“If any place was a marriage market, the Mexican Village was it. Who’s worrying about salary when you’re about to become the wife of a future admiral? Coronado! That’s Coronado!”
IT HAD BEEN A WARM SPRING THAT YEAR. LIFE WAS MINISKIRTS, TWIGGY, BEATLES. BEACH BOYS. HARBINGERS OF A MORE RELAXED MORALITY. EVEN ON PATRICIAN CORONADO. BIKINIS, THE SHOCKING FASHION STATEMENT OF THE SUMMER OF *66 HAD ALREADY APPEARED ON CENTRAL BEACH. SUMMER PROMISED TO BE SUNNY, SANDY, SEXY, DECEPTIVELY CALM.
Carlita McLaren Foss - this story she has often told that made me so curious about “the famous Coronado recall”
The phone rings on C Avenue. Carlita McLaren Foss picks up her new baby in one hand, the phone in the other.
“Carlita?” says a voice.
Jack Lewis: "I’m not going to back down. I won’t change my vote because of you.”
“We are trying to mediate an end to this recall of the school board. It is going too far.”
“Well, you have been involved in collecting signatures. We think you should pull out. And encourage your friend Jan and others to as well. You’ve got your, ah, children to think of. Your oldest...what’s his name? It would hurt him so much if he were to somehow find out he had been born, uh, out of wedlock. Think about pulling out, Carlita. We’re all just wanting the best for your children, all the children.”
Levi Muncy - "our favorite principal at Central Elementary"
Carlita lets the phone down gently. She carries the baby to the settee. Outside, “Johnny,” her oldest boy, plays on his bike, putting back the RECALL flags he flies on his ride to school every day. “Johnny,” she says intimately, “come here. There’s something I’ll have to tell you. Before they do.”
School board members Johnson, Gray, Smith, Cohen, Lewis
“I’ll never forgive them for that,” says Carlita today, 29 years later. “I told my son about it before they could — it devastated him—and then carried right on fighting those bastards for the recall. That’s when it became personal. They rang my friend Jan too. Threatened to tell her husband whose baby her son really was. She’d become pregnant from an affair just before she met her husband. It was too much for her. She pulled out of the fight.”
Local headlines. This, Smith says, is just what the Coronado Journal’s editor wanted
Carlita wasn’t the only one getting phone calls. Helen Smith, one of the school board members being recalled, says the whole affair was a harrowing experience and a personal torment. “It was the venom that astonished me. I had two kids in high school. They had to live with it. And my phone just kept ringing. I had so many obscenities screamed at me over the phone I had to get a police whistle to blast down the line whenever it rang.”
Helen Smith: “The school administration was not used to being questioned, and they did not like it”
The experience seemed to hit all sides. A local dentist, Martin Wicarius, was told that if he continued to support the recall, his “affair with his secretary up in Big Bear” would be made public. “I never had an affair,” he says today. “So I went right on anyway.”
“Very good friends of mine,” says realtor Jack Lewis, “said, ‘If you come out for this recall, we’re not going to talk to you anymore.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to back down. I won’t change my vote because of you.’ ”
Polly and Don Valliere: “A big issue [for teachers] was intrusion into the classroom by board members"
The owner of the local market, who also supported the recall, got used to anonymous sign writers daubing “Commie” across his display window. “My husband was a prisoner of war,” says his widow, begging not to be named. “And he has a Distinguished Service Cross for bravery. And he got letters accusing him of being a Communist! And the telephone calls! The things that they said about it, it was dreadful!”
John Elwell: "My feeling overall is that whoever was behind the recall, that was an extreme remedy"
“I got a phone call saying that my days riding nude on a horse in a circus would be over when this was finished,” says Polly Valliere, whose husband, Don, was a Coronado teacher for 29 years. “You know it was just crazy, things like that. I have no idea who that was. And I never had ridden nude in a circus.”
A down and dirty fight? In genteel Coronado? Why had this prosperous, well-rooted community turned on itself, like some malcontent scorpion?
Carlita is now my wife. Ours is a second marriage for her. But it was this story she has often told that made me so curious about “the famous Coronado recall.” I start asking around town.
“No, no, no! I don’t even want to think about it.” The lady who used to own the bookshop recoils in horror. “ I had the admiral’s wife here working for me at the time. She was on the other side. I just want to forget the whole thing.”
“I hate to see you do this,” says the widow of the grocery store owner. “It was a dreadful time for everybody in the community, and 1 would never take sides in anything like that again as long as I lived. What started out as just a kind of political thing turned into a community disaster! I would just as soon forget the whole thing. I have people who were friends who still don’t talk to me.”
It was a simple recall movement of three school board members. But it was also the nearest thing to civil war that Coronado has come to. It made the bridge controversy look like a lovers’ spat. The recall of’66 made the L.A. Times. CBS news. Newsweek. But above all, here, it made enemies of neighbors and friends, from that day to this, almost 30 years later.
“Actually, I was just a young mother. I had never even thought about the school board,” Carlita says, “until people started saying, ‘They’re trying to take away the best teachers. The superintendent has resigned. Dr. Muncy,
our favorite principal at Central Elementary School, is resigning. They’re taking books out of the school library.’ So I went to a meeting, and that did it. The school board up there on stage was so aloof. We weren’t good enough for them to answer our questions.
