Herman Katz has begun to grow weary of hearing and seeing his own name. A humble 73-year-old who has taught and counseled in Los Angeles public schools since 1957, he has been living in the limelight since one of his former students, Antonio Villaraigosa, became mayor last year.
Katz taught Villaraigosa, then a struggling senior, in a reading improvement class at Roosevelt High School. Noticing that Villaraigosa held promise and was at a critical point in his development, Katz pulled him aside to offer encouragement and advice, namely that Villaraigosa should take the SAT exams and apply to college.
"I saw that he was a bright kid, and from what he had told me, he really didn't know what he was going to do," Katz said. "It was just a matter of encouraging him."
Katz offered to take the boy to the college counselors himself.
Villaraigosa ended up taking classes at East Los Angeles Community College, then transferring to UCLA, from which he graduated in 1977 with a degree in history.
"It wasn't a 'this-kid-could-be-mayor-one-day' type of thing. But it just so happened that this was at a time when he needed somebody who showed a little interest, who would give him the encouragement, and that's what it really was," Katz said.
Both on the campaign trail and in his inaugural speech, Villaraigosa credited Katz with making "such a difference in my life." Katz even appeared in Villaraigosa's campaign commercials.
Though Katz said he is baffled by all the attention, he is reluctant to shy away from it because he believes that his story is beneficial for all teachers. Villaraigosa thinks so, too. The mayor particularly likes to mention Katz when advocating the need for public education reform in Los Angeles, an issue that dominated his campaign and has been at the top of his agenda since taking office.
"This story is important because it shows people how important an educator can be when you don't even realize it," Katz said. "You never know how you're going to affect a kid."
If Katz's is the ideal teacher's story, then it's also a very good Jewish story.
He was born in Boyle Heights and grew up there and in City Terrace, which both had large Jewish populations, but the areas later became heavily Hispanic. Like Villaraigosa, Katz graduated from nearby Roosevelt High School.
The son of a Russian Jewish mother and American Jewish father, Katz fondly recalled spending his boyhood hanging out at synagogues and as a member of AZA, the youth group for Jewish boys.
Today, he and his family continue to practice secular Reform Judaism. Katz and his wife, Beverly, volunteer at the Valley City Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, where their now-grown children once attended the kinderschul.
Lately, Katz has been frustrated with the California High School Exit Exam, which he believes will prevent many deserving kids from graduating.
These days, he is retired but still spends two days a week helping out in the counseling office at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sherman Oaks, where he lives.
Katz credits his Jewish values with endowing him with a lasting respect for social justice and universal rights.
"We've always been union oriented and have always supported the working man's fight for a decent life," he said. "For me anyway, it just carried over into my philosophy as far as teaching is concerned."