For 30 years, the late Christopher Dena worked tirelessly as a teacher on the Eastside, enlightening students and impressing other instructors with his uncanny ability to influence lives.
He skipped lunch or stayed late if a student needed help. He spoke eloquently about education issues in either English or Spanish. And he provided reassurance to parents struggling with poverty.
The Dena touch, which former colleagues say reached beyond that of other dedicated teachers, was so special that those who knew him at Dacotah Street School were determined to keep his memory alive.
So this school year, Dacotah Street School, whose history dates back to 1898, was renamed Christopher Dena Elementary School.
Officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District believe this is the first time a district school has been named in honor of a teacher.
"This is an honor to all classroom teachers," said Alice Mallory, who has taught at the school for 24 years. "It gives us an inspiration."
Dena, a disciplinarian with a gentle sense of humor and immense devotion to his work, retired in 1992 and died of cancer in March, 1993, at age 69.
A new sign reading Christopher Dena Elementary School was installed outside the school Thursday.
A ceremony marking the school's renaming was held Friday on the school playground near a mural that features a likeness of Dena wearing his trademark cardigan sweater.
The hourlong ceremony, which featured speakers, students singing and waving colorful ribbons, and the unveiling of the mural, attracted Dena's relatives, former students, city and school officials, parents and community activists.
The playground buzzed as old friends remembered days past. Many children sat anxiously awaiting their time to sing one of Dena's favorite songs, "De Colores."
Rocky Martinez, 11, a sixth-grader at the school, told the crowd about being a member of Dena's last class a few years ago.
"I remember how Mr. Dena improved my reading and my math," Rocky said. "He turned everything around for me. I used to hang around with mean kids. He made a difference in my life."
Several speakers acknowledged the importance of honoring an educator, someone who never sought the limelight but was devoted to molding young lives. "The profession of teacher is a profession of honor," said Victoria Castro, a school board member and former teacher and principal.
Before the ceremony, Principal Karen Robertson said the school's 1,100 students, from pre-kindergarten to grade 6, all learned about Dena in classes this year. In addition to being a skillful teacher, Dena serves as a role model because 98% of the students are Latino, she said.
"It's wonderful," Robertson said. "He was sincere. He was very humble but very dedicated to learning. I think it gives some pride."
Robert Calix, 35, a real estate broker who was in Dena's class in 1969, said he remembered the instructor setting aside time to help him when he needed extra guidance. "He loved his students very much," Calix said. "It wasn't just me, it was all the kids."
John Brantley, a teacher at the school since 1972 who was a college student when he first saw Dena teach, said the experience touched him immediately.
"I watched this man and I was just amazed at the care and concern for students," Brantley said. "It was like watching a magician. He was there for them."
Dena, whose parents were immigrants from Durango, Mexico, was born in Los Angeles in 1923. Dena was 2 when his father died, and he and and his two sisters were raised by their mother.
Dena was elected class president at Jordan High School in 1942 and served in the Navy during World War II. He attended college in Arizona before enrolling at USC, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1954.
During the next several years, Dena worked at a variety of jobs. He received his California teaching credential in 1962, and then began his first teaching assignment: at Dacotah Street School.
Dena and his wife, Maria, raised five children. Maria Dena, who lives in Lakewood, said Friday that the renaming of the school was an overwhelming honor.
"It's so beautiful," she said. "He would have said, 'Why such a big deal?' I'm very proud of my husband."
The proposal to rename the school was presented to the Board of Education with strong support from school staff, students, former students, parents and community activists.
Although the renaming of the school is a great honor, several of those who knew Dena said his memory would have lived on even without the renaming of the school.
"I molded my style very much after his style," Brantley said.
"I owe him a debt for eternity."