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Profiles in Courage : 5 Cited for Acts of Bravery That Included Teacher's Brush With Death

August 25, 1991|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leonard Shea might well be dead if he had not leaned over to help a student solve a math problem in his seventh-grade class on March 14.

That was the moment another 12-year-old in Shea's class at Whittier Intermediate School fired a shot in the teacher's direction, shattering a classroom window. The student, wielding a .45-caliber pistol, ordered the teacher to put up his hands.

Shea, 60, reacted instinctively. Instead of cowering, he grabbed the gun with both hands, ordered the rest of the class to take shelter and held the boy until help could arrive.

"It happened so fast that I didn't have time to think," the teacher said last week in recalling the incident. "Had I had time to think about it, I might have acted differently."

Shea, who lives in Long Beach, was one of five area residents honored for bravery by Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner during a special ceremony Wednesday at the Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach.

The others were:

* Ron Garcia, 46, of Huntington Park, who followed and later helped identify a hit-and-run driver who had killed a 4-year-old boy.

* Bridgette Austin, 23, of Compton, who foiled the attempted abduction of a 12-year-old girl by pursuing the kidnaper until he panicked and let the girl go.

* Sergio Chacon, 42, of Maywood, who ran after a 220-pound robber until the man threw down a wallet he had stolen from a passerby.

* Herman Garvin, 61, a cab driver who provided the tip that enabled police to arrest a suspect in the murder of a fellow cabbie in Long Beach.

"These are exceptional people," Reiner said in presenting them with scrolls proclaiming each to be a courageous citizen. "Courage is the one human trait that we all like to think we have. These people know something about themselves because they've been tested."

Reiner's office began presenting the Courageous Citizens awards six years ago, he said, to give the public role models and to help overcome what he called the "terminal cynicism" that comes from hearing too much bad news. Today, he said, the awards are given out monthly in various regions of the county, with one large ceremony held annually in Los Angeles.

Recipients, Reiner said, are nominated by the deputy district attorneys in their respective areas. In Shea's case, he said, the nomination was for acting responsibly in the face of grave danger.

"The kids were his responsibility and he understood that," the district attorney said of the teacher. "He could have reacted the way most people would have; by doing what he (had to) to survive. Instead, his response was to save the kids by refusing to relinquish control of the classroom."

Shea has since retired from teaching after a career spanning 32 years.

Although the errant youth was sent to Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, a spokeswoman for Reiner's office said, no charges were ever pressed and he was eventually released to the custody of relatives. Shea declined to discuss details of the case, but said the youth had not caused problems in the past.

It was only after the shooting, the math teacher said, that he fully appreciated the danger he and his students had been facing that day in March. "Afterwards I reflected on it and realized how lucky I am to still be around to talk about it," Shea said.

On Wednesday, though, the retired teacher was all smiles. "I feel great," he said as the TV cameras whirred. "It's an honor. I didn't think they would make such a big deal about it."

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