by Araceli Esparza
photography by Scott Harvey
During a time in which racial barriers separated society, when drinking fountains and park benches read, “For Whites Only” and when getting a higher education was a struggle for any minority student, the life-long dream of Dolores Gonzales, Ed.D, was born.
For Dr. Gonzales, educator and leader in the La Verne community for more than four decades, the vision began early. Born in the Northern California city of Lindsey in 1932 as Dolores Garcia, Dr. Gonzales moved to La Verne with her family at the age of 4. The Garcias lived on First Street, four doors away from then La Verne College.
Second Street, First Street, Walnut Avenue and the area surrounding Arrow Highway “were solid Mexicans,” recalls Dr. Gonzales, now 66. “The barrio was full, and the barrio was always Mexican.”
Then, school segregation was common law in the Bonita School District; to challenge that mandate was unthinkable. Students from Spanish-speaking families attended Palomares School; Anglo children attended Lincoln Elementary School (now Roynon) — no arguments to the contrary accepted. Because Dr. Gonzales was from a Spanish-speaking family, she was destined to attend Palomares for her primary education.
But the elder Garcia refused to allow her children to live according to a fate determined simply by their native tongue. “My mother was very pleased with the English that my brother had learned in Lindsey,” says Dr. Gonzales.
“I guess he went here [Palomares] all first grade,” she adds, “and he lost many of the English skills that he had come with because the children spoke a lot of Spanish.”
Dr. Gonzales says this experience convinced her mother that she and her brother would not excel in their communication skills if they stayed at Palomares. Señora Garcia insisted that her children be admitted to Lincoln. When Dr. Gonzales started kindergarten, special permission for her and her brother to attend Lincoln was granted. The rare opportunity gave Dr. Gonzales the chance to excel as a minority and opened the door to her future.
She fondly recalls her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Rhea Patterson,” Dr. Gonzales recalls. “Oh my goodness, what a lovely teacher, and how she loved me at Lincoln School.”
Dr. Gonzales, then only 7, decided then that she wanted to be just like Mrs. Patterson, “a teacher who loved teaching and who loved children — because she loved us so much — and who praised children. I could see her, and I could see myself.”
Upon completing her education at Lincoln, Dr. Gonzales enrolled in 1946 as a freshman at Bonita High School. BHS then stood where Damien High School now exists; all high school students from the San Dimas, La Verne and La Verne Heights areas were at last bound under the same school without segregation. But the effects of segregated education had taken its toll on many incoming students. The results were clear.
“As I remember, the dropout rate at that time was considerably more because the [Mexican] students weren’t used to going to school with Anglos,” recalls Dr. Gonzales. She succeeded, she says, because of her advantage as a fluent Spanish-English speaking student and because she opted to become involved in extracurricular activities.
The many achievements on her BHS resumé included Spanish Club president, band majorette, cheer squad member and student government representative. She was supported greatly by her mother; her father, however, did not feel the same.
“I think my dad never had an appreciation for school, and I think part of that had to do with the fact that he only finished up to the third grade,” she admits. “He couldn’t understand why I always needed to be at school until a certain time.”
Graduating from Bonita in 1950, Dr. Gonzales pursued her childhood goal of teaching and enrolled at Whittier College. After one semester at Whittier, she transferred to Mt. San Antonio College, where she met her husband Ruben.
The couple wed during their last year at Mt. SAC. Between graduating in spring 1952 and beginning at La Verne College in the fall, first daughter Kathleen was born. Aside from her commitments to child care and family, the Gonzaleses graduated from LVC in 1954. They also had their first son, Phillip, that year.
“La Verne College was very warm and very accepting during the two years I was there,”says Dr. Gonzales. “It was small, and it was very family-oriented.”
It was this type of support that reassured Dr. Gonzales, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in hand, that she was ready to be a teacher like Mrs. Patterson. Thus, she began her life as Mrs. Gonzales to the first graders of Roynon. One of the first Hispanic instructors in the district, Dr. Gonzales remained at Roynon for about seven years.
Karen Huigens, one of the first graders in that classroom, remembers the instructor. “She was a wonderful teacher,” recounts Huigens, who is now also a kindergarten teacher at Roynon. “She was always telling us how great we were, and she made us feel like we were the greatest kids in the world.”
