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School Spirit

Principal Leo Cancellare was the soul of El Paso’s Cathedral High. When he died in April at the age of 41, he passed into legend.

By July 1999Comments

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, and used his backside to wipe the blackboard clean. From then on, the boy’s affectionate nickname at Cathedral was the Eraser.

On this day, almost a month after Leo’s death, all the boys looked wide awake as they arrived for first period with their books in clean manila jackets tucked under their arms, ready for morning prayer. “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” said a student over the intercom system. Throughout the building came the response that has begun every school day at Cathedral since it was started in 1925 by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, whose founding saint was Jean Baptiste De La Salle of France. The boys say, “Saint Jean Baptiste De La Salle, pray for us. Live Jesus in our hearts forever.”

In 1994 Leo became the first principal in the history of Cathedral who wasn’t a Christian Brother, and he continued to help coach the swim team in addition to his new duties (his workday began with swim practice at five-thirty in the morning). One reason Leo was such a good fit for the principal’s job was that, like the Brothers, who still wear long black robes and white plastic collars, he viewed his work as a religious calling. “This school is the church,” he used to say. And he had something in common with the largely poor and working-class student body: their raw hunger for a better life.

“Leo fought so hard for the underdog because, at bottom, that’s how he viewed himself,” said his wife, Vera, a dark-haired, plainspoken woman who was Leo’s high school sweetheart at Irvin High School in El Paso and was married to him for nineteen years. Since Leo died, Vera has heard from the 79 high school all-American swimmers he trained at Cathedral, three members of an amateur swim club whom he coached who later competed in the Olympics, and thousands of the students he helped send to college, many on full scholarships. The living room in the brick house that she shared with Leo and their three children—fifteen-year-old Sarah, thirteen-year-old Vito, and eleven-year-old Emily—is filled with stacks of mail stuffed in brown grocery bags. “All these letters say almost the same thing,” said Vera, grabbing a handful of them. “The boys told him, ‘Thank you for believing in me, for not giving up on me, for making me work so damn hard, and for making me who I am.’ That was Leo’s gift.”

Leo’s father, Anthony Cancellare, grew up in a poor family in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He started delivering groceries when he was six years old, and later he shined shoes on Wall Street. Anthony Cancellare’s way out of poverty was to join the Army. Eventually he worked his way up to lieutenant colonel. Leo, the eleventh of twelve children, was born in 1957 in Richland, Washington. The family moved to El Paso when he was four months old.

One night when Leo was fifteen, his brother Willie, who was ten years older, went across the border to a party in Juárez, where he died of a heroin overdose. Vera believes that at some level Willie’s death was part of what drove Leo as an adult. “I can’t tell you the number of nights that Leo would go across the border himself to a bar called Fred’s and yank the Cathedral boys out of there and drive them home,” she said. “He didn’t want what happened to Willie to happen to anyone else.”

In high school Leo was only an average student; he made B’s and C’s and had to work hard for those grades. “He had vision and great courage,” said Vera, “but the truth is, schoolwork didn’t come easily to Leo. He made up for it by working harder than anyone else.” Later, in college, his hard work earned him a place on the dean’s list. As a teacher and principal, he would use this lesson from his own life to instruct the boys at Cathedral: He valued motivation more than intelligence.

Leo’s cancer was diagnosed on April 24, 1998. For months he had complained of pain in his chest, but he had no idea that the pain would turn out to be a large, deadly mass in his thymus gland, directly behind his heart. As it happened, one of Leo’s closest friends, Dr. Barry King, whose two sons had graduated from Cathedral, was in the hospital pathology lab when the diagnosis was made and saw the cancerous cells moving wildly across the slides under a microscope. “Right away, the bottom dropped out of my soul,” said King. “I knew Leo was doomed.”

Neither Leo nor Vera wanted to believe it. Five days later, after the diagnosis was confirmed, he had Vera drive him to Cathedral, where he called two school assemblies, one for juniors and seniors and a second for freshmen and sophomores. Recalled Joseph Moody, a senior who is the president of Cathedral’s student council: “Leo told us straight up that he had a rare form of cancer but for us not to worry. He told us to worry about Cathedral and said that was going to get rid of the cancer faster than shit through a goose.” At the time, Leo was still strong—at five feet nine inches, he weighed 219 pounds and was solid muscle—and Moody did not doubt for a minute that he would will himself well.

All through last summer and fall, as Leo traveled back and forth to Houston for treatment at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, he continued to try to work, but by Christmas he was too weak to go to school. He named Govea, a 1980 graduate of Cathedral, interim principal.

 On February 9, when Cathedral’s basketball team faced El Paso’s Bellaire High School, which was the city’s top-ranked team, around one thousand people showed up for the game. At halftime Cathedral was down by 16 points when Leo, who had shrunk to 150 pounds, quietly entered the gymnasium using a cane to support himself. During a time-out in the third quarter, he walked slowly to the center of the court. He was too weak to lead a spoken cheer, so he led Cathedral in a silent one. The cheer, a series of hand signals, was one the Cathedral boys knew well. Leo performed the cheer once in a completely silent gym. The second time he lifted his hands, the boys yelled out the letters I-R-I-S-H in deafening unison. At the end of the cheer Leo simply lifted his left index finger high above his head—his signature gesture—indicating “number one,” bowed his head, and walked back to his seat. “I think we know what we have to do,” Govea, the basketball coach, tearfully told his team in the huddle. By the end of the game the score was Cathedral 72, Bellaire 66.

Leo made his last visit to the school the following month, when the Order of the Christian Brothers named him an honorary member. “I never did a single day’s work in my life,” he told the boys. “I did what I did here at Cathedral for love, and I love each one of you.” Brother Nick Gonzalez, who teaches religion, said the speech was Leo’s final lesson: Love your life.

He never gave up. According to Vera, he refused hospice care because he thought it would be an admission that he and the family had given up hope. On the morning of April 2, even though he could barely catch his breath, Leo refused to go to the hospital because he wanted to enjoy the view of the mountains outside his bedroom window. The last thing he told his wife and his children, who were with him all through the day, was “Stick together.”

The fact that Leo died on the afternoon of Good Friday, when Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus, only hastened the inevitable: Leo the man was instantly transformed into Leo the legend. “He was like a savior to us,” Moody said. “Not Jesus or anything, just an extraordinarily good man.”

There was a big, formal funeral for Leo at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but when school resumed after spring break, Brother Gonzalez led a private memorial service just for Cathedral’s student body. The members of the freshman class, who hardly knew Leo, already spoke of him as a guiding spirit. They told the story about the time Leo walked around the edge of the pool exploding firecrackers on the Fourth of July to light a fire under his swimmers, and the one about the time Leo took a piece of chewing gum out of a boy’s mouth and chewed it himself. Some students, like sophomore Tom Dean, remembered that it was Leo who arranged for a financial-aid grant to pay for their $4,200 annual tuition to Cathedral.

Great schools like Cathedral all have mythic figures like Leo Cancellare. They are the keys to the schools’ future—and they live on in death just as Cathedral’s student body chose to honor Leo during their memorial service for him: in silent cheers.

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