A century ago, on Dec. 24, 1918, an ebullient crowd of students, teachers, elected officials and a bugle corp — the 91st Company of High School Cadets — marched from what is now Channing House on Webster Street to a new school campus on Embarcadero Road. They lined up outside the Tower Building for a photo to commemorate the first day of school at the new Palo Alto High School.
This month marks Paly’s 100th year at the Embarcadero Road campus: 100 years of Spirit Weeks, homecoming dances, championship games, student activism, graduation ceremonies and lifelong ties formed at the school. Many Paly Vikings have returned to their alma mater in some form, whether as a teacher or parent, and others credit the school with inspiring successful careers in art, politics, civic service and education, among other fields.
To celebrate the school campus’s centennial year, the Palo Alto Weekly interviewed alumni, or family members of alumni, to represent each decade of the school’s history, from the female founder of student newspaper The Campanile to multi-generation Paly families with children still enrolled.
Collectively, they witnessed Paly’s evolution. They saw the school’s student population grow and shrink, from about 600 students in 1928, according to newspaper articles, to more than 2,000 students today. In its history, the school alternated between enrolling three and four grades; freshmen moved to what was then the new David Starr Jordan Middle School when it opened in 1938, according to a Palo Alto Times article.
The Vikings — now synonymous with Paly, athletics and school spirit — became the school mascot in the 1929-30 school year, according to librarian Rachel Kellerman. “We have taken their name to signify the spirit and fight which can be found in Paly High,” student-reporters from The Campanile wrote in an editorial toward the end of that year.
School colors also changed in the 1930s, from green and red (chosen to honor the green leaves and red bark of the local Madrono) to green and white for a “fresher look,” Kellerman said.
Students of the current century saw drastic physical changes as the historic campus modernized, with aging facilities replaced by new classrooms and state-of-the-art media, performing arts and athletic centers.
While the school has transformed over the past century, many traditions and experiences persist — perhaps, most fervently, the belief in Paly as a widely recognized symbol of high-quality public education.
Arne Lim, a member of the class of 1980 and a Paly math teacher, identifies the Tower Building as an iconic image of education in Palo Alto.
“If that is the face of education in Palo Alto, then we have to do our best to continue that and to foster it in the current students so that they can foster (it) in the generations to come after that,” Lim said. “That’s how (Paly) has really stood the test of time.”
1910s: Dorothy Nichols (through nephew Alan Nichols)
One of Paly’s earliest graduates was a groundbreaking female journalist. Dorothy Nichols, who graduated in 1919, founded student newspaper The Campanile and went on to become a drama and music critic for the now-defunct Palo Alto Times.
During Nichols’ senior year, she decided to create a newspaper “by and for the students of the Palo Alto Union High School,” as stated in the school’s 1919 yearbook, according to a March story in The Campanile’s centennial issue. The Campanile charged students a $1 annual subscription and did not mince words in its advertisements.
“360 students, 150 subscribers — what are the other 210 of you going to do about it?” notices at the time stated, according to The Campanile.
Nichols also showed a flair for fiction, penning a story called “The Headless Baron,” published in the Paly Madrono in May 1918.
Her nephew, Alan Nichols, knew his aunt simply as “Dot.” He observed firsthand the fruits of her early journalistic efforts. In her role as Palo Alto Times critic, he remembers her attending concerts, getting home at 10 or 11 p.m. to write her stories and then seeing them published in the paper in the morning. She covered the arts and music near and far, including the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, he said.
“My impression, being a kid, she was an important person in Palo Alto — in the arts, as this reporter,” her nephew said. “She knew a lot of people.”
In addition to his Aunt Dot, her two brothers — Alan’s father and uncle — also graduated from Paly, the children of the school’s first principal, Walter Nichols. Alan was named for that uncle, a World War I hero who was killed after his plane was shot down. (Letters his uncle wrote to family and friends were published in the Palo Alto Times at the time and later compiled and published in a book, “Letters Home.”)
