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‘No troublemaker’

Humor helps LUHS hall monitor bond with students

April 24, 2020 by Emily Koester

Students and staff of Lakeland Union High School — or just anyone who has walked through the halls during the school day since 2002 — will recognize the voice of one particular hall monitor. Maybe it’s the sass of his banter, or maybe it’s just that accent. But ask a current or past student or staff member if they know “Gabe,” there’s a good chance faces will brighten as a lightbulb goes on with recognition.

Gabe Chavez, who turns 83 next week, has been a hall monitor at the high school for 15 years, and the self-described “sweet and loveable,” “no troublemaker” character doesn’t just walk the halls of the school, but he continues to leave an impression (a sometimes questionable one, at that) on the lives of many students. As a hall monitor, his duties include assisting with bus duty after school, patrolling the hallways during class time, and being an adult presence during the lunch periods. All of these times offer a chance to get to know students, sometimes on a more personal level.

As a LUHS alumni who had been a student during his time at the school, my interview with Gabe was … as unusual as the man himself. Was he being serious or was I falling for another one of his jokes? What the heck did he just say, and in what language? But that’s his personality, and that’s what people like about him.

Ancient history

Gabe was born in Chile on April 30, 1937, to a mother who taught concert piano lessons and a father who was an active Navy officer. His mother was educated in an American school after her father, a Methodist minister living in the northern part of Chile, died when she was young. His mother spoke English well, but his father, not so much.

Gabe attended college for one year after high school, but was “kicked out” because he didn’t attend classes. He sure had time for his extracurricular activities, though, as he was involved in soccer, basketball, tennis and track.

“I just didn’t have time,” he said of not attending classes. “I was always involved in sports, even though I had a problem with asthma.”

After that he started a job at a bank, inputting payments onto documents for clients, as this was before computers were used. This bank had its own soccer and basketball teams, which of course Gabe was a part of.

From an early age, Gabe decided he wanted to come to the United States, and with some assistance from a friend of his mother’s in the States, after he turned 24 he made the trip.

He was advised to go to Denver, because the climate would be good for his asthma, and was given contact information for a man there who could help him get started. 

“I came to Denver in February 1962, and I called the gentleman and he had no idea about me, but he said ‘You’re a friend of a friend, I’ll come talk to you,’” Gabe said. This man took Gabe to the company he worked for, in hopes of finding a job. 

“But my English was limited — still is limited,” Gabe said with a chuckle.

From there he was taken to an unemployment office in Denver, and with his work history, Gabe was set up with a job at a bank.

“I was there two days in the United States and I had a job,” Gabe said of his blessed life.

But coming to the U.S. was still a bit of shock for Gabe, as he had left a stable lifestyle — with his parents both being professionals — that provided basically everything he needed. Luckily his mother had instilled a strong sense of discipline in her kids, so Gabe knew if he wanted something he would have to work for it.

Gabe worked full time at the bank from 1962 to 1965, and he said at first he worked with mostly women, who he found out later were taking advantage of the language barrier.

“I learned a lot of words in English, but with the wrong meaning,” he said with an eye roll, because the women would tell him otherwise. 

After being transferred to a different section of the bank, it was suggested to Gabe he work for an airline. He began working for United Airlines in 1964, a shift from midnight to 8:30 a.m., while also working for the bank during the day.

“Then I would go home for a couple of hours,” he said of his time between the two jobs. 

Gabe began by washing airplanes and emptying the toilet chambers, and in 1965 became a ramp serviceman. From there he moved up to be in charge of airport gates and eventually a supervisor of operations, supervising up to 40 people at a time.

“I have a few awards, because I loved the job,” Gabe said.

Gabe also worked part time jobs moving furniture, as a dish washer, and even a sous chef at a 4 star Italian restaurant called Gabe’s.

From around 1969 to the early ’70s, Gabe attended Metropolitan State College in Denver, playing on the first varsity soccer team at the school. He made the dean’s list as a student, while also playing soccer twice a week, training at the YMCA between classes, and working a fulltime afternoon shift at the airline. But Gabe ended up quitting school to focus on his job for the airline, a decision he regrets.

“Many mistakes I made in my life and this one perhaps the biggest one,” he said of that choice. 

The stresses of his job at the airport, as well as some physical health issues, eventually took its toll on Gabe and after so many years he returned to the position of lead ramp serviceman.

“The pressure of keeping things going as a supervisor … there was no life, I couldn’t have my days off,” he said. The airport would call at all hours of the day and night while he was a supervisor. “When I went back on the ramp as a union lead again, I gained weight, I felt great, I was smiling, and then one day I decided to move to the mountains.”

Gabe had married in 1962 and had two sons from that marriage, but the stress of working all the time began to wear on the family life and he and his wife eventually divorced. He moved to St. Mary’s Glacier (elevation of 10,200 feet) with his dogs, but kept his job at the airport, driving 55 miles one way for the job every day.

Unable to keep up with the physical demands of the job due to an industrial accident, Gabe retired from the airport in 1986.

So how did a man with this sort of background end up stalking the halls of LUHS? When a friend from the airline in Denver moved to Minocqua, she invited him to come visit her and her husband.

“I was here 36 hours, and I was driving ... and I saw this house, where I live now,” Gabe recalled. He liked how little snow there was compared to where he lived in the mountains, and that the house was flat, perfect for his older dogs. When he told his sons about his plan to move, one of them told him he needed to see a psychiatrist.