“For many of us, it was the first time we’d bothered to go. I saw faces that I only saw at Little League or Napolitano’s ice cream shop or Anderson’s Bakery. But we were worried about our kids. Our teachers disappearing, our superintendent going...our schools seemed to be falling apart. And all we could get from the school board people on the stage was, ‘I don’t feel I have to answer that.’ And, ‘Next.’ Sitting in the crowd, you could feel the anger rising. That’s when I decided to join the recall. I just knew these people were somehow wrecking the harmony of the island, and causing us to lose our best teachers, and maybe taking away our freedom of choice as to what our kids could read. That was frightening.”
Of course, the seeds of the battle were sown in the times. The ’60s and all its generational bust-out of values and raging hormones and Lucy in the Sky drug highs, and liberal ideas of War on Poverty and Civil Rights and Ban the Bomb and Anti-War and Save the Earth and long hair and bell-bottoms and sexual revolutions and crazy-painted VW vans, and “families” in communes with shared values, bodies, and garden patches, and the start of gay pride and the start of the protests against Vietnam, and, not least, the start of the idea of “playway” approaches to teaching, anything to kick life into what some saw as a sterile education process.
Where Fortress Coronado — 65 percent military families — managed to keep out all the other things, education came in with new ideas like a sort of pied piper to lead the children into the
world armed only with mushy values and undemanding ’60s standards of education — peace, love, democracy, not much math, and no failing grades, no real-world ambition, and kick out all those boring regimented programs they used to call “basic education.”
At any rate, that’s how board member Helen Smith saw it. And Rear Admiral Dwight Johnson and Elizabeth Gray. The three were Navy: Smith a commander’s wife, Gray a rear admiral’s wife. It was Smith and Johnson’s election to the school board in July 1965 that made possible a strict, authoritarian majority of three on the five-person board. Realtor Jack Lewis and storeowner Ben Cohen knew they were about to be beaten up, both ideologically and verbally, when the troika arrived to announce the New Order.
Helen Smith says it was Superintendent Deke Schaeffer’s sudden resignation that started the troubles. “In Deke we lost one of the greatest superintendents who ever walked. As my husband says, life in Coronado changed because his wife — who is still with us, I see her in church every Sunday — got cancer. And he — boom!— decided to quit and take her around the world. His assistant was a man named Charley James. He left us Charley. Deke said, ‘Keep Charley. He’s a good superintendent.’ ”
Charley James would be among those who hit a brick wall when it came to working with the new board. Within six months he would be gone. Along with half a dozen teachers.
But there were internal tensions too, between the group of three led by Admiral Johnson, and the other two, Ben Cohen and Jack Lewis.
“We started to work, first of the year,” says Mrs. Smith, “with our little superintendent [James]. But Admiral Johnson and Ben Cohen, from the minute we got together, were at each other’s throats. Ben was the son-in-law of a rich man, and he ran what was then the big Coronado department store. Admiral Johnson had been retired because he had rheumatoid arthritis. He was very badly crippled and in constant pain. It made him a little...impatient.
Dwight Johnson had absolute contempt for Ben. And Cohen, who didn t like the Navy to begin with, because they always had a sense of superiority, he thought—he couldn’t stand Admiral Johnson. So this became a friction between these two.”
Ben Cohen declined to be interviewed for this story, but Mrs. Smith admits the admiral was “easy to antagonize. Dwight was in pain all the time. He could be overbearing. And Charley James was very nervous with him. We didn’t have happy board meetings. In fact, we were getting along very badly.
“There had always been the division between the residents and Orange Avenue [merchants]. Admiral Johnson had led the fight to stop the bridge. Ben was a very prominent member of the Rotary Club. The Rotary Club was a very powerful organization in town. He and Jack Lewis were propagandizing these things about how we were wrecking the schools and we didn’t want them to have any money, any federal aid.”
Cohen wasn’t alone in his reservations about the brilliant but acerbic admiral. Teachers, too, had dreaded the election of Smith and Johnson, according to reporter Harold Keen, writing in San Diego Magazine at the time. “The day after the election,” Keen quotes one anonymous pedagogue, “at least six teachers said openly in the faculty lounge this was the worst thing that happened to the schools, and they’d have to be recalled.... [T]hey knew too much about us, and because they’re two housewives and a retired Navy officer, they’ll have too much time to devote to their jobs.”
What was there to be afraid of?
Even before their election, Smith and Johnson had certainly been regulars at board meetings, constantly questioning administrators’ decisions, constantly concerned at the lack of cojones of the old board in the face of teacher power. They saw the board as toothless, a rubber stamp for the teachers. They were going to make sure that when they got into power, the school board would be a force teachers should reckon with.
“The school administration was not used to being questioned, and they did not like it,” says Mrs. Smith, still the fighter, 30 years after the events she says changed her life. “There’s a very curious, carefully nurtured misunderstanding in this country. School boards are governing boards. And they hire a superintendent to take care— it’s like a ship getting an executive officer. But actually, in schools of education, where these men are trained, they are taught how to preempt the power of a school board. So they make up all the agendas, they decide what’s going to happen, and then they just come to you for approval. A cute trick they have is when something is absolutely essential, they will postpone it and postpone it and postpone it until it gets to a critical state, and then they can say, ‘You pass this or the building will fall down.’ ”
The issue of who runs the schools was the crux. And it came up again and again. “It was a very interesting time politically,” Smith says. “In 1964 the Winton Act was passed. This act gave teachers the right to arbitrate. Previous to that, they had no unions and no right to arbitrate. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA, part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty program] was passed by the Congress. Its intent was to bring some federal help to poor sections of the South.”
