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Enochs closing book on ed life

When Jim Enochs talks about his life, he wants to tell you about what almost was — a baseball scholarship to Stanford University, a seat at Yale Law School, a spot in the Reagan administration.

But the life of the longtime superintendent of Modesto City Schools rarely went beyond the district's 168 square miles. He even married the girl who sat in front of him in class at Modesto High.

"I've never regretted, greatly regretted, that I've ended up in education," Enochs said from his nearly empty office Wednesday afternoon. "I don't believe in predestination, but I do think you just kind of lurchalongand things have a way of working out if you work at your job."

Afterbeing around the district formorethan 60years, it seems there aren't many people around who areambivalent about Enochs.

Monday morning, he'llbereplaced byArturo Flores, a first-timesuperintendent and former administratorin theSacramento City Unified School District.

At Enochs' last board meeting Monday night — by his count, it was his 630th — some recalled their first impressions of the 72-year-old man.

"My wife told me 'That's the superintendent. He's really mean,'" board member Gary Lopez said.

"I'm going to miss sitting across from you and seeing your expressions," he told Enochs, "the vein popping out of your forehead, the rolling of the eyes ora chuckle when something amuses you."

Board president Steve Collins presented Enochs, a history buff, with a case holding 28 bullets. Each was used on a different Civil War battlefield.

"I thought you were going to say you pulled those out of my back," Enochs deadpanned.

Enochs' family moved from Glendale to Modesto when he was in the sixth grade. At the time, Enochs felt he'd been "dropped off the edge of the Earth."

His father, Lloyd Enochs, was a high school dropout and an accomplished magician. He taught tricks to professional and amateur magicians such as Orson Welles and Lou Costello. Enochs' mother often was the test subject for new tricks, such as "the guillotine."

While at Modesto High School in 1949, Enochs' record included mediocre grades, the occasional fistfight and being late to class. He also was an all-star catcher on the baseball team.

A career in teaching came almost as an accident. Enochs' first job was at Patterson High School in 1957, teaching history and English and coaching the basketball and baseball teams. That job came to an abrupt end after he kicked most of his baseball players off the team after catching them smoking cigarettes in the dugout.

"That probably pretty well did me in with that community," Enochs said.

He returned to school to get hismaster's at the University ofColorado. Enochs was most ofthe way to a Ph.D. in history when he clashed with his adviser over the topic of his dissertation. Enochs used words from the poet e.e. cummings as his parting words to that adviser: "There is some s--- I will not eat."

'He wouldn't back off a position'

That run-in took him back to Modesto City Schools and a job teaching government at Davis High School.

Former Enochs student Jim Autry, now an English teacher at Downey High, said he quickly acquired what would become a lifelong habit of reading two newspapers every morning, "the better to face Mr. Enochs' laser-like gaze."

"He was not afraid to stand up to administrators and parents," Autry said. "He got in trouble a few times for sticking his neck out. He wouldn't back off a position."

In 1975, Enochs was put in charge of curriculum at the district office. There he crafted the district's "Fourth R: Responsibility" program, which included a set of academic expectations and a conduct code for students.

His program made national headlines; Jesse Jackson used it as a blueprint for his "Ten Commandments for Education."

In 1986, Enochs took over as superintendent. How did he manage to keep his support for 21 years when superintendents average less than three?

"He's smart enough to know if he's going to go out publicly and lose, he's going to try to work it out," said Barney Hale, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association.

Opposition often was vocal

But Enochs wasn't able to keep some of his most vocal opposition behind closed doors.

Enochs fought pushes by conservative parents and church leaders to ban books, such as Shel Silverstein's collection of poems "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

In 1991, many decried his decision to ban all hats worn on school campuses in order to curb the influence of gangs. Enochs said shortly after the decision, someone shot twice through his office window.

"I always took that as a vote of confidence since they shot on the weekend," Enochs said.

While he'll rattle off achievements such as bolstering the schools' libraries and putting a college counselor at every high school campus, Enochs said he's proudest of his decision to help craft the district's comprehensive anti-discrimination policy.

Enochs headed a set of meetings in 1996, called the Safe Schools Project, after he heard the high school-age son of a former student describe being tormented at school for being gay.

"I listened to that boy talk and I'll tell you that was one of the most emotional things I've experienced," Enochs said. "With my own children I remember, 'Oh, I got a zit, Dad,' or 'My hair's bad and I don't want to go to school.' But this kid had to go to school every day and just face the most God-awful things. It was just hell every day."

In recent years, Enochs has come under fire from parents who say he was out of touch with the problems facing the district's African-American and Latino students.

JesseWillard,awestModestocommunity advocate, said Enochs declined to participate in a forum to debate why these students were failing.

"That was just Jim Enochs," Willard said. "He's run (the district) as a monarchy for so long. Ithink the district just would never admit that they made mistakes without a person having to jump through all kinds of hoops. Parents would simply give up. There was no hope for a lot of these parents."

A few regrets

Enochs has some regrets. He said his greatest one was not spending more time visiting schools and cultivating relationships with teachers.

Enochs plans to start Monday morning the same way he has for much of his career. He'll wake up at 4 a.m. and spend at least an hour reading in his library, where he keeps about 12,000 books, before starting his day.

He lives with his wife on 10acres off a dead-end road inrural Ceres, with two Rottweilers named Ike and Mamie, after the Eisenhowers.

About a dozen cars drive down that road every year. Most of them turn around.

He doesn't know exactly what he'll do after 6 a.m. from now on, but Enochs said it won't have anything to do with education.

"I just need to go home and go into my library and close the door for a while," Enochs said. "It's hard for people to understand who haven't had the job, but nobody ever walks through that door that they don't want something or they're going to complain about something. It's going to be kind of nice to wash that out and kind of lay down that responsibility."

But Enochs has a reason to be seen around his namesake campus. On Thursday, in his last public appearance as superin-tendent, Enochs dedicated the Enochs High baseball field after his former baseball coach, the late Dick Windemuth.

Enochs' grandson will play against the Enochs High School team this fall as a member of the Modesto High baseball team.

"It's hard to know whether to cheer for Enochs High School oryour grandson," Enochs said with a grin as he stood next to the field.

And with that, he turned on his heel.

"Well, I think I'm going home. Forever."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.