Alan credits his aunt and other family members for a strong lineage of writing, community service and education that led him to later become an author and serve on the boards of the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco.
“Palo Alto is kind of like the fountain of inspiration, unconsciously,” he said.
Slideshow: Paly’s early years
1920s: Ray Tinney (through son Jerry Tinney)
Ray Tinney’s presence loomed large at Paly for his son, Jerry.
Ray Tinney, who graduated in 1923, played on legendary coach Hod Ray’s first football team and later became an assistant coach at Paly. Ray Tinney died in 1947 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jerry Tinney was 13 years old at the time. Ray Tinney’s friends created a citizenship award in his honor, bestowed annually upon Paly seniors who showed “dependability, punctuality, regularity, ability to stick to a sometimes drudging routine, respect for another’s property, and consideration of others’ rights,” according to a Palo Alto Historical Association newsletter.
Jerry Tinney followed in his father’s footsteps, playing football for Hod Ray in the revered coach’s later years. Both father and son contributed to championship seasons — Ray Tinney was on Hod Ray’s first-ever championship team and Jerry on his penultimate season in 1950, when Paly football went undefeated. Hod Ray stayed in touch with Ray Tinney after Tinney graduated from Paly, sending handwritten letters while Tinney was at college, and was one of Tinney’s pallbearers when he died.
“I felt close to Hod Ray, too, because of dad’s association with him,” Jerry Tinney said of the man for whom the school’s football field is named.
Jerry Tinney recalled going to Paly after school as a young boy, when his father was a coach, hanging out at football practices and getting to know the high school players.
“It was a big thing for me,” he said. “I was very much wanting to go to Paly” — and to play football.
Jerry Tinney went on to play tackle for Paly football. Many of his teammates’ fathers had played with his own father. Football and school spirit were a prominent part of Palo Alto life at the time, he said. He recalled The Little Big Game, a tradition Hod Ray started in 1945 to have Paly play rival Sequoia High School at Stanford Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. People who had graduated were home for the holidays and would come to cheer the team on, Jerry Tinney said.
Then, he said, Paly still felt like the “small-town school” that his father had attended.
1930s: Riyo Sato (through niece Pam Hashimoto)
Paly “represented opportunity and freedom” for Riyo Sato, said her niece Pam Hashimoto.
Born and raised in Palo Alto by Japanese immigrants, Sato discovered passions at Paly that would shape the course of her life, her niece said. Her father came to America around 1900 and then sent for her mother and older brother, who was 11 years old at the time, Hashimoto said. Sato’s mother died when she was 14 years old, thrusting her into the role of supporting the family by working at her parents’ grocery store and boarding house. Sato was one of five children in her extended family who graduated from Paly (including step-brother Fred Yamamoto, a World War II hero whose name in 2018 was proposed, controversially, as a new name for a Palo Alto middle school).
With the Depression raging and resentment of Japanese people growing on the West Coast, the Japanese community Sato was part of in Palo Alto was isolated, Hashimoto said.
“This promoted a sense of support and self-sufficiency among the Japanese community, but made it more difficult for the children of the immigrants to assimilate and feel a part of the wider community,” she said.
“They were American during the day when they were in school, but Japanese when they returned home. They lived in two worlds.”
Paly, though, “opened up” Sato’s world, Hashimoto said. Sato became active in the school’s hiking club (sparking a lifelong love of health, exercise and exploring) and took art classes. A Paly art teacher, Stella McKee, encouraged Sato to apply to college to pursue her passion at a time when “it was unusual for young women, particularly minority women, to enter college, as opportunities and family funds were limited,” Hashimoto said.
McKee was a mentor and “unflagging source of support” for Sato at Paly, her niece said. Much later, when Hashimoto asked her aunt what was the saddest moment of her life, Sato said it was when she learned that McKee had died.
In 1931, the year Sato graduated from Paly, she won a $150 scholarship from the Palo Alto Business and Professional Women’s Club and used the funds to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now California College of the Arts). She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1940 and launched a 30-year career as an art teacher, her niece said.