But, says Mrs. Smith, schools all around the country began to find out about this lucrative new source of extra funding, including Coronado. “This wasn’t the Deep South or some ghetto, but all you had to do was prove that you had students who were not achieving up to their potential and that with some help they would do so,” she says. “On this basis, James was hoping to get $251,000.
“That was the big bone of contention. Whether or not we were going to approve of the schools’ borrowing this huge sum of money designed for poor schools in the Deep South.”
It was not, Smith contends, designed for country club Coronado. According to Superintendent Charley James, in 1955, “Ninety-two percent of [Coronado High School’s] graduating class were admitted to colleges, with 65 percent of that number in four-year colleges and universities, and the remainder in junior colleges.” Among the top in the nation.
Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Gray, and the admiral wanted to know why, if the schools were doing so well, they needed all this additional cash. “Show us some figures,” they said. After months of delay, James’s curriculum director, Marvin Bensley, produced figures showing nearly one-third of the 4000-student population needed remedial work, despite the glowing figures.
“ESEA would, if granted, give the school a great deal of money,” says Mrs. Smith today. “However, as any nuthead knows, when you get federal money coming in, you get federal control.” “I am both in principle and practice opposed to anything that limits or tends to reduce local control of our schools,” agreed Admiral Johnson at the time. “Federal aid to our educational agencies is fraught with such dangers.”
The way Smith sees it, this move started a process of the dumbing-down of Coronado and other schools subject to the influence of Washington. “It was really hysterically funny. They [federal authorities] had these people going from one school to another to sell some new program that they wanted us to take into our school. They had a genius for discovering the obvious. It was just unbelievable. One of the things they came up with was cross-age teaching. You got a kid from the sixth grade to go down and work with one in the second grade. This, of course, had been going on since the one-room schoolhouse, since time began. That scheme was being heavily funded by the federal government. Somebody else had come in and written a program about ‘the decision-making value of jumping rope.’ Then they had another program teaching children how to climb trees. They didn’t let up. They kept coming and coming and coming.”
And costing and costing. Smith says.
Smith says the creation of a strong teachers’ union (“In 1972 in San Francisco they said, ‘We are going to be the most powerful union in the history of the world’ ”) and a Department of Education under President Carter has made all those 1966 nightmares come true. “They have intruded on everything in the school. And this to me is absolutely the biggest tragedy of the time. They simply are dumbing-down and dumbing-down and refusing to teach the children to read. We are turning out illiterates. To me this is real child abuse.”
Smith says all she’s ever fought for was what the National Commission on Excellence in Education has recommended: a return to basics. “English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science, as well as more homework, a longer school day and school year, stricter discipline, more challenging curricula, and better textbooks — educational basics and an end to pedagogical fads and experimentation.”
“We were accused,” said Superintendent James, of padding our figures on the remedial training requirements in order to qualify for the federal aid, because some board members said we couldn’t qualify as a low-income district.”
The board eventually approved the application four to one. But only after a five-month bruising battle. How bad had it been? Curriculum director Bensley resigned right after, alleging “verbal abuse.” His departure started a cascade of resignations: Carroll Williams, a vice principal; Dr. Levi Muncy, elementary school principal; Everett McGlothlin and Robert Oliver, high school vice principals, and even the schools’ chief himself, Charley James (citing differences in “educational philosophy”).
Bensley, still a resident of Coronado, says he had been battered by the board for months. “The board was rude to anyone who tried to speak at board meetings,” he says. “They were rude to citizens, to employees, to everyone. I felt they were obnoxious. So I just wanted out.”
“SCHOOL OFFICIALS UNDER ATTACK,” trumpeted the Coronado Journal on January 13,1966. “FULL STORY OF SCHOOL ROW!” it blasted January 20. “The school board row over acceptance of $251,000 federal aid money, and the resignation of Curriculum Director Marvin Bensley is the most serious matter that has come before the Coronado schools in many years.... We agree with Marvin Bensley...that you cannot correct anything by the kind of talk and actions that have gone on at recent board meetings.”
When Bensley was asked by the Journal what the solution was, he was grim-faced. “The general public had better take more interest in what’s going on at school board meetings,” he said.
By the time Charley James resigned as school chief in early February of 1966 (“JAMES RESIGNS AS SCHOOL CHIEF! THIRD OFFICIAL TO QUIT IN EDUCATION TURMOIL”), Coronado was starting to sit up.
“Today, and since last July,” wrote G.K. Williams, the Journal's editor, “things have been happening that could, if they continue, threaten the excellence of our schools. Many of those things have been recorded in these pages, and more are chronicled today, including the incredible police-state overtones used for the first time in this city.”
