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Former Supt. Schmidt Dies

By Jorge Casuso

December 17 -- Former School Superintendent Dr. Neil Schmidt, a strapping figure known as a visionary with a soft spot for children, especially the littlest, died Wednesday at his Fillmore home of undetermined causes. He was 63.

Standing 6’ 5”, Schmidt, who served as superintendent from 1992 to 2001, was a ubiquitous presence at the district, popping up at meetings unannounced, frequently visiting the campuses and always greeting everyone -- from bus drivers to first graders -- by their name.

Known for his dedication and commitment to equality, Schmidt took a hands-on approach to his post, pushing his staff and relishing time spent in the classroom, where he had started his career as a Kindergarten teacher.

“His bottom line was kids,” said Barbara Inatsugu, the district’s administrative secretary for most of Schmidt’s tenure as superintendent. “Equality and opportunity for education, those are words that get tossed around, but they had meaning for him. He acted on them.”

“Neil cared about everybody’s children,” said Dr. Margaret Quinones, who served on the school board from 1992 to 2000. “He loved and advocated for everybody’s children. His mission and his passion was children.”

“He gave the district one hundred percent,” said School Board member Julia Brownley. “He knew everyone in the district and knew them very, very well. He was a kindergarten teacher and really relished being in the classroom, especially with the littlest ones.

“He was pretty much a workaholic,” Brownley said. “He kept long hours. He came in early and left late.”

Colleagues considered Schmidt a visionary, and he was in high demand as a speaker up and down the state.

“In my first years here in California, I became so aware of the legacy Neil left in education in California,” said Superintendent Dr. John Deasy, who knew Schmidt for 10 years before succeeding him in 2001. “From UCLA to Stanford, Neil's work is honored and well known.

“I will always value his sense of caring, commitment to all youth, many years of dedicated service to this community and public education in California, and the genuine personal relationships he had with so many of us,” Deasy said.

Schmidt is also credited with furthering bonds between the district and the City.

“Neil was an extremely approachable person, easy to talk to and certainly the relationship between the district and the City really evolved significantly during his tenure,” said City Manager Susan McCarthy. “He was enthusiastic, full of ideas, extremely personable and a very bright guy.”

Those who worked with Schmidt, recall him as a kind but demanding boss who handed out what sometimes appeared to be impossible tasks.

“He encouraged me to push myself to do more than I thought I was able to,” said Jeanne Wells, assistant to superintendent Deasy, who called her nine years working with Schmidt “an honor and a privilege.” “He made me stretch beyond my abilities and he was right, I succeeded.”

“He was the kind of guy who pushed staff to do our best,” said Inatsugu, who credits Schmidt for supporting her bid to become the state president of the League of Women Voters. “He pushed me to learn and go beyond my capabilities, or what I thought they were.”

The tall bearded figure Schmidt was hard to miss on campus, towering above the children, often stopping to chat with them or to teach them how to tie their shoes.

“Here’s this big old man kneeling on the ground helping them,” Quinones said. “He knew how to make every kid know he knew who they were. He knew pretty much every kid, every teacher, every family.”

Quinones said she will never forget how Schmidt once demonstrated how he taught little boys to skip.

“He was a six-foot-five man, and he would demonstrate,” she said. “You could see all the tenderness and commitment.”

On Lincoln’s birthday, Schmidt would sport a dark suit and top hat and pop into the classrooms to talk about the president.

“When he put on that jacket and hat, he was Mr. Lincoln,” Inatsugu said. “The kids felt comfortable with him. When I think of Neil, I have an image of his six-foot-five guy teaching these tiny children.”

Schmidt’s personable style graced the workplace and carried over into the personal lives of his colleagues and workers.

“When he first arrived in the District, I remember he had us all looking up the words to ‘Getting to Know You’ from ‘The King and I’ so we could all sing it together,” Wells recalled. “Neil got to know each and every member of the SMMUSD family.

“He let us into his life and his family and we grew to love all of them, even Freckles, Zach and Zane the Brittany Spaniels that he adored,” Wells said.

“Neil was our superintendent,” Quinones said. “Neil was my friend, my mentor. I couldn’t have gotten my doctorate without Neil. He was my teacher and champion. I was one of his students.”

Schmidt had a zest for life that was contagious, his colleagues said.

“He was a man that was full of life and fully energized in everything he did,” Brownley said. “He was passionate not only about children, but about travelling, his family, his avocados, cooking.”

After his retirement in June 2001, Schmidt spent long hours in the avocado orchard of his Fillmore home, which he had bought back after selling it to move to the Los Angeles area. The son of a tomato farmer, Schmidt was proud of his avocados.

“He loathed tomatoes, he wouldn’t get near them at all,” Brownley said. “But he loved his avocados.”

It was in his orchard that Schmidt collapsed at around noon Wednesday, friends said. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died.

Schmidt is survived by his wife, Julie, and two daughters, Corrie and Sarah. Funeral services have not been announced.

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