Goodbye, Mr. Cross

Dennis Cross yelled all the time. He threw Kleenex boxes at students. He constantly pounded a gavel against the chalkboard. He once smacked my friend in the back with a yardstick.
A tribute to the best damn high school teacher I ever had

* * *

Like most high school students, we never bothered to ask about the man behind the performance, and Mr. Cross rarely volunteered information. But bits and pieces of the man's life emerged over the course of the school year. First name was Dennis. He was an orphan, raised by mean Methodist ladies in West Virginia who routinely rapped him on the knuckles and head with a ruler—that's why he threw stuff at us, Mr. Cross always claimed. Before coming to Anaheim, he served with the Marines—in my 1997 yearbook, there is a picture of Mr. Cross in his Marine uniform, smiling. And when his son went to see Tombstone,someone stole his car. That's about all we knew.

I remember only two anecdotes he ever shared about his career at Anaheim. One involved a famous Anaheim alum: according to Mr. Cross, the alum declined his invitation to speak at a student assembly during the 1980s because "too many Latino kids" were attending Anaheim by then. Whether the story was true or a misunderstanding or maybe a parable, the disgust etched on Mr. Cross' face every time he recounted it to us super-majority Latino sophomores and juniors was a sneer no one could fake.

Mr. Cross' other story was more palatable. Whenever my junior-year American history class was in danger of spinning out of control, Mr. Cross brought up Tom Daly. Daly is now the county's clerk-recorder, but he is a longtime presence in Anaheim politics, sitting on the Anaheim Union High School District board of trustees during the 1980s and also serving as mayor from 1990 through 2002. Mr. Cross used Daly as an example of a deviant who did well. Daly's sin? He and his fellow varsity baseball teammates wore white shoes on the diamond.

"I was on the varsity team, and we wanted to wear white shoes like the Oakland A's," Daly says, laughing at the memory. At the time, the Oakland A's were shocking the nation with their flamboyant style—long hair and mustaches, outsized personalities and the wearing of white shoes on the field.

"Mr. Cross wasn't even our coach anymore," Daly says. "He had been our coach the previous year in JV baseball and so knew almost everyone on the varsity squad. Someone must have told him about our plans, because one day he went up to some of us and groaned, 'Ah, come on. You're not going to wear white shoes!' When he'd see us on campus, he'd yell, 'Looking sharp, fellas,' and whistle. He thought we were a bunch of pansies."

That would have been Mr. Cross' second year at Anaheim High. It was a different time: the school was still overwhelmingly white and working-class; today it's more than 90 percent Latino. But student movements launched in the 1960s were still rolling through all aspects of Colonist life. Most affected was Anaheim's athletic department, a military-style institution run under the bespectacled visage of football coach Clare Van Horbeeke, the man who brought respectability to Orange County prep sports. In 1997's Anaheim Colonists Football: A Century of Tradition, author Dennis Bateman cited a 1970 interview Van Horbeeke gave to an AnaheimBulletinreporter lamenting that "fewer young men were willing to adhere to his regime. Long hair, drugs and disobedience were the product of this changing time, and Van hinted that because he would not change, that the time would come soon for him to go." Indeed, Van Hoorebeke would leave two years later after 22 years at Anaheim.

Mr. Cross was more resilient, and of course younger. He brought to sports a strict team policy, according to Daly. No cussing. Clean uniform. And shine those black cleats until you could see yourself in them.

At first, Daly had what he calls "an attitude" and didn't think much of Mr. Cross. No one did.

"The first week we had him as a coach, we weren't sure we liked him," says Daly. Cross, who had no previous baseball experience, was thrust into the JV baseball head coach position almost as soon as Anaheim High hired him. "Our first impression was that he was underqualified to coach us big shots. But as the weeks went by, we realized what a quality guy he was and how much he cared for us. He would put in reserves at the end of the game when the score was close. We would complain, 'Why are you putting so-and-so in when we don't want him?' And Mr. Cross would say he was doing it because he wanted to.

"By the end of the season, we realized his lessons were about something else," continued Daly. "It was about our demeanor, not so much the technicalities of baseball, but our conduct—the way we treated each other. Did he knock us out with strategies on the suicide squeeze? Not really. But winning wasn't everything to him."

Daly remembers one of his teammates who had just immigrated from Mexico and barely spoke English. "At first, the rest of the team wasn't sure what to do with him," Daly said. "But Mr. Cross treated him just like everyone else, and he encouraged us to treat him like a teammate. And it happened—we became a very close team.

"For Anaheim High at the time, it was all about winning," continues Daly. "It didn't matter how you got there; it was about winning. It wasn't about character development or other priorities—it was about winning. Mr. Cross was the opposite. He wanted us to grow into manhood."

Daly hasn't spoken much to Cross since graduating in 1971. "I only had Cross for five months, and that was during my junior year." he says. "I'd figured he'd already retired. But I've never heard a negative word about him in all my years since—only the description of respect."

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