“Ha!” says Helen Smith. This, she says, is just what the Coronado Journal’s editor wanted. “Mr. Williams was, if not an outright communist, he w, an extreme leftist,” she says, straight-faced. “He had been a kind of Hollywood hanger-on, picking up odd jobs here and there in Hollywood. He had been sent down here because...this was a Navy town. His assignment was to cause friction. He was looking for brouhaha when he came. Admiral Stanley did successfully get rid of his Russian fellow-communist partner on the paper. So he then found the project he was looking for in the school board.” Mrs. Smith produces a black photocopy of a mysterious page titled “Report on Investigation of George K. Williams: September 25,1956.” It goes by dates: 13 Nov. ’43, People’s Daily World (advertisement), “Practical Journalism, 8-week course hel at the Embassy Auditorium, L.A.; Williams was on the staff of the People’s Educational Center (this was formerly the L.A. Workers School, a communist-sponsored group). He was associated in the journalism course with Phil Connolly, John Cohee, Dr. Frank Sperling, Bill Oliver, all of whom have been associated with the Communist Party and its activities in California for several years.
And “20 Aug. ’45, People’s Daily World; reported as on this executive council of the Hollywood Writers’ Mobilization, which later became influenced by the Communist Party.”
Mrs. Smith doesn’t indicate how she came by this documem or who actually compiled it. G.K. Williams is no longer around tc defend himself. But the fears and paranoia of the era come eerily back with this document.
Don Valliere taught at Coronado High School from 1959 to 1988. “Well, of course I’m more liberal than some, but we got some board members who I would term extremely radical board members — right wing. They fired a number of our administrators, to begin with. Or tried to force some of them out, and some of them did leave. The superintendent left.”
Polly (Don’s wife): “It doesn’t seem as crazy today as it did then, that the board wanted to — again — make all the children pray aloud in school.”
Don: “Now, honey, this is on tape, so you don’t go making statements unless you’re sure.”
Polly: "That’s all right. I’m positive. I mean, they do that all the time.”
Don: “A big issue [for teachers] was intrusion into the classroom by board members without any forewarning or permission from our boss, the superintendent. They were going behind his back. No ‘Might we visit and see what you’re teaching?’ They would just suddenly appear. To have somebody pop in and then be extremely critical of your teaching methods-.people didn’t appreciate it. You know, some of us were especially well qualified. And I found out that since I was one of the leaders opposed to [the board], my records were actually taken from the school. They went through some of our records! Searched my personal files to see if they could find anything to bandy us about with. And we got threatening telephone calls, harassing telephone calls.”
Polly: “And we weren’t doing anything wrong.”
Don: “I don’t think we had, quote, “liberal policies” any more than anybody else, because this is a pretty conservative place. This was a center of the John Birch Society at one time.”
Indeed, if you believe Thomas W. Braden, the state board of education president in 1966, Coronado was one of ten areas where symptoms of John Birch Society involvement in education had reached “poisonous proportions.”
“In these,” the Oceanside publisher said, “the lunatic paranoids succeeded in scaring the average citizen into recalling perfectly fine school board members and [/or] pressuring superintendents, principals and teachers right out of the community.”
Polly Valliere says book censorship was starting here. “It was awful,” she says. “I don’t even know what the books were they were trying to take out. But they did want to form a committee and come in. And I recall the librarian, Mrs. Bruce, saying that they really wanted to come in and clear out everything that they considered unacceptable for children to read. It was the school library. It was that sort of thing that was frightening.”
At the time, Helen Smith vigorously denied the charge. “There is a pressure throughout the county to take controls away from local school boards,” she told Harold Keen. “Teachers and administrators have presented themselves as infallibles. They look sneeringly on ‘laymen’ who are ‘trying to tell us how to run the schools.’ Eventually the people will have absolutely nothing to say about it. The professionals will take over and we’ll be absolutely helpless.
“This is not a John Birch Society idea. They’re trying to tag us with the John Birch label. But we’re acting in the very opposite manner of Birchers. In other districts, the Birchers are influencing schools to restrict the educational process, such as throwing out materials on the United Nations. The local John Birch coordinator demanded that we not participate in the mock U.N. at State College. Not only did Coronado High School participate, but the children of Mrs. Gray and Admiral Johnson were among those attending. The entire board voted unanimously against a John Birch Society request that we close our high school auditorium to a speaker they suspected as not being strongly anti-communist. We’re described as reactionaries who, if not John Birchers, at least think like them. But we claim we’re progressives who are challenging the status quo.
But Don Valliere still isn’t convinced. “Although I don’t know if they were active members of the John Birch Society, they espoused many of the same type of thoughts. Actually, I don’t think it was much different than it is right now. I think you have the Rush Limbaugh on the one side and the people who can’t stand him on the other, and that’s sort of the way it was here, in a minor warfare state. You didn’t see the militants we have now, like the people that blew up the building in Oklahoma City. Politically now we’re seeing extremes on both sides; usually they were a lot more moderate then, but they were starting down that road.”
It may have been the resignation of Levi Muncy, Central Elementary School principal, a big, cuddly Oklahoman and one of the most beloved teachers in the Coronado system, that stirred citizens into action. “When I heard Muncy had resigned,” says Carlita, “I knew something was up.”
On February 14, the Coronado Teachers’ Association called a meeting of all 165 members and, with 10 abstaining, decided to put 18 questions to the board. February 28, Joan Stuart, a legal secretary, called a meeting of parents at the Coronado Masonic Hall after mounting a one-woman telephone campaign. She led a group of 100 parents with her own list of questions. “First, what are the reasons for the current exodus of our school administrators? Second, what are the differences in philosophies between the board and the administration?”