During World War II, Sato and her family were sent to Japanese internment camps, where she taught art classes and did her own sketches that would later be displayed at museums. A watercolor painting of hers, titled “Good Old Summertime” — a bucolic image of a camp site or trailer park with a large tree and laundry floating in the breeze on a clothesline — was also exhibited at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and other work is included in the collections at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
A bulletin from the Aldersgate United Methodist Church (the later iteration of the church Sato attended) quotes Sato as expressing gratitude for the $150 scholarship that allowed her entry to college: “That’s how I made a better life for myself,” she said.
1940s: Irene Mock (through daughter Kimberley Wong)
The Mock-Wong family includes three generations of Paly graduates. Joe Mock was first, followed by siblings James, Mary, Frank, Charles, Irene and Rose. Irene, who graduated in 1943, had a daughter, Kimberley Wong, who graduated in 1984. Wong’s two children also attended Paly, with her youngest daughter graduating in this centennial year.
All of the Mock children were born in Palo Alto in a home at the corner of Homer Avenue and Ramona Street, Wong said. They were delivered by Edith Johnson, Palo Alto’s first female doctor.
Paly of the 1940s for Mock, she told her daughter, was about basketball games, school dances at Lucie Stern Community Center (including one for which she created “Under the Sea” themed decorations), art class and riding their bikes around town. Her brother Frank, the tallest of the family, played basketball for Paly. Mock recalled to her daughter cherished memories cheering him and friends on at games and traveling as far away as Fresno to watch them play.
“They just had a lot of fun,” Wong said.
Her mother, a second-generation Chinese-American, never spoke about being discriminated against, Wong said, but her uncles said they faced difficulty purchasing homes and starting businesses in Palo Alto, even after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted in 1943.
After Paly, Mock went to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and then pursued a career as a graphic illustrator. Later in life, she studied watercolor techniques — inspiring Wong to do the same at the Pacific Art League years later. (Wong’s daughter, a Paly senior, also follows in her grandmother’s footsteps as a sketch artist.)
Mock lived long enough to attend a farewell celebration for the 85-year-old Paly gym with her daughter in 2014. She died in 2016 — the last of her siblings to pass away.
As a Paly student, Wong also gravitated toward the arts and played badminton. She described herself as a quiet, observing student.
“I just buckled down and just did my thing,” she said. “My favorite memories were hanging out on the grass having lunch, soaking in the sun and rushing in to do last-minute homework assignments.”
The Paly of Wong’s era was more fun and less stressful than her children’s, she said: While she took Advanced Placement classes and thought about college, the pressure to succeed wasn’t nearly as intense.
Slideshow: The changing look of Paly
1950s: Judy Mack
Judy Mack describes of 1950s-era Paly as reminiscent “Leave it to Beaver,” the TV sitcom about wholesome, American suburbia at that time.
She graduated in 1957, when students still took classes like Latin and stenography. Teachers dressed formally and seemed like college professors, she recalled. Hall monitors kept order in Paly’s hallways. Outside of school, teenagers walked everywhere, with little parental monitoring. Students went to sock hop dances and watched films at a movie theater on California Avenue.
“We had, really, delicious freedom,” Mack said.
Mack was destined to attend Paly, in a sense: Her parents had met there. Though, for their time, marrying a high school sweetheart was common, Mack said. She knew at least three other couples who grew up in Palo Alto, went to Paly and got married.
Mack’s father would reminisce about teachers he had who were still at Paly, she said. When he dropped her off at school, he’d point with reverence to the field named after Hod Ray, who had been his coach. Her father had a block “P” for his letterman jacket, Mack recently re-discovered while going through family heirlooms. He earned it for being not just an athlete but also a dutiful hall monitor, she said.
Mack “adored” her own teachers and thoroughly enjoyed her high school experience.
“I loved it there at that time, and I’ve had a lot of affection for it since,” she said.
