Saying thanks (and “I love you”) years later, to a mentor

Glendale Rotary Club President John Crow presents the Matt O. Hanhila Inspirational Educator of the Year award to John Faris. Photo courtesy The Glendale Star.

At the November meeting of the Glendale, Arizona Rotary Club, John Faris (MAE ’65) was honored with the Matt O. Hanhila Inspirational Educator of the Year Award. It was one of many accolades Faris has received in the five decades of his career as a music teacher in Arizona.

Present at the meeting was John Cordova (BAE ’69, MAE ’72, PhD ’83). Cordova was president of Phoenix’s South Mountain Community College from 1993 to 2001, and was founding president of Paradise Valley Community College. Here are the remarks Cordova shared with the audience about his former teacher.

, founding president of Paradise Valley Community College

John Cordova

Ladies and gentlemen, I am indeed honored to have been asked to speak on behalf of an individual who was not only my teacher, but also a counselor, a coach, mentor, advocate and at times a parent who guided me through right and wrong and gave me tough love when I most needed it.

It is said there are no accidents in life and that everything happens for a reason. If you don’t believe that, how do you explain John Faris moving from Shawnee, Oklahoma to Tolleson, Arizona to assume his very first teaching assignment? Let’s face it, in 1957, Tolleson was not a place where people were moving to establish their fortunes and legacies.

If we don’t believe everything happens for a reason, how does one explain why a Tolleson fourth grader, with absolutely no musical talent, gets the bright idea that he wants to play a musical instrument? And this fourth grader gets to learn to play the trumpet with a rookie teacher. That’s how the teacher-student relationship between John Faris and me was ignited in 1957. And lo and behold, after much practice and patience, some musical notes began to come out of that instrument. I don’t remember what he first said to me about playing an instrument. It was common for me to practice an hour to two per day, rain or shine, and mostly outside in the back yard. So it was evident that my teacher instilled in me a discipline of practice and hard work. And because of this relationship, a quiet confidence grew in me. I was getting good at something. I was being praised, and someone believed in me.

As I was learning to read music and beginning to master the trumpet, somehow John Faris persuaded me to join the school choir, then known as the glee club. At that time it was acceptable for a Latino boy to play a musical instrument, but singing in a glee club was suspect. I don’t know exactly why I agreed to join the choir, but it helped me find my voice — not just a voice to sing, but a voice to express myself as an individual who was beginning to sense he had potential and hope for a bright future.

By my eighth grade year, the music program had grown in acceptance and acclaim in the school and in the community, and I had become somewhat proficient at playing the trumpet. As eighth grade graduation approached, I realized my teacher and I would be going our own ways. Then another accident in our lives occurred. The music teaching position at Tolleson High School became vacant, and John Faris was hired as the high school music teacher. We would be together another four years.

At the end of my freshman year, Mr. Faris reminded me our marching band drum major would be graduating. He wanted me to consider taking over the drum major position and help elevate it to a higher level. In Tolleson in 1961, there was a stigma attached. Marching band drum major wasn’t the most macho-sounding job. Again, I don’t know how John Faris convinced me to take the position. I didn’t realize he would involve me in his plans for the Friday night football halftime marching routines. He put me in charge and trusted me to lead the band during the halftime programs. Several years ago, as I reflected on my drum major experience, I realized he had been coaching me in the fine points of leadership and citizenship, and I was being prepared for leadership positions I would assume later in life.

As I was about to graduate from Tolleson Union High School and enroll at Phoenix College as a music major, I didn’t even have to audition for a scholarship because Mr. Faris advocated on my behalf. I asked his advice about registering for classes, and he invited me to his home to walk through the process. He had catalogs from Phoenix College and Arizona State University. We had an idea ASU might be the next step after graduating from Phoenix College.

Now fast forward to 1985. I was given the rare opportunity to build a community college from the ground up: Paradise Valley Community College. My doctoral dissertation was on development of community college students, and I had also done extensive research on what separated average colleges from superior ones. As I hired the staff and brought them on board in the development of a model college, I also provided the in-service orientation for all of them, including groundskeepers, custodians, support staff, faculty and administrators. One of the elements I emphasized was how we would all assist our students in learning how to learn and how to develop strategies for success.

John Faris had an impact on me beyond learning to read music notes, playing a trumpet and singing. He has been recognized in the past and today because he has been the essence of a true educator. The Latin word for education is educare — to draw out of the student what is already there and build on it. John Faris was never a traditional teacher. He knew the spirit and meaning of educare. What he did for me, he did for thousands of students that he touched throughout his teaching career.

Let me conclude with the words of Flavia Weedn: “Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

John Faris, thank you for being my teacher, mentor, counselor and advocate, and for the parental nudge when I needed it. I love you.