The board acceded to demands for an open meeting to answer the questions, set for March 17, 7:30 p.m. It was a raucous affair, with parents and board members trading answers and insults, and nobody was satisfied. Three days later, Mrs. Stuart called a meeting in the high school hall and, with her hundred-parent army around her, announced a campaign to recall Helen Smith, Admiral Johnson, and Elizabeth Gray. The reasons? “First — The trustees bypassed school administrators.... Second — The trustees ignored...recommendations of administrators and teachers. Third — The trustees caused multiple resignations of school administrators....” But the subtext running through the complaint: for just being so danged objectionable all around.
“They’re not thinking,”
Mrs. Smith told reporters at the time. “This town is entirely too educational and too intelligent to allow anything like this to happen.” But the teachers showed just how serious they were. They voted 106 to 16 against the policies of the board. And soon after that, Aline Wittenkeller, an engineer’s wife in town, helped secure a storefront on Orange Avenue in which to base the recall campaign and to send out volunteers to collect the required 1200 signatures, 20 percent of the town’s 6000 voters.
Then a respected local dentist, Martin Wicarius, agreed to become chairman of Sounds, the Citizens for Sound Schools Committee. He immediately sent out a letter to every Coronado mailbox.
Our school system has received a black mark throughout the state. New teachers are told not to come to Coronado.
Six out of ten administrators are out or leaving. More than 75 percent of the teachers are in disagreement with the board. Teaching is affected. Mutual respect between the board, the schools and the community is nonexistent. We are...alarmed at the methods which have been used to achieve the chaos we see around us.
“This was a special time,” says Carlita. “There was the storefront on Orange. The Wittenkellers sent us out like army scouts, knocking on doors, persuading people to sign, feeling, for the first time maybe, that we were doing something important for the good of the community. Like the Southern Freedom Riders. It was the first time JFK’s ‘Ask not...’ inaugural speech really meant something. Things were happening! There was a camaraderie. We were on the cutting edge of a new era.
“And the class thing? Sure. It was a class thing. I went around to all the senior enlisted quarters housing saying, ‘These admirals’ wives are trying to tell the teachers what to teach. They’re going to take away our best teachers. They’re trying to take books out of the library. Sign here.’ I was aggressive. This meant something. Coronado wasn’t just a dinky tourist destination anymore. It was at the vanguard of a fight against John Birchers and their fellow travelers. That’s how I saw it. I got plenty of mostly older people shouting, ‘Get off my land! I want no part of this communist thing!’ But it was worth it.”
Even the teachers started getting out and stumping. “We were under a lot of fire because we went out to get votes,” says Don Valliere. “We carried petitions, the football coach and myself. We didn’t like doing that, but we did it because it was a matter of self-preservation. A doctor friend of mine called me and told me that [someone] had taken my personal records from the school, which is against the law, and was trying to go through them to see if they could find anything disparaging to write or say about me and that they had also done it with other people. He said ‘they’ were some of the board members who were recalled. Yes, they did that personally.”
So how serious was it? Valliere, a jovial man, isn’t laughing anymore.
“Some of us remember pretty well. I remember coming home and telling my children, ‘Well, if we lose the recall, we’re going to have to leave.’ It would have been unbearable for those teachers of us who opposed this group on the school board.”
“It was awful,” says Polly Valliere. “Our children — all five of them have graduated from college now — the four older ones all remember it very vividly, because we had a lovely home here, and we’d moved here from Kansas, and I said, ‘I wantyou to know that you may be getting criticism from people, and this may happen.’ It was a scary time, because we knew that we probably would have to leave.”
But were most teachers sticking their necks out? “The majority of the teachers were against the school board,” says Don. “Some of them, however, didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to speak their mind out loud, and there was a smaller group who were zealots and supported the board strongly. But the majority of the teachers favored recalling them. [The board was] extremely aggressive. They wanted to replace administrators without really assigning a just reason or cause. If the teachers tried to defend them, they were asked not to speak or to be quiet. It was just total dictatorship.
“The teachers really were not an aggressive group of people at that time. We were pretty benign. But I think so many things were disrupting the entire school system that we felt like our whole education system was being threatened. The majority of us did.
“I expect Helen Smith and those people and Admiral Johnson, deceased, would probably feel we were flexing our muscles, but the teachers were really very quiet till they saw what they thought was a very threatening force, and still, I didn’t feel secure. I think [the board) thought they would be like Hitler marching through the Rhineland, absolutely no opposition whatsoever. They were amazed when they finally [lost].”
High school principal Wilfred Seaman had another mission. “The most vivid thing I remember is how I moved heaven and earth to stay out of any part of it. I was the principal, and I knew that if I really got involved, there could well be a division in our faculty, and I chose not to do that. I was talked to, asked questions all the time, but I was as noncommittal as I possibly could [be]. As far as the recall is concerned, it was just a very foolish thing by some, in my mind, some very unthinking people.
“What was the issue? To be perfectly honest to you, I cannot tell you exactly what they wanted. To me the board was a very productive board; there were some who had little grievances here and there.