She wrote for The Campanile, which became a central force in her young life. She conducted interviews at lunch and stayed late Thursday nights to put the paper to bed. Mack received a prize for her reporting on the school board her senior year, winning an all-expenses-paid trip to Detroit funded by Ford Motor Company. She traveled there with reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and had to write a story from a youth perspective on cars of 1957.
She chafed against expectations for young women at the time, calling her parents in to confront a school counselor who urged her to take stenography as a career path.
“My father explained that it wasn’t necessary and that I would stay on the college track and ‘Thank you for your consideration, but she’s not taking stenography,’” Mack recalled.
“My mother had not gone to college, so she would have been happy with whatever. My father had really always supported my academic interests.”
Mack eventually married, moved away and had a daughter. Mack’s granddaughter was later raised in Palo Alto and graduated from Paly. Mack is still in touch with her Paly classmates through an email group led by her class president and attends yearly in-person reunions in Palo Alto.
“I have come to think that maybe I just made up this ‘Leave it to Beaver’ life and that it really wasn’t the way I thought. But if I did that, then all my classmates did that,” Mack said.
Ron Wyden practically “dribbled his way” through Palo Alto High School.
He played basketball for famed coach Clem Wiser and dreamed of going professional after high school. Wiser won more games than any other Paly basketball coach and was named California Coaches Association basketball Coach of Year in 1983.
“He was really the gold standard in terms of what you’d want of a teacher and a coach and a role model,” said Wyden, class of 1967. “You’d sit on the bench ... but he’d see everything. He had eyes in the back of his head.”
Wiser took time to get to know his players off the court, Wyden said. He knew Wyden’s parents were divorced and would frequently check in with him. He knew Wyden’s Saturday hangout spot was the Peninsula Creamery. Wyden gave a personal tribute to Wiser in October when Paly dedicated a monument to the late coach as part of the centennial celebrations. The monument was funded entirely by donations from former players, coaching colleagues and local community members.
Wyden played on Wiser’s 1967 varsity basketball team, which finished with a record of 27-2. The team won the South Peninsula Athletic League championship game, ranking them second in the entire state.
Wyden remembered vividly the championship game that year against Sequoia, which drew “the biggest crowd ever for a basketball game at Paly,” he said. “They basically had to lock the doors.” The game went into overtime before Paly won 70-68.
Wyden’s teenage athletic aspirations were set against a more somber backdrop, however: the Vietnam War. Paly students feared they would be drafted, he said.
“It was a time when you had a lot of fun with sports, with friends. You had dreams, like mine to play in the NBA, that bumped up into the reality of what would happen if you were drafted,” Wyden recalled.
Race relations were also tense and ever-present, he said. His senior year, when they played away games against the Ravenswood school district basketball team, instead of changing at the East Palo Alto gym — as they would for any other away game — they got dressed at the Paly gym, took a bus to East Palo Alto and quickly returned when the game was over. There was a fear, Wyden said, that racial tensions could erupt in some way.
“We were very much aware that in this wonderful community, the backdoor of Stanford University, a premier institution, when Palo Alto High School played primarily African-American kids, we couldn’t dress there like we could everywhere else,” he said.
Wyden didn’t end up playing in the NBA but found a career in politics. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 until 1996. That year, he was elected Oregon’s state senator, a position he holds today.
Slideshow: Paly sports through the decades
Joelle Dong and fellow cheerleaders at Palo Alto High School cheer for the Vikings’ football team during its homecoming game against Los Gatos in 2016. Photo by Veronica Weber.
Former Paly basketball players Craig Carpenter (left), class of 1960, and Bob Strohecker, class of 1961, flank Clem Wiser, Paly’s basketball coach from 1955 to 1984. Photo by Jim Loftus.
1970s: the Brown family
Palo Alto High School is, arguably, in the Brown family’s blood. From 1942 through 2018, more than 15 members of the family attended Paly and several had strong ties to Viking athletics.
Fred Brown, born and raised in Palo Alto, was the first to graduate from Paly. His five children followed in his footsteps, including his youngest, Jimmy Brown, a star basketball player who graduated in 1975.
