Reflecting on Uncle Pete Delacruz — a local ‘Celebrity and Saint’
By Tracy Klehn
Special to the Times
Uncle Pete had been feeling blue for the last year or so. Up until the age of 91, you could find him out cutting his own lawn, playing golf, meeting regularly with his buddies for coffee and driving with his wife of 58 years from their home in Merced to visit family in Southern California and Arizona.
Now, due to health issues he was slowing down and none too happy about it!
I thought a visit from his nephew, might cheer him up.
The last time my son Spencer and Uncle Pete saw one another in person was on Thanksgiving break of Spencer’s “Plebe” year at the United States Military Academy. Now, just a few short weeks after his graduation, mother and son were heading out on a road trip to see his beloved Uncle.
Uncle Pete and Aunt Gretch were like another set of grandparents for my kids. The same generation as their paternal grandparents and with just as much love and devotion, Pete and Gretch were both educators. Pete was a teacher and vice principal for 38 years, and Gretch, an elementary school teacher for 43. As such, they were always very engaged with our two children, coming up with creative play, reading books, playing games and even one year building a wooden reindeer together with them while they babysat over a long weekend.
It was noon when we finally turned onto their familiar shady street. We saw the screen door swing open as Aunt Gretch yelled out “Hi” and came walking down the newly installed ramp to greet us. As we embraced, we saw Uncle Pete standing in the shadows, leaning on a cane and waiting patiently for the opportunity to hug his second lieutenant.
As we sat and visited, I quickly realized that Pete, while thrilled that we were there, was still very much discouraged. He used language that communicated that he was not aware of his worth or the fact that all that he had done in his life was so valuable to people and continues to be. It was heartbreaking. I kept silently praying for him as we headed off to lunch.
After our meal, Aunt Gretch asked if we could make a quick stop so that they could vote. As we matched Pete’s pace on the sidewalk to the building towards the voter registration table, a woman and her son passed by us. Suddenly a loud voice said “Mr. Delacruz!” at which point Uncle Pete did an about-face (moving more quickly than he had all day) to see the woman who had called his name.
The woman rushed over and began talking excitedly, “Mr. Delacruz! You might not remember me but I sure do remember you. You were my middle school teacher and you instilled in me the values of honor and respect and dignity. I thank you Mr. Delacruz and I want to introduce you to my son. I get to pass along those same values of honor, respect and dignity that you taught to me, to him.”
While she was speaking, I noticed Uncle Pete nodding and smiling with appreciation and standing a little taller. He then said “I’d like to introduce you to my nephew. He just graduated from ANNAPOLIS!” Spencer burst out laughing, gave Uncle Pete a gentle nudge on the shoulder, pointed to the Army Commander in Chief 2018 Trophy shirt he was wearing and said “PETE! I graduated from West Point. You KNOW THAT.”
Pete chuckled to himself. A Navy guy, Pete had done his best to try and convince Spencer to accept the appointment to the Naval Academy that he had been offered. Looks like his uncle wasn’t going to stop even after Spencer graduated.
The next morning as we gathered around the breakfast table and Pete stared down his cup of morning pills, I said: “You know Pete, I can’t stop thinking about the woman we met yesterday and how she is a reminder that your life and Gretch’s life as educators are ones that continue to impact lives. Through your choice to be a teacher, you have influenced multiple generations. She cannot be the first person to tell you these types of things.”
Pete was nodding along as I was talking, and he said “You’re right.” As I was speaking, Gretch got up to retrieve a few books from the nearby shelf. She laid them out on the table and said: “This is one of Pete’s students, Charlie Mariano. He published these three books …”
Spencer and I looked with wonder through the books. Gretch pointed out a poem entitled “St. Pete” in one of the books by Mr. Mariano. The story they told me of how this poem came to be was truly a miracle.
One afternoon, Pete and Gretch decided they needed to do some spring cleaning. They had boxes of old photos from schools that they had taught at through the years that they were sorting through. That was when they heard a knock at the door. When they opened it, a gentleman was there that was writing a book about the history of Merced. It was one of Uncle Pete’s former students who was visiting him for the very first time. The fascinating thing was that the school this man was from was Galen Clark Elementary School. The school photos they were sorting that very minute! They invited him in to join them in the search. That afternoon Charlie Mariano made several personal discoveries while sitting next to his favorite teacher. He was inspired to write a beautiful poem (“St. Pete”) that he included in his book “Tio Boogie — Boxing, Music and Other stories from Merced, California.”
The discovery of that poem led to a deep conversation for the four of us about how Pete and Gretch helped with the desegregation of the schools in the community, of how painful prejudice can be, how powerful forgiveness always is, and of how weariness and burn out can beset even the best of us.
Before we left Uncle Pete and Aunt Gretch, we clutched hands around that tiny kitchen table and prayed for the community of Merced which meant so much to the Delacruz family. We prayed that the seeds that had been planted over those many years would continue to be fruitful and multiply. We also prayed that teachers everywhere would remember that when it comes to community, they truly are the Celebrities and the Saints and would be encouraged and be appreciated as such.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pete Delacruz passed away on Feb. 11 after a lifetime of being an active educational leader in the Merced City School District. He started teaching at Galen Clark and moved on to administration as an Assistant Principle at Hoover, Tenaya and Rivera Junior High.
Charlie Mariano’s books are available for purchase at the Merced County Courthouse Museum Book Store (call 209-723-2401) and Second Time Around Book Store in downtown Merced (209-723-9521).