Richard Guerra, A Teacher Remembered

I often awaken on Wednesday mornings wondering what I’m going to blog about that day. Not today. Yesterday a classmate from Bisbee High School sent an email letting me know that Richard Guerra, my high school Latin teacher, passed away last week at age 89. As I high school freshman in 1958, I recognized that Mr. Guerra was smart, but I didn’t know how smart. It wasn’t until I read his obituary that I learned he graduated from high school at age fifteen and then had to lie about his age in order to get his first job at a meat-packing plant in California.

So sitting here in my family room, thinking about how to start this story, the image that came to mind was the cover on the Latin 1 text book. It featured the remains of a Roman bath. It wasn’t until decades later on a trip to Europe that I realized the scene was actually taken from a photo of architectural ruins in Bath, England. But back to Mr. Guerra and Bisbee High School.

He was a lifetime resident of Benson, Arizona, some fifty miles from Bisbee, and evidently commuted back and forth rather than living where he taught. He was in his late twenties when I first encountered him as a teacher. By then had already served in the US army for two years and earned a college degree under the GI Bill. At Bisbee High School the foreign language choices were Spanish with Miss Smith or Latin with Mr. Guerra. I chose door number two.

I don’t remember a lot of what I learned there. I can still recite, amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. And learning Latin clarified the difference between subjective and objective cases in a way no English grammar lessons ever did. I mostly remember we were obnoxious teenagers who often made fun of Mr. Guerra behind his back, but he was a good teacher.

When second year Latin came around, he could see that some of us were in over our heads, so he gave us an opportunity to do an extra-credit research paper to improve our grades. Off I went to the library where Mrs. Philippi’s collection of books included the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

If you’ve read Second Watch, you’ve already met Doug Davis, the only kid from Bisbee High School who read his way through the whole thing—every single volume. For that research paper, however, I at least cracked one of them open and there I discovered the story of Servius Tullius. He started out as a slave and ended up being one of the five kings of Rome. I’ve always been a big fan of rags to riches stories, and that one grabbed me. And that was the subject of my research paper—Servius Tullius.

I turned in the paper. When Mr. Guerra returned it, there was a red A+ in the top right hand corner of the first page. At the bottom of the last page were words that would change my life: Research worthy of a college student!

I was child number three in a family of seven kids. Neither of my older sisters had gone on to college, and the general assumption around the kitchen table on Yuma Trail was that boys went to college. Girls didn’t.

As a sophomore in high school, that was the first time anyone had ever hinted that Judy Busk might be smart enough to go to college. Mr. Guerra’s words cracked open that door for me and made me start dreaming the dream of going on to school, and I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing this if I hadn’t.

So thank you for being my teacher, Mr. Guerra, and for helping me chart my path in life. After graduating from high school, the next time I saw him was in the library at the University of Arizona when I was working on a masters degree in Library Science and he was going to Law School. After leaving teaching, he worked as a small town lawyer in his home town and then was elected to be a municipal judge for four terms in office.

He was clearly a small town boy who made good and did well in his home town. Most of his siblings are still alive, so I know I’m not the only one remembering him today. I had some teachers over the years who were eminently forgettable. Richard Guerra was NOT one of those.

18 thoughts on “Richard Guerra, A Teacher Remembered

  1. Great memories and thanks for sharing him with us. Your memory amazes me. I remember certain teachers and how they changed my life. Sadly I don’t remember most of their names. We forget how much impact one small thing can be. You lived an amazing childhood.

  2. Wish I could say the same for my second year Latin teacher. This not just an idle criticism. She became pregnant and left to have her baby and we got a substitute for the rest of the year. The sub was a much older teacher, probably retired, but was amazing in every way. I could actually look at my high school yearbook to find that Latin teacher’s name but why bother since there is nothing much memorable about her class.
    Now my history, geography, civics teacher was outstanding – Miss Henry – yes, I remember her!!

  3. The best thing I feel a teacher can do is to leave a lasting memory of their year of being your teacher. I will never forget Miss Tweeden (5th grade) for reading aloud to us every week. This encouraged me to read everyday to this day. Mr Beller (6th grade) started us in Spanish which I found so fascinating. It sounds like your teacher was able to change lives for the better and that is what I wish for all students. My prayers would be fulfilled if my grandchildren’s teacher could inspire my grandchildren and help them have confidence in themselves. I enjoyed your story very much.

  4. It’s stories like this that make me angry about the state of education today. “Teaching to the test” has replaced real learning and true education. Nearly all Boomers can remember one or more teachers who made a real impact on their lives. I’m not sure GenX and Millennials can say the same…and that’s the tragedy of today’s education. It’s time for politicians to get their noses out of teaching and let teachers get back to doing what they do best!

  5. You know, we all have/had people in our lives we wished we would have gone and said thank you for making an impression in my life. Most of the teachers I had are all gone, but I remember the ones who stood out. Thanks for this reminder.

  6. Beautiful tribute to a fine man and teacher. You never know what influence someone will have on you until it’s to late .

  7. Wonderful memories!! Didn’t know the rest of his life story….made me even prouder of him. The two years I spent in Latin helped me when I entered the UofA College of Nursing. He was an awesome teacher. Great blog Judy!!! Thank you.

  8. I had a favorite teacher, Miss Strem. I was a poor math student but Miss Strem was so excellent that in her class I started to make A’s. Went to business school, took the Federal Civil Service Test & got the job which I held for 40 years. Without the knowledge of math that she instilled in me, I never would have been able to accomplish what I did. Many thanks to Miss Strem!!

  9. Mr. Ulrich Larson was my freshman science teacher in Milwaukee. Then he was my Junior year chemistry teacher. He told us on our first day of class that we would have a 5 question pop quiz to begin each class and would have to use a slide rule to get the answers. He said that we would hate him, but some day would thank him.
    that day came with college chemistry when I breezed through while others around me were struggling with their own slide rules. Then……..Someone invented the electronic calculator. But that’s another story.

  10. It’s always a pleasure to read a tribute to a teacher.
    We never know our impact on students
    So many of us are buried without a single former student in attendance, no matter how “popular” they were
    So, thanks for this tribute
    As a retired teacher I will accept your kudos for all the rest of us

  11. Two things: first, I had an awesome Latin teacher at St. Simon Stock HS in The Bronx, NY – John Dunkle. I loved the language so much, and I loved Perry Como. Mr. Dunkle helped me write a letter to Mr. C in Latin, The only words that couldn’t be translated were Hot Diggity – the song I requested. One night, on his show, Perry said he had received a most unusual letter with a song request – and sang Hot Diggity! What an exciting moment for me! Mr. Dunkle helped me develop a love of all the romance languages and I fondly remember him to this day.
    Second thing: read your tribute to Winn Bundy. She was a great lady – and so are you. Thanks for your thoughts about her and Singing Wind!

  12. I know Mr. Guerra’s family appreciates how you honor his memory. Most of us hope to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s important to honor those who made the difference in our own. Thank you for doing so!

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