Many friends of Leslie Rothwell knew her from her association with Castro Valley’s schools, arts foundation and Rotary Club. I doubt that many associate Castro Valley High School’s former principal with football, but I do.
CVHS staff members enjoyed a friendly game with the pigskin in 1998, shortly after Leslie hired me to teach at my alma mater. New and veteran teachers got to know each other and bond on a fun autumn afternoon filled with laughs. In fact, Leslie quarterbacked my team and threw me a touchdown pass, which might epitomize the game’s hilarity since neither of us ever claimed to be any good at football. I realized that day that I had joined not just a school, but a community of dedicated professionals who cared deeply about their work and about each other.
Of course there’s more to leading a high school than putting on an after-school ball game. As our principal from 1998-2003, Leslie led us with a steady hand through thick and thin. The state started a new system of standardized testing, and our students scored well enough to earn cash bonuses for our teachers. We dealt with now-familiar problems like student tardiness and the achievement gap.
Our campus experienced fights, drugs, drunk driving incidents, protests against the Iraq War, accusations of racism, vandalism, burglaries, a flood and much more in those years. A student-produced underground newspaper criticized our administration often, but I marvel at how Leslie capably handled these crises. She and her assistant principals enlisted teachers to help when possible but mostly just dealt with them so that we could teach.
Sensing a hostile climate for LGBT people, Leslie put together a panel of LGBT staff members and students to tell our teachers what they were going through and how we could help. During a period when precious few LGBT people were “out” in our community, the staff development event was eye-opening and maturing for many, including me.
More than anything, Leslie created a positive atmosphere and supported the teachers and other staff members. She had our backs and we knew it. I believe that’s why many of them publicly have expressed such admiration and affection for Leslie since she died last week following a two-year struggle with cancer.
“As a boss, she was the embodiment of professionalism: hard working, supportive of teachers, and trusting in the input of her staff. She built relationships with us because she believed in the team,” wrote CVHS teacher Carmelina Frasca. “As my friend, I found her inspiring because she was full of life, incredibly intelligent, a fighter, sarcastic and funny, classy and yet down to earth. She was a beautiful person, inside and out. I’m a better person because I knew her.”
Leslie also served as principal of Vannoy Elementary School for five years. After leaving her position at CVHS in 2003, Leslie continued to serve students at the district office until she retired in 2011. Even after her diagnosis, she made occasional appearances at CVHS as a substitute administrator, which always pleased the staff members who knew her. Her fight against an awful and fast-acting cancer was brave and inspiring.
Current students may not know Leslie’s name or her importance to the community, but they’ve still benefited from her tenure through more than a dozen teachers she hired who still serve our students so many years later. These include Barbara Andersen, Sarah Burke, Kat Cassidy, Andrea Eldridge, Jeannie Emrich, Erika Ikemoto, Roger Kim, Mark Mladinich, Laura O’Brien, Shari Cabral Rodriguez, Jo Sutton and Daren Wilkerson.
Leslie Rothwell did far more for me than throw me that touchdown pass. She helped me start my teaching career and find my place in the world. She left us far too soon, but I’ll always be in her debt and grateful for that, and among the many who will miss her.