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Doug Robinson: Former lunch lady Lily Garcia goes to Washington to run for the NEA

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 2:10 p.m. MST

“It was the first time I’d ever thought of that,” Lily says. “It wasn’t on my radar. That planted the seed.”

Nobody in her family, going back generations, had pursued higher education. Her father, Bobby Earl, grew up the son of Mississippi sharecroppers in a home that wouldn’t have indoor plumbing for two decades. At 16, Bobby Earl, who never made it past eighth grade, lied about his age and joined the Army. He was stationed in Panama, where he met a local girl named Marcella Balmaceda, which was shortened to Chella and then Chillie. She was the first of her family to graduate from high school.

At her father’s insistence, she learned to speak English in a Catholic school and got a job on the Panama Canal. She was 18 and Bobby Earl 19 when they met. He was her first date. They married a year later. Theirs was a romance that would be repeated in many ways by Lily and Ruel years later.

“I’ve taken my mom back to Panama,” says Lily. “Her relatives are still there. It’s like someone from the Mayflower visiting England again. It’s not supposed to happen. They don’t come back. It was a big party, a hero’s welcome.”

Lily and Ruel returned to Utah after his Army hitch was completed and soon she gave birth to the couple's first child, Jeremy.

“I got the baby blues,” she says. “I wanted to be a mom and a teacher and I wanted to eat, too,”

Lily and Ruel worked out a carefully coordinated plan to have it all. They both enrolled at the University of Utah but arranged their schedules so they never had a class at the same time. When she was in class, Ruel would tend Jeremy, and then he would hand the baby to Lily en route to his class, and this was their routine for four years.

On weekends, they earned extra money by performing folk songs at Gepetto's and DB Cooper's restaurants. Ruel was a superb guitarist and Lily a surpassing vocalist. They performed songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. (On a personal note, the first time I met Lily and Ruel they were performing in the living room of their small house near Liberty Park, and I was dazzled by her ability to sing Mitchell like Mitchell, which is no small feat considering her octave-skipping vocals from one bar to the next.)

With money from her music, low-income scholarships and government grants, Lily graduated magna cum laude in secondary education and later earned a master’s degree. She became a teacher at Orchard Elementary in West Valley City.

“My country made a good investment, I think,” she says.

While Lily was teaching at Orchard, a fellow teacher's son was diagnosed with leukemia. Under their contract with Granite School District, teachers were given five days leave of absence. The teacher used those up quickly as his son underwent bone marrow treatments. He needed more time off.

The district would’t allow it. Rules are rules and a contract a contract, they said. Lily helped organize a solution — the school’s teachers agreed to donate their five days to the teacher with the ill son. The district still wouldn’t relent, even after Lily got each teacher to sign an agreement to donate those days. It’s not in the contract, the district said, and if they made an exception, it would set a precedent. “So the precedent is everybody’s son who is dying of cancer will want this?!” Lily raged.

Noting her passion for the cause, the Granite Education Association put her on its negotiation team, which meant working after school and throughout the summer with no pay. She helped get the contract changed, but something else happened along the way: It was the beginning of Lily’s next career.

In 1989, two significant events occurred on Utah's education scene: Lily was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, and Gov. Norm Bangerter stuck his foot in his mouth.

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