In 2006, when the flag was first raised at Don Callejon K-8 School, the first new school built in Santa Clara Unified School District in 40 years, it was hard to persuade the former teacher, principal and district superintendent Don Callejon to be at the center of the school’s opening ceremonies.
“When the district named the school after him, he probably tried to talk them out of it,” said his daughter Donna Callejon. “He was an achiever but quite humble. Our family was so proud of what he achieved, but he very humble about it.”
Having a school named after him was “humbling,” Callejon told The Weekly in 2006. “I don’t think that anyone individual can take credit for accomplishing this. We’ve got to have a team.”
But Callejon’s legacy was so indisputable that naming the new school after him was a no-brainer.
“Usually, we name schools after historical figures, pioneers in the community, people who have been very active, or former superintendents or school board members,” former SCUSD Superintendent Paul Perotti told The Weekly in 2006.
“Don fits into every one of those. The committee didn’t debate it very much. After the first meeting, Callejon School [the name] was never discussed again.”
Callejon died Feb. 27 at the age of 91.
The son of Spanish immigrants, Don Callejon grew up in San Jose on a farm in Berryessa — “a Depression baby, said his daughter Donna — and as a young man he worked in the fields. From Bellarmine Prep he went on to graduate from Santa Clara University, earning a teaching credential from San Jose State University.
Callejon and his future wife, Clare Silvera of Milpitas, met in 1951 at a dance at St. John’s Catholic Church, where they were married the following December. The couple moved to Santa Clara where they raised three children and lived the rest of their lives.
Over his 40-year career at Santa Clara Unified, Callejon taught in the classroom, was vice-principal, principal, superintendent and trustee in the district.
“Don hired me,” said founder of Gillmor Real Estate, former high school teacher and former Santa Clara Mayor Gary Gillmor. “He was the best employer I ever had — he was knowledgeable and credible and very generous. With teachers, he would always give you the benefit of the doubt. If you were in trouble he’d sit down and talk with you about it.
“There was a difference between Don and other superintendents,” Gillmor continued. “He was from Santa Clara. He loved Santa Clara and devoted his life to Santa Clara.”
It was under Callejon’s tenure that the school district, with Gillmor’s help, maximized the sales of its excess property. Gillmor proposed making sales offers conditional on getting zoning changes, which would bring the district far more money. It proved successful, but at the time it hadn’t been tried before.
“Don gave me a shot,” Gillmor said. “I always thanked him for giving me a chance.”
Despite his day job in education, Don taught his children to fish during vacations in the Gold Country, and how to drive forklifts at the family ranch. It was another example of his down-to-earth character.
He viewed education from the same perspective — not from theory, but from what you could call facts on the ground.
“Over the years people have realized that the older students can be great role models for the younger students [in K-8 schools],” he told The Weekly when Callejon School opened. “These students can also be aids or tutors. It frees up primary teachers for more one-on-one teaching.”
“When he was principal at Buchser, some of his closest friends were the facilities workers,” Donna said. He thought there was much to be learned from people who worked outside the classroom as there was to be learned inside the classroom, she said.
Callejon was also a legendary gardener, known for his picture-perfect yard.
“When you wanted to talk with Don about politics,” said long-time neighbor James Rowen, “you went over on Saturday or Sunday mornings when he was working in his garden. You would always get the most commonsense answer to a question.”
Callejon was never too busy to help out in community efforts. From the St. Clare’s Dad’s BBQ and the Santa Clara Schools Foundation Wine Tent at Santa Clara’s annual Art & Wine Festival, to serving on the boards of The Bill Wilson Center and the Bronco Bench Foundation — he was always ready to help. Candidates for City office regularly asked for Callejon’s endorsement.
When discussions began to build Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Callejon co-chaired the effort with his friend Larry Marsalli, another of Santa Clara’s legendary community leaders.
For Callejon, everything came down to helping other people. “One of the most important things I learned [from him],” Donna said, “was that how you showed up for people and how they felt about you was more important than anything else you achieved.”
Don was predeceased by his wife of more than 50 years, Clare, and is survived by his children Rick, Chuck and Donna; grand- and step-grandchildren Drew, Davis, Carly and Mark, and Avery Callejon and Harris Rodriguez. Donations in Don’s honor can be made to the Santa Clara Schools Foundation (www.santaclaraschoolsfoundation.org). A memorial for Don and Clare will be held this summer at Don Callejon School.