Jonathan Pharazyn, a former Mountain View teacher and school administrator known for championing the needs of underserved students, died in a bicycle accident earlier this month. He was 66.
Pharazyn began working in Mountain View Whisman schools in 2000 as an assistant principal at Graham Middle School and capped off his 35-year career in education as a teacher at Monta Loma Elementary until 2016. Characterized by his upbeat persona and social justice streak, Pharazyn stayed active in schools as a substitute teacher into retirement.
Born in San Francisco as an only child, Pharazyn spent his youth living in both San Carlos and Honolulu, eventually moving to the East Bay where he graduated from Pittsburg High School. He attended Reed College in Portland and the University of California at Berkeley before taking a hiatus from the Bay Area to attend school in Illinois.
Pharazyn was active in politics and social justice during his time in Chicago in the 1970s, said Ruth Norris, Pharazyn's wife. He felt strongly about racism and poverty, and worked as a community organizer in the housing projects to stoke social change. In high school Pharazyn campaigned hard for George McGovern's run for president in 1972, even though he was too young to vote at the time.
"He continued to be passionate about the underclasses," Norris said. "He was probably a socialist before it was accepted the way it is now."
Pharazyn moved back to the Bay Area in the 1980s and taught in Redwood City schools before landing in the Mountain View Whisman School District as a school administrator. Judy Crates, then the principal at Graham, said she remembered recruiting Pharazyn as the school's vice principal, and that he stuck around in the role for several years before going back to teaching.
Crates, currently back at Graham as the interim principal, said she held an emergency staff meeting at the school over Pharazyn's death, and that seven to eight teachers currently at the school had worked with him.
Working as a vice principal at Graham wasn't easy, particularly back in 2000, Norris said. The school had a reputation for having troubled students and gang influence, with kids frequently getting in trouble with the police. Students running afoul of the rules went to him, but Norris said he always gave them multiple opportunities for redemption.
"Being an assistant principal you tend to be the disciplinarian, but he tried to give kids second, third and fourth chances to try to keep them in school and work with their families," she said.
Bruce Barsi, a former Mountain View police officer, said Pharazyn had a passion for kids and never gave up on them, always granting students the benefit of the doubt and the resources they needed to turn their lives around. He was a strong partner with the Mountain View Police Department at the time, and worked with law enforcement on interventions for troubled youth.
After retiring, Barsi said he and Pharazyn stayed friends and biked together after work or on the weekend. He said he was always trying to catch up -- Pharazyn was a much better bicyclist -- but Pharazyn's "lunker" of a bike partially leveled the playing field.
Talking to him over the years, Barsi said Pharazyn was pretty liberal-minded and always felt that all people, regardless of background, deserved the same opportunities to be successful.
"He just really felt the underserved communities, particularly the kids in the school where he worked at, really needed a boost -- a fair shake to be able to compete in life."
In his final years working in the school district, Pharazyn served as the president of the Mountain View Educators Association, taking on the difficult role of trying to improving salaries and working conditions for more than 200 teachers in the Mountain View Whisman School District. Negotiations over teachers' salaries often stalled, leading to tense standoffs with district administrators.
It was a thankless job, Barsi said, stuck in between district management and the rank-and-file who both want something that neither can get. But Pharazyn had the right personality for the job, always with a smile and always with something good to say.
"I think it was the first of his personality that really won over people he worked with," he said. "He made it work, and everybody that he encountered -- whether it was teachers or management -- they all liked him and respected him."
The major push for better pay seems to have paid off. Starting salaries for teachers went from $47,808 to $60,933 in the span of just a few years. Pharazyn's only regret, Norris said, was that he didn't stick around long enough to get those bigger paychecks.
In a statement, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said Pharazyn had a significant impact on both teachers and students, as well as in the community.
"His legacy of lifelong learning and curiosity will persist in all whose lives he touched. Our district extends our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends," Rudolph said.
Outside of schools Pharazyn was a prolific outdoorsman, constantly traveling, hiking, biking and kayaking. If he wasn't doing something like that, Norris said, Pharazyn was outside gardening at their Waverly Park home. In retirement he got so ambitious he was actively managing 20 fruit trees, and she said it's unclear how she is going to keep up with all of them.
Details on memorial services for Pharazyn are still to come. He is survived by his wife and two children, Lilia and Fabio Pharazyn; stepsons Ben and Pat Graves; and five grandchildren. Memorial donations can be made to the nonprofit jazz radio station KCSM, the Peninsula Open Space Trust or another charity of choice.