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MISSION — The Carl C. Waitz Elementary mascot, an eagle, made his way down the cafeteria dancing to “La Chona” by Los Tucanes De Tijuana.
Although their mascot was this assembly’s surprise guest, the teachers were the ones who got the real surprise.
Leonardo Rangel, 8, couldn’t help but let the music move him. He jumped off the stage and started dancing with the eagle much to the delight of all in attendance.
He laughed as he jumped around in excitement.
“He stole the show,” said Elizabeth Tanguma, Waitz Elementary librarian, with a laugh.
If schools have personality, it would be jollity in Waitz’s case, which was on full display when Leonardo danced with his mascot buddy for all to see.
This moment of jubilation came at the school’s 30th anniversary event Wednesday morning, which was observed a year after the actual anniversary in 2022, as former and current educators and faculty joined students to pay homage to the campus in style.
For J.D. Villarreal, the first principal at Waitz Elementary, the festive event reminded him of the days when he was the campus’ head administrator.
He recalled opening the school in 1992 and choosing his team of teachers and staff that would help run the campus — several of which still work with the school in some capacity.
Hugs and smiles were shared by old colleagues and friends as Villarreal greeted them as they entered the cafeteria.
“When I walked in here this morning, it moved me,” Villarreal said with a shaky voice.
As he looked at the crowd of students sitting in the cafeteria he recalled the ceremonies he hosted to recognize students for their academic achievements including accelerated reader, word knowledge and even to recognize students on their birthdays.
“This is wonderful, it reminds me of the kind of things we used to do when I was here,” Villarreal said, adding that many of the programs implemented at the school were later seen in other schools.
He explained that he was happy to see the changes made to the campus over the years, including the former cafeteria being converted into a larger library.
Villarreal was also excited to see the new cafeteria space.
“I’m glad that they continued having a space on the campus that led to the opportunity for kiddos to be recognized,” Villarreal said with a soft smile.
Carl C. Waitz was a businessman who opened Mission Minimax in 1960 before it was incorported as Carl’s Grocery Company in 1973.
A veteran of the Army Air Corps who graduated as a bombardier, Waitz was considered a family man who split his time with the community in many civic endeavors, including serving as president of the Lions Club, the Mission Chamber of Commerce and the Mission school board, and also chaired the Hidalgo County United Way at one point.
Waitz , who was also a member of the Trinity Lutheran Church, was even named Mr. Mission in 1986.
Former educators were also on-hand for the celebration and couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride to have taught at Waitz.
“I’ve always felt like life is a gift and what we do with it is the payback, and what better payback (than) to enable a person to be a part in establishing a student’s foundation,” Villarreal said. “A successful foundation at that.”
Irma Avila, a retired Waitz teacher, was among the first staff members when Waitz Elementary opened its doors for the very first time.
“I used to drive by as they were building this campus,” Avila said, adding that at the time she was unaware that she would eventually make Waitz her home.
Avila, 68, worked at the school for 27 years after retiring five years ago. Now she’s returned to the school as a tutor.
“I’m very dedicated to this campus,” Avila said, adding that although she has been offered positions at other schools she never wanted to leave Waitz. “This is my school by heart so this is my campus, it means the world to me.”
She recalled the enthusiasm and dedication Villarreal had to ensure student success while also recognizing the teachers who help guide the students.
“He was very appreciative and very grateful to the teachers, the staff he had, the morale he had here when he was our principal — it was beautiful,” Avila said.
Dr. Rebecca De Leon, associate vice president for dual credit programs in school district partnerships at South Texas College, attended Waitz in 1993.
As De Leon, 35, made her way to the cafeteria Wednesday morning she recalled how Waitz shaped her love for her career.
“It had a very strong educational foundation for me, incredible teachers who taught the fundamentals that were needed for me to be successful, not only in education but also at a personal level,” De Leon said. “It was beautiful walking in right now seeing the memories, seeing everything and remembering how this helped me become the person that I am today.”
De Leon wasn’t the only former student visiting the school on Wednesday.
Kattie Gonzalez, who attended Waitz in 2011, performed at the celebration with her high school mariachi group — the Mariachi Águilas from Mission High School.
“It feels weird, it’s a lot smaller than I remember,” Gonzalez chuckled as she looked around the crowd.
Although only 16, she joked about feeling old after seeing the elementary students sitting in a row watching as each speaker went on stage.
“I remember when I was in their same position, just looking at the stage and cheering … now I’m the one playing for them,” Gonzalez said.
For Jessica Reyna-Garza, the current principal at Waitz, watching former students return to their elementary school was cathartic.
“Seeing the legacy of kids that come through Mission CISD, the kids that were physically here at this school and seeing them as adults — that’s great … You get to see the fruits of our labor,” Reyna-Garza said with a smile.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include biographical information about Carl C. Waitz.