“‘It took you that long to find that out?’” he joked at the time.

In 1997 he moved to the Northwoods, into the house he still calls home today. 

Lakeland Union High School

Gabe’s involvement with LUHS began when someone at the school suggested he help out with the soccer teams. He didn’t want to be a head coach, and began with assisting the JV girls team, before ending up with the varsity head coach position in 2000. 

“It was rough, but I did it for only a season,” he said.

When the position was offered again the next season, this time for the boys’ team, he turned it down, but continued to volunteer with the teams. He recalled working with the “excellent” boys’ varsity coach Rhonda Maulson, whose kids called him “Gabe the Slave.”

“She abused me to no end,” he recalled of the friendship.

In 2002 Gabe interviewed for the hall monitor position at the school. He remembers being interviewed by three women and feeling outnumbered.

“I told them it wasn’t fair, one against three, so they felt bad and when I got home I got a call and they told me I was a hall monitor,” he said. “At the time they didn’t check backgrounds or anything — no skeletons were found — so I didn’t have any problems. I got the job, and I did it for 15 years.”

Gabe credits his job with the airline to the success he has in building positive relationships with students at LUHS. As a supervisor, he had to deal with many workers who overpowered his small stature, but he makes up for that in personality.

“They know that I care and my sense of humor is sick, but the kids understand sick sense of humor,” he said of the students. He’s had students who are very serious at school, approach and playfully heckle him while he works part time in the electronics department at Walmart. Gabe pretends to call security.

He said the best thing he learned from his work with the airline is to listen and observe before making a decision, because you don’t know what is going on in someone’s life.

“When there’s a problem, talk directly. Don’t use cuss words, don’t get mad. Just relax,” he said. “If you listen to them, then you can explain your situation, and then you can find solutions.”

One of the more difficult aspects of the job is having to break up a few fights, and more often than not it’s between female students.

“When two girls are involved in a ‘discussion’ and you’ve got to get in between them, and they grab the hair, girls are meaner than boys when they get in fights,” he said.

He also said teenagers seem to lack respect more nowadays, even for themselves, than he remembers in the past, and he blames that partially on parents having to work so much and spending less time with the family. He no longer watches most sports, as he compared them to that of the Roman Empire, “with how violent they have become.”

But Gabe gave credit to the administration for their quick response to discipline, which makes his job easier.

Gabe also voiced his support for teachers and their role in the lives of students.

“Teachers are not understood very well,” he said. “They work 16 hours a day — it’s eight hours at school, but then preparation, being with the kids, trying to help them … now with the new STAR program that we have, it’s amazing the difference with kids that would have … never get the help they are getting now. So when I watch that, I like it. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

“The world is changing, we are changing, and what we have to do — even at my age — we have to adapt, not to the whole system but understand what the system is doing, and just put up with that, because I’m not going to change the way that you think, or a kid,” he said.

During his years at LUHS, Gabe has received a couple of awards including Staff of the Month and an award for being funny. But his favorite to date is the “Best Hair” award.

“I didn’t pay too much for it,” he joked. When accepting the award, he approached the podium in the fieldhouse during the pep assembly with a stack of blank papers in hand, and pretended to read, “‘I would like to thank my parents, for the lack of education …” while changing pages every few words.

Gabe “retired” for a short while at the age of 80 after he slipped and fell on a patch of ice at the school in February of 2017, experiencing a concussion that resulted in him losing his hearing. He was able to regain some hearing with the assistance of hearing aids.

After his accident, students wrote little messages on Post It notes on a large poster in the cafeteria, and he kept all of the notes. Staff also held a dinner for him. There were pictures of him over each table, and he received compliments from many staff members, even some he hardly interacted with while at the school. 

But he wanted to work, and as soon as possible was back in the school. Even now he walks about 20,000 steps a day, most of which is from wandering the halls of LUHS looking for trouble. He has over 31 million steps logged on his FitBit since 2014.

Gabe said his motivation is the positive interactions he has with so many students.

“This is what makes me feel like I am doing the right approach,” he said. “It’s not as hard as it has to be.”

Keeping busy

Although Gabe has cut back on his involvement with the school outside of being a hall monitor, he still is a very busy guy, even with the COVID-19 shutdown. His three dogs, one of which is just a rowdy pup he refers to as “the punk,” keep him on his toes constantly. But he keeps his daily schedule very organized, thanks to the discipline instilled in him by his mother.

“When people say, ‘Are you lonely?’ I say, ‘When? What time?’” he said. But he doesn’t regret his decision to move to the Northwoods. “I love my little paradise on earth. I got a little circle I can walk on the road with my doggies, no leash (the punk is going to be on an e-collar).” 

With schools closed for the rest of the school year, Gabe said he misses interacting with students — “I sure miss the chance to discipline the students, as I enjoy doing very much!” He also misses keeping an “eye on the administration’s lunch hours.”

He may be letting the coronavirus keep him home, but Gabe won’t let anything keep him from enjoying life.

“I wish people would realize to enjoy what we have. It’s so material, everything we want is material. At my age, I’m going to be 83,” he said with a comedic cry. “But I still can function at school, and I can do everything at my house.”

Emily Koester may be reached at [email protected]

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