Artemisa Garcia, who rose from cafeteria worker to principal, is no longer around to help the disadvantaged get an education, but her friends and family have established a scholarship fund to continue her work.
The principal of Hurley Elementary in La Puente died of cancer Nov. 23 at age 59. The fund will be administered by the Mexican American Women's National Assn., whose Orange County chapter recently named Mrs. Garcia, who lived in Placentia, "Woman of the Year."
The money raised will assist Latinas who otherwise might not be able to complete their educations.
Mrs. Garcia was a first-generation American from a Mexican family that couldn't afford to send its children to college. She married Bob Galves Garcia at 19 and had four children.
"She was basically a homemaker," daughter Gayle Bendeck said. "I remember her being home for us. She started college when I was 15 or 16. We ended up being in college overlapping. It opened up a whole different world for her. A lot of her friends were young, my age."
Her first school district job was as a cafeteria worker in the Lowell Joint Unified School District in Whittier.
"We always used to wonder as kids what she would do when we grew up," recalled son Mark, who initially thought his mother's course work was just something to keep her busy.
When she was 39, Mrs. Garcia began taking junior college classes. She entered Cal Poly Pomona in 1976, when she was 45. Meanwhile, she had begun working as an instructional aide for the Rowland Unified School District.
"She had a lot of energy," Bendeck said. "She was able to start the laundry, begin a paper and put on a meal."
After graduating from Cal Poly in 1979, Mrs. Garcia began teaching fifth grade. She earned her master's in education from Cal Poly in 1983 and entered a school administrator's training program in 1985.
"We couldn't believe she'd gone from being our mom to being the most educated person in our family," Mark Garcia said. "She was really just exploding in terms of her career."
She became acting principal at Hurley Elementary in January, 1988, and permanent principal there six months later. In August, 1988, Mrs. Garcia learned that she had breast cancer.
"When the doctor first told my mom, I was with her," Bendeck said. "She didn't say anything for a few moments. Then she said, 'Can you hand me my calendar?' She said she had to organize this illness so it would take her away from work as little as possible."
At Hurley, Mrs. Garcia "increased remarkably" the size of the parent volunteer program, even though many parents were too poor to own a car they could drive to school, said Dolores Smith, a former assistant superintendent at Rowland.
She also persuaded almost all the parents in the school to enroll their children in the outdoor-class enrichment program, which took classes of sixth-graders away from the barrios to the mountains for a week.
Mrs. Garcia scheduled drug-education and gang-prevention workshops. These became the education element of a La Puente-area law enforcement crackdown known as "Operation Neighborhood Pride."
"This was like drug city," Mrs. Garcia said in a May interview with The Times. "Now the children can walk the streets and play outside."
She took a leave of absence a month before her death to get her personal affairs in order and plan for the administrative changeover.
But her focus always returned to the children, Bendeck said. "I don't recall her ever saying she didn't like a child--ever," Bendeck said. "She'd say the reason for this is this and, 'I think I can help the child.' "
Students at her school sent more than 100 letters to the Garcia family after her death. "She was the best principal we ever had," wrote Henry Aldaco, "if only she could come back."
"She was . . . very caring and determined to help us," wrote Hector Ortiz, "which was her job, but it didn't seem like it. It seemed like she wanted to help. She must have.
"The thing I liked about her was she had a smile on her face all the time."