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Former lunch lady Lily Garcia goes to Washington to run for the NEA

WASHINGTON — Stories about Lily Eskelsen Garcia tend to bill her as the former lunch lady who turned in her hair net and went to Washington, where she rubs shoulders with presidents and members of Congress when she isn't traveling the country giving hundreds of speeches in the cause of education. It’s a story no one can resist, and nobody’s gotten more mileage out of the lunch lady business since Adam Sandler.

It’s a story so good it sounds made up, and the story would seem only to get better if you didn’t know that the last few years had been so riddled with personal tragedy and trials. Notwithstanding, Eskelsen’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings will continue this summer when she is almost assuredly elected president of the National Education Association.

But, really, wasn’t this inevitable?

The 58-year-old Eskelsen, the current NEA vice president, is running unopposed (would-be candidates have until April to declare), but who would want to take on this woman? A decade ago, she ran for secretary-treasurer of the NEA and claimed a whopping 78 percent of the vote, the first time a four-candidate race was decided on the first ballot. Eskelsen has it all — intelligence, looks, charisma, passion and wit, and she can sing, play the guitar and write, too, all of which she brings to bear on her mission for education.

Sure, she’s the lunch lady, but that only scratches the surface of her rise from nowhere, so let’s try again: Lily Eskelsen Garcia — immigrant's daughter, sharecropper’s granddaughter, former lunch lady, former folk singer, former congressional candidate, former Utah Teacher of the Year. She originally left the classroom to help a fellow teacher, and 25 years later she is still doing much the same thing.

“You don’t plan these things,” she says. “I assumed I would retire as a Utah teacher. And I think I would’ve been very happy. The truth is I’m a pretty happy person. I’m going to be happy doing whatever I am doing. I was a happy lunch lady.”

She never even planned to go to college until someone mentioned it, and that was the way things would always happen: Someone would see her abilities and suggest a direction and she would take that path.

Here’s the thing about that lunch lady tag: It’s absolutely true. It’s not some marketing creation or exaggeration.

Lilia Laura Pace was about to start her senior year at Box Elder High School when she met Ruel Eskelsen, a local kid who had joined the Army after graduation that spring and was posted in Colorado. “We fell in love writing letters,” she says. They married shortly after she graduated, and they moved into a basement apartment in Colorado Springs.

The oldest of six kids, Lily had done a lot of baby-sitting in her youth and thrived at it. She would put on plays for the kids and create art projects for them, among other things. “It’s what I wanted to do, work with kids,” she says. “I assumed I would have 10 kids. I liked big families.”

When she and Ruel arrived in Colorado Springs, she looked for a job working with children. The closest she got was the lunch lady position in a school cafeteria. “I was the salad girl,” she says. “I could not be trusted with hot food. Salad girl — that was the title. And I did the dishes. I had the hair nets and the white orthopedic shoes and a food handler’s permit.”

She noticed that the cafeteria workers interacted with the kids as they came through the line and Lily joined in, teasing them playfully and calling them by name — “Hey, Super Man. Hey, Cutie,” she’d call to them. The kids loved it; she wanted more.

Within a year, she found a job as an aide to a special-ed teacher. Another year passed and the teacher, noting Lily’s way with kids, asked if she had considered college as a bridge to a teaching job.

“It was the first time I’d ever thought of that,” Lily says. “It wasn’t on my radar. That planted the seed.”

Nobody in her family, going back generations, had pursued higher education. Her father, Bobby Earl, grew up the son of Mississippi sharecroppers in a home that wouldn’t have indoor plumbing for two decades. At 16, Bobby Earl, who never made it past eighth grade, lied about his age and joined the Army. He was stationed in Panama, where he met a local girl named Marcella Balmaceda, which was shortened to Chella and then Chillie. She was the first of her family to graduate from high school.

At her father’s insistence, she learned to speak English in a Catholic school and got a job on the Panama Canal. She was 18 and Bobby Earl 19 when they met. He was her first date. They married a year later. Theirs was a romance that would be repeated in many ways by Lily and Ruel years later.

“I’ve taken my mom back to Panama,” says Lily. “Her relatives are still there. It’s like someone from the Mayflower visiting England again. It’s not supposed to happen. They don’t come back. It was a big party, a hero’s welcome.”

Lily and Ruel returned to Utah after his Army hitch was completed and soon she gave birth to the couple's first child, Jeremy.

