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October 26, 2020

Watsonville High community reeling from 4 recent, sudden deaths

WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville High School community is reeling from the loss of four staff members that occurred over the past nine months.

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History and economics teacher Abel Mejia died on Sept. 16, and his brother Ruben Mejia, a biology teacher, died on Sept. 5. 

Their deaths came after counselor Federico Castañeda, 54, died on July 1. 

All three men were Watsonville High alumni.

Longtime science teacher Bill Callahan died on Dec. 6, six months to the day after his retirement, said former principal Elaine Legorreta. 

“There is a lot of heartache at Watsonville High School,” she said. “To lose people you care so much about. What it does to the staff is one thing, but what it does to the students is another.”

Retired PVUSD teacher Sarah Ringler, who taught with Abel Mejia at Rolling Hills Middle School in the 1990s, said that she enjoyed eating lunch with him.

“It never was a boring, quiet lunch,” she said. “He was sweet and spicy at the same time. I’ll miss my union brother.”

In a written statement on Facebook, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers (PVFT) said that Abel Mejia was a “dedicated site representative, unionist, and friend to many.”

“His presence and words could brighten a room or silence it into deep thought, always leaving it a better place,” the statement read.

Former PVFT President Francisco Rodriguez said he was friends with Abel since they met in 1996.

Rodriguez described his friend as a thoughtful man who took the time to study issues before speaking about them.

“He was a big advocate for education,” he said. “It’s a great loss to the community. Hopefully his students will follow in his footsteps and continue the advocacy work he did for education.”

Abel was also President of the Association of Mexican American Educators’ Pajaro Valley chapter.

WHS alum and current Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said the losses are tragic for the Pajaro Valley.

“We’ve lost too many exemplary teachers in such a short time,” he said. “Abel and Ruben were pillars in local education. Watsonville and our schools ARE better because of their work. Things just won’t be the same without seeing them around anymore and we share in the pain with the Mejia family.”

Former PVUSD teacher Jenn Laskin said that, as an active member of the PVFT and a fierce advocate for teachers’ rights, Abel Mejia was known for always calling “truth to power.”

“He was the best teachers’ union advocate you could ask for,” Laskin said. “He was a teachers’ teacher.” 

He also organized the school’s annual talent show, and was perhaps best known for his love of singing karaoke at Cilantro’s restaurant, Laskin said. 

“You can’t write this story and not mention that,” she said. 

Abel Mejia, along with Castañeda, was an advisor for Mexican Americans Taking Action, a club that promotes the culture and voice of Latinx students.

Legorreta described Castañeda as a quiet man who was a “fierce advocate” for his students. 

Castañeda was also a member of the group Los Mandilones, which raises money for student scholarships. 

“His goal was always to find ways for his students to be successful, and he worked very hard to make that happen,” Legorreta said. 

He was also known for his lip-sync performances during the school’s talent show, she said.

“Even though he was a quiet guy he was hilarious,” she said.

Ruben Mejia was an environmental science and biology teacher who frequently organized camping trips for kids.

“He was an amazing man,” Legorreta said. 

Ruben sought literacy training for himself and helped students with their own literacy, Legorreta said. 

“He was also a funny guy,” she said. “I just had so much fondness for him. I could talk to him about anything.”

Bill Callahan was hired as a biology and chemistry teacher in 1996, and was among the founding faculty of the WHS Business and Technology Academy. In 2009 he created a small catfish farm at the school to combine those two disciplines.

WHS history teacher Ryan Jones said the losses have had a huge impact on the Wildcat family.

“We’re all pretty stunned and trying to be supportive of each other and students, which can be difficult to do through a screen,” Jones said. 

The deaths have also caused a great deal of anxiety among the WHS community, Jones said. 

“We all need to be patient with ourselves, take the necessary time to slow down and grieve, and really appreciate the people we have in our lives,” he said.  

WHS alum Erica Fuentes said that both Abel and Ruben wanted the best for their students. Still, getting either Mejia brother as a teacher, she said, made your “heart drop,” she said.

“Because all you heard was how hard, or difficult, their class was,” she said. “It was hard because they both pushed you to do your best.”

But completing their classes, she said, was rewarding.

“You didn’t just pass a class,” she said. “You also gained a mentor and learned what hard work was.”

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