“I had a school to run. I had youngsters to keep moving. And I was not going to allow myself to get entangled. A whole lot of us said, ‘Don’t do this. It’s going to divide the community, and it’s going to divide it for a period of time.’ And it did.”
Things were getting so hot that Police Chief Buster Adams got a request for two armed policemen to be at the school board meeting with teachers at the high school auditorium, with a squad car continuously circling the hall. The issue was a particularly tough one: whether the school board would rehire Everett McGlothlin, the aggressive, young, popular high school vice principal who also happened to be president of the Coronado Teachers’ Association. The board had gone against the superintendent and McGlothlin’s immediate boss. Dr. Muncy, and refused to rehire McGlothlin, because they felt he was underqualified. At the meeting, board chair Elizabeth Gray conceded they may have been hasty but sternly invited those who insisted on cheering every time the name McGlothlin came up to leave forthwith. None did.
“THE INSIDE STORY OF THE SCHOOL BOARD: THE STORY THE JOURNAL REFUSED TO PRINT!” On March 28, the counteroffensive began. This eight-page blast from the Committee Against Recall arrived in everyone’s mailbox. “Here is the story Mr. G.K. Williams refused to print. Mr. G.K. Williams refused to accept this story even as a PAID AD! IS THE JOURNAL AFRAID TO PRINT THE TRUTH?
“Who runs the schools?” ran the copy inside, written mostly by Helen Smith. “This is the issue. MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT! [Is it] you, the taxpayers through your elected representatives [the board] or paid professionals? It is the old situation of union fighting management for control. The battle is not peculiar to Coronado. It is being fought all over the United States.”
There was irony, of course. The people’s representatives facing ouster by “the people” for overzealousness in “taking back” control of the schools for “the people.”
“Who has the right to decide the content and quality of the education of your children? Today according to law, you do. Unless you see the issue clearly and fight with everything you’ve got, tomorrow you may be spending your hard-earned tax dollars to support schools over which you have no control. Whatever evils or deficiencies develop, you will be helpless to correct them.”
Perhaps it was a case, not of what they had done, but of how they had done it. And who their friends were, helping them do it.
There’s a knock on the door on C Avenue. A young mother with one kid in diapers and five others around her legs opens the door to two burly men in polyester suits.
“Carlita McLaren Foss?”
The first man flashes a leather wallet. “FBI. We’ve come to check reports you may have associations with the Communist Party of America.”
“But I’m a Catholic. You see the crucifix on the wall? These kids? How could I be a Communist if I’m a Catholic?”
There’s a long silence. Her eyes are large. She looks around to see if neighbors are watching. She thanks God the car, at least, doesn’t have “FBI” plastered all over it.
The FBI men look a little abashed but come in anyway and accept an invitation to an iced tea. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but we have to follow up these reports whenever they come in.”
Throughout April and May, a daily ritual goes on in homes and at school. The pro-recallers get red flags with big letters shouting RECALL from the headquarters storefront at 936 Orange and ride to school with the flags waving from their handlebars. They park their bikes at school. By the time they emerge to go home in the afternoon, the flags are gone. They return to headquarters to pick up more flags for the next morning.
The anti-recallers simply fly American flags on their car antennas. “They used to drive around town like they were the great patriots and we were the communists,” says realtor Jack Lewis, one of the two dissenting minority members of the board.
The end, when it came, was decisive but anticlimactic. “RECALL WINS IN CORONADO,” tooted the San Diego Union on Wednesday morning, June 29, 1966. “SCHOOL RECALL MARGIN LARGEST IN COUNTY! (Coronado) — Voters here yesterday recalled the president and two trustees of the Coronado Unified School District. Removed were Mrs. Elizabeth Gray, 60, president; Rear Admiral Dwight Johnson, USN, ret., 51, and Mrs. Helen V. Smith, 52. They were replaced by Dr. James Mushovic, 41 a physician; Dr. Gerald Easton, 35, an optometrist; and Ronald Eves, 48, a civil service employee at North Island Air Station.”
“I couldn’t believe we’d won,” says Carlita. “It had seemed such a David-and-Goliath battle. They had been the establishment, high society, the kind of rich and powerful Mafia of Coronado. But it showed them all those chiefs’ wives and little people’ weren’t going to be pushed around after all. Even though they never had been socially acceptable in Coronado and felt like second-class citizens here. This was their chance to say, ‘Hey! Yoo-hoo! We might not come to your cocktail parties, but you’d better not forget us!”
Gray, Smith, and Johnson sent a letter of thanks to supporters.
July 25, 1966.
Now that the dust has settled somewhat following our recent recall election, we want you to know how very grateful we are for your support and help.... While we have had a setback, we hope you feel as we do that we can all be proud of what we have been able to accomplish so far.... We three will be playing different roles in the future.... Plans are already under way to rebuild on our present foundation. You will be hearing more of these as they are crystallized....”
But of course, the three were reeling from a stunning defeat — professional, social, and personal.
“Rejection is a very hard thing to stomach, if you’re just rejected by a single person,” says Helen Smith in her home on Alameda. “But to be rejected by a whole village where you have been living and had friends is a pretty horrifying experience. Elizabeth [Gray] and I went over to San Diego, somewhere to the county [building], and requested copies of these petitions. And it was really shattering to look down and see how many people you thought were your friends.
