honor
"I just wanted to do something to promote literacy," Apanel said when he repaid the literary debt at a school assembly last week.
Anderson was the guest of honor.
"He was the best teacher of my entire life," Apanel said of the popular teacher who retired in 1986 after 33 years in the Garvey School District.
"He had these little daily competitions," such as giving clues to "mystery lands," Apanel said. "He really got everyone going on learning how to study independently. We learned that, and he set us loose. It made me a better student."
Apanel earned a bachelor's degree at Cal State Los Angeles and had a career in public relations when he and friends created the first Doo Dah Parade 11 years ago. He has since made a career out of the annual parade, which winds through the streets of Old Pasadena, usually on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Originally a spoof of the Tournament of Roses, it attracts thousands of fans, national media coverage and even some serious studies that compare it with Mardi Gras and the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.
Principal Bruce Davis and Arlene Bitely, who served on the school board for 30 years, called Emerson "the best school in the district."
Last year the district was named one of the California Distinguished Schools by the state Department of Education, which rated Emerson in the top 5% in the state for academic excellence.
Emerson is unusual, Davis and Bitely said, because 98% of its 600 students are Asian and Hispanic. About half of them are limited in English and many speak no English at all. Almost 40% of Emerson's families are on welfare.
"Against those odds, we're proving that if you come from a low socioeconomic background you can still be successful," Davis said.
"We have many students who have never owned a book, and we have children in the third grade who have never even been in a school," Davis said. "One Vietnamese child came in this week straight from a refugee camp and he doesn't speak a word of English. This dictionary may be the only book in his house, and in many other houses. It may be the only book the child owns."
Apanel said he wanted to give dictionaries because "it's the universal book, and it will give value for years."
He bought 96 copies of Macmillan's illustrated Dictionary for Children at $10 a copy, costing a total of about $1,000, including shipping expenses. Each book has a bookplate inscribed with the child's name.
"I did it basically because it was a good idea and everybody loved it," Apanel said. "It was within my ability to do this in Emerson, where I couldn't do it in a larger district."
Two years ago, Apanel said, he had seen a television documentary about illiteracy and wanted to find a way to fight it.
Gave Up Happy Hours
First he tried to organize a program involving corporate giving for a larger school district, "and it just got bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape" he said. "Sometimes a good idea can be convoluted beyond all reason. By doing it myself, I was not involving committees and raising money."
He thought of giving dictionaries to an entire class, "And it seemed like such a good idea, I couldn't not do it. I couldn't wait to win the lottery, so I saved money by giving up happy hours in bars. You can save a lot that way."
Then, last spring he saw a newscast about a "read-in" in Garvey schools, at which more than 200 volunteers read to students. His old elementary school was featured.
"I came here (to the Emerson School) cold turkey, proposed it to Bruce Davis, and in five seconds it was done," Apanel said.
$2,000 Cash Donation
Davis said, "I've had people come in and donate as much as $2,000 cash, but nobody has ever come in with something this wonderful, or anything like it."
Davis said he saw nothing incongruous about the instigator of the flaky Doo Dah Parade making an unusual gift to his old elementary school.
"This is eccentric like the Doo Dah, and I think eccentricity is the last refuge of idealists," Davis said.
"Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist.' I think it fits right in."