Dr. Gonzales eventually took this energy to San Dimas, where she taught first, second and third grades at Eckstrand Elementary School within an eight-year period.
During her career at Roynon and Eckstrand, Dr. Gonzales gave birth to two more children. Laura, her second daughter, was born in 1962, and Mauricio was born in 1964. She devoted much time to the educational success of her own children, mirroring her mother’s efforts.
Following her career at Eckstrand, Dr. Gonzales transferred to Grace Miller Elementary School to teach kindergartners, first, second and third graders. She remained at Grace Miller for nearly 17 years until her husband was offered a job opportunity in Imperial County, near the California-Mexico border.
Ruben, who also attained a bachelor’s degree in education, was offered a position as superintendent of the Imperial County School District. The move meant that Dr. Gonzales, who at the time was just short of completing 30 years in education, would not finish her career in BUSD. “I have always been taught that wherever your husband goes, you go,” states Dr. Gonzales. “And so I went.” Though she and Ruben were many miles away, the couple returned to their La Verne home nearly every weekend.
Dr. Gonzales continued teaching, this time as a reading/ resource teacher for El Centro city schools. She completed her teaching career during the couple’s six-year stay in that area.
Since then, Dr. Gonzales has achieved far more than originally anticipated. She earned a master’s degree in education from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1969, and recalls the date as one of the most touching memories in her career.
“My father had never gone to any of my graduations-eighth grade, high school, community college and college-and this time he was there.
“My mother said for the first time in my life, she saw my dad be so proud of me,” she says. “And he was bragging to this man because I was in the select group to get my degree.”
The moment was a blessing, but Dr. Gonzales did not stop there. Her professors told her in a meeting that she was “Ph.D. material,” she says.
Therefore, after years of contemplation on their advice, she applied to the doctoral program at the Claremont Colleges, where she earned a doctoral degree in language arts development in 1987.
“After the graduation, my mother came up to me and said, ‘Thank God that there are no more degrees’,” she laughs.
Now retired as a teacher, it is obvious that Dr. Gonzales’ calling has yet to be ignored. The Gonzaleses have never left their roots — the city of La Verne — and still reside in the house they purchased at the start of their marriage.
Dr. Gonzales has become more than just a successful teacher, mother and role model. For example, while teaching at Roynon in 1979, she authored “Creative Writing: An Author Center for Children” to give teachers strategies toward encouraging future writers. She is also included in the city’s 1989 history book, “La Verne, The Story of the People Who Made a Difference.”
In 1997, she was awarded the Delta Kappa Gamma, Beta Mu Chapter (Women Educator’s Society International) “Women in History” award for her commitment to service, education and leadership. She has served as a guest speaker at several school campuses, and has received accolades about her impact on student audiences. Currently, Dr. Gonzales mentors students at Lone Hill and Ramona Middle Schools.
She is also active in the Education Department at her college alma mater, now the University of La Verne. Dr. Peggy Redman, director of teacher education, has put Dr. Gonzales in the field as a supervisor of student-teachers. She also regularly serves as a liaison between student-teachers and culturally diverse families.
Reflecting on her greatest memories, Dr. Gonzales says that seeing former student Huigens as a teacher and then teaching together with her in 1989 was remarkable. “I taught her in first grade, and to have her be a staff member for the district I was working in was just a wonderful dream.”
She confesses that her greatest push is “to continue to give back to the community and share in education with students.
“I think the key is working with parents and encouraging parents to be a part of education,” she says.
As for her ability to break away from societal barriers, Dr. Gonzales explains it as only a gift. She has stayed in education because she can “do that stuff, and it works.”
But the success also requires character and strength. As Huigens admits, “She is one my favorite people, more than just a favorite teacher. I appreciate her leadership, and I know she didn’t have every advantage that I had.
“But you sure would never know it.”
Tips From a Veteran
1. Love children.
2. Love to teach.
3. Be prepared and motivated to work hard.
4. Be creative.
5. Be curious.
6. Enjoy working with parents.
7. Enjoy community involvement.
8. Continue to be inspired to learn new things.
9. Make your life as a teacher be a joy.
10. Share your knowledge.
— Dr. Dolores Gonzales