When Jimmy Brown attended Paly, the school was 10th through 12th grade. (He attended ninth grade at what was then Jordan Middle School.)
Basketball was central to Brown’s Paly experience. He described himself as an unmotivated student who preferred hanging out in the parking lot to attending classes, but the eligibility requirements and dreams of playing at the collegiate level pushed him to keep his grades up. He played for coach Clem Wiser and received several scholarship offers from colleges, though he ultimately attended San Bruno community college Skyline College.
He recalled one memorable win over rival Gunn High School when they came back from a nearly 20-point deficit. After games, you’d find him celebrating at the Peninsula Creamery in downtown Palo Alto.
As an athlete and a Brown, he said he was well-known on campus — and enjoyed that social status. His brother also played basketball and his father was a Paly baseball coach. Through Little League baseball and high school sports, he made friends beyond Paly at Gunn and Cubberley High School.
“We were a well known family, especially with sports,” Brown said.
His nephew David Jefferson and son Steven went on to play on the basketball teams that won the state championship in 1993 and 2006, respectively — eternal “bragging rights” at family get-togethers, Brown said.
Despite his family’s deep roots in Palo Alto, Brown, who is African-American, said he faced racism as a teenager, mostly outside of school. During lunchtime trips to John’s Market at Town & Country Village, he said the market staff would follow him and other African-American Paly students around the store, he believed to make sure they wouldn’t steal anything. He said he repeatedly experienced racial profiling from police officers in Palo Alto. But campus was a safe space where many teachers, he said, made a concerted effort to engage him in their classes.
The extended Brown family remains a presence at Paly. Basketball photographs of Jefferson and Brown’s older brother hang in the hallway of the Tower Building. Two of Brown’s children returned to work at Paly: his son Steven as the varsity basketball assistant coach and Christa Brown as a secretary in the attendance office.
David Jefferson’s mother, Nadine Jefferson, also works in the Paly special-education department’s testing center.
Brown’s granddaughter graduated from Paly in June and her younger brother is expected to attend when he reaches high-school age.
Slideshow: The vibrant Viking spirit
1980s: Arne Lim
Arne Lim entered Palo Alto High School a bit reluctantly.
He was forced to transfer there for his senior year after Cubberley High School in south Palo Alto closed in 1980. His group of friends was broken up; some went to Paly while others were assigned to Gunn High School. He went from a relatively small class at Cubberley — about 240 students — to more than 500 students at Paly.
“Honestly it was a bit bitter for many of us,” he said. “We just kind of wanted to finish school.”
But that one year at Paly left a lasting mark on Lim so strong that he returned years later for his first-ever teaching job. He’s taught math at Paly ever since.
Lim, born and raised in Palo Alto, said he was always a good student and did well academically at Paly. He played badminton and also joined orchestra mid-year. The teacher, Michael Britt, took him under his wing.
“As I reflect upon that time, I realized how much I really needed that class. I’d stop short of saying he (Britt) saved me, but he created a place, a community for me, the outlier, the one coming from Cubberley over to Paly,” said Lim, who still keeps in touch with Britt.
Lim liked all his teachers, and wrote each of them a note when he returned as a teacher in 1985 to let them know he was back on campus. At Paly, he’s also coached the badminton team and served as a teacher-adviser and instructional leader for the math department.
The Palo Alto of his teenage years was progressive and family- and youth-friendly, Lim said. There were three bowling alleys at the time; he lamented their eventual demise as a sign of changing times and fewer community resources for teenagers.
Paly itself has changed drastically since he was a student. He deals daily with students using smartphones during class and strikes a difficult balance between restriction of technology and its educational benefits. Paly has transformed physically, with new buildings across campus. He worries about the standard that might set for students who become accustomed to the quality of their school’s facilities.
“The idea of what is normal has changed a lot,” Lim said.
But what has persisted since Lim’s high school days is a lasting association between Palo Alto and excellent public schools. Paly, with its 100-year foundation, still draws families from all over the country and world to Palo Alto.