“The fact that they could have their separate political opinion was all right with me, but nobody ever came and asked me anything. Well, one neighbor of mine, the day that the recall started, came tearing down the alley and screamed at me, ‘Helen! Helen! It’s all over town that you’re trying to run the schools!’ Well, of course! That’s what we were elected to do! But she’s [the only one who] even spoke to me.
“Otherwise, I would go in the grocery store, and somebody would see me coming and go around another aisle, even an old friend. We, of course, got dropped from the cocktail circuit. It was a shattering experience for my husband. We had for years been in the dancing club...you know, we had done all those things that young couples do in little towns. We were suddenly just — gone! It was just incredible, the venom.
“I was up at Admiral Johnson’s widow’s place recently — she has just died — and I was over there with her family. And the admiral had saved a lot of stuff, and one of them was the most obscene letter to me about my son. There were all sorts of scandals started around town — I had become a communist. I had become a John Bircher. I had a disagreement with the minister of the church over some flower arrangement, and all of a sudden I had been ‘thrown out of the church’ by this minister.
“The husband of one of my friends was running against me, and we were in a room where there was a dance floor. And I went over to her and I said, ‘I’m so surprised that you didn’t come to ask me about this.’ And she backed away from me and she said, ‘You’ve got a lot to answer for!’ ”
But educationally speaking, did the troika of Johnson, Smith, and Gray have a point about what was really going on in Coronado’s schools?
I’m waiting in leafy Spreckels Park, outside Coronado’s public library, looking for John Elwell, a sort of principal-turned-itinerant-teacher, who was here during this Coronado-gate and whose reaction afterward was to slough off the stresses that were killing his fellow teachers (“Teachers have a higher than average cancer rate because of all the stress of everyday teaching”) and spend at least half his time surfing or meeting mad friends in Nepal or Central America. He was one of the few back then who didn’t oppose the board. He thinks the combative way the troika did things overshadowed valid criticisms they had of the Coronado school system.
“Money,” he says. “You forgot about money. It wasn’t just the ESEA $251,000. Teachers were demanding a 10 percent pay increase. And it went beyond that. What was happening in the ’60s, in the school situation, the teachers were angry, and they were going to make a move. The primary goal of the teachers was money. And the other thing was to get control, and to do that they either had to get control of the administrators or the school boards.
“In Coronado, here we had some of the poorest salaries in the county. And they say, ‘Well, after all, you live in Coronado.’ Right. And with its prices. I came here in the early ’40s, and the school system was very quiet. And as the ’60s came in, when you negotiated for salaries, it became known as ‘collective begging.’ ” We’re walking to someplace quiet to chat. Elwell is in shorts and sandals, with brown legs and blue eyes and flashing white teeth. He’s bronzed but not sun-pocked. And the guy must be pushing 60. Every day he puts on a secret unguent he makes up himself to keep the ultraviolet out. It seems, like his life, to be working. He’s disgustingly laid-back.
“The other thing is that the salary increases are tied to how much the community will allow themselves to be taxed. It’s a poor system, because Coronadans don’t want to be taxed. We need to have a better financial structure for the American schools.
“I started teaching up in the third largest district in California, San Jose Unified School District, near Stanford. Their system was a very, very high-tuned system. They had very aggressive teachers and a very aggressive teachers’ union. When I came down here, I could see this was not a high-powered system. It was very relaxed. We didn’t have any continuity in the curriculum. Nobody really was coordinating instruction, and the data that we saw was not particularly good. The top students were very good. But they had a lot of mediocre students; at least 20 percent of the kids were below average. Which is not what was being told to the school board or the public.
“And we [teachers] didn’t say anything. You don’t whistle-bloW your own supervisor if you want to survive. We did the best job we could with what we had. We worked hard.
“So the new board was elected in 1965. And the people who went in — Gray, Johnson, and Smith — had been attending school boards for quite a long time as observers. And they had noticed that there was a lot of rubber-stamping going on. And that things were just getting passed through, and no one was asking questions. Well, what happened — and probably their fault — was they asked too many questions. And they weren’t getting the right answers or they weren’t getting any answers. And of course, the example of Socrates, you ask too many questions, you get the hemlock. So one by one, as the heat came up, the first thing that was discovered was that the data on achievement was not as what was reported, kids were above average in reading, which is not ‘good,’ certainly not ‘excellent,’ like they were saying it was; and the data indicated that the district was low in math. Of course, this pulled the rug out from under the thing, and what the board did was hit the tip of the iceberg.
“It surfaced that there was some infighting among the administrators. In some of the Coronado schools there were little kingdoms set up by the principals, and they were independently operating as they saw fit. There wasn’t any straight line from K to 12 on procedures like handwriting and standards. One school didn’t know what the other school was doing.
“And then there was a question that [Superintendent James] had proposed this quarter-million-dollar government grant, federal aid. The board questioned that. They said, ‘Well, if we’re excellent, why do we need financial aid.’ [But] all the schools were grabbing financial aid.
“So this thing was starting to seethe. [Curriculum Director] Bensley, as they hammered the questions away, said he was being verbally abused. No. I think he was being pinned down. Which is the board’s responsibility. A good board should. They wanted some accountability.