“I got the baby blues,” she says. “I wanted to be a mom and a teacher and I wanted to eat, too,”

Lily and Ruel worked out a carefully coordinated plan to have it all. They both enrolled at the University of Utah but arranged their schedules so they never had a class at the same time. When she was in class, Ruel would tend Jeremy, and then he would hand the baby to Lily en route to his class, and this was their routine for four years.

On weekends, they earned extra money by performing folk songs at Gepetto's and DB Cooper's restaurants. Ruel was a superb guitarist and Lily a surpassing vocalist. They performed songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. (On a personal note, the first time I met Lily and Ruel they were performing in the living room of their small house near Liberty Park, and I was dazzled by her ability to sing Mitchell like Mitchell, which is no small feat considering her octave-skipping vocals from one bar to the next.)

With money from her music, low-income scholarships and government grants, Lily graduated magna cum laude in secondary education and later earned a master’s degree. She became a teacher at Orchard Elementary in West Valley City.

“My country made a good investment, I think,” she says.

While Lily was teaching at Orchard, a fellow teacher's son was diagnosed with leukemia. Under their contract with Granite School District, teachers were given five days leave of absence. The teacher used those up quickly as his son underwent bone marrow treatments. He needed more time off.

The district would’t allow it. Rules are rules and a contract a contract, they said. Lily helped organize a solution — the school’s teachers agreed to donate their five days to the teacher with the ill son. The district still wouldn’t relent, even after Lily got each teacher to sign an agreement to donate those days. It’s not in the contract, the district said, and if they made an exception, it would set a precedent. “So the precedent is everybody’s son who is dying of cancer will want this?!” Lily raged.

Noting her passion for the cause, the Granite Education Association put her on its negotiation team, which meant working after school and throughout the summer with no pay. She helped get the contract changed, but something else happened along the way: It was the beginning of Lily’s next career.

In 1989, two significant events occurred on Utah's education scene: Lily was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, and Gov. Norm Bangerter stuck his foot in his mouth.

Bangerter proposed a small tax rebate for citizens because the state had a surplus of money. Teachers were angry. For years they had been told there wasn’t enough money to provide more funding for schools, while teachers were buying supplies out of their own pockets and coping with oversized classes. The governor’s response threw gas on the fire: He told teachers to take two aspirin and they would feel better in the morning. Teachers around the state were outraged by this seemingly cavalier remark. The Utah Education Association organized a rally at Liberty Park, and they put the Teacher of the Year on stage.

Lily showed up with her guitar. This caused some curious looks, but then she augmented her speech with a little song she wrote for the occasion that she called “I’m-a-Teacher-and-I-got-to-Work-in-Utah Blues.” It was a hit, and she and her guitar were a natural photo op. The story and photo went national. Lily received calls from the national press asking about the protest, and the UEA encouraged her. She was the perfect spokeswoman — she wasn’t on the UEA bargaining team, she was a teacher, and a good one; she also was well-spoken, funny, snarky, confident and musical. She became ubiquitous on local TV shows and the evening news.

“I’ve always been a big mouth in the best sense,” she says. “That’s my story. I’m outspoken. Sometimes I need to tone it down.”

The furor over Bangerter faded away, but not Lily. She was encouraged to run for president of the UEA and won the office as a write-in candidate. She was a teacher, not a politician, and her message was genuine. As she puts it: “I was not so strident or shrill. Like a good teacher, I educated. I would say, 'I think you want to do good things for our schools and here’s what you do.' It got a good response. People would listen to me even if they disagreed.”

Once, she was given an audience with Bangerter, just the two of them in his office, without advisers and bureaucrats. She told him what it was like to have 39 sixth-graders in a classroom. He asked her if she realized how much money it would cost to reduce each class in the state. She told him to reduce class size one grade at a time, starting with first grade. She had done the math for him and showed him the breakdown of costs. They discussed the plan further.

As Lily recalls: “The governor looked at the (costs) and said, ‘And we’d get credit for doing this?’ I told him: ‘It would be front page. It’s your proposal and you listened to teachers and parents.’ He made the proposal. They got to fourth grade (in subsequent years), but like most things the Legislature starts, it wasn’t continued. But you have to give the governor credit. He did it because it was the right thing for the kids.”

Eskelsen’s rise in the education world continued. Elected to the nine-member NEA executive committee in 1996. NEA secretary-treasurer in 2002. Vice president in 2008. There was one break: In 1998, she was urged to run for Congress and took a leave of absence. She was the Democratic nominee and ultimately lost to Merrill Cook, but she garnered 45 percent of the vote against a Republican incumbent in Utah, a feat in itself.

“I came in second,” she likes to say.

