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.