You meet some incredible people in this job. No one you’d probably know by name or sight. They’re not famous. I’m talking about people who just go about the business of life without any need for fanfare or accolades — strong, quiet people who fill your heart with hope and goodwill.
As we start this New Year, I think we need a little of both.
In the course of their lives together, Connie and Frank Haas of Sherman Oaks took in more than 700 foster care children, many with special needs. Sometimes they stayed for months, sometimes for years.
“When we got our license in 1959 is when I started taking in babies and spoiling the heck out of them,” Connie said in 1995 when we first met. “I’ve got three generations of kids calling me mom and grandma. Anytime there’s a wedding, Grandma Haas has to be there.”
And anytime Connie got lonely after Frank died, or just felt down, word would go out over the grapevine — Grandma Haas needs us. Before she knew it, 40 or 50 of her kids were knocking at her front door for a surprise barbecue, keeping an eye on her.
“If it wasn’t for mom, many of us would have been on the streets alone with a newborn baby,” said one of her foster kids, Renee Okun. “Mom knew only one way to raise her children — with love and kindness. That’s why we always keep coming back, always want to remain part of her life.”
When Connie Haas died in 2006 at age 84, the church was packed with more than 200 of her children from all over the country wanting to say goodbye to Grandma Haas.
She took them in when they had no one and made them a family.
Richard Donato with Calahan Street Elementary School students in April, 1997. (Los Angeles Daily News file photo)
A janitor and a hero
If an important measure of success is how people respect and think of you, Richard Donato was one of the most successful men in the San Fernando Valley. He was an elementary school janitor; a high school dropout from New York.
The students at Calahan Street Elementary School in Northridge loved him. If he saw kids having trouble, he would take them aside and tell them to study harder, do better, don’t quit like he did.
“You don’t want to be a dropout like me,” Mr. Donato would say.
So when word came down from the school district that guidelines had changed, and janitors now needed a high school diploma or else they’d be fired, Mr. Donato was prepared to say his goodbyes. He could never pass the test to get his diploma.
“You told us to study hard and not to give up, why are you?” the kids asked him. Teachers began stopping him in the hallway and volunteering to tutor him after school. He couldn’t let them down.
Mr Donato needed an 81 to pass. He got a 41 on his first try. He scored a 64 on his next try, then a 76 — only 5 points from passing. So close, but only one try left.
The day before the last test, the phone in Principal Rick Wetzell’s office rang. There had been a miscommunication. Because Mr. Donato had been with the district for 10 years, he was grandfathered in. He didn’t need the diploma to keep his job.
Yes, he did, Mr Donato said. He needed it for all those kids and teachers who believed in him. He needed it for his wife and two small children. He needed it for himself.
He went down to the district testing office, promising to call Principal Wetzell the moment he got his test score — good or bad. They say the screams from Calahan Street Elementary School could be heard a mile away when Principal Wetzell came on the school loudspeaker.
Mr. Donato wasn’t a high school dropout anymore. He scored an 81.
Ila Pawley stands next to her adopted son, DD, as he graduates from the Sandra Day O’Conner College of Law at Arizona State University in 2007. (Los Angeles Daily News file photo)
How Ila and Dale Pawley saved DD
Because of the drugs in his system at birth, the 3-day-old, 4-pound, Black American baby found abandoned outside a Los Angeles hospital in 1982 would be slow, the doctors told Ila Pawley. His motor control skills would be poor and he would be mentally delayed.
Pawley thanked the doctors, and said let her worry about that. She had plans for this baby, and they all called for a lot of love and hard work. She and her husband, Dale, took him home with them to Arleta. They named the baby DD
Ila never forgot those first nights looking down in the crib and seeing DD crying and squirming, curled up tightly in a fetal position. She’d massage his body to relax his muscles and uncurl him.
“We’d hold DD all night to our chests so he could hear our heartbeats,” she said. “Dale and I read everything we could get our hands on about drug-addicted babies, and even went up to Stanford University to talk to doctors working with them.
“You know what turned out to work best? Normal parenting. Love, hugging, caring, teaching. By the time DD started kindergarten, he could already read. He still had a sleep disorder and some motor-skill problems, but academically he was excellent.
The boy who would be slowly graduated with honors from his high school and went on to receive a law degree from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
When it came time to be sworn in as an attorney-at-law, DD found the retired judge who presided over his adoption to the Pawley’s 28 years earlier, and asked him to administer the oath.
“It would be my privilege, son,” 78-year-old Judge Marcus Tucker said. Dale Daniel Pawley, 31, raised his right hand as he stood beside his proud mother in courtroom 421 of Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park.
“Incredible,” Judge Tucker said. “Just incredible.”
A little hope and good will to start a new year.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].