She went to Washington to work for the NEA and hit the ground running. She has served in official advisory roles for Hispanic education for two presidents. She wrote a humor column on parenting that was published by 22 newspapers, and continues to write a blog (“Lily’s Blackboard”). She has spoken at hundreds of education events in virtually every state. She has been quoted in a number of magazines and appeared on several national TV shows. Only rarely does she bring the guitar along these days (you can see her perform on YouTube), and her song about “No Child Left Behind” was a hit (“If we have to test their butts off, there will be no child’s behind left.”)

During the six years she served on the NEA’s executive committee, she taught at Orchard again for a few years and was a part-time teacher at a homeless shelter and later at the Christmas Box House. But mostly she has devoted herself to the NEA.

“None of us got into teaching thinking, ‘And then my next step I’ll get involved in the union!’ ” she says. “Almost all my colleagues have a story about how they got involved. Inevitably, it was seeing someone treated unfairly, or the government or legislature doing something that hurts our ability to do our job with our students. Who can do something about this? We’re not going to wait for the politicians or the superintendent.”

The ready smile and joyous passion she brings to her career belie the personal hardships Lily has survived in recent years. As fate would have it, she was traveling on NEA business when Ruel, her husband of 38 years, took his own life in their Washington home. They had raised two children, Jeremy and their adopted son, Jared, who have endured hard times themselves.

She wrote in her blog: “You did not know that my gentle Ruel suffered depression to the point that finally he could not think through the pain. I found him when it was too late when I came home from work on Friday. … There are, of course, no answers when there is the darkness of mental illness. Ruel did not decide to end his life. The mental illness took my sweet husband away.”

Looking back, she says now: “He died while I was on a trip. There is some guilt about that. If only I had. … He just hated being alive. Depression takes away people just like cancer does." She has talked openly about suicide, about Ruel, about the people who are left behind. "People need to know it’s not their fault,” she says.

In the same aforementioned blog entry, she responded to those who wanted to help by asking them to write a letter to Jared, who was in jail for theft. “He was hysterical when I had to tell him that his father was gone,” Lily wrote. "I hoped the letters would let him know he wasn't alone."

The irony is that Lily has done so much to help other people’s children, but her sons both struggled. She says they both battled drug addiction (they have been clean for years), and she endured years of worry. “I used to open the newspaper and look to see if there was an unidentified body,” she says. According to Lily, Jared was abused before he was adopted by the Eskelsens as a 4-year-old and he has suffered for it over the years with repeated legal problems.

“We were told he would have problems for a long time and we were asked if we were up for this, and we didn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought, I’m so good with kids. … It was my last arrogant moment. With someone loving you, it doesn’t all go away.”

Many years ago she was speaking at a legislative hearing against a voucher bill that was tailored for a boys ranch for troubled youths. She told her audience that she had just barely placed her own son — 12 at the time — in the boys ranch, but she still believed the voucher was not an appropriate use of public funds. She began crying as she spoke — “because I’m a mom” — and afterward several people whispered to her that they had young family members who were struggling with drug and criminal issues.

“These were people from good families and they were telling me this secret they hoped friends and neighbors don’t find out and here I am talking about the same thing in public,” she says. There is some merit for such openness, she believes. She says all the good parenting, all the love and all the kindness does not mean depression and drugs and criminal behavior won’t happen.

Last year, Lily married Alberto Garcia, an artist she met in Juarez, Mexico, after contacting him about doing artwork for a children’s book she is writing. It began another long-distance romance, like the one she had with Ruel, only this time letters were replaced by Skype. They did this for months despite her bad Spanish and his bad English, and they managed to see each other as their schedules allowed (he was her date for the presidential inauguration when he still had a tourist visa). They married earlier this year in a San Diego courthouse in a hastily arranged ceremony. Lily put her siblings and sons on speaker phone, explaining, “We are about to get married.”

Barred from the U.S. by immigration laws, Alberto lives in Mexico and she lives in Washington. They plan to have “a nice wedding” when the paperwork is completed and they can live together. Meanwhile, she flies to see him in Mexico a couple of times a month, and they continue to Skype daily.

Says Lily, “He doesn’t speak English except these five words that I taught him – ‘I want what you want.’ Every husband should learn that.”

Having taken the next step in her personal life, she is about to take the next step in her professional life in her accidental labor career. But four decades down the road since her lunch lady days, she still returns to her roots by visiting classrooms in her travels to speaking engagements around the country.

“I love my job,” she says. “You get to be advocates for kids and their families and teachers."

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: