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Cordero, Donald

Los Gatos, CA

Mercury News
Article Launched: 12/15/2007 01:36:03 AM PST

One afternoon years ago at Mission College in Santa Clara, counselor Don Cordero was kneeling down praying near a parking lot when he was spotted by his friend, teacher Lydia Harris.

Curious, Harris asked Mr. Cordero, an ex-Jesuit, what he was doing. "I'm praying for the burrowing owls," he replied, saying that bulldozers were expected in the morning for a campus project.

Such was Mr. Cordero's quiet charisma and spiritual authority that Harris accepted his invitation to join him, her nylons chafing on the ground. "I don't know if it saved any owls, but we prayed for them," she said.

Mr. Cordero, 70, a retired counselor who was a current trustee of the West Valley-Mission Community College District, died of cancer Sunday, surrounded by his family.

His fellow faculty members remember him as an unusually thoughtful man who cared deeply about students and brought a statesmanlike voice to academic politics through three terms as president of the Academic Senate.

"He was very much an optimist," said a fellow faculty member, Jane Patton. "He lightened the load in a room. He was truly a gentle man."

From an office famed for its clutter and behind ties that competed in loudness - Mickey Mouse was one favorite - Mr. Cordero strove not just to impart advice to students, but to guide them through the bureaucracy. Was there an issue with admissions? He might walk a student over to introduce someone who could help.

He liked to carry a big bag filled with sodas and water, and in the central area of Mission College, he would stretch out the legs of his 6-foot-1 frame and share a conversation with students.

As academic politics reached their tensest point in 2003, when the district threatened to lay off as many as four dozen teachers, Mr. Cordero calmed tempers by pleading with the board of trustees to trust the faculty to sort through the problems. The layoff notices were later rescinded as the district's budget picture improved.

Mr. Cordero was born on Jan. 16, 1937, in Chicago, the son of Alexander and Jeanette Cordero. His father was a sheriff's detective in Illinois, and his mother was a homemaker.

After moving to California as a child, Mr. Cordero grew up in Bakersfield and enrolled at the Sacred Heart novitiate in Los Gatos in 1955. He served as a Jesuit until 1970, and married his wife, Juanita, an ex-nun, the next year. The couple went on to raise three daughters and two sons.

Mr. Cordero went to work for the college district in 1974, serving first at West Valley and then becoming among the first faculty to open Mission College a few years later. He spent the bulk of his career as a counselor.

In later years, he was fond of reminding younger faculty members of the core principles on which Mission was founded - the idea that students could learn at their own pace, and that faculty should not be physically compartmentalized by department. In 2005, he received the Teacher of the Year award.

Mr. Cordero retired in 2004, but continued on a part-time basis to teach astronomy, a passion since childhood. In 2006, he ran successfully for a term as a district board member, saying he wanted to build new apartments for faculty.

"A lot of teachers say, 'We're doing this for the students,' " colleague Harris said. "But he wasn't phony. When he said, 'We're doing it for the students,' he meant it."