Remembering Ms. Wilhelmina Van Hunnick

On Wednesday afternoon, I wrote Ms. Van Hunnick a quick postcard to tell her that I enjoyed being a judge at FBLA’s annual state leadership conference the week prior. Since she was on the board of directors for California FBLA, I thought she’d be there, but she was curiously absent from the weekend event.

Later that evening, I dropped the postcard into a postbox on my way to have drinks with Kenyon, Vickie and new roommate Lance. Vickie had wanted to go someplace “mistake-like� so there we were in the middle of loud and oddly clientele-d Bar on Church. While MIA blared, I received a phone call from Joanne, but could barely hear anything. I faintly caught her say, “I’ll text you,� and a few seconds later, I received it, a matter-of-fact message that was shocking and saddening: “Ms. Van Hunnick passed away. I’ll forward you the email with details.�

Over the din, I yelped. Or maybe screamed. And then hugged Kenyon. For a split second the memories flooded in, but the cacophony of the bar dammed my thoughts.

The following morning I woke up and drove to work numb. I thought about where I’d be if I hadn’t met Ms. Van Hunnick. I thought about all she had done to propel me to be successful. But it wasn’t until I got to work and sat down at my desk did I pause. When I stopped, I was inundated by sadness and mourning.

Five second later, Karla called my office line and said something like, “Look at how you are honoring her and her life.�

I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. But the floodgates released. And there I was in the middle of my office, balling, with salty streams running down my face. I hurriedly tried to wipe them away so my staff wouldn’t see, but it didn’t work. I think I scared them. They’d never seen me cry before (I hadn’t cried at work since 2007!).

When I joined a conference call after a 15-minute fit of tears, I had to put the phone on mute and my head in my hands to try to get myself together. It didn’t help that I suffered another loss just a week before—not as serious as a death—but it was still significant and sad. I contemplated taking the day off to process, but I think Ms. Van Hunnick would have kept working in a situation like this, and she would not have wanted me to let any of my kids down.

Ms. VH and Rey on 11/2/2008
Ms. VH and Rey on 11/2/2008

The Last

We used to affectionately call her Ms. VH, which kind of fit her no-nonsense and matter-of-fact style. I last saw Ms. VH on November 2, 2008, the Sunday after USC’s homecoming. I knew she was undergoing chemotherapy to fight her cancer, and I brought her some flowers and a USC teddy bear because she couldn’t make it to the homecoming—she loved going to the games, and was a Trojan, through and through.

When I look back on that visit, I didn’t realize it would be the last. When I first entered her house, I could tell that she was in pain. I’d never seen her walk with a walker before, yet she still offered to get me water from the kitchen when I could have easily gone into the kitchen myself. It pained me to see her like that, but I was grateful to have had the chance to see her that one last time. Even though physically, she seemed less agile and a little frailer, her mind was as sharp as ever. She was a fighter, and this time she was fighting a tough battle with cancer. I remember sensing that her spirit seemed strong. And in typical VH fashion, she rattled off names of people who I had not thought about in over ten years, and she recounted stories of weddings she’d been invited to, conferences she was attending, and the work that she was still doing with our high school. She was the same ol’ Ms. VH: devoted, passionate, ambitious.

The First

I suppose I can’t talk the last time I saw Ms. VH without talking about the first time. VH was an institution at John F. Kennedy High School in little La Palma, California. Her stark white hair and bulbous nose were the features that a caricaturist would probably display most prominently. She was fierce and strong on one hand and kind and warm on the other. She balanced both fairly well.

She taught me how to use Adobe Pagemaker in a class called Desktop Publishing, which was my introduction to the world of graphic design. I attribute that class to my eye towards design for all things, whether it’s designing a business card or curriculum for a program.

She encouraged me to join an organization at school called Future Business Leaders of America (yes, the same FBLA that I spoke about earlier), and FBLA became one of my vehicles for growing as a leader and a professional. We became close because I kept getting more and more involved, which meant that I stayed to work on campaigns or annual reports after school almost every day.

It was through FBLA that I grew to love business and entrepreneurship, and Ms. VH knew this. I remember driving around in a clunky old Anaheim Union High School District automobile to go to USC for the first time ever. She was an alum of the school, like I am now, and she shared the Trojan family with me even before I was admitted. She set up a private tour with some faculty at the business school, and even though I didn’t know it back then, I fell in love with SC when I was a sophomore in high school. I set my sights on that school, and after she wrote me a stellar letter of recommendation, I got in.

She nurtured my leader within. She could see the burgeoning leader hidden, tucked away, inside my quiet, awkward, immigrant-conscious high school self. And I wonder if my students can tell that I see the same thing in them sometimes.

But she wasn’t always right. She once told me during my junior year that I had to choose between being a California state officer for FBLA or being a second-year president of our 200-person band. How could I choose? I loved both. I remember going to class after that conversation, thinking that she was absolutely nuts, that she had no right to give me an ultimatum like that, and that there was no way that I was going to give either up. And I didn’t. But now I see that she had my best intentions in mind, and now I have the same kinds of conversations with my kids. “Prioritize, Sean, Yasmin, or insert student’s name here. It’s better to do a great job at one thing instead of a half-ass job at many things.” I think I still have a few more years before I truly learn that lesson, though.

The Best

Karla asked me, “What did you like best about her?�

And I replied, “She devoted her entire life to her work and her students. To FBLA. To JFK High School.�

She didn’t come from humble means—she grew up with money because her family had owned a lot of dairy farm land in the area, which translated into expensive Orange County real estate. I remember a story about how her father bought her a corvette for her sixteenth birthday or maybe it was her high school graduation, but she didn’t like the color, so she father got her a different one when she went to college. Although she didn’t have to work, she devoted herself to her students and chose to work every single day to be a true servant to youth and her community.

She saw my potential. She believed in me. And I only hope to live up to that potential that she saw. When I try to tell people about who she is, and why I am so affected by the passing of a teacher with a funny Dutch name, I tell them that she was to me as I am (or hope to be) to my students now. Because of her, I will always strive to motivate and inspire kids as much as she motivated and inspired me.

Someone recently told me that just because a loved one is gone that doesn’t mean you’re your relationship with that person ends. You’ll remember the things that she said to you, and that relationship will continue and will grow in a different way. I’ll end this post by sharing with you a message that I will always vividly remember from Ms. VH:

“Be Nice, be nice, be nice.�

Rest in peace, Wilhelmina Van Hunnick.