Last week, the Riverside community celebrated the life of one of our most cherished community leaders, Lew Vanderzyl. To honor his memory, we are reprinting a segment of an interview we published in 2013 highlighting his advocacy and leadership during the naming of Martin Luther King High School in Riverside’s Orangecrest neighborhood.
When you became President of the Riverside Unified School District Board of Education, what was your top priority?
To make sure that the district didn’t fall under the leadership of conservative Christians. I probably have changed a bit over the years, but that probably was the main thing I was concerned about. At the time in the early 1990’s, many conservatives moved to take over a number of elected positions [on the school board]. I think it would have been unfortunate for the school board if that happened. I think you have to have a philosophy of education – or of life – to lead schools and I was glad to see the possibility of more openness of the board’s approach to issues rather than close-mindedness. That was probably the most pressing thing that concerned me. I would run into so many people who were close minded about their education and it dominated their thinking entirely. I think t h e ongoing dispute of evolution is symptomatic of that.
Before you announced MLK would be the name of the high school, did you foresee how controversial the idea would be?
I was probably not as aware of the controversial naming beforehand. It was a thing I took some pleasure in standing up for because of the kind of person that King was.
You have become an iconic figure in Riverside County for the naming of a Riverside high school for Martin Luther King, Jr. in a predominantly White community. Why did you propose MLK for the name of the school?
Martin Luther King, Jr. and I were both born in the same year, 1929, and he accomplished so much in his life. I was struck by that. Not only his accomplishments, but his devotion to justice, brotherhood and non-violence made him a special figure in American history, and certainly America during the 1960s. I think it was those principles that stood out to me, more than the man and his actions, but his concern for equality and justice for all people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. High School was a notable accomplishment in your legacy. However, what would you like for people to focus on when they reflect on your leadership as an administrator?
I want them to remember that I tried to do the right thing. I supported those things that I thought were most appropriate and the superintendent at that time was someone I got along with well. We had differences on one thing or another, but she respected me, being a school board member and president of the board for such a long time. Her friendship was important, but I was always determined to do what was correct despite that friendship.
What would you like to be most remembered for by future generations?
The naming of Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.