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William R. 'Bill' Anton, 1924 - 2009

L.A. school district's first Latino leader

July 30, 2009|Howard Blume

William R. "Bill" Anton, a product of Eastside schools who rose through the ranks to become the first Latino schools superintendent in Los Angeles, has died. He was 85.

Anton, who had been in declining health, died Tuesday at an assisted-living center in Alhambra, weeks before the elementary school that bears his name will open for the first time.

Friends and colleagues remembered Anton as a tough, principled but genial and strategic fighter who put students and parents first -- and especially looked out for minority children in a school system that did not always have high expectations for them.

At his professional pinnacle, Anton abruptly resigned as superintendent in 1992 after struggling to keep the Los Angeles Unified School District solvent amid multibillion-dollar budget deficits. He cited a politically charged atmosphere that included a micromanaging school board and an activist teachers union.

"My message is not one of hitting back," Anton said in 1992. "It's one of trying to alert everyone, including board members, [to] look in the mirror and see what we are doing. I would hope that would help the next superintendent not to have to deal with some of these things.

"It's a good district," he added. "Don't give up on it."

Anton was born in El Paso on July 22, 1924, to Roque Anton, a Mexican banker who had fled that country's revolution, and his wife, Luisa.

The family moved to East Los Angeles when Anton was 5, and his father and older siblings started an electrical shop. All the Anton children went to college and several earned doctorates.

The sixth of 10 children who survived into adulthood, Anton was drafted in 1942 soon after graduating from Garfield High School. As an Army paratrooper, he served in hot zones that claimed two-thirds of his unit, said his wife, Donnalyn Jaque-Anton.

He emerged from the Army three inches taller -- at 5-feet-6 -- and earned a bachelor's degree in 1952 and a master's in 1954, both at Cal State Los Angeles.

In 1952, he began teaching at Rowan Elementary in East Los Angeles, slowly and steadily earning promotions. Anton filled a groundbreaking role in developing the district's Title 1 program, at the time a new effort to help low-income and minority students.

Many district insiders and community leaders were disappointed in 1987 when the school board chose outsider Leonard Britton over Anton as superintendent. Anton stayed and became a respected intermediary during the 1989 teachers strike.

In 1990, Britton resigned, never having won over an L.A. Unified bureaucracy that included Anton, who ascended to the top job that July. At the superintendent's annual address to administrators that fall, Anton received a standing ovation. They admired his fair, straightforward though demanding approach.

"If you did something wrong, he'd let you know," said retired senior administrator Dominic Shambra. "He didn't pull any punches. And after it was over, it was over, unless you kept doing something wrong."

Subordinates marveled at his ability to remember the names of employees and family details, and also praised his mentorship.

"Mr. Anton said if you want to be an administrator you have to find out who the hardest-working person in that school is, and you have to work twice as hard," said Jim Morris, who took a class from Anton and now serves as chief of staff to Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

Anton's priorities included relations with parents, said Peggy Barber, who met him as an activist parent and later became a district lobbyist. "He treated parents as equals," she said.

Anton remained superintendent only 26 months, retiring at 68 in September 1992.

"The makeup of the board had a lot to do with him leaving a job he had wanted for a long time," said Joe Caldera, a friend and retired middle school principal. "Bill couldn't influence the board to follow his leadership. He had to give up the job because of his integrity."

In addition to his wife, Anton is survived by three children from his first marriage to Anna Harlow of Rosemead -- Brian Anton of Los Angeles and Lin Harlow and Willie Anton, both of Mendocino, Calif.; and four siblings. With Jaque-Anton, he raised her son, Evan Jaque, who died in 2003. Services will be private.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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