THE FIRST TIME I SAW LEO CANCELLARE, nine years ago, he was not yet the principal of El Paso’s Cathedral High School, a predominantly Mexican American boys school that graduates 99 percent of its seniors and sends 98 percent of them on to college. He and Jack White coached Cathedral’s swim team—the Fighting Irish—which has won twelve state championships in the past fourteen years. It was seven in the morning and Leo, then 32, was prowling around the slippery deck of Cathedral’s swimming pool like a manic cop on a familiar beat. One boy wasn’t swimming as fast as Leo thought he should, and in an instant Leo had jumped in the pool—fully clothed—to fish the boy out. “If you don’t want to work hard,” he told the startled boy, “get out of the pool!”
The only light in the basement pool area was a naked bulb dangling from the center of the ceiling. Standing in the shadows behind the bleachers, I heard the boy bark, “Yes, sir!” Leo effortlessly pulled himself out of the pool and emptied the soggy contents of his billfold to dry. It was then that he spied me. He raised both of his hands high in the air—as if caught committing a minor crime—while the water puddled around him. “It’s a great day to be an Irishman, isn’t it?” he said, glowing brighter than the basement’s bare bulb.
I knew instantly that Leo was the spirit not just of Cathedral High School but of a particular kind of high school experience. Instinctively, he had the magical ability to be so fully alive and present from day to day that he brought his high school world vividly to life for everyone around him. For Leo, every day was a great day to be an Irishman.
After that visit, I wrote a story about Cathedral for this magazine (“The Way Out,” May 1990) that described why the old, dilapidated private school succeeded where other schools failed. Nationwide, only 53 percent of Hispanic Americans were high school graduates, and just 13.3 percent had attended a college or university. There were plenty of tangible reasons why Cathedral—where 80 percent of the student body was Mexican American—defied that trend. At Cathedral, classes were small, standards were high, and the curriculum was the back-to-basics Roman Catholic model.
However, one of the biggest reasons was an intangible: the astonishing balls-out, go-for-broke, never-give-up drive that Leo Cancellare embodied. So when Leo died of cancer of the thymus gland at 4:54 p.m. on April 2—Good Friday, the blackest day of the Christian calendar—at only 41 years of age, I knew his death would hit the school hard.
“How could someone who beat all the odds every single time just up and die?” asked a tearful Chris Medina when I telephoned to ask how he was coping with Leo’s death; Medina was a senior in 1990 and is now an assistant manager of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in El Paso. It was a heartbreaking question, asked from a corner of Medina’s memory in which he will always be an adolescent. I realized that the same dark question now hung over Cathedral High School and much of El Paso, and I wanted to go back and find out how in this day and age—when so much goes wrong in schools—one single man had managed to do so much right.
When I arrived at the end of April, I was surprised to find that the physical campus was twice as large as it had been in 1990: A whole new wing had been added. In 1990 students worked in a 64-year-old, three-story brick building that was falling apart. The only equipment in the chemistry lab was a few ancient Bunsen burners. In the new wing—which cost $4.5 million, some of it raised by Leo—there are three fully stocked science labs, an art room, an auditorium, television sets in every classroom, a state-of-the-art library, and a computer lab with 25 gleaming new terminals. Behind the new wing stands a large new gymnasium, which doubles as a cafeteria.
Enrollment has skyrocketed, up from 370 in 1990 to 630 this year. “At Cathedral there was endless talk about raising money for a new building for sixty years,” said Sam Govea, who was named principal in May. “Leo is the one who said in 1991, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ Lots of people worked on the new building, but I guarantee you it would not have happened without Leo.”
It was Leo’s habit to stand in front of the school and greet every boy as he arrived at the start of the school day. If the boy had been driven to school by his mother, Leo would open the car door and say to him, “Tell your mother you love her and then get to class.” Govea has not presumed to take over that duty for the same reason that he has not moved into Leo’s office, the one with the sign on the wall that reads “You can’t achieve unless you believe.” The grief of the student body was too fresh, and as Govea put it, “It just wouldn’t be the same.”
Though the physical structure had changed, the medieval atmosphere of the school was exactly the same as it had been in 1990. At 8:15 a.m., when the bell chimed for first-period class, the hallways were filled with clean-cut boys who were all dressed according to the school’s strict dress code: slacks, shirts with collars, and dress shoes, with hair cut above the collar. Usually if Cathedral boys come to school with shaggy hair, they are told to get a haircut and sent home. On one occasion, however, Leo pulled a popular football player aside in the hallway, sat the boy on a tall stool, and cut it himself, to wild cheers from the boy’s peers. I remembered the story about a boy Leo had once caught dozing in class. Grabbing the boy under his arms, Leo had picked him up, carried him to the front of the class,