“For all the quote-unquote progress that’s going on, we don’t want to forget from where we came,” he said.
Kellan Hori was raised in the classrooms and hallways of Palo Alto High School. Both his parents, Lynn and Bruce Hori, taught in the science department.
Once he himself arrived as a student, their presence was a mixed bag, he said. There were academic benefits — getting the class schedule he wanted and an increased familiarity with teachers and staff that made him confident in asking for help on assignments, he said — but socially, being a teenager and having all your classmates know your parents “wasn’t the greatest thing, especially during your formative years,” Hori said.
He had to balance his parents’ presence with trying to fit in socially (including trying to convince friends that his parents wouldn’t know if they were out late or doing something unsavory).
But much of Hori’s time was consumed by athletics. He was a three-sport athlete — wrestling, water polo and swimming — until his junior and senior years, when he focused on the latter two. (He went on to play water polo in college.) He has countless memories of athletics at Paly, “from morning workouts when it was 30 degrees outside to winning CCS to losing CCS.”
Hori, who is now a private chef, also did jazz band, student government and Boy Scouts — he was the “typical overcommitted teenager,” Hori said.
If 1950s Paly was “Leave it to Beaver,” Hori’s era was “Dazed and Confused,” Hori said. There were school pranks and streakers.
“I went to school pre-internet, pre-email, pre-cell phones. We had pagers. It was still holding on to a lot of the older culture of high school and the high school pranks,” Hori said.
Hori graduated in 1999, just months after a shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado left 12 students and one teacher dead. He remembers classes being given over to open discussions to let students express how they felt. The shooting shocked him and other students who saw the similarities between Paly’s and Columbine’s demographics (mostly white and affluent), location (affluent suburbs) and relative size. Some of his class graduation speeches referenced Columbine.
“Looking back on it, now school shootings are so rampant. ... I do remember it being a really huge deal across campus,” Hori said.
Hori’s mother retired — she prefers “graduated” — in 2011 and his father, in 2004, after 73 combined years of teaching at Paly.
Early 2000s: Laura Martinez
Laura Martinez was the first in her family to attend and graduate college. She credits a supportive environment at Paly in part for that milestone.
Martinez, who graduated Paly in 2002, grew up in East Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto Unified schools through the Voluntary Transfer Program, or Tinsley program. She described her teachers, advisers and others at Paly as warm, welcoming and devoted to helping her.
“Coming to school in a community where I didn’t live, being one of the few Latina students in all of my classes — I encountered so many supportive individuals,” she said.
She recalled a favorite teacher, Kevin Duffy (who still teaches there), who brought levity into the classroom and was a presence throughout campus, including as a chaperone at dances.
“I think we connected over — I grew up speaking Spanish, but I knew that I wanted to master it and use my Spanish language for jobs after graduating college, which I have done,” Martinez said. “It just made it a lot of fun to be in his classes.” (She went on to major in Spanish in college.)
An English class focused on writers of color also left an impression on her. They read Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” about a Latina teenager living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago.
That book and class marked “a turning point for me and just learning more about myself in a way,” Martinez said.
She made good use of Paly’s college and career center, which she said had a partnership with East Palo Alto nonprofit Foundation for a College Education (FCE), which helps students of color attend and graduate from college.
“With the school and FCE and my parents, I really had a good support system,” Martinez said. “If it wasn’t for all three of those pieces working together, I may not be here.”
Martinez recalled fondly dressing up for Spirit Week, a time-honored Paly tradition, and a trip to Yosemite her freshman year as part of the Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM) cohort program.
Paly was transformative for her, influencing her desire to return to her community as an adult and try to improve it.
“Growing up in East Palo Alto and attending school in Palo Alto my whole life, I had always wondered why there were so many differences in education, the environment. I knew that I wanted to move back to the area after college and serve my community in some way,” she said.
After graduating from Whittier College, she returned to work in the nonprofit sector, helped open a new YMCA in East Palo Alto and worked for Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School.