“And of course I think the poor school board, they were just astounded. The remarks, and people accusing people of things, and the real issues [were] in a fog bank. Like most of education is in a fog bank. And you have another thing, that the school board is traditionally not informed and kept misinformed. This is intentional. They’re just not in the school. They don’t know. So what they do...the pipeline should be through the superintendent. And a top administrator would get the answers to them, but evidently Dr. James was giving them answers, then some of the school principals would contradict that. So it was kind of like there was sabotage going on.
“So as these things started to fall apart [for James], below him and above him, he tendered his resignation. The captain of the ship was losing control, and the ship was sinking. And Carroll Williams got out because he was told by James that he had no future in the district, and one of Muncy’s friends and colleagues got Williams’s job.
“So the recall started off with the dissension with the administrators. When the heat started being put on, they bailed out. No one has been fired. But it caused a lot of pain and animosity toward the board, which was being spread to the faculty.
“But it wasn’t just the board. It was Coronado-style money. No matter whether you’re in a poor school district or a rich school district, teachers should get the same pay. But they don’t, because the poor school district can’t hire good people. The rich school district gets the best teachers. That has not changed. Except here on Coronado we had a rich district with a poor tax base and citizens too mean to raise them. And so there’s lots of fighting about salaries. I mean, the salaries we’re talking about during the recall were just outrageous. Top [ teacher’s] salary was $11,000. Average was a little bit over $8000. [But] the school board’s hands were tied on finances. It’s tied to a local tax structure, and — bottom line here! — Coronado has never been willing to pay more for its schools through property tax raises.
“So back in ’66 the teachers asked the board for a 10 percent raise. They only got 5 percent. But I believe the bait was to make the board look bad, that they weren’t supporting the teachers. It worked. It helped bring the board down.
“Of course we always had lots of new teachers. We had high teacher turnover. With young teachers getting married. And this was an advantage with the salary schedule. Many of the school administrators hire young, inexperienced teachers knowing full well that they’ll get married and go to their families. They’re not necessarily best for the job. But they’re cheap.
“Know the Mexican Village?” There’s a twinkle in his eye. The Mexican Village, he says, was always mentioned to young, pretty, out-of-state prospective teachers — most teachers were female then — along with the indication that all the rich, single, handsome, young Navy officers met there every night. “If any place was a marriage market, the Mexican Village was it,” Elwell says. “Who’s worrying about salary when you’re about to become the wife of a future admiral? Coronado! That’s Coronado!”
But the first casualty, John says, is real education. “People in the recall were complaining of all their fuzzy, lovable teachers being forced to resign. But the thing is, we want results. The bottom line is not how much your kid liked your teacher. The truth was that in Coronado and across the United States, we’ve had a tradition of inflated grades. If you looked at your child’s achievement scores and then looked at his grades, there’s no correlation! Except for the highest. And especially here. If you [as a teacher] want to see trouble, send a kid home with a report loaded with a bunch of Ds and Fs. Because you’re saying that ‘my flesh and blood doesn’t make it’! And the parent will come in and say, ‘Why don’t you teach him?’ “Especially here. Do you think a teacher here would give the school board’s child or a captain’s kid a bad grade? The parents would want to hear that the school’s excellent and that you’d bring home an excellent rate card. Not a failing card. So what happens is, it’s just easier to inflate the grade and as long as they’re passing everybody. I can tell you that because I’ve been a principal, and I know what happens. It’s much easier to tell everybody everything’s okay, don’t worry about it. Then you pass the problem on to the next teacher.
“And we were getting that in ’66.1 can tell you kids were being passed along and not learning. And it was the structure of the school system that was causing that. You can’t just hire a bunch of teachers fresh out of college and almost promising them marriage at the Mexican Village, so they’re out there courting every night at the Village and dragging in the next day and expect results.
“In Scotland I saw some of my students, American students working for American oil companies over there. And the writing was just...I mean, junior high school writing, like, at a college level. And I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And the teacher said, ‘Everything is a comprehensive written essay. And it is sent for marking out of the area to someone else.’ It makes sense. So they have solved that problem. And we’re actually antiquated in some of our thinking.
“These were the troubles with Coronado. Not whether some admiral board member tongue-lashed a superintendent. Plus, you have to realize that there was a lot of conflict going on in the ’60s. Ideological stuff going on in the schools. A lot of the schools became battlegrounds for this stuff. In curriculum, and ideas, and textbooks. We had people who were condemning books. People coming to the school board saying,‘We don’t want that on the shelf.’ Even in our own public libraries, one of the most protested books in San Diego was The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. One of my favorite authors.”
“Things like the curriculum have improved tremendously since this time. Also, teacher training has really improved, and teachers’ salaries have too. My feeling overall is that whoever was behind the recall, that was an extreme remedy. They could have gone in with dialogue and polite controversy to be able to get the facts and resolve it without name-calling. But this is Coronado. The thing deteriorated into disorderly meetings, gossip, hearsay, and lies. And then the thing gets superheated. There’s simply people who got emotionally out of control. Instead of peacemakers, they were putting gasoline on the fire and enjoying it.”
We wander back out into the palm-fringed park. I can’t help thinking about all the wounded souls scattered in houses around us, still, after 30 years, flinching when they walk past certain people on the street.
John’s off to catch an evening surf. I say good-bye and make my way past the recall storefront, an insurance place now, toward Baskin-Robbins, singing to myself, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go — downtown.” A song of the turbulent ’60s.