In 2008, Martinez won a seat on the East Palo Alto City Council. At 23 years old, she became the youngest candidate in city history — “and at one point even the country, until someone beat me,” she said with a smile — to be elected to City Council. She became mayor at 27 years old and was re-elected to a second term. She was also appointed to the Sequoia Union High School District Board of Education to serve the remaining term of a retiring trustee in 2015.
Martinez started a new job in February as assistant director of admission and tuition assistance at private all-girls Castilleja School, a short walk away from her alma mater. Being close by, she’s frequently invited back to campus to participate in events and also has the opportunity to partner with Paly.
The month after Martinez started her new job, Castilleja students teamed up with peers at Paly and other local schools to participate in a nationwide gun-violence protest. Martinez walked with students from Castilleja to Paly and listened to passionate speeches calling for gun-control reform, part of a national wave of student activism sparked by the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“I was really happy to be a part of that and experience that together,” Martinez said.
When Ricardo Lombera arrived at Paly, he made it his mission to leave the school a more inclusive place for students of color than when he found it. He joined the Latinos Unidos club (now Paly LatinX club) and lobbied for having an altar on campus for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead — the first on-campus altar for the holiday in the school’s history, he said. He gave a commencement speech this June that mixed English and Spanish, emphasizing themes of unity and diversity.
Lombera was never expecting to attend Paly. He grew up in Redwood City and attended Woodside High School but an eviction forced his family to move his sophomore year. He had to quickly adjust to a sharply contrasting community: more white, more affluent, more academically rigorous. It was difficult to make friends until he joined Latinos Unidos, where he met a tight-knit group of students and eventually became president of the club. He encountered racism — some outright, some subtle, including an English teacher who after Lombera’s poor performance on a paper suggested he should drop out of school and work at McDonald’s, he said.
“English is not my first language, but I really enjoyed literature. I really enjoy writing. I respect every single teacher because since I grew up my parents have told me education is the one way to get (ahead),” Lombera said. “To have someone who I really thought had the (best) intentions for me to tell me that ... that was pretty difficult for me to take.”
Despite the difficulty he had adjusting to Paly, he credits the experience with inspiring a deep passion for advocacy and social justice. As president of Latinos Unidos, he was determined to have an altar for Dia de los Muertos last year but encountered pushback from an administration concerned about memorializing the dead in light of student suicide clusters in recent years.
He understood the resistance but said it felt like a cultural misunderstanding that, despite good intentions, made him and other Latino students feel “less than.” The school ultimately allowed an altar only with photographs of older historical figures, so they chose Latino figures like Cesar Chavez, Selena and Dolores Huerta.
People learned a lot from it, which was really nice. That was all we wanted,” Lombera said.
The week of graduation, Lombera and other members of Latinos Unidos painted a mural on Paly’s student center depicting historical figures including Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafzai, Helen Keller, Harvey Milk, Ida B. Wells and Martin Luther King Jr. Their faces are surrounded by orange butterflies — the unofficial symbol of Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children — because, as Lombera said in his graduation speech, “Everyone deserves equal rights, no matter where they are born.”
When Lombera started at Paly, he said, he was shy and passive. By the time he graduated in June, he was a confident student leader and fierce advocate for others. He marched with his classmates in a powerful demonstration of student activism after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The first in his family to go to college, Lombera went to Connecticut College to study political science, with ambitions of attending law school.
“I really learned how to speak up for myself and how to stand up for others,” Lombera said. “It was definitely something that Paly taught me and that’s definitely something that I’m grateful for.”
He’s hopeful that the next 100 years of Paly will produce a school that looks and feels more diverse and inclusive. He hopes the school hires more teachers and staff of color, including in leadership roles, and instills in all members of the campus community a commitment to speaking up for others, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or identity.
“It’s still got a long way to go, but I’m proud to say that I’m a Paly alum,” Lombera said.
Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at email@example.com.
Information about Paly’s yearlong centennial celebration is posted at paly.net/centennial.